In the intro for last year’s list, I made a joke about how we were on the verge of descending into “the dystopian nightmare of Trump’s 2016 America.” Much as I wish my prediction had been wrong, it does prove my (self proclaimed) omniscience—which will now be utilized to determine the best pop culture offerings from 2016.
In addition to comics, this year’s list will also feature categories for the best novel, debut novel, short story, and television series. Unfortunately, I didn’t see nearly enough movies this year to feel justified giving out an award…although Rogue One did totally knocked my socks off (and I’m convinced that most of the film’s vocal detractors had already decided they were going to hate it before watching single frame).
As always, these awards are based solely on my opinion, which you can safely assume to be definitive.
In all seriousness, though, please feel free to agree, disagree, or (my favorite) discover/share something new for everyone to enjoy. I have a feeling that 2017 is going to need artists more than we realize.
Best Comic of 2016
Bryan Edward Hill (w) Isaac Goodhart (a)
In what appears to be a budding tradition for this list, last year’s best new series has become this year’s best ongoing.
When writer Bryan Hill took over as the sole writer of the series back in January, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was (and still am) a huge Matt Hawkins fan. I didn’t know much about Hill other than his involvement with one of my new favorite books. Since he took over, however, Hill has quickly become one of my favorite writers.
A setting like Eden—a town where criminals go to disappear from the long arm of the law—is ripe with great storytelling possibilities. Hill uses this premise to its full potential, but where he truly excels is character work.
Every member of the Postal cast is a tapestry of complex and believable humanity that’s surrounded on all sides by the most extraordinary of circumstances. The series is filled with palpable moments of heroism, evil, selfishness, nobility, and terror—usually by the same character. You very well might find yourself rooting for someone who you hated just a few issues before.
As the reader becomes immersed the characters’ psyches, Hill uses their viewpoints to forge a tense and engaging story. Instead of giant exposition dumps, the book’s cast guides us via a perfect blend of insightful first-person narration and fantastic dialogue—which in turn drives an overarching story that gets better every month.
It’s not all just dark and twisted psychology, though. Postal also has a ton of brutal/awesome action sequences. This is where artist Isaac Goodhart truly shines. As great as he is at rendering faces and emotions, Goodhart can draw a shoot out that would make Michael Mann jealous.
Add in Hill’s fantastic writing, a great premise that keeps getting better, and a soon-to-released television show based on the comic, and there’s absolutely no reason Postal shouldn’t be on your pull list in 2017.
Best Novel of 2016
My Best Friend’s Exorcism
I enjoy using Goodreads for the most part, but their algorithm for picking books that they think I will like has often let me down. Badly.
So when My Best Friend’s Exorcism popped up as a suggested read, I was ready to dismiss it. The book’s title made it sound like a horror-comedy, a genre that can be brilliant in the hands of someone who’s good at it (like Max Booth III’s The Nightly Disease, but more often than not turns out to be a literary dumpster fire.
Thankfully, I noticed this book had received high marks from a number of other reviewers—and I was looking for a few more 2016 titles to read before the end of the year, anyway.
After purchasing it, I decided to knock out the first couple chapters before going to bed. Instead, I ended up reading into the wee hours of the next morning, unable to put the book down until I’d reached the last page.
Grady Hendrix has crafted a coming of age tale that is equal parts heartfelt, hilarious, and horrifying. Yes, there are obvious parallels to demonic possession and how the most important people in our lives can change, but My Best Friend’s Exorcism explores those themes with a main character (Abby) so genuine and funny that she feels like a friend…or maybe I’m just lonely. Either way, Hendrix gives her a voice that somehow manages to mirror the reader’s reaction to what she’s seeing while also guiding us through unfamiliar (or unremembered) territory.
And unlike other books in this genre, the horror elements aren’t just an afterthought or side attraction. Hendrix vacillates between drizzling and dousing the narrative in nightmare fuel before lighting things up with an explosive climax.
Another mark in the book’s favor is that it takes place during the 1980’s (when I was a kid) and in my current city of Charleston—and not just a general version of the city, either. I’m talking about landmarks and street names I see every day. Oh, and remember Abby? The book’s main character? SHE LIVES LESS THAN TWO MILES FROM MY FREAKING HOUSE!
Ahem…as I was saying…you don’t have to have lived in Charleston to remember navigating the dangerous waters of teenage friendships and social hierarchies. When you combine those harrowing experiences with old school supernatural horror, you’ll probably decide not to sleep the night after you finish the book, either.
Best New Comic Series of 2016
Kill or Be Killed
Ed Brubaker (w), Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser (a)
If a series having Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips as the creators isn’t enough to get you interested, then try this premise on for size: A guy tries to kill himself and survives. Turns out he was spared by a demon (maybe), who makes it so he now has to kill one person every month or die a tortuously slow death (probably).
That’s a cool premise no matter who’s doing the book. In the hands of Brubaker/Phillips (and some wonderful coloring work by Elizabeth Breitweiser), it’s a masterpiece.
The story takes place from the perspective of Dylan, the accursed (or hallucinating) suicide survivor. He’s flawed, scared, and just noble enough to like most of the time. He’s also selfish enough to occasionally hate. As we watch him transform from a troubled nobody into an unwilling vigilante, Dylan’s observations about his plight—and his life in general—are uncomfortably authentic. The series’ supernatural element (and the question of whether it’s even real) is intriguing, but never overshadows the character’s unsettling personal narrative.
On the art side of things, Phillips and Breitweiser create some truly gorgeous work. Action sequences are rendered with the same beautiful attention to detail as intimate interactions. Any page from any issue of this series could be made into a print worthy of being framed and hung in your living room…except for the stuff where people get shot and killed. Those panels are also great, but they may cause your parole officer to become suspicious.
This creative team has produced some legendary work over the years. Kill or Be Killed might very well end up being their best.
Best New Debut Novel of 2016
The Last One
I don’t like reality television. I’m also tired of dystopian future fiction.
With those two factors in mind, I’m still not sure why I picked up Alexandra Olivia’s story of a reality TV show contestants facing the end of modern civilization. I’m very glad I did, though. Olivia juggles an eclectic cast of characters with Beukesian* skill and aplomb.
*Beukesian (adj): of or relating to the act of a writer creating multiple, distinctly voiced characters with the skill of author/literary badass Lauren Beukes.
She also creates a main character whose non-linear journey is equal parts harrowing and relatable—a very real person in unreal circumstances who handles them a hell of a lot differently (and arguably better) than most of us would.
It’s also fun watching the barriers and tropes of reality TV get smashed to bits, both within the book’s narrative and by the lethal events taking place outside the show’s insular existence. In fact, I actually found myself rooting for certain characters, wondering if others would hook up, debating who was hiding the biggest secret…
Oh crap. I think this book made me like reality television a little. Or at least hate it less. Damn you, Alexandra Olivia (but thank you for writing and publishing such a fantastic first book).
Best Comic Miniseries of 2016
Fred Van Lente (w) and Guiu Vilanova (a)
Writing modern Lovecraft mythos fiction isn’t easy. You have to somehow conjure and maintain cosmic/existential dread while also providing an array of physical threats to satisfy the short attention span of today’s readers.
I’m including myself in that “today’s readers” jab, by the way. I’m a huge fan of a lot of Lovecraft’s work, but there’s also quite a bit of it that bores me to tears, including some of the classic stuff. One of my favorite reviews I ever saw for At the Mountains of Madness simply stated: “Geometry is scary.”
But I digress…Weird Detective, a five issue miniseries by Fred Van Lente and Guiu Vilanova, is an absolute masterclass in how to successfully combine great dialogue and widescreen action with Lovecraftian sensibilities. It’s also a damn good story populated by even better characters. The series also features a good amount of humor, but it’s born of the main character’s alien perspective about humans and their many customs…and a badass cat who steals every scene that he’s in.
Art-wise, Guiu Vilanova vividly brings some Lovecraft’s greatest monsters to life while also drawing some of the most beautiful (and stomach churning) gore you’ll ever see.
There are a few parts of Weird Detective that ending up being confusing or are left unresolved, but that just adds to the Lovecraftian authenticity. And even if you’re not a mythos fan, the book is an excellent supernatural procedural that you’re sure to enjoy.
Best Short Story of 2016
Andy Kaufman Creeping Through the Trees
Laird Barron, Autumn Cthulhu anthology
What starts as a bad year for Alaskan cheerleader Julie Vellum becomes downright terrifying when she decides to hire someone to impersonate her dying father’s favorite celebrity.
Much like Andy Kaufman and his alter ego Tony Clifton, Laird Barron’s tale is bizarre, crass, and hilarious. Add in a healthy dose of horror—along with the great/snarky voice Barron gives his main character—and you’ve got yourself one heck of a good story.
I could say more, but that would be hard to do without spoiling all the weirdness you should discover on your own. The Autumn Cthulhu anthology has some excellent selections in it, but Andy Kaufman Creeping Through the Trees is by far the best.
Best Television Series of 2016
After the glowing review I gave Stranger Things this summer, you’d think that they had this award in the bag. But to my surprise and delight, there was a lot of good television to choose from this year.
HBO proved why everyone needs an HBO Go account (or a friend who will give you their password) with the best season of Game of Thrones, the brilliant miniseries The Night Of, and a fantastic first season for Westworld.
As if the decision wasn’t hard enough already, my favorite Stephen King novel, 11/22/63, was made into a superb miniseries on Hulu.
Netflix also came on strong once again with a slew of great original programming. In the end, however, Stranger Things still remained at the top of the list.
While nostalgia definitely played a big part hooking the viewers in, the program’s original story and wonderful characters made it worth a one-day binge watch along and a few repeat viewings.
From a technical standpoint, the series looks better than most feature films. Special effects were used sparingly, but when they happened, they looked fantastic. The soundtrack was pure 1980’s awesomeness. And the acting…good lord! The adult actors were great, but since have we seen a production with such superb performances from so many young characters? The writing for Stranger Things was top notch, but it was the kids’ performances that made this series stand out in a very strong lineup of television programs.