By Patrick Larose
2016 was a year largely characterized by loss. Whether that loss was felt personally, culturally or politically, there's an overwhelming sense that the good guys are thinning out and the bad are encroaching closer every second.
On a more personal level, 2016 was also the year I started writing for Comic Bastards. This was the year I got to start writing about one of my favorite mediums on the Internet. This site allowed me, for the first time in my life, to experience comics on a month-to-month basis. I got to watch series play-out on a single issue basis, develop, respond, grow or worsen over the span of months and despite being a long-time comic fan that was a completely different experience.
I'm honestly still trying to process that experience and rather than giving you a list of the things you would have seen a dozen times on a dozen Best of 2016 lists, I want to give you some things you might not have read that moved me more than anything else this year.
Comics that are absent from this list that maybe you really liked shouldn't be an indication that I think those are bad. Rather this is me honoring the weird and beautiful things that helped me survive the last year and that you might have missed or overlooked.
Let's get into this.
6. Ode to Kirihito: Part One by Osamu Tezuka
Ode to Kirihito is the first manga I've ever read more than twenty pages of and enjoyed. From the creator of Astroboy and Black Jack, this manga is about a doctor who travels to a rural village in Japan where people are turning into animals. Despite his efforts to treat and study the disease, he becomes inflicted himself and the story then expands into an international journey and meditation on suffering and the thin line the separates mankind from animals.
The manga came out in 1970 but I only read it in February and what I discovered is a story very much "of its time". The treatment of women in this is atrocious, rape is an unpunished plot device and Tezuka's style of drawing black people mimics the racist western style of animation of the 1930s.
I've read theories that the rape aspect of the narrative is representative of the traditional Japanese storytelling structure of circular narratives--here the unpunished and unreported rape becomes another situation where the powerful abuse the ones below them and world lets it happen. However, the narrative sidelines the actual victim of this act that I find this angle hard to sympathize with and equally indefensible is the style of caricature for the Africans in the manga. There's a particular tone-deafness to this particular part of his visual style, one where Tezuka wants to talk about the abuses done by Westerners through the South African Apartheid while still perpetuating the dehumanizing visual coding Westerners created to abuse black people on a cultural level. These characters have pitch black skin, round bodies, and big lips but Tezuka makes them the heroes of that section, saving the protagonists when the wealthy white guys were sending down hit mobs on the protagonists. Ode to Kirihito is filled with these tonal whiplashes whether through a perpetuation of Western caricature or fridging of women characters, so why the hell is it on a top anything list?
This book was almost like a history lesson for me. My attempt at understanding manga and the references to Tezuka in such seminal books like Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics and what I found is that despite these outdated and shitty elements, Tezuka crafts a page into something undeniably compelling. His arrange of panels, his visual timing is succinct that he makes 800 pages feel like 30. He proves himself to be a master of sequential art and commands the art-form powerfully. I cried, I writhed in sympathetic horror and because of all that, Ode to Kirihito stayed on my mind through an entire year of readings.
Tezuka is ultimately a huge contributor to the visual language we use in creating and reading comics. I don't think that absolves him of any mistakes and I think a huge part of why this is on the list is to talk about and remind ourselves of the mistakes the developers of a medium make. Tezuka can definitely be read, his work can be explored but the people we hold as revolutionaries on a mantle that makes them unimpeachable. All medium, all readings, all criticism should be a continuing discussion and not a series of declarations taken as fact.
5. Dogs in the Vineyard by Vincent Baker
From the moment I dropped a forty-year-old manga onto a list about 2016, you should have realized this was going to get weird. I understand the sentiment, "Hey this is a website about comics" but bear with me and maybe you'll learn something pretty damn rad.
Dogs in the Vineyard is a tabletop roleplaying game from 2005 created by Vincent Baker. As a game, it's character and interaction driven as the player characters roam across a mythologized version of the Old West. However, the titular Dogs of the game aren't just gunslingers--they're men of the gospel and their mission is to deliver mail and enforce the Faith in the different towns they come across. The twist on a tradition western story is why I'm not talking about the roleplaying game but its manual.
From the moment I cracked this rulebook open, I was struck by how quickly Vincent Baker was able to build and breathe life into this setting. Baker uses both how we culturally conceptualize the West with the added broad strokes inspired by the Mormon religion--an image of an isolated rural American society led through a six-shooter theocracy. What makes this image so initially fascinating is how it's tied between the familiar and the alien--placing us in a familiar and culturally coded imagery of Sergio Leone films but through the filter of dogmatic Templars that we'd typically see in Western fantasy.
Even though I was raised in a religious household, the very concept of faith slid off of me like oil. Dogs is then actually aimed at people like me, invite us then to approach an act out the hypotheticals of what it would feel like to be faithful, to have unshakeable religious convictions. What does it feel like to be engulfed in these moralistic restrictions and sold on the rightness of these ideas? What does it mean to be immovable in your convictions? To be the immovable rock against the sea of the Devil. The titular Dogs all start their careers in their late teens and Baker asks us to dive into that contradictory space of a religious upbringing that's so compelling and all-encompassing that virginal teenagers can be gifted absolute authority within their community and somehow makes it all still make sense.
The conflict of this setting similarly distinct from what you'd anticipate from the Western genre. Dogs in the Vineyard is focused on social situations, demonic possessions and how does a town both stay "morally" pure in difficult times and how we wield authority to enforce it. Baker presents scenarios and asks questions that reveal how vulnerable our faiths make us and how we often have to use them as both a shield and a gun.
As a simple reference guide, this book provides a wonderful reinvention in how a game master might go about session building. Not only are we forced to raise the question of what would happen if the player characters never arrived in the first place but to outline the type conflict escalation that occurs in the background--giving NPCs motivations, goals, and sins that build and play together, creating the illusion of a complicated and living place rather than a series of battles and MacGuffins.
Demons, sin, six-shooters and church. What else could you want?
4. VA11 HALL-A & Ladykiller in a Bind
2016 was the year I finally gave visual novels a chance.
Before then, my interest in them felt confined by the places where they intersect with other mediums. I love novels but visual novels had choices, they were all dialogue-driven and everything seemed to only happen in rooms. I love comics but while VNs use illustrations, they don't use proper sequential imagery and instead opt for half a screen of text. And as video games, there's no mechanics and way too much reading.
Visual novels borrow from all these places and transmute these elements to create a wholly new, wholly different type of interactive fiction--something that's almost like an illustrated play adapted from a choose your own adventure book. For a long time I wrote off the entire medium but this year I took a chance and got absolutely blown away out of the gate.
VA11 HALL-A markets itself as a "cyberpunk bartender adventure," one where you're a small person living a normal life in a far-off dystopian future. There are talking dogs, cyborgs, genetically modified cat girls and sentient robots in world driven by corporate abuse and police brutality. What sets VA11 HALL-A apart from typical dystopian fiction is that here the protagonist is just an average person. You work in a bar, your biggest concern is paying your rent on time. This isn't a story so much about bringing down a system as it is about how we navigate our interpersonal relationships. Where the major conflict in a given day is dealing with rude customers or your friends trying to get you to open up.
Placing us in the role of a bartender really highlights the strengths of visual novels as a medium. VNs are best at engaging an audience in a character's conversation and by placing us behind the counter of a bar, VA11 HALL-A gets to explore its world as different people from all different jobs and stations of every day life find a mutual space. There's an asshole, sexist newspaper chief who talks to you about how his paper is run, or a member of a police force who desperately wants to be one of the good ones. Hackers, mercenaries, the upper class and a guy who wants to open a curry stand--the cast of characters are diverse and compelling. Over the course of the game, I found myself dreading the return of the same characters the same way the protagonist did and eagerly anticipating the return of others and the conversations they might bring with them.
This one hooked me in a way I didn't expect and was especially effective through its use a science fiction filter to tell a story ultimately around down-to-earth portrayals of romantic relationships and friendships. The minor breaks in conversation where you have to put together drinks, while maybe monotonous at first, become a genuine expression in how well you're getting to know these people. Sure plenty will ask for "usual" but as often a client, a friend, will come in depressed and when the drink menu comes up, you're forced to ask yourself, "What can I do to help?" You have to prove that you've actually been listening to those conversations this whole time and show them that their interactions with you mean something. The science fiction details the VNs wrapped around almost feels like icing on the cake--one where you could remove all that, transplant these characters into a modern setting and it'd be just as compelling. There's so much I really like about this story: the sex positivity especially towards sex workers, the goddamn soundtrack, the anime art style that looks straight from Snatcher, and just how in-depth it explores how we interact with each other.
While VA11 HALL-A mostly explores how we interact with people in public, Ladykiller in a Bind is a visual novel explores relationships in a little bit of a different, maybe naughtier context. An erotic visual novel, Ladykiller in a Bind is about a young woman known as the Beast who poses as her twin brother on for some fancy school cruise. While the premise might seem incredibly flimsy, what Ladykiller deftly handles is portraying and exploring the power dynamics that happen within romantic relationships.
The visual novel's thoughts on this manifest particularly in its exploration and presentation of BDSM. As you play through, there are some pretty explicit sex scenes but whats interesting about these scenes isn't that they're titillating as much as they provide you a line of communication and exploration in how you engage with a partner. The game isn't interested in making you feel uncomfortable and you're given options to express your trust in your partner. You're given life lines to back out, to choose and alter how you participate. The strength of this romantic exploration and character interaction is so thoughtful, compelling and memorable that Ladykiller has a SFW mode where every nude scene places ugly sweaters on the characters and with the pornography aspect stripped away the experience becomes no less compelling.
I feel a little hard-pressed to expand my praise for Ladykiller in contrast with VA11 HALL-A. As I write this, I'm constantly hesitating going into more details on how some scenes play, the direct choices you're given, and that hesitation is driven by the type of hang-ups I have and other people have when talking about sexuality. With that in mind, Ladykiller in a Bind exists in a world equally fantastic as the one in VA11 HALL-A--one where those sexual hang-ups don't exist and one where the people in it are enabled to have much more open and honest experience. Ladykiller in a Bind carves out a space for us, the audience, to explore these areas of sexuality in a way that makes us feel secure and comfortable.
The VN is not built on engaging romantic and sexual encounters alone, however. Every scene and moment in this visual novel feels designed with intent. The dialogue is memorable and the funny, the characters each have their own engaging quirks. This is probably the most emotionally engaging piece of erotica I've ever experienced and well worth traversing even if said label is incredibly off-putting to some people.
Both VA11 HALL-A and Ladykiller in a Bind are on Steam and are extremely worth your time and money.
3. Mirror: The Mountain by Emma Rios and Hwei Lim
There is nothing on this list that is as simultaneously visually stunning and emotionally honest as Mirror.
I talked at length about this book when I did my review on the trade paper back release back in September here and looking back, I'm struggling to find something poignant to add.
Mirror is a visual and emotional feast of sequential art. A science fiction story told almost as a fantastical folktale. A story about a strange interplanetary colony, a magician-scientist and his broken friendship, an outsider bull-child, and civil war between the planets new inhabitants and their animals. This comic punches with pathos, structures each page like a stained glass work of art. There's a level of lyricism that's done with this comic's story-telling. The way the passage of time moves is often fluid, and phases backwards and forwards in time that connects less with a linear narrative sense as it follows an emotional logic.
There's visual inventiveness, some of the character world and character designs I've ever seen in my life and these elements tell a modern but pastoral type of folktale. Mirror is maybe the most powerful addition to a type of modern myth storytelling--a creation and apocalypse story told parallel.
This section's going to be short after the last couple marathons but don't sleep on this book. Mirror is beautiful, emotional weird and well worth your time.
2. Trees Vol. 1 by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard
Trees is the comic I've been waiting for Warren Ellis to write for years.
As a teenager, I cut my teeth on Ellis' 90s output. Transmetropolitan powered my angst through some tough years and his later books like Planetary and Fell redefined the types of comics I approached and how. Ever since then I followed his career closely, picking up every comic, every novel and novella with a slavish devotion. Still, there's been a quiet nagging feeling inside--one that seemed to be shared by a majority of mainstream comic readers: "Why aren't these hitting me the same way his older comics did?"
It's an unfair thing to push on a creator and one that has as much to do with the reader as anyone. Maybe the readers were really into the counter-culture nature of his old characters, their rebellion, and defiance of then-mainstream ideas. Maybe they really like how his characters cursed real weird. Or maybe, just maybe, they were younger, more willing to be impacted by the things they read, and his work then provided the message they needed. It's obvious though that the fanbase conception of Ellis' work and Ellis' actual current work were two things going in opposite directions...and, to be honest, the direction of his newer work interests me more than his old ever did.
Newer (old man?) Ellis' ideas are both smaller and weirder. He leans towards anthologies, experimenting with multiple ideas simultaneously from a viewpoint that's both more diverse while smaller scale. They move slower but stretch deeper with characters that have more going on than being some British white people who say fuck in more creative than usual ways.
Trees feels almost like a distillation of the ways Ellis wants to make comics now. A sci-fi concept where the world has been invaded by aliens--only rather than them wanting anything from us, they don't even recognize us as intelligent life. Trees is a collection of stories in this world. Scientists examining a "tree" in the arctic. A young woman navigating and manipulating a small town in Italy turned fascist police state. There's an arms crisis between two countries in Africa, a young artist from the Chinese countryside comes to a city of artists. The stories and perspectives here are sweeping and each one contains its own compelling and different narrative at its core.
This work contains the most human and emotionally moving characters I think I've ever seen him do. The diversity of scenarios provide small pockets for him to prod different concepts and explore them without ever wringing out their worth.
This book is smartly done, beautifully drawn and compellingly paneled in no small part thanks to the artwork of Jason Howard (who gets like a single line in this but seriously this is a beautifully concepted and realized world, the visual layering is so interesting done and impressive).
These elements all smash together in Trees, creating something complex, moving and, by the end, had brought me to tears.
1. The Solar Grid by Ganzeer
Sure, there are prettier books out there than the Solar Grid. There are some good comics with characters you recognize or creative teams you know. However, I'd be hard-pressed to find a comic that's as conceptually complex and holistically developed as Solar Grid. This comic already feels like a powerful contribution to the science fiction genre as a whole. It almost effortlessly juggles concept social, environmental and ethical themes and ideas that are maybe as relevant now as they will be through the next four years.
Ganzeer wields this incomparable eye for graphic design and structure, manifesting from the clever advertising of the world to the small details he uses to populate and flesh out his characters' lives. Every page layout and panel structure has a clear and effective intent. I could throw some comparisons out there, calling Ganzeer a punk rock Eddie Campbell or a mad summon brought about by Alan Moore's political work in the 80s. All that, however, would be selling the artist here short.
The Solar Grid is probably my favorite science fiction comic ever. It bravely takes on and challenges real and important questions, political experiences and environmental catastrophes. This series has only released 3 issues in 2016 but already it's claimed the title of my favorite comic series of 2016 and one of my favorite science fiction comics of all time. This is the only series of comics in my life where I felt compelled to return to them. I felt spurred to reread them, think about them in the quiet hours and still walked away with an even greater appreciation and perspective than I did going in.
You can read Dustin's thoughts on the first comic here and you can read my thoughts on the second here and if those don't convince you to pick up the comic here then you probably don't like comics as much as you claim.
Honorable Mentions for Comics that I Guess Came Out This Year: Vision, Headlopper, Kill 6 Billion Demons, Kim & Kim, Black Panther, Shade the Changing Girl, Nighthawk, Tetris, Omega Men, and March Book Three.