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This Year’s Finest 2016: Best Single Issues

As 2017 begins to unfold, Nothing But Comics draws its coverage of 2016 to an end with my list of Best Single Issues. All entries are listed alphabetically by title.

Animosity #2 by Marguerite Bennett, Rafael de Latorre & Rob Schwager

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Rafael de Latorre

From the beginning, Animosity has been about more than its thriller components, which is not to deny that those are part of its DNA. The second issue opens with a suspenseful trip through a New York subway tunnel overrun by alligators. However, Marguerite Bennett has more on her mind that fast-paced entertainment. The debut issue hinted at this with its mosaic portrait of a wide range of animal personalities. This interest in diversity broadened with the second issue, as protagonists Sandor and Jesse wander through Central Park post-The Wake. Many of the newly conscious animals are as confused about the new status quo as the humans are. Make shift posters for lost loved ones are displayed, while an exhausted horse tries to sell rides for survival. There is a sense a community trying to form, along with frustrations about its limitations. Later in the issue, representatives of human and animal factions try to negotiate an understanding, only to have as much success as many inter-human sectarian conflicts. Bennett puts a lot of contemporary social concerns into play without ever preaching or losing sight of her compelling characters. The result is a richly developed world, ably illustrated by Rafael de Latorre, which feels quite timely.

Batman #12 by Tom King, Mikel Janin & June Chung

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Mikel Janin

During I Am Suicide, Tom King devotes three issues to characters musing on what it means to be Batman and how their own path ties into the hero’s. Between Catwoman and Bane’s reflections, though, The Dark Knight offered his own as he fought his way through Bane’s Santa Prisca stronghold, which is stunningly illustrated by Mikel Janin. Borrowing a pair of pages from J.H. Williams III’s sketchbook, Janin fills nearly the entire issue with dynamic two-page spreads. While the technique may be reminiscent of Williams’ Batwoman work, the feel is entirely Janin. There is a propulsive drive to the art, as Batman never slows in his battle against Bane’s goons. At the same time, King matches the vibrant excitement of the art with a deeply introspective reflection on the part of Batman. Batman imagines that he is addressing his nemesis/ally/love Catwoman, explaining to her how he found his mission through sacrificing himself. His inspiration for becoming Batman comes not out of anger, but compassion, a desire to demonstrate to the people of Gotham that they are not alone. This is what drives him forward, as well as continuing to believe in the Catwoman’s virtues. There may not be a Selina Kyle any more than there is truly a Bruce Wayne, however, that does not mean that connections are impossible. Honesty, about ourselves, about others, can lead to liberation. Perhaps “when we’re free, Cat, we’ll put on our masks. And together, finally, we’ll laugh and laugh and laugh.” Very few superhero comics in 2016 were as thrilling and poignant as this one.

Beasts of Burden: What the Cat Dragged In by Evan Dorkin & Jill Thompson

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Jill Thompson

The latest installment of Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson’s brilliant collaboration maintains their high standard of excellence. Readers return once again to the town of Burden Hill, which is protracted from supernatural threats by a pack of dogs, plus a stray cat or two. Last year’s one-shot is a bit more feline focused as Orphan coaxes Dymphna into opening up about her recent melancholy. Dymphna was once a familiar for a pair of witches before turning against their wicked charms. When she did, however, she left behind some unfinished, and rather unpleasant, business. Dorkin’s script gracefully transitions from humor to bittersweet as Dymphna takes responsibility for her past actions. Thompson’s painted art beautifully conveys Dorkin’s poignant themes, while also continuing to prove herself a master of rendering nuanced animal expressions. Beasts may have a cast entirely made up of four legged creatures, but it contains some of the most powerful emotions of any comic released in 2016.

For more, read This Week’s Finest review.

The Black Monday Murders #4 by Jonathan Hickman, Tomm Coker & Michael Garland

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Tomm Coker

The latest mind-bending series from Jonathan Hickman grabbed readers from the first page and only built on its energy from there. #4, the concluding chapter of the initial story arc, brings to a head many of the threads from previous installments. Family dirty laundry is revisited against the sprawling backdrop of a millennial old conspiracy. Hickman evokes familiar religious rituals to add depth to his characters’ world, rendering it simultaneously recognizable and uncanny. It ends with a conflagration suggesting both a cathartic release and declaration of vengeance. Such dualities are strikingly rendered by Tomm Coker, whose sketchy style is a perfect fit for Hickman’s obscured characters. Coker, greatly aided by colorist Michael Garland, create a visual landscape which ably reflects the twisted, yet human, world of Hickman’s imagination.

For more, read the staff review.

Criminal 10th Anniversary Special by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips & Elizabeth Breitweiser

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Sean Phillips

One of Ed Brubaker’s gifts as a writer is to take familiar, even cliché, genre elements and fashion them into something utterly fresh. Such in the case with 2016’s Criminal Special which does travel down some well-trod paths. However, by shifting the perspective from the adult criminal Teeg to his adolescent son Tracy, Brubaker gives a new life to the material. Tracy is an immediately compelling character, one not merely tripped up by the usual pitfalls of his age but the very specific circumstances of accompanying his father on some sort of “business” venture. Brubaker marvelously conveys this not only through Tracy’s interactions with the girl Gabby but also excerpts from the comic book adventures of Fang, the Kung-Fu Werewolf (yes, the story is set in the 70s). All these different strands interact with each other, reinforcing Tracy image of himself as a damaged child who can only bring unhappiness to others. Brubaker’s longtime collaborator Sean Phillips crafts a melancholy ambiance with his atmospheric art, a feeling which is then heightened by Elizabeth Breitweiser’s fantastic coloring. Brubaker and Phillips’ partnership has evolved into one of the most satisfying in comics. Even for a one-and-done tale such as this, they are at the top of their game.

For more, read the staff review.

Faith (ongoing) #2 by Jody Houser, Pere Perez, Marguerite Sauvage & Andrew Dalhouse

Faith 2 Pere Perez
Pere Perez

Every great hero has an antagonist who serves as their mirror image. Batman has the Joker, while The Flash has Reverse Flash/Zoom/Savitar/and so on. In the second installment of Faith’s ongoing series, writer Jody Houser introduces anti-Zephyr for her heroine. Faith’s passion for geek culture has long been a core component of her personality. It was a love she shared with her parents while they were alive, and serves as connection to them after their tragic deaths. It provides role models, whose example continue to inspire Faith’s actions. The villainous Cris Criswell also found role models in comics, though, his preferences were of a different sort. He idealizes the antagonists, seeing them as the true movers of the plot, and hence the doers of life. It is a clever piece of satire, which also serves as reaffirmation of what makes Faith’s own dedication to super-heroics so endearing. The issue is largely illustrated by Pere Perez, whose lively style fits Houser’s script. Meanwhile Marguerite Sauvage continues to provide charming interludes, in this case portraying the sinister origin of Cris Criswell. The result is an entertaining issue which reaffirms what makes Faith’s exploits so appealing.

For more, read the staff review.

The Fix #3 by Nick Spencer, Steve Lieber & Ryan Hill

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Steve Lieber

While The Fix is often funny, it can sometimes suffer from an overabundance of snark, resulting in issues which leave the reader wondering “why again do I care about any of these characters?” The problem is not that they are unlikable, so much as they are more of a collection of personality tics than full-fledged individuals. As such, it is difficult to be invested in anything that happens. What made Superior Foes of Spider-Man zing was the fact that readers cared whether Boomerang would successfully scam his way out of trouble or if Beetle would pull her life together. The Fix #3 finds a solution in the least likely of places: Hollywood excess. Former child starlet, now gossip blog fodder, Elaina could have been a trite cliché. Instead, she is an affecting portrait of the damage retained when trying to fight your way through the entertainment industry. It is compelling character work, well-illustrated by Steve Lieber, and made more poignant from Elaina’s too sudden departure from the series. It also offered a fair amount of biting social awareness which is lacking from the series’ more typical “frat boys misbehaving” vibe. Hopefully it is the type of storytelling fans will see more of from the series in 2017.

For more, read the staff review.

The Mighty Thor #3 by Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman & Matthew Wilson

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Russell Dauterman

It was only a matter of time until Jason Aaron’s acclaimed Thor run got around to tackling Loki. Having waited patiently for Keiron Gillen and Al Ewing to conclude their time with the God of Lies, Aaron dives deep into the trickster’s multi-faceted, colorful past. The new Thor’s first confrontation with her estranged brother is not limited to his current iteration but a free-flowing melee involving a variety of forms he (sometimes she) has assumed over the decades (hi, Cat Loki). Aaron does a skillful job of riffing on these various versions of the character, while also allowing each to express their own personality. At the same time, the issue is wall-to-wall action dynamically illustrated by Russell Dauterman. This masterful combination of character work and excitement is a stunning example of how Aaron and Dauterman are crafting one of Marvel’s best series.

For more, read the staff review.

Mirror #1 by Emma Rios & Hwei Lim

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Hwei Lim

Regardless of whatever form Brandon Graham’s 8house project takes going forward, it has brought readers some distinctive takes on science fiction/fantasy world building. One of the best of these to date has been Emma Rios and Hwei Lim’s Mirror. Set in the far reaches of space, Mirror blends elements of magic with science in order to produce a captivating tale of humans’ relation to nature. The debut issue elegantly envelopes readers into this world. Rios’ pacing is gentle, which is reflected in Lim’s graceful, light-hued art which weaves an air of otherworldliness about the proceedings. The issue is a captivating read which immediately draws readers into a fascinating landscape.

For more, read the staff review.

Ms. Marvel #7 by G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona & Ian Herring

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Adrian Alphona

While strictly speaking a prelude issue to Marvel’s Civil War II cash-in Event, #7 of Ms. Marvel reads as a self-contained story, which also provides some affectionate satirizing of Marvel’s recent run of hero vs hero events. Kamala and Bruno are part of a science team which have reached the finals of the Tristate Ultra Mega Science Fair, where they need to face down those hipster city kids led by one Miles Morales. Naturally things get messy as each group strives for not only personal glory (i.e. college scholarship money) but also making sure their enclave beats out the other. Wilson does a fantastic job of using the academic competition as a critique for how petty so many of these recent superhero squabbles have been. At the same time though, she makes great use of the science fair setting, exploiting it for both wacky humor and a sincere message about the importance of science in students’ lives. As always Adrian Alphona contributes a whimsical cartoonish art style which is also heavily layered in detail work. The reader could get lost studying all the gags tucked away in his panoramic views of the competition hall. Following this issue, Ms. Marvel would plunge headlong into Civil War II proper, a development Wilson and Alphona (with art assists from Takeshi Miyazawa) would handle with their typical heartfelt grace. However, in many ways, this single issue stands as the most distinctly Kamala take on the whole mess which was Civil War II.

Rocket Raccoon & Groot #7 by Nick Kocher, Michael Walsh & Cris Peter

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Michael Walsh

Humor is not easy, which is a cliché, but quite true. What is so impressive about Nick Kocher and Michael Walsh’s brief time with Rocket and Groot, is how they seem to defy such truisms. From #7’s opening gag involving the difficulties of Groot answering the telephone, the book is a laugh out loud treat. Kocher and Walsh complement each other well, the artist enlivening the jokes of the writer. Study the phone sequences which builds the verbal humor with each misguided attempt to take a message, while Walsh fills the background with cartoonish action. Also Walsh’s facial expressions are priceless. This collaborative spirit continues through the issue; as Kocher’s narrative grows increasingly absurd, Walsh’s art grows more surreal, until Rocket is literally squeezing an adjacent panel. This goofy inanity is the perfect match for Rocket, who has a long history of populated oddball worlds. Kocher and Walsh’s run may not have been long, but, for as long as it lasted, the pair were responsible for some of the most delightful books on the stands.

For more, read the staff review.

The Sheriff of Babylon #5 by Tom King & Mitch Gerads

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Mitch Gerads

The main theme of The Sheriff of Babylon is how people of differing cultures and backgrounds might find common ground with each other. The series is set during the American occupation of Iraq, which gives a rather pressing urgency to the dilemma. At the same time, the pacing is slow, reflecting the frustrating one step forward/two steps back sensation of everyday life. Perhaps the clearest expression of this ambiance is title’s fifth chapter. Christopher and Fatima spend the night drinking army vodka in the ruins of one of Saddam Hussein’s purported luxurious pool houses. He is a former police officer training Iraqi cops; she is the wife of a high-ranking officer during the former regime. Together they talk, trying their best to bridge the gap between them, sometimes succeeding, yet just as often encountering roadblocks. Mitch Gerads’ atmospheric art expertly expresses this complicated relationship. Together King and Gerads craft an issue that is simultaneously about specific individuals and the larger dynamics of the regions. As such, it is masterful storytelling.

For more, read the staff review.

Shutter #18 by Joe Keatinge, Leila Del Duca & Owen Gieni

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Leila Del Duca

Few experiences are as universal as falling love; conversely, the same may be said of tending a broken heart. Of course, this also means that such material has long been well-tread into the realm of cliché. The beauty of Shutter #18 is how easily Joe Keatinge and Leila Del Duca portray such themes as if they were entirely original. By charting the evolution of Kate and Huckleberry’s relationship from fire-escape meet-cute to bitter estrangement, they hit all the right notes. A vital element in this issue’s success is Del Duca’s evocative art which values feeling over narrative detail. Word balloons are left blank, depth flattened, all to increase the visceral charge of the moment. Keatinge alternates these past memories with the present, constructing an examination of not only the heartache of the past, but how solace might be found in the future. It is a moving story for anyone, i.e. everyone, who has suffered the pangs of love.

For more, read the staff review.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #9 by Ryan North, Erica Henderson, Tom Fowler, Brandon Lamb, David Malki & Rico Renzi

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl 9 proposal Erica Henderson
Erica Henderson

There are many reasons why The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl remains one of the best books out there: charming characters, an affectionate embrace of the more oddball elements of the Marvel Universe, dynamic art and an inspiring heroine. All of these come together in #9 for the tale of how Mole Man confronted the surface world yet again only to lose his heart to the girl with a bushy tail. Ryan North’s script is a delightful twist on Mole Man which is able to give him depth while never losing sight of how creepy his newfound possessiveness is. Erica Henderson illustrates the book with her usual flair, mastering sight gags and exciting action with equal aplomb. As an extra bonus, artist David Makli renders Mole Man’s rant against the surface world in a marvelously antiquated manner. Through it all, Squirrel Girl keeps rolling with the punches, refusing to grow discouraged. As ever she, and her series, prove to be unbeatable.

For more, read the This Week’s Finest review.

The Wicked + The Divine #23 by Kieron Gillen, Leigh Alexander, Dorian Lynskey, Laurie Penny, May HK Choi, Ezekiel Kweku, Kevin Wada, Jamie McKelvie & Matthew Wilson

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Kevin Wada

In a year when The Wicked + The Divine took several risks (continuing to kill off prominent characters, jumping back two centuries for another iteration of the Pantheon), this was the bravest of them all. In order to transition from Rising Action to Imperial Phase, writer Kieron Gillen conceived of an issue modeled after a glossy celebrity/fashion magazine. He then recruited professional journalists to write the various profiles of the spotlighted deities. The results could have been a snarky mess, especially as prose comics are often better in theory than practice. Instead, #23 defies all expectations, delivering a moving mediation on the gods and their place in human culture. The decision to use multiple writers pays off, as each reporter brings a distinct voice to the endeavor. Meanwhile, artist Kevin Wada fills the pages with stunning art. As with the writing, his illustrations do more than ape fashion spreads (though he does that beautifully). Wada evokes the various personas of the gods, while hinting at the deeper layers which might be glimpsed beneath. It is a remarkable issue which confirms once again why collaboration is at the heart of the series success.

For more, read the staff review.

Cheers

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