THE YEAR IN REVIEW
2015 was a very strange year in the kinds of art I love; not much I was looking forward to was worth my time and a great deal I was prepared to dismiss or avoid ended up making a lasting impression on me. Here’s what I liked a lot:
This is primarily a comics blog, so we’ll start there. I read several books from Avatar that I really enjoyed, especially Alan Moore’s Crossed +100 and Providence, and a lot from Image, and almost nothing from DC beyond The Sandman. Somehow I remain reading several simultaneous Marvel books (Howard the Duck! HOWARD THE DUCK!) despite not really knowing nearly as much about Marvel, and I met some nice indie comics people, and then I tried writing about comics for my newspaper a little bit.
This experience was profoundly depressing, because while our readers seemed generally to appreciate it, more than once I got surprising, disproportionately furious responses from artists trying to find followings on social media and people in these horrifying little critical enclaves that think identity politics and aesthetics are the same thing. A lot of the writing in these places and by these people ends with the exhortation to “do better,” which I think is probably all that needs to be said about the complexity of the philosophical and artistic systems at work behind the thinking that goes on there.
Occasionally this writing on comics attracted very strange pitches from other comics people. Often it would simply be folks offering me a look at their work or work they publish (which I love to hear about), but more than once I was approached by people who wanted to destroy another artist, either for political slights or for misbehavior. A couple of the pitches were concerned with the state of the industry and actually had merit – there’s a lot of evidence that editors in comics act very badly around female staff and freelancers, and that’s worth covering – but often the truth was inextricable from petty grudge-holding, from self-righteous moralizing, and from omnipresent self-promotion.
The overlap between struggling artists and a critical class that scorns technical skill in favor of checklisty politicking goes a long way toward explaining why I think the state of the art is suffering when it comes to experimental and unusual work. That bothers me, primarily because that’s where the discoveries that will enrich the future of the form will come from, and its growth, at the moment, is so rapid it’s hard to keep up even as a voracious reader. I want that to continue; demanding that artists hold acceptable opinions or have some kind of quirky identity in order to get a hearing will kill all that wonderful diversity of thought stone dead very quickly.
I realize this isn’t a problem exclusive to comics, but I know more about comics than any other medium so I have more insight to it there than I do in, say, film. The most outspoken and political artist I interviewed this year was Kate Beaton and she was of course very funny about all the subject matter she addresses in her work, but she had opinions of a superhumanly brilliant variety on work ethic and what makes a good drawing.
What’s a little baffling to me is that a lot of comics people who are jaw-droppingly wonderful at their craft – Jim Woodring, to pick a name – have fascinating, compelling, sometimes devastating personal stories that they don’t really spend much time thinking about or trying to tell. They’re preoccupied with other parts of their experience that require more work to tease out and turn into art. Whereas an increasingly angry underclass seems desperate to paint everything it does as fascinating, avant-garde and dangerous, though to the untrained eye they appear mostly to be very normal (though perhaps less happy than most) people.
Here’s my perhaps less than humble opinion: politics are easy. Polishing your own life story and sharpening your moral compass on hypotheticals or incomplete information about other people’s lives is not actually a difficult process (or, perhaps, a process at all) and in fact I would argue that it doesn’t really make you a better person a lot of the time. Craft, by contrast, is very, very, very difficult, and if you devote all your energy to the former, you won’t have developed the intellectual muscles to thrust home your painstakingly honed ideas about how everybody else should behave.
You also might find that those ideas are not worth the paper they’re printed on, but perhaps that’s an argument for another time.
These comics, by contrast, are worth quite a bit. I have fairly traditional tastes in a lot of ways but it was such a rich year in all sectors of the industry you could really have just picked a direction and set off. If you like experimentation and non-narrative work, there’s a lot out there for you this year; also if you like really deep, insidery superhero comics, there were a bunch of events, as usual, and at Marvel there was some amazing stuff around (okay, in spite of) them. I tend to fall somewhere in the middle, so here’s what I liked out of a vast crop:
1. KILLING & DYING – Open the champagne for this one; it’s one of the most formally ambitious books anyone has produced in the last few years and yet it’s simultaneously as inviting a volume of literary short fiction as Alice Munro’s Open Secrets or Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts. Comics are hard to get into; they’re their own language in a lot of ways. Killing and Dying is a wonderful way station between comics and prose and it deserves attention and respect.
1a. BEST WRITING: Tomine controls everything in this book on so many obvious visual levels that it’s possible to miss how accomplished the writing is. And it is inspired.
2. BLOOM COUNTY – Berkeley Breathed’s return to cartooning at one of the worst and most embarrassing times in American electoral politics is like getting a birthday present from someone you thought was dead. Breathed is such a profoundly gifted and skeptical humorist, and his work flirts with criticizing the unpleasant parts of liberal culture while it skewers the utter barbarism of people like Donald Trump. It never fails to astonish me how calm Breathed appears to be in a world where everyone involved in politics on any level makes virtue of anger.
3. STEP ASIDE, POPS – Beaton’s second collection has her Straw Feminist characters, her amazing gives-no-fucks Wonder Woman, and strips the pretense away from Canadian history, the Brontes and everything in between. Her visual style remains utterly perfect and her sense of humor is keen and friendly, and it’s very hard to feel sad after reading this book.
4. THE SANDMAN: OVERTURE – It’s hard to tell when Neil Gaiman is going to stop writing The Sandman given how often he lets DC entice him back but I will certainly continue to read it if he keeps up; Overture is a beautiful, magical tour of the world of his character, which fits into the DC Universe in the strangest possible way, and it answers nagging questions left over from the main sequence of the series. It’s a total delight, and the art by JH Williams III is unbelievably good.
4a. BEST ART: Seriously, I cannot even tell you how visually incredible this book is. The whole thing is just a feast for the eyes. I want to mainline it.
5. SUPREME: BLUE ROSE – An attempt by Warren Ellis to reboot the occasionally great Superman pastiche comic at Image, Supreme, this is maybe the weirdest book I read all year, which makes me really happy. It’s great science fiction primarily for its devotion to the unexplained, something too many SF writers leave out in their haste to explain everything.
5a. BEST NEWCOMER: Tula Lotay, the painter who illustrated this book, is so accomplished already, despite her youth. She easily the coolest kid in the business; she likes doing stylized versions of old giallo movie posters and big watercolor close-ups of people from Tarantino films, and she’s apparently working on a new thing with Ellis; her website is here and it’s well worth your time.
Film was easier. The kinds of offbeat science fiction and fantasy film I really love were all the rage this year and I couldn’t be happier about it. A few others I desperately want to see – The Hateful Eight and Anomalisa – don’t open until the 31st, and I haven’t seen Star Wars, so I might update this list after I see them. So many people write about film that I feel pretty free to go as far sideways as possible with these picks. Enjoy.
5. EX MACHINA – A terrific, intimate sci-fi movie about the literal objectification of women: in it, a fratty roboticist makes a menagerie of hot ladies and they turn on him and his hapless assistant in the scariest possible way. The themes and sub-themes are kind of endless here, but it’s all to the good. Solid performances all around, especially from Oscar Isaac as the Smartest Dudebro, and a number of great twists, chief among them being the slow-burn realization that a robot woman might want totally different things from a human woman. Scary, robot-woman things.
4. IT FOLLOWS – What a great movie this was. A slick, spare, 90-minute horror film that relies not on gory special effects or cheap jump scares but really adroit camera work from director David Robert Mitchell. Set in Detroit, the monster follows whoever had sex with the person it was most recently following. It can look like anyone, is supernaturally strong, and only the stalkee (and sometimes the viewer) can see it, so it’s often seen in the form of an extra staggering toward the camera off in the distance. Wonderful young unknown actors, amazing visuals, and so scary it feels like it takes no time at all. Probably the most original film I saw all year.
4a. BEST DIRECTION: I can’t think of a movie this year that makes more efficient use of the camera than this one. Mitchell has you frantically scanning the background of every single scene in case there’s some detail they’ve missed that might cost the characters their lives; he’s also a remarkably gifted director of young people and manages to tamp down the natural energy you get off a 21-year-old actor (not to downplay the work Maika Monroe does here, which is stellar).
3. CRIMSON PEAK – There is a surprising friendliness to all the Guillermo del Toro movies, in spite of the gore, the rage, and the monsters. Here, in Crimson Peak, he’s made one of those period costume dramas your aunt is always telling you are wonderful, complete with opulent sets and a quivering, repressed English heartthrob (Tom Hiddleston, doing what passes for an old-fashioned American accent). Mia Wasikowska does excellent work as the heroine but as soon as Jessica Chastain shows up as the Hiddleston character’s creepy sister, Chastain just saunters off with the movie.
3a. BEST PERFORMANCE: Chastain has you craning your neck to see around the edge of the frame in case she’s doing something unspeakable in the next room.
2. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD – What an incredible-looking movie, and what a great way to tell an interesting story about revolution and rebellion in the midst of dwindling resources. Also the film is just a 90-minute car chase, which is essentially impossible to film. Of all the movies I saw this year, this was the one in which every single aspect of the film was polished, sturdy and reliable the whole way through; there’s no “most competent” award but in a year when the primary Pixar offering (the cloying “Inside Out”) sputtered at the starting line, Miller’s film was a visual feast with a narrative engine in perfect repair. A lot – too much, really – has been said about its politics, but the Molly-Hatchet-album-cover aesthetic is enough all by itself.
2a. MOST COMPETENT: Eh, what the hell.
1. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS – Jemaine Clement (the Flight of the Conchords guy) and Taika Waititi write, direct and star in what is easily my favorite movie this year, and the one I’ll go back to most often and recommend to the most friends. It’s a mockumentary about three vampire roommates and the fourth guy who kind of ruins things for them; it’s also the best-written film I saw this year, with so much happening on a bunch of different subtle levels that there’s always something else to see. The mash-up of a bunch of different vampire-lore styles is plenty of fun, especially Clement as a pervy Gary Oldman-in-Dracula type and Jonny Brugh’s turn as Vladislav, the Anne Rice-style “sexy” vampire who’s getting a little, uh, long in tooth.
1a. BEST WRITING: You heard me.
From the day I bought it I only really played one video game this year and that was BLOODBORNE on PS4, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s astonishingly lovely horror RPG. Aesthetically it’s light-years ahead of horror film and the depth of its world beggars belief. For a game that is so determinedly individual, it bends toward the classical in a surprising way: its settings are decaying city, a dark forest, a haunted castle, and a university whose students have discovered the unnamable – all places you might visit in a fairy tale or an HP Lovecraft story.
Bloodborne’s monsters are often beautiful in weird and surprising ways; there’s a multi-armed angel guarding a baby monster at the end of the game, and a tragic fallen warrior-priest who turns into a werewolf near the end of your fight with him. It’s instructive how well the game’s themes play into what people are starting to call the “ludonarrative,” that is, the story told by the gameplay: in the fight with the mad priest, Father Gascoigne, for example, his transformation into a monster comes during the final third of the duel (most boss monsters in Japanese games have three phases to them). When this happens, there’s a sickly yellow light that shines up from underneath him and he shivers uncontrollably, as if in pain, as he grows and sprouts hair. This was honestly so scary that I ran away from him every time, and of course in his vulpine form he’s much stronger and faster than the player and he disemboweled me easily three dozen times. That’s when I learned that the point of the sequence was to teach the player to run toward danger – Gascoigne, as a wolf, has great long-range attacks, but can be dodged and carved up at close range with minimal effort. The game is about bravery, on at least one level, and being willing to leap into the jaws of a monster is often the only way to beat him or her. (Incidentally: this game passes the Bechdel test if you choose to play as a woman.)
Thematically there’s a great deal going on below the surface; every character who seems pure, holy, or noble turns out to be evil or insane and a few of the game’s corrupt or evil-seeming characters turn out to be, if not good, better than the “good”-seeming ones. This isn’t a Last of Us-style trick where the player turns out to be the bad guy, but the game does ask you to question why your character needs to slaughter all these monsters, especially when many seem to be human on some level and the ones that aren’t often seem pathetic in addition to being terrifying monstrosities.
I’d like to say, also, that I have beaten Bloodborne. I conquered the two secret bosses, I explored at least five of the catacombs under the city, and I’m now hacking my way through the expansion in my fabulous armor, rapier-that-turns-into-a-flintlock in hand. It took months for the main game to get old; I expect I’ll get a few weeks out of the expansion, as well.
The gameplay is unimpeachable. There’s no “easy” mode, no trick to the most difficult parts of the game, so you simply have to master it, even when it feels unabashedly punitive. There’s a squad of masochists who play through the entire game without leveling up; I could never do this but I completely understand the impulse to not just beat the game but dominate it, to find all of its secrets on the harshest of its own terms. It’s one of the richest fictional worlds I’ve ever had the privilege to explore and as a lifelong sci-fi and fantasy nerd that makes me very happy.
I liked all of these so I’m not ranking them; I didn’t read much literary fiction that was new this year so this is pretty much all SF.
THE VORRH, by Brian Catling – One of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in a very long time, with an extremely strange and unknowable world populated at surprising turns by historical figures and a big, sprawling series of subcultures in a fictional English colony city in West Africa. I enjoyed it enough that I was surprised and thrilled to learn that it’s the first book in a trilogy; much of the book refuses to answer the questions it raises and that’s fine by me, but the prospect of sequels suggests that some of its less uncanny mysteries might be solved later.
THE BURIED GIANT, by Kazuo Ishiguro – Ishiguro always surprises. In The Buried Giant, he’s managed to write a book that uses Arthurian legend as a metaphor for the nostalgia that poisons ideology, and he does it in such a distinctive, subtle way that his book’s plot twists – and maybe that’s too simplistic a term – are genuinely shocking. It’s a beautiful book, and ineffably sad in the same way that the stories of Tristan and Isolde or Arthur and Guenevere are. It is, in fact, a perfect Arthurian legend and one that belongs on the shelf next to Mallory and White.
SLADE HOUSE, by David Mitchell – I ate this book. I swallowed it whole; I think I read it in two sittings. It’s essentially an appendix to The Bone Clocks, Mitchell’s last novel, but that’s fine with me. I loved The Bone Clocks, and I particularly liked Mitchell’s sketches of suburban Englishmen and -women in various kinds of trouble. Slade House brings back all of that and it demonstrates again Mitchell’s unmatched skill at getting his story up and running within pages and then refusing to let it stall or even slow down for a moment. It’s hard to write in period like that; it’s even harder to write in several period like that. It’s a lot of fun.
THREE MOMENTS OF AN EXPLOSION, by China Mieville – This book is a sea change for Mieville, whose short fiction didn’t really do it for me in Looking for Jake but whose novels I really love. This time he just knocks it out of the park; I’d read some of the flash fiction (Three Moments of an Explosion, 4 Final Orpheuses, The Crawl) on his great blog, but I was unprepared for how good a lot of the other stories are. He’s so good at finding an inexplicable, insane idea and then poking at its logistics. What would happen if there were literally mountains in the clouds? What if you could catch made-up diseases? There’s the occasional misfire here but as always with Mieville the sheer volume of great ideas is easily worth the investment of time and money, and more besides.
TRIGGER WARNING, by Neil Gaiman – I love Neil Gaiman. He’s never anything less than readable, and his short stories are his best work. I’d call this one better than Smoke and Mirrors and perhaps not quite at the height of Fragile Things, which is my favorite of his collections, but it’s very, very good. The Sleeper and the Spindle and “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains…” demand multiple rereadings and half a dozen others are worth going back to whenever you just want to be entertained or moved. And there’s an American Gods story at the end, which is a treat.