2020 has been a hard year for everyone, there’s no way to say it that doesn’t sound trite. So let’s get it out of the way.
All things considered, I’ve been fortunate. But there have been times that living through one more unprecedented event after another has been too much to bear, and there isn’t another dish I can wash. That is where escaping into entertainment has been a saving grace, and luckily there has been a lot to enjoy in pop culture, if nothing else, while we’ve been cooped up.
This list isn’t a Top 10, and it’s not a “Best Of,” I can’t claim to have read or played or watched enough of a cross section of things that came out this year that I can say with confidence they are the best in their given medium. But they are some of the highlights of these dark times for me, ten-ish things that brought me joy or made me think. If you’ve not checked any of these out yet, it’s worth doing so.
There’s nothing that makes me want to watch a show less than having people talk about how good it is and how much they like it. It doesn’t make sense, and I can’t help it. It’s why I took so long to get around to Schitt’s Creek. A few months after its final season ended and after sweeping at the Emmy’s, I finally gave it a chance.
What initially feels like a similar set up to Arrested Development, a wealthy family who lost everything, quickly differentiates itself. First of all, the Rose family are meant to be likable and grow, unlike the Bluths.
Sweet but never saccharine, and undeniably hilarious, Schitt’s Creek explores ideas of community, identity, and acceptance as this self-absorbed and out of touch family discovers both themselves and the real world for the first time.
Perhaps because it is a Canadian production, it also escapes some of the easy jokes about class iit could have that seem inevitable in America’s obsession with its own by-your-bootstraps wealth chasing. The series neither judges as bumpkins nor celebrates as hard-scrabble capitalisasts the denizens of Schitt’s Creek. The joke is always at the expense of the Roses as fish out of water. The Rose family does not suddenly become wise due to their lack of money and glorifying the value of hard work and self-reliance. Instead, the circumstances force each member of the family to examine who they are and who they want to become.
The show’s final season, focusing on the upcoming nuptials for David, the series’ out queer lead, demonstrates a celebration of acceptance and identity at the core of the series and all of the characters’ journeys, but in particular its fundamentally optimistic view that valuing ones own self can lead to the acceptance by those in your community. Schitt’s Creek avoids an easy story about a queer journey in a working class town, instead showcasing a town of individuals who accept David as a figure in their community for who he is, because he is authentically himself. It is quietly defiant and revolutionary, centering its story on the queerness of a protagonist without making it the central conceit of the series or David’s arc. By simply accepting David’s identity as one facet of the series’ journey and the overall themes of the series, Schitt’s Creek reminds us that stories can be universal beyond concepts of gender, sexuality, and class.
In a year in which a feeling of community has been lost, where so many of us are forced to look inwardly at ourselves in the quiet and lonely evenings we might once have drowned in noise and activity, perhaps for the first time, Schitt’s Creek reminds us that our circle is bigger than the boxes we place ourselves in through the external concepts by which we define ourselves. It is in encounter with others, in family, and the recognition of our individual worth where true happiness can be found.
All that, and it is simply one of the funniest shows I’ve watched in a long, long time.
I jumped into comics in the early 2000s, primarily invested in the journeys of teenage characters, particularly the core team at the heart of the recent Young Justice Relaunch: Tim Drake, Conner Kent, Bart Allen, and Cassie Sandsmark. The rich history and legacy they represented in the DC Universe was always my favorite part: its optimism, and its complex and always changing history. I was fascinated by the histories of all of these characters, and every story revealed a new component to discover.
So it’s been disappointing to me that for the last decade these characters and what they represent in the DCU have been sidelined, modified, and set on a shelf. By abandoning its history, the DC Universe lost something, which is its universality and the fundamental optimism of a continuum of heroism that transcended individuals.
The Marvel Universe has always been much more about individuals, about reflecting the real world and the real people within it and the complex personal drama that comes from those realities. The DC heroes, though, represent ideas and ideals, they inspire us to strive for greatness by showing that those with great powers can work for the betterment of the world.
Anyone can be a hero, if they commit themselves to the ideals. And that optimistic world view is at the core of why Tim Drake and his contemporaries were so important and engaging to me as a vehicle to encountering the universe of superheroes.
My other main pathway to comics was Brian Bendis’s Ultimate Spider-Man, which explored a teen stepping into the wider world and encountering the challenges of growing up through allegories of super villains and world shattering events, but with the fundamental wonder and optimism of emerging adulthood at its center.
The combination of these DC characters who were so important to me and a creator who explored similar ideas made for high expectations, and Young Justice largely lived up to those expectations for me.
Channeling the same core components that made Ultimate Spider-Man so engaging, Bendis’ Young Justice relaunch saw our teen heroes struggling with their place in the wider DCU, having to both justify their existence and discover their place in the DC Universe.
As a group of teens, Young Justice is inherently irreverent, taking on grave threats with too much self-confidence and too little thought for consequences.
Too often dark and dour lately, Young Justice brings the humor and light hearted nature missing in many superhero stories, with the irreverence of youth allowing for major threats to be met with goofs and wisecracks, never taking anything too serious. We’re all wearing capes and tights here, after all.
John Timms was the main artist for the series for most of the run, and it took me a bit of time to warm up to his more angular and idiosyncratic style. But as the series went on, he began to display some truly inventive layouts that depicted characters’ powers in exciting ways, and his sense of motion on the page perfectly suited the younger characters.
The series seems to have been rather unceremoniously dropped by DC, which is a shame, because it really did fill in a gap that I felt is missing from most of the line these days. It reminds us so much of what makes superheroes so timeless and relatable–personal struggles depicted in superheroic allegory, and the idealism that the good guys win. I would love to have seen the series continue, especially because the final 2 issues felt like a rush to the finish to deal with some long-simmering mysteries and teases.
The Queen’s Gambit
I have a hard time getting into TV dramas, lately especially, they tend to focus inordinately on darkness, the motivations of morally gray men, and violence. With the world as dark and terrible as it is, I have little patience for consuming media that reinforces the negative arc of real life. So for a drama to make an impression on me that goes beyond making me miserable, it must be doing something right. What helps is the relatively low stakes of its main characters obsession: chess.
Exploring the complex intersection of fame, youth, and addiction, Queen’s Gambit tells the emotional and engrossing tale of its main character, Beth Harmon with style and compassion. Beautifully shot and tremendously acted, the series is a visual feast, and its score and editing help lift the very uncinematic game of chess into an edge of your seat nail biter.
What helps elevate the series above other similar shows dealing with addiction and fame, aside from its tight scripts and exceptional filmmaking, is the centering of a young woman entering the male-dominated chess world during the 60s, when women were mostly still expected to remain at home and act demure. Challenging the expectations of her time, and the trained sensibilities of television viewers in the 21st century, Beth’s journey provides a complex and fully human depiction of a young woman who has to deal with the pressures of expectation as a representation for her entire gender, as well as the dismissal of her accomplishments for the novelty of her womanhood in the male dominated arena.
Rarely do we get opportunities to watch stories like this about women, women who are full characters with genuine failings and hardships, arrogance and skill. Beth is a fascinating character, as gripping in her failures as her triumphs. Beth’s story reminds us of both the frailty and the resilience of the human spirit.
Superman Smashes the Klan
Created by the sons of struggling Jewish immigrants, Superman was first introduced to the world as a “champion of the oppressed.” His roots as a character and his motivations are inextricably linked to the immigrant experience. Superman by virtue of his history is inherently aligned with those who are ostracized and rejected by society. It is something that all too often overlooked or disregarded as important to his character. Some of that is by virtue of most of his publishing history being driven by straight white men. The outsider, the siding with the oppressed, though core elements to what made Superman initially resonate with children and adults, these elements have been discarded in many interpretations.
Enter Gene Luen Yang, himself the son of immigrants. His perspective on the immigrant nature of the character was a refreshing and emotionally honest examination of American society, integration, and bigotry. Focusing on a pair of Chinese immigrant siblings as well as Superman himself in opposition to a Ku Klux Klan stand-in, Yang’s story is a painful but ultimately hopeful commentary on American potential, and reminds us what makes Superman such a powerful fictional character, able to represent so much and transcend any one race or identity. Superman, still finding his own place in the world, knowing he is different but not fully understanding his roots, has to accept who he is regardless of the expectations and preconceived notions of others. There is an exchange between Roberta, the main POV character and Superman that was so beautiful and poignant in our time of racial unrest it brought tears to my eyes. In America, we are taught that to be different is to be feared, and we should strive for uniformity and assimilation.
What would the world be if we allowed people to celebrate their differences, and not just try to fit in?
It is only through accepting who he is, both apart from and within society, that Superman is finally able to fully embrace his own potential and fly.
An earnest and thoughtful all ages book, Superman Smashes the Klan broaches tough subjects but never loses the hope and optimism central to Superman’s character. A major part of that is the art and storytelling from the team of Gurihiru. Vibrant colors and smiling, rounded characters and a strong sense of form and line move the story along, selling every character’s emotions, perfectly pacing action scenes and dialogue heavy moments. The characters, though very cartoonish, leap off the page. But Gurihiru really excels at emotion and acting–facial features and body language that tell so much about each of the characters.
If there is a single superhero comic you ever read, you could do worse than this one. Perhaps my favorite thing I read all year.
The Scent of May Rain
I got a chance to read this in digital thanks to backing the Young Offenders kickstarter. I was blown away by this beautiful story. Taking a challenging look at gender, sexuality, and racial norms,The Scent of May Rain tells the story of a golem created in the early 20th century to act exclusively as a homemaker and protector for a man’s daughter. Thrust by her duty to protect the Jewish people into the battlefield of World War 2, the Golem, named Esther, has her first exposure to the ways of the world, after being isolated and controlled for most of her life by her creator.
Unfolding over the course of decades, and told in a back-and-forth between past and present, Esther slowly finds her own purpose and identity, as those who defined her life pass away, challenging her sense of self. Meant to represent Truth (as inscribed upon her by virtue of her existence as a Golem), Esther is forced to live while she represses the truth of who she is and who she could be. It is only much later, alone, no longer tied to the humans to whom she was duty bound, she finds her own truth.
A brief, but deeply moving comic, it is well worth purchasing through Stack’s Gumroad page.
I wrote about The Mandalorian season 2 at length early on in its season here, so I will leave this relatively short. What I will say is that the rest of the season bore out much of what I began to explore there, and took it even further. The inclusion of Boba Fett and Bo-Katan, which could have been groan-inducing fan service, instead provided Din Djarin different and clashing views of Mandalorian identity, with Boba himself not accepted as a son of Mandalore, though his father was a foundling just as Din Djarin. More critically, our hero’s quest to protect and return Grogu to the Jedi forced Din to examine what is most important to him in understanding his own identity–his creed, or the protection of someone he loves? Are his old beliefs critical to his own sense of self? Din begns to find answers for himself as he and the child come face-to-face for the first time, unobstructed by the helmet which was critical to Din’s identity at the beginning of the season.
Most critically, the season raises questions about our own society and how we make our way in it. In a time with so many ideas of what it means to be American that clash with one another, our culture has more often than not this year felt like that of the Mandalorian people: competing ideologies and beliefs at odds with each other, spread across a vast space. The Mandalorian’s story challenges us to look at the outside forces we use to define who we are, and ask if they are more important than our connection to one another.
All that–and it is just super fun every week, with plenty of exciting surprises and action!!
Marauders is just darn good comics. I don’t have a lot to say here–It’s got everything I want out of an X-Men comic–Complex character interactions, humor, flashy art, and plenty of plotting and intrigue, all with the exciting backdrop of the new Krakoan status quo which propels the mutant metaphor in new directions. With Kate Pryde as the focus character (though she was missing for about half the year,) it is a particularly unique window into Krakoa with the defining POV character of the X-Men both part of and not part of the new world order. Her struggles to accept her place in the new world without fully understanding it or being welcomed to it because of her unique powerset offers an excellent opportunity for growth for the character to come to terms with her own past and define her future on her own terms.
My biggest quibble with the series as it stands is that it was diverted for several issues due to the line-wide X of Swords crossover. While I was not a particular fan of that story on a macro-level (and I seem to be the sole human alive who was not), it did offer opportunities for some interesting character-focused one-shot stories, and in particular the issues of Marauders dealing with Storm helped to elevate the character back to some of the heights she has not reached since Claremont left the books in the 90s, reminding readers of both her physical and emotional strength that makes her one of the key members of the X-Men.
In sum, Marauders feels both most like the classic X-Men as I enjoy them, while also balancing new elements that haven’t been seen before.
No One’s Rose
No One’s Rose, described by its creators as “Solar Punk,” is a sci-fi story that explores hope in the face of climate collapse and the competing narratives society tells us in order to villainize our neighbors and loved ones to keep us in line. The story by Zac Thompson explores the resilience of human spirit, the hope for ingenuity that can perhaps save us from even the brink, and the love that drives us to sacrifice.
A timely tale amid a pandemic that has seen us isolated from others, while the media feeds conspiracies and hate speech that further divides us, the story is set within a closed-off dome that provides safety amid the destroyed atmosphere of a future Earth. Within that highly structured society, some wish to return people to the Earth, to force humanity to adapt, and dismantle the supposed utopia that relies on the labor of the many for the comfort of a few.
The most compelling part of the story, for all of its fascinating science fiction and world building are the competing stories of our protagonist siblings, who both discover new mysteries and truths about the Green Zone they call home, that ultimately draw them apart and closer together as they attempt to lead their community into the future.
No One’s Rose had the potential at the outset to be one of the seminal works of comics of the decade, but a rushed final issue that relies on narration to move the resolution along, rather than providing a chance for character emotions and showing us how the rapid succession of events unfold, relegates it to simply a very good book.
The art by Alfredo Albequerque is electric: angular character and an evocative sense of awe at the new and complex world draw the reader into the conflict, humanizing its characters on all sides. His excellent sense of pacing between panels keeps the action clear, and helps to make the final issue feel cohesive even as the narrative itself rushes to a conclusion bogged down by dialogue. Knowing how to pull out and let his characters breathe and discover the world they encounter allows us as readers experience the journey with them. The way he renders the future is radical in its embrace of the organic.
No One’s Rose is one of the best comics of the year, and it does so by embracing hope and optimism that not only can humanity be saved, but it is worth saving.
Sometimes a movie is made that seems inherently of its time, reflective of a moment so proly that it seems like it could not have been possibly made in any other context–enter: Palm Springs. Though produced in the Covid Before Times, its release in the early days of American lock downs as we were all experiencing an extended timelessness and repetition, feels like it was designed to express the existential malaise of pandemic living. An existential comedy with propelled by the winning performances of its leads, Palm Springs left me pondering how to take advantage of these strange and difficult times.
Stuck in a time loop and cynically resigned to his fate of the same actions repeating themselves, Andy Samberg’s lead character is forced to reckon with his own concept of meaning when he is joined by Cristin Milioti’s character. Their dynamic, at times charmingly romantic and at other times at one another’s throats, reflects the difficulty of having only one person to interact with day-in-and-day out.
Funny, heartfelt, and strangely timely, Palm Springs reminds us to savor even the most repetitive moments, even the most painful heartbreaks, and to seek out the meaning in the monotony when we feel trapped and isolated.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Animal Crossing: New Horizons came just when it was needed. Offering responsibilities, structure, socialization, and the joy of a world where you can actually control how your life unfolds, Animal Crossing was a balm through this difficult year.
With nowhere to go, and unable to visit friends and loved ones, these islands were oases, allowing us to channel our creative spirit and retain a sense of normalcy in a world that felt out of control and having lost all its normal structure.
Visiting my neighbors, fishing, hunting for lost items, redesigning my home and island, all of these things allowed me to live in an extended period of wholesome community, the very thing that had gone missing. What made it all the more engaging was the extended gaming community that popped up around it, people online sharing island codes, offering to help provide desired furniture, share turnips with one another, and to connect across the globe, it was a communal experience in gaming I haven’t experienced in well over a decade.
Emphasizing positive relationships and finding joy in mundanity, Animal Crossing, though I no longer play for hours at a time, continues to provide a respite, to bring laughs and discovery.
The late hours, with the beautifully crafted night sky (yes, Ryuji Kobayashi, we do savor the work you put in!), the soothing and evocative music that radiates warm nostalgia, will stick with me well beyond these fleeting moments. In their quiet simplicity, these moments from Animal Crossing have moved me in ways many games strive for and never reach.
1 thought on “The Urbane Turtle Year in Review”