My Thirteen Favorite Comics of 2015

Starve by Brian Wood & Danijel Zezelj (Image): Brian is a friend and now an occasional collaborator, but conflict of interest aside, I’m confident I can objectively say this is a pinnacle accomplishment in his career. It weaves together so many of his go-to backdrop themes as context, surfing from urban life and multiculturalism to environmental stewardship and disproportionate resource allocation to identity to the price of fame in the modern age, all while focusing hard on mature father-daughter complexities. When you drench it all in that gorgeous Danijel Zezelj art sludge, it’s one of the most unique, entertaining, and intelligent offerings of 2015, to the point that I question the credibility of any list without it.

Rebels by Brian Wood & Andrea Mutti (Dark Horse): Rebels was one of the few books written by Brian Wood that I deliberately didn’t read in advance despite having access, savoring every illuminating artistic choice cold off the shelf, including the autobio backmatter. It’s full of trenchant views about what it means to be American, the sacrifices required to forge a country and your place in it, both then and now. Rebels is awash in the gritty textures of Andrea Mutti. Full Disclosure: I’m working on a project with Andrea, but I just love when he goes off with full-bleed spackled ink on the page, adhering to a level of realism most artists are afraid to dirty up their pages with.

Lazarus by Greg Rucka & Michael Lark (Image): There are books I like more as personal favorites, but Lazarus is one I feel comfortable saying is among the best currently available. Rucka and Lark build a world around the hard truths resulting from a post-capitalist society, with so much tantalizing window-dressing about bio-engineered soldiers enforcing the rule of families functioning as organized crime corporations that control the world. It’s full of brutal violence and life choices driven by the reality that you’re either ruling class or waste; there is no middle class. It’s a bleak but prescient reality, one that we’re starting to fray toward today.

Black River by Josh Simmons (Fantagraphics): Simmons is best known for the surreal horror he infuses into indie projects like Jessica Farm and The Furry Trap (both exquisite and highly recommended), so it’s surprising to see an equally brutal post-apocalyptic tale that bears some small sliver of gendered hope. Here he elevates the women to leads in a genre typically dominated by men, and through a roving cohort explores a rich gray area of morality that puts household names like The Walking Dead to shame. If even one percent of those viewers were tuning into work like this instead, well, the industry would really be getting somewhere.

They’re Not Like Us by Eric Stephenson & Simon Gane (Image): TNLU uses immaculate art detail to overwhelming effect with a killer thematic hook playing like it’s the creator owned X-Men for today. It’s a perfect modern aesthetic that seamlessly blends indie intrigue with mainstream sensibility, examining the complex morality of the power paradigm present in so much genre fiction, all with an impending sense of millennial dread. As a group of powered kids fractures, we witness factions forming in the model of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr. With layers of emotional tessellation reflected in the bold wisps of atmospheric pencils, Gane’s art achieves a rare state of perfection.

The Autumnlands by Kurt Busiek & Benjamin Dewey (Image): I’ve been a fan of Busiek’s  writing for ages, from his stalwart Avengers runs in the mainstream of days past with an in-his-prime George Perez, to the reliable cape deconstruction of Astro City, to the effortless imagination on display in the pages of his oft-overlooked alt history tale Arrowsmith. The Autumnlands works with the lush anthropomorphic work of Dewey, which belies the title’s more cerebral themes, upending superficial fantasy tropes in an expansive world that also bears subtle post-9/11 commentary about fallen Sky Cities and the subsequent social aftermath.

No Mercy by Alex de Campi & Carla Speed McNeil (Image): With CSM on board, this is one of those rare titles I’d tell people to buy for the art alone, but then they’d be overlooking the master class in character-first scripting. The writer composes a sort of inverse closed room drama about the breakdown of humanity that ensues when kids on a humanitarian trip to Latin America are faced with crisis. With innovative use of language that doesn’t feel like forced hip, lettering panache for days, and an all female creative team, No Mercy simply leads with quality. There’s an organic progressiveness on display that the industry desperately needs.

We Can Never Go Home by Matthew Rosenberg, Patrick Kindlon, and Josh Hood (Black Mask): Black Mask had a breakout year in 2015 (see also: Space Riders), due in part to this series about disenfranchised and disaffected millennials that take so much abuse in pop fiction. Occupying the same confessional territory as They’re Not Like Us, and Demo before them, this loner isolationist joint is the Indie Road Trip Bonnie & Clyde. Attacking tropes from different angles, yet still concerned with that old chestnut about latent adolescent power manifestation, it embodies a sense of post-genre paranoia with light sensual lines that entice readers into the world.

The Fuse by Antony Johnston & Justin Greenwood (Image): As a kid, I remember late nights with my dad watching Michael Mann’s Miami Vice and ahead-of-their-time crime serials like Wiseguy and Crime Story, which instilled an appreciation of the police procedural (enough that I sought a criminal justice degree as an undergrad and worked in Federal Law Enforcement). For a generation that grew up with Star Wars and was steeped in the intricacies of sci-fi world-building from The Black Hole (first film I saw in a theatre) to Battlestar Galactica, it’s like Johnston and Greenwood married their criminally underappreciated skills with these beloved genres and made a comic just for me.  

Deadly Class by Rick Remender & Wes Craig (Image): It’s always a toss-up between this and Remender’s Black Science. While I enjoy the sci-fi familial bonds of Black Science that read like an FF pitch that was too hot for Marvel, Deadly Class sneaks up on you. Craig’s lines are a weird confluence of Javier Pulido and old-school Frank Miller, enabling commentary about the pros and cons of tribalism. Imagine a deeply subverted Harry Potter, kids in an assassin school, with gut-wrenching twists and turns, matter-of-fact violence, social tension, and an infusion of autobiographical 80’s threads that demonstrate how real-world trauma can make literature blossom.

James Bond by Warren Ellis & Jason Masters (Dynamite Entertainment): I came close to including Injection on the list, due in large part to the luscious Declan Shalvey art, but felt that the scripts tended toward being a little too nebulous for their own good, especially early on. Conversely, the Vargr arc of James Bond is like a mainline shot of tradecraft with clear intent, introducing us to a Bond who is more Queen & Country than Roger Moore. The detailed dialogue is grounded yet sings, and whether Ellis has MI-6 referring to “The Cousins” across the pond, or it’s debating the efficacy of a Walther P99, the air of authenticity is pure reading pleasure.

Manifest Destiny by Chris Dingess & Matthew Roberts (Image): It’s a brilliant example of how to do historical fiction right, an absolute visual feast that mirrors the wonderment of the fabled expedition. The speculative account blends in creepy monster mayhem that never fails to twist and shock (see issue #18!). Thomas Jefferson’s off-book spec ops mission for Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark, namely investigating supernatural forces inhabiting the territory of the Louisiana Purchase (the real reason POTUS got such a deal from the French!) is like an HBO, Showtime, or Netflix pitch waiting to happen.

Trashed by Derf Backderf (Abrams): Backderf’s work always has a way of illuminating the mundane in the fantastical (My Friend Dahmer) and the fantastical in the mundane. Here, it’s the latter, highlighting the subculture of garbage and its myriad hidden atrocities. From the staggering quantities we actually produce as a society, to its dangerous methodology that seems to teeter on the brink of total collapse. Backderf’s own wobbly line is like a modern Charles Schulz, a fragile thread that’s as socially relevant as it is entertaining, creating the type of work that should be required reading for anyone who’s ever generated even a single piece of refuse.


12.16.15 [#PicksOfTheWeek]

#PicksOfTheWeek is brought to you with generous support from my retail sponsor Yesteryear Comics. Make Yesteryear Comics your choice in San Diego for great customer service and the best discounts possible on a wide selection of mainstream and independent titles. Customers receive an attractive 20% discount on new titles during their first week of release. Yesteryear Comics is located at 9353 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard.

The Autumnlands #8 (Image)
Klaus #2 (Boom! Studios)
Clean Room #3 (DC/Vertigo)
The Goddamned #2 (Image)
EVE: Valkyrie #3 (Dark Horse)
Dragon Age: Magekiller #1 (Dark Horse)


Bill Hoyt

On a bleak morning in November, I found myself standing in Ivers & Alcorn funeral home on Main Street in Merced, California. It was the second time I’d been there in 8 months. The dense fog of the Central Valley was just starting to burn away as my cousins and I stood and greeted dozens of people arriving for my maternal grandfather’s funeral. Adolph Soto Tafoya passed away at 91 years old.

At this point, a man I’d never seen before marched right up to me, extended his hand, looked me square in the eyes and said “You must be Carlo’s son.” I was. I’m 6 feet tall, but with his steady voice, firm grip, and unwavering blue eyes, I felt as if this man towered over me. “I’m glad to meet you. And I’m sorry for your loss,” he went on. “Your grandfather was a great man.” This man’s name was Bill Hoyt.
Now, my grandfather was infamous for his storytelling. I spent countless hours listening to his accounts of being the youngest of 11 children. I memorized his stories about farming in the San Joaquin Valley during the tail end of the Great Depression. They were sprawling tales of hardship and first generation immigrant families coexisting and intermarrying, whether they were Mexican, Italian, Portuguese, or Japanese. My grandfather worked for a Japanese family that owned a large rice growing enterprise called Koda Farms, located in South Dos Palos, California. When the US Government came around to displace Japanese-Americans to internment camps, Keisaburo Koda handed the keys of his business over to my grandfather’s family to steward on their behalf. That alone is remarkable to me, and is always a reminder of what a different time it was.

My grandfather’s stories often involved his time serving in the 601st Bomb Squadron in the Army Air Corps in World War II. This is another fact which is an interesting historical marker to me. The “Air Force” proper didn’t even exist until 1947, but grandpa served in the Army Air Corps precursor from 1942 to 1945. He went in as an enlisted man and came out as a non-commissioned Staff Sergeant. He was stationed in England and would regale me and my cousins with the exploits of young men from vastly different walks of life pulling together for the common good. Looking back, it’s clear to me that he was always careful to whitewash all of the death and destruction he witnessed firsthand until we were older, allowing the stories to take on different meaning as they were repeated. They grew with maturity and nuance just as our ability to comprehend them did.
I heard stories about his return home, his occupations, and met his neighborhood crew on 10th street – full of colorful characters like Rojas, Amado, Elias, and Tony Vargas – where he and my grandmother Carmen Martini lived for over 50 years. They were an interracial couple when they married in 1947. My grandfather worked for years as a produce rep for a large company in Fresno, and some of my favorite memories were the days I got to tag along and make deliveries with him when I was about 5 or 6 years old. We would enter a restaurant or market through the back door, and it was straight out of a Scorsese film. The room would light up as he spoke a flurry of languages. My grandfather was a charismatic man, always smiling, and always telling a story. Even then, I got the sense that I was making memories, no longer just listening to his version of them, but an active participant. It was a fun time.

In my four decades of hearing these stories and living in that world, not once did I ever hear the name Bill Hoyt. At this point, my dad quickly joined the conversation and filled in the gaps in my knowledge. It turns out that Bill and my father are the same age, were childhood friends, classmates in high school, and had operated in overlapping circles of friends in their day. Bill volunteered “I learned a lot from him,” explaining that at one point he had worked directly for my grandfather. “I knew your grandmother Carmen too,” he went on. “Your grandparents were very special people.” I noticed my mom putting her hand on Bill’s shoulder as her eyes welled up, a small gesture acknowledging what he’d said about her parents.
My grandmother had unexpectedly passed away just 8 months prior, and I was worried about what these losses were doing to my mom in rapid succession, still so sick of people simply going through the motions and offering empty platitudes. But, Bill Hoyt wasn’t offering any empty platitudes. He chose his words in a deliberate manner and delivered them with a type of sincerity that erased any doubt in my skeptical mind. I turned to introduce this man to my wife and kids. He looked at us, and I mean he really looked, eyeing down to my 6 year old son, back up to me, and over to my dad. “You have a beautiful family,” he said to me. “It’s no surprise, you come from good people,” he said winking in my father’s direction. It was humbling to say the least.

I started thinking about this scene from the perspective of this man I’d just met, wondering what the view was like from Bill Hoyt’s corner of the universe. I imagined him waking up and readying himself for a 9:00am service, one of many he’d probably attended in his hometown. I imagined him driving to the funeral home not knowing who he might encounter. I imagined what would compel him to attend the funeral of a man he’d worked for in some capacity more than 50 years ago. I imagined him seeing a childhood friend he probably hadn’t talked to in 20 years (my dad), and I imagined him feeling the need to pay his respects to that man’s father-in-law. It all felt so far removed. It was the last vestiges of a small insular community where everyone had known everyone. It was another marker of a different time and place, where few people, save us grandchildren, had strayed very far from their beginnings.
It struck me how little we give people credit for their own history. 

There’s a human tendency to give less credence to the things we weren’t there to witness for ourselves; I’d even observed this in the professional workplace over the years and had called it the “if I didn’t see it, it didn’t happen” dynamic. My grandfather was 91 years old when he died. I was 41, which meant he would have just turned 50 years old at the time I was born. He’d lived an entire lifetime before I even took my first breath. There was 50 years’ worth of different experiences and different people that had left mutual impressions. My grandfather had clearly touched Bill Hoyt’s life in some meaningful way and had left a lasting impression. This small truth was magic to me at the time; it sort of buoyed my spirit in what was otherwise a dark time.

In the fog of emotions and conversations that day, one of my younger cousins leaned over to me and whispered “Who’s that?” I responded quickly, still a little stunned by the encounter, “Friend of my dad’s.” I followed that up with “He worked with grandpa.” I felt myself wince a little when I said it, like I’d somehow diminished the relationship they’d had, or was betraying the impression he’d just made on me. I liked Bill, instantly. Not just because he said nice things about people I cared about, but because of the way he said them. I liked the way this man talked. There was a simple assuredness to his tone. He spoke in fact, his own truth. I didn’t want to dismiss that feeling. It needed some kind of punctuation. I leaned back over to my cousin as guests continued to pore in, “His name is Bill Hoyt.”


12.09.15 [#PicksOfTheWeek]

#PicksOfTheWeek is brought to you with generous support from my retail sponsor Yesteryear Comics. Make Yesteryear Comics your choice in San Diego for great customer service and the best discounts possible on a wide selection of mainstream and independent titles. Customers receive an attractive 20% discount on new titles during their first week of release. Yesteryear Comics is located at 9353 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard.

It’s going to be a terrific week for comics! True, it’s probably just everyone pumping out stuff before the holidays hit, but this is a really representative week of what keeps me coming back for more, favorite creators, new work, old work, pop culture tie-ins, diverse genres, such a great showing of what the medium is capable of. Brian Wood, Andrea Mutti, Warren Ellis, Antony Johnston, Caitlin Kiernan, Daniel Warren Johnson, Darwyn Cooke, Carla Speed McNeil, Peter Milligan, BKV, Star Wars!

The Massive: Ninth Wave #1 (Dark Horse)
Rebels #9 (Dark Horse)
Alabaster: The Good, The Bad, and The Bird #1 (Dark Horse)
New Romancer #1 (DC/Vertigo)
Twilight Children #3 (DC/Vertigo)
Brooklyn Animal Control (IDW)
Snow Blind #1 (Boom! Studios)
Codename Baboushka #3 (Image)
Monstress #2 (Image)
No Mercy #5 (Image)
Trees #13 (Image)
We Stand On Guard #6 (Image)
Star Wars Annual #1 (Marvel)
We Can Never Go Home TPB (Black Mask)