The weather might suggest otherwise, but December has arrived and with it the inevitable year’s end lists. Luckily, at Nothing But Comics, we’re quite fond of year’s end lists. Our first group Top Ten will arrive tomorrow, but first I offer up my annual look back at some of the most memorable character from 2016.
All entries are listed alphabetically. For simplicity sake, characters without code names are listed by first name.
In the early issues of The Wicked + The Divine it was easy to dismiss Baal as an over-the-top caricature of hubris. After all, his deity possessed, in Kanye West, one of The Pantheon’s clearest non-fictional analogues. Yet, while 2016 may be year West finally pushed his persona too far for many of his loyal fans, writer Keiron Gillen moved Baal past simple distinctions. It was Baal’s voice which pleaded most movingly for restraint in the closing moments of Rising Action. After level heads failed to prevail, he stepped into the void of order left in the wake of Ananke’s death. His interview in #23 revealed a rich introspective side only hinted at in the past. At the same time, he continues to embrace a public posture defined by breezy grandeur. This fascinating combination of style and substance renders Baal one of the most intriguing gods to watch as their Imperial Phase begins to unfold.
In recent years writers have tendered to approach Batman from two directions: coldhearted manipulator (Bruce Wayne: Fugitive/War Games) and unbeatable Bat-god (pretty much anything by Grant Morrison and Scott Snyder). While these facets of Batman have produced some compelling stories, they also tend to be quite limiting, in that they obscure the human side of the character. Luckily one of the highpoints of DC’s Rebirth initiative is a return to a fallible Dark Knight. In Detective Comics, James Tynion IV repeatedly shows moments at which Batman is caught off guard (Batwoman’s offhand comment about how easy it was to figure out his secret identity) or compassionate (sharing a hug with Stephanie Brown in the wake of Tim Drake’s death). Over in Batman, Tom King is doing similar work in highlighting Batman’s humanity. From Batman #1 readers remember King’s heartfelt dialogue between Bruce and Alfred as much as the fact it was spoken while Batman was essentially hang gliding a commercial airliner into Gotham Harbor. Just last week, King’s delightful story of Bruce Wayne gradually bonding with a dog was one of simple poignancy. In moments such as these, readers can relate to the humanity beneath the cowl. Batman is still badass (as King himself attests “Batman always punches hardest”) but that is not all he is. The ability to inspire the good in others is as essential to his mission as is his ability to strike fear in the hearts of criminals.
When the robot now known as Brain Drain was first introduced it seemed to be as oneoff character. Menaced by a deadly robot attacker, Squirrel Girl saw beyond the cold metal exterior to the (literal) human brain within the shell. Using her trademark compassion, she offered it a new lease on life. The recently concluded Canadian story arc revealed that in the time since Brain Drain has taken to crime fighting and philosophizing. Its dialogue is full of whimsical observations concerning the limitations of human experience. True to form, writer Ryan North uses these observations for more than humorous hijinks; instead they become the building blocks for an endearing personality which readers immediately wish to see more of. Also, its simply a fun character. Remember “Telling a story is its own joy, and we should not be so quick to dismiss its pleasures in a world such as ours.”
From Ms. Marvel’s debut, Bruno has been one of the standout members of its strong supporting cast of characters. This year, however, he took on increased prominence as he assumed increased responsibility for assisting Kamala in her super heroics. At the same time, his new girlfriend added an additional layer of awkwardness to his and Kamala’s friendship. Then Civil War II hit, finding the two friends initially on opposite ends of the conflict. Writer G. Willow Wilson poignantly portrays the fallout from their actions, refusing to paper over their feelings with an easy, unearned sense of reconciliation. One of the trials of adolescent is learning how your actions have consequences and it is impossible to ever reverse time to “how it was before.” All of these hard truths were underscored by a charming flashback to the grade school moment when Kamala and Bruno first met. Years later, Wilson leaves readers wondering how much of that friendship can ever be recovered.
At first glance, Kill or Be Killed’s Dylan appeared to be a variation on a typical crime protagonist: down on his luck and driven to desperate measures. However, writer Ed Brubaker once again defies expectations by crafting a character who continually surprises. Each installment of the new series has added fresh layers to Dylan’s personality, as the reader increasingly questions Dylan’s soundness of mind. Events from the past haunt the edges of his psyche, possibly sparking a psychic break in the present. Of course that demon could have been real. Either way, Dylan seems to be slipping a little too easily into his new vigilante lifestyle, until all the reality of his situation comes crashing down on him once again. He is a fascinatingly, tangled individual who reconfirms once again why Brubaker is a master of his craft.
Etta Candy is having a bit of resurgence at the moment. After decades floundering in the wastelands of revisionism, creators reminded readers of what originally made Etta so awesome. She held a prominent role in Renae De Liz’s digital comic The Legend of Wonder Woman, where she played point-woman for Diana’s introduction to Man’s World. De Liz returned Etta to her roots as a sassy, resourceful heroine who plays a vital role in Wonder Woman’s adventures. Together they share both excitement and humor, adding a zest of personality missing from the current ongoing. Meanwhile, Grant Morrison strengthened this trend with his use of Etta Candy in his Earth One graphic novel. Morrison’s overall writing might not have been as entertaining as De Liz’s, yet, his Etta was delightful. Most importantly, Etta is once again able to be the positive role model for women, which creator William Moulton Marston envisioned seventy-four years ago. Fingers crossed that the trend continues when Etta makes her cinematic debut in the summer.
Faith previously appeared on the inaugural edition of this list; three years later, she has graduated from supporting player within the Valliant Universe to one of their brightest stars. Her solo mini-series written by Jody Houser was such a success with fans and critics, including many from outside the comics community, that an ongoing was announced before the limited wrapped. Faith’s appeal is easy to grasp. She’s encountered many tragedies over the course of her life, including witnessing widespread devastation. People close to her have died. She has moments of self-doubt. However, she never loses her spirit. Recently she has struck up a romance with Obadiah Archer which has only made her character more charming; their convention related hijinks were delightful. While Faith’s adventures may poke fun at the tropes of superhero life (Faith’s alter ego wears glasses and a wig as part of her cover reporting for an internet blog), her dedication to the virtues of heroism are never in question.
Shutter began its year by tracing the evolution of Huckleberry and Kate’s relationship. #18 followed the couple through their cute meeting to deep passions into passionate disagreements, making up and eventually going their separate ways. Yet, when Huckleberry returns to Kate’s life they are able to move beyond the hurts of the past. Huckleberry has a resiliency fashioned from a childhood spent on the plains of Montana. As a child she learned from her mother the need to hunt for survival and from her father the emotional power of art. Such examples made her more than simply a survivor, but one who embraces life. However, she comes to such wisdom through an honest reckoning of her faults. Her ability to fight off despondency is inspiring. With a personality that can light up a room, she is one of those fictional characters with whom readers wish they could sit down and share a drink. She is a perfect example for how writer Joe Keatinge has crafted Shutter into such a strong ensemble book.
Omega Men was always an ensemble book by design, yet in its second half, Kyle Rayner edged a bit more to the center of Tom King’s narrative. Kyle is faced with a seemingly impossible choice between “the savagery of empire and the savagery of revolution.” While he noblily refuses to heed either, circumstances spiral outside his control. Yes, many lives are spared by his actions. However, Kyle cannot keep violent instincts forever in check and what should have been a peaceful conference dissolves into bloodletting. In the end, despite all his good works, he wonders if he remains trapped in a type of prison, forbidden from rewriting his own narrative. Kyle’s time with the Omega Men raises many troubling questions which will haunt the White Lantern and his fans for years to come.
Only once has this list declared a clear favorite for character of the year: in 2014, when Ms. Marvel debuted. She returned to the list in 2015 and is here once again. One of the elements which makes G. Willow Wilson’s writing for the series so strong is how Wilson keeps deepening Kamala’s character. Wilson never lets the status quo completely set in, instead finding organic story beats for broadening her heroine’s experience. Last year Kamala reacted to the end of the world. This year she had to confront something even more distressing: the tarnishing of an idol and the estrangement of a dear friend. Through all of this, though, she remains committed to fighting injustice both globally (first with the Avengers, now in the Champions) and locally in her beloved Jersey City. With pluck, determination, and a willingness to learn from her mistake, Kamala more than fulfills her promise as her generation’s Spider-Man.
In his graphic novel memoir, Dark Knight: A True Batman Story, Paul Dini depicts himself with brutal honesty. Set during the years he was writing for Batman: The Animated Series, Dark Knight depicts a brutal mugging which left Dini deeply scarred on all levels. As he tries to make sense of this event, he falls back on the same coping mechanisms he developed in childhood: comic books. Dini illustrates how his life was defined in relation to the heroes of his youth and how he felt that they betrayed him that one night. He seethes internally at the cops’ disinterest in the most cursory forensic work Batman would have done without a second thought. At the memoir continues, though, Dini is forced to grow more honest about himself and his failings. Yet even then what use are such acknowledgements in the face of random, violent crimes? In the end, Dini’s tale is the story of how imagination is a route to recovery, allowing an outlet for tangled emotions. The ideal of Batman may not be obtainable but that does not mean Dini cannot learn from Bruce Wayne’s refusal to surrender to his own darkest nights.
Paul Nash was a Twentieth Century British landscape artist, whose life was chronicled in Dave McKean’s graphic novel Black Dog. Using an episodic approach, McKean tackled the sweep of Nash’s life, while focusing on his military service during in World War I. McKean avoids many of the clichés of both biographical and war narratives by highlighting Nash’s psychological mindset. His Nash begins a fragile child before experiencing as an adult atrocities he can never quite shake. By the end of his life he is a haunted figure, whose emotional scars linger with the reader long after the last page is read. Nash’s story is a moving portrait of an individual caught up in the universal horrors of combat. As such, it is also one of the most essential narratives of 2016.
With each installment of her series Animosity, Marguerite Bennett has broadened the canvas, drawing the reader further into a fascinating world. At the center of it all, though, has been the young girl Jesse and her bloodhound Sandor. Living in a world rapidly rearranging itself after animals gained consciousness, each day is full of danger. Yet, Sandor remains steadfast to the girl. His devotion to her is total and he does whatever necessary to keep her safe. At the same time, Bennett gives Sandor enough rough edges that his quest never comes off as cloying. Instead his is a fully rounded personality, which also is a moving tribute to pets’ devotion to their “masters.”
Writing characters from foreign cultures is always tricky, but becomes especially so when the society in question comes with a disproportionate amount of presumed stereotypes. In Sheriff of Babylon, Tom King successfully avoids such traps. Sofia has returned from her family’s exile in order to play a role in the post-Hussein rebuilding of Iraq. Her family were once prominent figures in the country, before being purged by Hussein. Sofia feels compelled to continue this obligation of public service. Close relatives were murdered by the dictator’s regime, yet, she is not blind to the limitations of the US occupiers. She is a strong capable woman who is willing to dirty her hands. At the same time, King allows her vulnerabilities to show. She does not fit neatly into any pre-defined category, instead emerges as a fascinating complex individual. One of the core elements of Sheriff is the various characters’, often futile, search for empathy within the fog of war. King’s humane writing for individuals such as Sofia, allows his readers to take part in that effort as well.
Still eating nuts. Still kicking butts. And still one of the most endearing, inspirational figures in comic books. 2016 would have been much drearier without her.