As I sit down to right my Best of 2015 for Vector, it occurs to me that I am way overdue publishing older columns here for all to see. So far behind in fact that next in the queue is the Best of 2014! Ah well, better late than never.
Originally published in issue 279 of the BSFA's critical journal back in early 2015, this column features Letter 44, Annihilator, Alex + Ada, Trillium, The Woods, and Ms Marvel. It's interesting to note that of those that continued, some are no longer my favourites but for the period of publication referenced this column holds true!
In recent times it seems that every year is hailed as being particularly strong for science fiction comics, and 2014 was no exception with The Verge, Salon, and What Culture amongst the popular websites extolling the virtues of SF comics over the (still successful) SF movies of the year.
In truth though, 2014 was indeed a landmark year for SF in the world of comics, with continuing splendour from The Wake by Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy, Saga by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples, and The Private Eye by Vaughan again and Marcos Martin. The Wake, as mentioned in our 2013 “best of” list, published the second half of its story throughout the year, managing to not only completely subvert expectations by moving both into the future and the past of the previous storyline, but by evolving the plot beyond its original subaquatic horrors to a more extra-terrestrial yet shockingly close to home reveal.
Refreshingly, despite how engaging these SF staples were during the year, the newcomers rose to the challenge and, amazingly, obliterated the competition. Six comics, from six separate publishers, and six unique creative teams, demonstrated the sheer breadth of the science fiction genre, from space faring and superpowers to time travel and artificial intelligence, with a sprinkling of surreal mind-bending horror and identity subversion in between.
Oni Press had an incredibly successful year, not least due to the ongoing Letter 44, by Charles Soule and Alberto Jimenez Albuquerque. Soule is best known perhaps for his considerable work for DC and Marvel, but Letter 44 is surely his masterpiece. When the president of the US leaves his office, they also leave a letter for their successor – and letter number 44, from a president who ran the economy into the ground and embarked on countless wars in the name of anti-terrorism (sound familiar?) leaves the new president speechless. Because all the seemingly repugnant actions of the US were the result of the need to fight a far larger problem: an alien construct in the asteroid belt that looks suspiciously weapon like.
The story bats between the political fallout of managing such a secret on Earth and the claustrophobic tale of the crew en route to investigate the alien object on a seemingly one-way trip, with differing colour palettes to match. It’s hard to say which is more devastating to read, the crew who have been pushed to the brink and beyond, or the all too believable political manoeuvres and deception on the ground.
At Legendary Comics, the infamous master of magic and mayhem Grant Morrison teamed up with gorgeously macabre Frazer Irving to birth Annihilator into our world, a tale of two places connected by a rather different problem. Screenwriter Ray Spass (pronounced Space, he screams) is on a self-destructive and Black Mass filled path to obliteration when he is diagnosed with a deadly brain tumour. Desperate to produce his last script that would have saved his career, he finds himself instead writing for his life.
The protagonist of his story, Max Nomax is also fighting for his life – on the edge of the black hole, the Great Annihilator, at the centre of the Milky Way. Oh, and he’s also standing in front of Spass in the flesh, demanding he finish Nomax’s story which is in fact a ball of data masquerading in Spass’ brain as a tumour he needs to download onto the page. It’s the kind of madness that only Irving can do justice, as he paints the pages with sequential insanity.
With the FBI on Nomax’s tail, and Spass sinking in and out of consciousness, the story of Max is slowly revealed. But is he the bad guy he makes out to be? Is Spass the harmless idiot we assumed? And who is that adorable sentient teddy bear holding a knife?
Alex + Ada, an ongoing series by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn from indie favourite Image Comics, is a little less mind-bending but no less brain-stretching. In a future where artificial intelligence is real, with sentience withheld, the lonely Alex is gifted an X5, the latest in realistic androids, by his grandmother who greatly enjoys her own robotic lover. Alex, while initially horrified, finds himself unable to return Ada and is consumed by the idea that she is more than she seems.
The slow pacing and gradual world building of Alex + Ada is a delicious delight, and while so far the comic has yet to bring much original to the artificial intelligence genre, the lack of direct narration and the desire to know more, much more, about this world have rightfully won it a strong audience.
Jeff Lemire, the critically acclaimed creator of Essex County Trilogy and Sweet Tooth and celebrated writer of Animal Man, turned his hand to a tale of star-crossed lovers of another kind in Vertigo’s Trillium. Two stories unfold in parallel: William Pike, torn apart by his World War I traumas, on an expedition in the jungles of Peru in 1921; and Nika Temsmith, a botanist seeking access to a rare flower on the outer-rim of colonized space in 3797. The flower blooms within a temple guarded by a peaceful and mysterious alien people, a similar temple to the one Pike stumbles across on his quest to find a lost Incan site.
The temples also serve as a gate between worlds, between time, and between two very broken people that gently fall in love. A love that threatens the very fabric of the universe, bending time and space, displacing people from their lives into others, tampering with memories, and all in a race to procure the only flower that can halt a disease decimating the human population.
What Trillium has, more so than perhaps any other comic this year, is genuine, breath-holding emotion. Nothing here is conventional, everything old is turned new by Lemire’s imagination, and the coldest of alien worlds becomes a home you simply never want to leave.
Similarly, the often underrated Boom! Studios surprised many with The Woods, by James Tynion IV and Michael Dialynas, a spatial hopping tale of a more horrific nature, but with that emotional core intact. The 437 students of Bay Point Preparatory High School suddenly, and inexplicably, find themselves transported – school, teachers, staff, and all – to a mysterious and deadly alien planet. With blood and death near on the horizon, the reader is introduced to those who will perhaps last longer than most – screw-up Karen and her control-freak best friend Sanami, the delinquent Calder, the quiet yet huge Benjamin, the geeky Isaac, and the self-proclaimed genius, Adrian.
While the familiar post-apocalyptic turmoil breaks out in the school between the useless principal and passionate student council leader – as well as the sadistic PE teacher – the motley crew of misfits enter the jungle at the behest of Adrian who has “spoken” to the mysterious alien stone pointing the way into the wilderness. Unsurprisingly, shit gets real, but with a selection of well chosen and slowly delivered flashbacks, the reader is shown that none of the gang are who they are perceived to be, with friendship celebrated and hetero-normative romances given a firm back seat.
It’s rare that a comic manages to balance horror, humour, mystery, science fiction, and relationship woes without tipping the story out of alignment, but The Woods is a rare beast that manages all this and more with aplomb.
And finally, king of the cinema Marvel surprised itself by hitting the big time with the new Ms Marvel by G Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona – a comic that embraces diversity, welcomes new readers, puts a realistic young girl as the title lead, and banishes notions of romance to the sidelines. Ms Marvel is, perhaps, the most popular comic of 2014 when digital sales are taken into account (ie those readers who do not usually frequent comic shops, a wider audience!).
The announcement that Kamala Khan, a Pakistani American Muslim from New Jersey, an ordinary teenage girl, was to be the new Ms Marvel sent the mainstream press into an absolute tizz. While the often resistant to change old-school comics fandom sputtered about political correctness gone mad, there was a roar of celebration from newer fans and the stellar sales and number of reprints have established Ms Marvel as a core Marvel title.
When mysterious mists bestows Kamala with Inhuman powers and the ability to shapeshift and heal, she takes inspiration from her hero Carol Danvers (the previous Ms Marvel and current Captain Marvel) to help the people of her city. The series follows her attempts at crime fighting alongside the difficulties she experiences at home, and her struggle to balance her religious duties alongside both her superhero and teenage lives.
While Wilson is herself Muslim, it’s important to note that this book is far from evangelising about any faith – Kamala’s life is utterly relatable to many, and with the combination of clever writing, dreamy art and superb characterisation it’s really no surprise that the book has been so successful. And yet of course in the world of comics, it is a surprise to many further up the publisher chain that a female-led book can be both popular and critically acclaimed. Hopefully both Marvel and DC will continue to push in this direction in the coming years.
While the science fiction comics of 2013 had a focus on our very darkest fears about humanity, the comics of 2014 are threaded with optimism. Letter 44 seeks to explain the war mongering of the past decade while Alex + Ada and Trillium posit love as an important and conquering force. Annihilator plays with the force of creativity itself as a life-saving endeavour; The Woods puts individuality above authority to find hope. And Ms Marvel shows us that anyone can be a hero, both in the world of superheroes and in the world of superhero comic book sales.
Darkness still surrounds us, whether that be a claustrophobic journey into space and a planet plagued by war, self-destructive behaviours in a money obsessed world and the terror of uncontrollable affliction, crushing loneliness that turns us to technology for some semblance of connection, horrors from our past that break us and the terror of jumping over the next hurdle, the reality that we hide who we are and can trust no one… all are conquerable. With hope. With optimism. Maybe even with love. But certainly with enthusiasm. And always, of course, with science fiction.