We’re now staring down the barrel of 2018, so it’s time for a few non-music recommendations from the year gone by. Here are five of the comics I enjoyed most in 2017, in no particular order.
There is a glaring exception in the form of The Wicked + The Divine but frankly I have already spent more than enough words on that comic this year. If you want to read us going on about WicDiv, head here. Otherwise, see you below the cut.
Al Ewing, Adam Gorham, Jeff Eckleberry (Marvel Comics)
Let’s get this out the way up-front – Al Ewing is the best writer at Marvel right now. Actually, forget that – he’s the best writer currently working in superhero comics.
When you’ve been reading about the exploits of the various men in animal-themed tights for 15 years, some of the initial thrill can wear off. Ewing is one of the few writers who can still make me feel that sense of wonder. Whether it’s laughing at the beautiful ludicrousness of Todd Ziller the American Kaiju, or marvelling at the cosmic elegance of Ewing’s Unified Theory of Marvel Continuity, or setting down the comic to punch the air as the heroes escape a seemingly inescapable deathtrap – basically any single issue of Ewing’s work is guaranteed to give you a pure hit of the superheroic sublime.
He brings this touch even to projects which sound distinctly unpromising. See Royals, Ewing’s book about the Inhuman royal family, and – oh yeah – the book in question here.
Rocket, the furry racoon-shaped chap with the catchphrase about murdering you, is hardly on the list of characters I’m itching to read a solo series about. But Ewing reframes Rocket as the thief with a good heart and a past full of regrets, and drops him into a sci-fi crime story full of daring heists, dirty double crosses and femmes fatale.
The result is inventive – a good portion of the book is told in a fashion that’s more illustrated prose than traditional comics. It’s funny – there’s a sequence with Froggy Frelson and Murd Blurdock, alien equivalents of everyone’s favourite avocadoes-at-law, that made me laugh more than any other comic this year. It’s beautiful – Adam Gorham’s art manages to bounce effortlessly between hard-boiled crime to wide-eyed sci-fi to cutesy anthropomorphic animals.
But, surprisingly, it’s also full of pathos. There are plenty of moments where you really feel for Rocket and – most surprising of all – special guest-star Deadpool.
John Allison, Max Sarin, Liz Fleming, Whitney Cogar (Boom Box)
The story of three women at Sheffield University, the stakes in Giant Days are considerably lower than the other comics on this list. But when you read an issue, it certainly doesn’t feel that way.
At this point in Giant Days’ run – now into its thirties, issues-wise, and nearing the end of the second year of uni – the team have sharpened their craft to an incredibly fine point. It’s an observation I seem to have stolen from Michael ‘buy Forged at London’s Orbital Comics today’ Eckett, but: Giant Days has basically perfected the structure of monthly comics.
Practically every page is a discrete unit of storytelling, with the flow of a newspaper comic strip. But over the course of an issue, they add up to a complex web of plots and subplots. As soon as one storyline pays off, your attention is drawn instead to one that’s been bubbling away in the background for months. Cue the inevitable ‘to be continued’ that has you frothing at the mouth for the next instalment.
Not that you notice this while reading, of course. It just feels like checking on the lives of some old friends, chortling at their bon mots as you catch up on all the irresistible gossip.
Si Spurrier, Jonas Goonface, Colin Bell (Boom Studios)
Talking of perfectly structured comics, Godshaper was a miniseries so confident in its storytelling chops that it concluded by unpicking the reader’s desire for neat little narratives.
Godshaper’s hook is brilliant. Set in a world where everyone gets their own personal god – a replacement not just for religion but technology and currency – it tells the story of one of the few people who don’t get a god to call their own.
From the initial world-building, courtesy of Jonas Goonface’s wonderful neon-bright god designs and lived-in landscapes, the book quickly piles on enough mysteries and peril to pull you through each issue. And then, just as you’re expecting answers, it steps back, and offers a very different kind of conclusion.
It’s one of the most memorable storytelling moves in comics this year, a delicate balancing act that changes the way you see the entire comic leading up to that point.
The Unbelievable Gwenpool
Chris Hastings, Gurihiru, Heather Antos, Clayton Cowles et al (Marvel Comics)
It’s not been a great year for Marvel Comics, what with the nazification of Captain America, its increasingly loose grip on the sales charts, and the revelation that its new editor-in-chief spent a year pretending to be a Japanese person. But in the nooks and crannies of its line, great titles have continued to spring up.
Often, the best of these are the most unlikely. I’ve already mentioned Rocket, and Chip Zdarsky & Kris Anka’s Star-Lord pulled off a similar trick, building a funny, touching story about a character I had no prior interest in – with the added bonus of Anka-drawn abs.
Most unlikely of all, though, is surely The Unbelievable Gwenpool – a perfectly-adjectived title if ever there was one. Gwenpool started life as a one-off character design for a variant cover that crossed Deadpool with Spider-Gwen (a character who is herself a mash-up). She then appeared in back-up stories in Howard the Duck (my pick for surprise Marvel hit of 2016), which gave her a backstory: Gwen Poole, a comics fangirl from the real world who somehow fell into the Marvel Universe. None of which sounds like a formula for success.
Over 25 issues, though, Gwenpool’s own series has developed into a fun examination of the tropes – and ethics – of superhero comics.
The singular highlight came with this year’s “Beyond the Fourth Wall”, which dropped Gwen back into the real world. In a year of (often controversial) sponsored comics from Marvel, this storyline was seemingly brought to us by the manufacturers of the letters ‘m’, ‘e’, ‘t’ and ‘a’ on the keyboards of comics journalists, as Gwen wrestled with panel borders and tripped over speech balloons in her efforts to return to a more magical, heroic world. More importantly, it used this setup to delve deeper into Gwen as a character, presenting her as a young woman unable to find her place in the world.
Of course, this being Marvel Comics in 2017, it closed the year with the cancellation of several beloved books – including, inevitably, The Unbelievable Gwenpool.
Tom King, David Finch, Mitch Gerads, Mikel Janin, Clay Mann, et al (DC Comics)
Of all the comics on this list, Batman has had by far the most uneven year.
It remains on the list because it has managed to squeeze two or three years’ worth of stories into those twelve months. Since January, Batman has rematched with Bane, partnered with Swamp Thing to solve his father’s murder, got engaged to Catwoman, revealed the untold story of a war between the Riddler and Joker, teamed up with the Flash for a Watchmen riff, introduced his fiancée to the evil mother of his child, and gone on a double date with Superman and Lois Lane.
Phew. I’m out of breath just typing that.
I’ve liked some of these stories more than others – the “Brave and the Mold” Swamp Thing issue left me considerably colder than many other readers, and “The War of Jokes of Riddles” dragged on a little at eight issues – but the vital thing is the way they reflect each other. A grim tale of death and deceit sits next to a light story about friendship, a knock-down-drag-out issue of action is followed by one which is entirely conversation.
It’s not just tonal shifts, either. King and his roster of artists are constantly trying new things. An issue using the nine-panel grid from Watchmen. One that leans heavily on symmetrical double-page spreads. Let’s temporarily borrow the style of grindhouse B-movies, or adopt an old-fashioned art style for flashback. How about narrative boxes that tell the life stories of casualties of a supervillain war, or mirror on each side of the page.
It all adds up to a fascinating long-form superhero comic that feels designed to be re-read. Not that you’ll have time, given the speed it comes out at.