In 2020, in the first couple months of this Urbane Turtle experiment, I posted a Year in Review of some of the various forms of media that got me through a difficult year. I was very explicit that it wasn’t a “Best-Of,” and I did not limit it to any medium.
But after a full year as a semi-professional comic critic, I want to share with you my Top 10 comics from the year that was. There is not much in the way of ground rules for how books qualify for this list. They had to release new issues in 2021. I’ve spent the last 2 weeks catching up on a backlog of releases and am happy to finally share this with you all.
For ComicsXF, I chatted with writer Kyle Higgins about the first arc of Radiant Black. We got into his philosophy of superheroes and the responsibility to take risks he feels in writing an independent comic. Read the interview here.
Comics are often synonymous with superheroes; they dominate the industry whether you like it or not. Their myths and their tropes and their cycles of stagnation, reinvention, and their inevitable return to the way things Always Are. Heroes win, and more important than that: they are heroes. There is comfort in them; I am a fan of them. I don’t begrudge the status quo in and of itself. But often these demands and these cycles hide the hard truths of the industry that creates these stories, the way the corporate sponsors of these lucrative properties exploit and stifle the creators they rely on for their tentpole films and licensing initiatives. The heroes and gods are the myth, but the reality is as ordinary and petty and deflating as any other industry, with its dark secrets and interpersonal frustrations. While Ordinary Gods is not a superhero story, their dominance of the medium and the expectations readers bring to the comics reading experience are inescapable.
Ordinary Gods is a new creator owned series by the red-hot writer Kyle Higgins and artist Felipe Watanabe. Higgins looks to explore and unmask these ideals of heroism and take a harder look at the truth. It serves as a commentary not only on our human tendency for myth-making and hero-worship more broadly but also a metatextual commentary about the comics industry itself that channels his professional frustration of the work for hire system into a cosmic, eternal cycle of death and rebirth.
One thing my recent Nightwing project accomplished was reigniting my love for DC Comics–particularly the stories and universe of the 90s, which, ironically, I have ready very little of. While I initially planned to cancel my DCU Infinite subscription once I finished that Nightwing read, I instead decided to dive into the stories I was always intrigued by but never had the opportunity to read.
As a kid I spent countless hours online following the stories of DC characters I had never heard of before, written by fans who chronicled the various adventures in compelling narratives. The DC Universe was boundless; there were always new characters and new stories to discover. In particular the fall of Hal Jordan seemed especially captivating. Reading about his sacrifice in The Final Night was such a moving memory even in the form of synopsis that when I found the story on DC Infinite those heady days of research came flooding back. Imagine my surprise to find that an event series from the mid 90s, an era that has a reputation for excess and convoluted plots, was in fact one of the most compelling, reserved, and moving superhero stories I’ve ever read.
The Final Night was a 4-issue, weekly event series written by Karl Kesel with art by Stuart Immonen, inks by Jose Marzan Jr. and colors by Patricia Mulvihill. It begins with the death of a world, as a mysterious power extinguishes the planet Tamaran’s sun. The alien Dusk, a messenger from another world, races from the dying Tamaran to warn the next planet of the coming of the Sun Eater, as she has done countless times before. The Sun Eater is coming to Earth, and there is no hope. Her goal is not that the next planet will defeat the Sun Eater but that they somehow save a few from certain death.
As mentioned in my last personal update I have started a paying freelance gig as a review over at Comic Book Resources. I have covered a broad range of different books, to varying degrees of enjoyment and recommendation. You can find all of my reviews here. I will be spotlighting a few over time and linking to them individually moving forward.
Between last year’s mega Bat-crossover in Joker War, the Oscar award winning film, and an abundance of appearances in various DC media including Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the Joker’s notoriety has never been higher. It is no surprise to see DC capitalize on that cultural cache with a new solo series. The premiere issue is a surprisingly chilling exploration of the Joker as an idea.
Written by James Tynion IV with art by Guillem March and Arif Prianto, the Joker #1 finds the title character the most wanted man in the world following one of his deadliest attacks, shown in the Infinite Frontier one-shot. This new series establishes Joker on the run while his shadow looms large over Gotham City. The villain is physically absent from most of the issue which instead focuses on Jim Gordon looking back on his career in the police force and the way the Joker has haunted his family. Tynion establishes Gordon’s place in the new Infinite Frontier status quo and positions the newly-retired commissioner as worthy of an adversary to the Joker as Batman.
Tynion admirably weaves a staggering amount of history into the issue without bogging down the narrative. Building from stories in other books is a tricky proposition but he captures the horror of Joker’s attack on Gotham that feels both like an evergreen Batman story and a uniquely horrific escalation.
The physical absence of Joker from the story is a surprising choice that allows the character’s reputation to imbue the entire issue with a genuine sense of dread. By focusing on Jim Gordon, the most human of Batman’s supporting cast, the stakes and mental toll of Joker’s evil stings in a way that feels fresh despite the character’s exposure.
March’s art effectively channels the suspense of Tynion’s script, with deep shadows and erratic line work that feels as if Joker’s psychosis is seeping in around the edges of every panel. Joker appears as a specter taunting Gordon throughout the issue. Joker is not just a clown or a killer here—he is an all-consuming madness. March is aided by Arif Prianto’s colors which are a mix of gaudy pinks and greens that pointedly clash with the dark tone of the narration and add to the off-kilter feeling the Joker provokes.
The issue is rounded out with a Punchline back-up story by Sam Johns and Mirka Andolfo that is far less effective and mostly impenetrable for new readers unfamiliar with Tynion’s Batman. It is especially disappointing after the strength of the lead feature.
Overall, the premiere issue of the Joker is a moody and cerebral look into the impact and force of the character’s reputation. It remains to be seen whether the series can run with these same themes, with Joker at the center even as other characters propel the story. On its own this is a strong issue that provides a compelling view of Jim Gordon as a man and proves Joker has become a powerful icon in his own right.
I read every issue of Nightwing, every Dick Grayson solo series (including his time as Batman and a super spy) and 100+ issues of Titans and Justice League over the last two months, in search of the answer to one question.
Over the last few months I have ventured into a number of indie and self-published first issues, with frustratingly disappointing results. Whether attempting to dump too much information, sloppy visual storytelling and lackluster art or confounding lettering, many comics out there have simply fallen flat. So discovering Slightly Exaggerated by writer Curtis Clow and artist Pius Bak was a refreshing and exhilarating change.
Slightly Exaggerated drops you right into the action, not bogging readers down with a wordy prologue or confusing exposition of obtuse lore full of fake names and fictional history. Instead, we are introduced to our lead, Mia in the midst of her graverobber antics. Along with her strange and snarky frog-like friend Winston, she is on the run in search of treasure and riches to make the most of her final days suffering from a mysterious ailment that appears to be turning her to stone.
Starting a story in medias res is a gamble that often ends up confounding rather than drawing readers in, but Clow, with ample assistance from the gorgeous art provided by Bak, is able to raise questions about the world he has introduced that make you want to discover more with each page turn.
Clow describes the series as “a fantasy treasure hunt adventure about a dying girl that must steal back a sacred artifact from a crazed cult leader in a whimsical fantasy world where religion is law.”
As the author has explained on Twitter, the story is a chance to explore his own atheism through narrative and reflect his personal existential struggles, and that does carry into and pervade this premiere issue. Indeed, the questions of religion and meaning are central to these early hints of the story, if not explicit. Mia’s fear of death and path to riches puts her firmly against the religious order, and her refusal to pray places her on the wrong side of the law. Claiming to be resigned to her fate, but obviously desperate for the thrill of chasing wealth and danger as well as human contact, her existential struggle is masked within a cynical humor and irreverence that manifests in snippy arguments with her partner and the inability to hide her disdain with the law enforcement that captures her.
The danger inherent of organized religion and government joining into a single entity are on display here, with the main character’s beliefs as punishable as her actions in stealing the relic at the start of the issue.
Pursued by both the law and a crew of religious zealots on a sky-pirate ship Mia is dogged by the pressure to choose a religion to believe in, when all she wants to do is live her life on her own terms, for however long is left of it. Her conflict spills into bloody violence, and the closing pages end on a somber note reminding her and the reader that to live in a society where certain beliefs are conscripted removes our freedom and our ability to actualize ourselves, to pursue our own source of joy and meaning. And not just religion–but the narratives of our countries and our homes, the stories we inherit from our communities. All of these things force uncomfortable conflict and make it difficult to determine who we are and where we fit.
Mia’s search for riches is as much a search for meaning, a chance to create her own story, a legend of her own that will not be forgotten. But too often the structures of our society leave us with little choice but to meander and flounder through expected courses. Mia is committed to living her final days on her own terms, to pursue the adrenaline rush of raiding tombs and escaping imprisonment.
Clow’s engaging story is propelled into the stratosphere by the breathtaking art of his collaborator and co-creator Pius Bak, whose bright colors and imaginative world are eye-popping and demand full attention.
Slightly Exaggerated takes place in a surreal fantasy world that evokes such disparate influences as Jim Henson, Adventure Time, and Avatar: The Last Airbender. There are flying sea creatures, shattered moons, and monuments to cat-like gods. The coloring, with landscapes painted in fluorescent yellows and teals belies the deadly stakes and emotional peril hinted at in this first issue, which makes the violent climax toward the end of the issue and the heavier themes of legacy feel even more weighty as they reveal themselves.
I cannot overstate the gorgeous nature of Bak’s work, how fun and evocative of a specific mood of wistful fantasy and melancholy. The imagination runs rampant, with lassoing and flying on massive stingrays and pirate ships cutting through the air. Clow’s story is engaging, but it is the art and the sharp visual storytelling that makes this book a truly riveting ride. The playfulness of Bak’s art helps to set the tone, as well, with expressive faces and a great ability to create a sense of scale and discovery. There is as much care on establishing the characters as their is in introducing the world they inhabit, and the scenes of flight in particular evoke moments where Mia is able to find moments of the true freedom she seeks.
The playfulness of the art also helps to make the very adult moments in this comic land even more, and places them in stark contrast with the air of whimsy surrounding Mia and her animal sidekick. Our heroine’s personal issues lead her to such risky behaviors as one night stands with strangers, smoking, and violent and bloody conflicts with the cult she has stolen from. The themes Clow hints at deal with heavy issues of existence that are relatable and difficult to grapple with, and Bak’s art packages it all up through kinetic panel work and excellent characterization.
If I have but one complaint it is that the story feels too short and ends quite abruptly, just as the characters and the story really seem to start building to something. But as a first introduction to this world, its lead, and the internal struggle she faces, Slightly Exaggerated succeeds at selling its concepts, and that abrupt ending makes me want to read the next issue more. It is an infuriatingly engaging story that only suffers from not giving us enough time to learn more about its characters and their motivations.
You can check out Slightly Exaggerated and purchase it on Clow’s To Infinity Studioswebsite, and back the Kickstarter for issue 2 starting on February 8th.
City at War, published between August 1992 and 1993 is remembered fondly among fans of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics as the longest extended story of the Mirage era and its epic finale.
At its core it is a rich and heartbreaking story of fractured relationships, the painful reality of aging, and the burdens of responsibility.
Notably, City at War is the final collaboration between creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. Amidst its bombast and excitement, it is a deeply personal reflection of the souring and fragmenting of their personal and professional relationship.