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Hugh Likes Comics: Top 5 of 2020

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This year was a rough one for Comics. Covid-19 forced a distribution shutdown, with ramification that were felt throughout the industry. But there were still a plethora of great books that came out this year, and while I don’t have enough space to expound on all the outstanding books I read this year, here are five of my favorites, in alphabetical order. Spoilers abound below!

Empyre
Written by Al Ewing and Dan Slott
Drawn by Valerio Schiti
Colored by Marte Gracia
Lettered by VC’s Joe Caramanga
Published by Marvel Comics

At first glance, Empyre is just another Marvel Comics alien invasion story. The Earth is pushed to the brink of peril, and then saved at the last minute by Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, etc. etc. But look past the surface, and there is so much more going on.Empyre concludes with a same-sex royal wedding in space, with all the Avengers and Fantastic Four as guests of honor. It reaches to the roots of Marvel Universe history, both in-story and in publication, and embraces that past while stepping into the future. The status quo for superhero comics is typically dark, putting the heroes on a never-ending back foot, with another crisis just around the corner. The end of this book does acknowledge that nothing good lasts forever. But today, the Kree / Skrull War is over, and Comics Are For Everyone. Make Mine Marvel!

Far Sector
Written by N. K. Jemisin
Drawn and Colored by Jamal Campbell
Lettered by Deron Bennett
Published by DC Comic Young Animal

This rare gem of a book takes place in a distant corner of the DC Universe, far from the crises of the regular continuity, and also, I suspect, from editorial interference. Given their own canvas to work with, Jemisin and Campbell have built a beautiful, wondrous and troubling world in The City Enduring, a sparkling artificial super-metropolis where three distinct alien cultures live in apparent harmony, until Green Lantern Jo Mullein is called upon to solve their first murder in centuries, and uncovers a chilling web of oppression and dirty politics whose exposure may tear a civilization apart.Jemisin’s writing on this book is consistently amazing. It’s difficult to believe this is her first jump from prose to comics. Propelled by Campbell’s dazzling art, this ongoing title is not to be missed.

Heist
Written by Paul Tobin
Drawn by Arjuna Susini
Colored by Vittorio Astone
Lettered by Saida Temofonte
Published by Vault Comics

Gritty sci-fi crime dramas seems to be my jam this year, and Heist was another great one. After being set up by an evil executive and thrown in jail, Glaine Breld is out for revenge. There’s just two problems. One, the Dignity Corporation is so powerful it is completely untouchable. And two, everyone on the entire planet wants him dead. No big deal, because he’s got a plan to set everything right. All he has to do is get a crew together and steal the whole planet.
Full of twist, dark humor, and the blackest of cyberpunk high concepts, Heist is a hell of a ride.

The Ludocrats
Written by Kieron Gillen and Jim Rossignol
Drawn by Jeff Stokely
Colored by Tamra Bonvillain
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics

This book is weird, and also weirdly horny, for the sake of weird. Delightful and strange, Gillen and Rossignol don’t merely break the fourth wall, but stomp up and down and pee on it for good measure. Stokely’s art is intricate and full of clever sight gags, and the nonsensical plot, which follows a pair of Aristocrats on the case to stop the Hyper-pope from turning the world boring, is a mad-cap romp. This comic is chock-full full of axe-wielding maniacs, nefarious betrayers, and cannibalistic gastronauts, and those are the good guys! The funniest book I read this year!

Slaughterhouse-Five
Adapted from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel by Ryan North
Art by Albert Monteys
Published by Archaia
Faithfully based on Kurt Vonnegut’s novel of the same name, North and Monteys bring us along on Billy Pilgrim’s unstuck journey through time, from his capture in World War II and the battle of Dresden to his abduction to the alien planet Tralfamador and back. North’s script does justice to the story, capturing all the comedy and tragedy it evokes. Montey’s art is cartoonish and subtly colored, and is evocative and resonant. I knew going in this would be a book that I would either love or hate, and I’m glad it pulled off so ambitious an adaptation.

Hugh Likes Comics: The Ludocrats

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The Ludocrats #1
Written by Keiron Gillen and Jim Rossignol
Drawn by Jeff Stokely
Colored by Tamra Bonvillain
Lettered by Clayton Cowles

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The Skinny: Weird for weirdness’s sake.

The Ludocrats #1 was delayed for nearly two months due to Diamond Distrobution’s shutdown over Covid-19, and I still wasn’t ready for it. The book reimagines the madness commonly found in aristocracy not as the unfortunate products of inbreeding and a system of hereditary wealth and power coupled with the intrigues that go with such, but as a purposeful system of government. And it goes all in with the concept.
The book opens with an epigraph: “We tried to imagine a better world. We failed. Instead, we did this.” Followed by one of the two main characters, Baron Otto Von Subertan, that he isn’t technically naked if he’s covered in blood. The other, Professor Hades Zero-K, remarks that by showing up to another important function sky-clad, he’s becoming predictable. And the book goes on from there without letting up its pace or frantic energy.
The book is helped enormously by Jeff Stokely’s art, colored by Tamra Bonvillain. The pages are crammed full of silly, wonderful, blink-and-you-miss them gags, such as a wedding attended by such diverse guests as a robot reading a newspaper and a sack of wheat, which the backmater assures the reader is both sentient and ‘the most emotionally intellegent being in the known universe.’
The pages reward careful study, but don’t detract from the manic pace of Gillen and Rossignol’s delightful script. This is a deeply weird comic, but it presents itself exactly as it is, without a hint of irony or self-consciousness. Deadpool wishes it could be this over-the-top.
The Ludocrats #1 is a strange and wonderful gem, and I’m not precisely sure what’s happening, but I can’t wait for the next issue. You can find it at your local comics shop. Call and see what their safe pickup options are. Or, enjoy digitally via Comixology!

Hugh Likes Comics: Top 5 of 2019

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Die

Die
Written by Kieron Gillen
Drawn by Stephanie Hans
Published by Image Comics

Gillen’s story of a group of adults returning to the magical world they escaped as teenagers is a mix of It and the ’80’s Dungeons and Dragons Saturday morning cartoon. Hans brings a unique, painterly style that makes the world feel as strange for us on the readers. The comic itself is a deep, emotional examination of trauma and the rules we live and play by. But as the characters move across the fantasy world, Gillen repeatedly pulls off the trick of exposing the bleeding heart of what Fantasy is and why we make it.

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Fairlady
Written by Brian Schirmer
Drawn by Claudia Balboni, Shari Chankhamma, and Marissa Louise
Published by Image Comics

An intriguing mix of mystery and fantasy, Fairlady mixes a modern sensibility with pulp stylings to great effect. A sort of fantasy private eye, Jenner Faulds solves mysteries, bickers with her co-worker at her day job protecting an absent wizard’s tower, and gets bailed out of trouble by her seven-foot tall cat-man bestie. Each issue is a single mystery, and they’re all clever and interesting. Unfortunately, the book was canceled after issue 5, but the trade is available, and this isn’t a book to let pass you by.

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House of X / Powers of X
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Drawn by Pepe Larraz and R. B. Silva
Published by Marvel Comics

House of X and Powers of X were a big gamble, and it’s safe to say at this point that it’s paid off. After years of protecting a world that hates and fears them, the X-Men are trying something new, and approaching their enemies as a new force. The idea of a mutant nation has been tried and failed in the Marvel Universe, but this one has a lot of new, big ideas going for it. I can’t wait to see what Hickman and crew get up to next.

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Invisible Kingdom
Written by G. Willow Wilson
Drawn by Christian Ward
Published by Berger Books

The incisive writing of G. Willow Wilson (Ms. Marvel, Air) and the art of Christian Ward (Black Bolt, ODY-C)is a heady mix. And the intertwined story of a cargo ship captain working for a monopolistic space corporation and an acolyte in a religious order with dark secrets is a little bit Alien and a little bit Star Wars in all the best ways.

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Lois Lane / Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen (Tie)

Lois Lane
Written by Greg Rucka
Drawn by Mike Perkins
Published by DC Comics

Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen
Written by Matt Fraction
Drawn by Steve Lieber and Nathan Fairbairn
Published by DC Comics

I couldn’t pick between these two standout books, both of which came out around the same time, but are only slightly connected. Both are deep studies of neglected characters that are very different in tone and style from D.C.’s usual fare.
Lois Lane is a hard-boiled story about the world’s greatest investigative reporter as she delves into a conspiracy that cost one of her colleagues her life, with help from Renee Montoya, AKA The Question. It plays the Journalist as superhero part to the hilt, and it is something worth cheering for.
Jimmy Olsen is a more comical and surreal update of the silver age teen sidekick, as he goes into hiding after thinking Lex Luthor put out a hit on him. But this is also the comic where Jimmy Olsen finds himself in a prank war with Batman. Fraction is writing at the height of his Hawkguy powers here, and it’s strange, fascinating, and hilarious.

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Coffin Bound
Written by Dan Watters
Drawn by DaNi
Colored by Brad Simpson
Lettered by Aditya Bidkar
Published by Image Comics

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The Skinny: This tale of Action and Philosophy feels like how you remember 90’s Vertigo Comics.

Izzy Tyburn isn’t just going to die. She’s going to unlive. Living in a wasteland of philosophy and barbed wire, she has become the target of the unstoppable assassin known as The Eartheater. But rather than take the fight to the killer, she’s going to destroy her own existence first.
Coffin Bound is a comic about the ways we face or avoid entropy. It is intensely philosophical, and has a 90’s Vertigo vibe, which is not surprising, considering his other recent work is the relaunched Lucifer book from last year. The story features a figure whose head is a vulture skeleton, a strip club where the dancers don’t stop at their clothes, and an assassin who refers to himself, at length, as a ‘psychopomp.’ It is quite good, but it leans much more towards philosophers than action.
DaNi’s art also feels very reminiscent of 90’s Vertigo. There’s a particular panel of her lighting a cigarette which feels straight out of Sandman. I had a great sense of nostalgia for the period in reading the book, whether that was planned or not.
Coffin Bound is the start of a strange and Existential road trip that will feel almost nostalgic to longtime Vertigo Comics fans. You can buy the first issue from your local comics shop, or get it digitally from Comixology.

Hugh Likes Comics: Crowded

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Crowded Vol 1: Soft Apocalypse
Written by Christopher Sebela
Drawn by Ro Stein and Ted Brandt
Colored by Triona Farrell
Published by Image Comics

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The Skinny: A contract bodyguard has her work cut out for her protecting her latest client from crowdfunded assassins.

In a future where anything can be crowd funded, and the gig economy has taken over, even assassinations can be crowdfunded. But when wild girl Charlie’s finds herself with a million-dollar bounty on her head, her only hope may lie in bodyguard for hire Vita. If they don’t kill each other, anyway.
Equal parts action movie, dystopian thriller, and buddy comedy, Crowded is a wild ride.But the character work is what really sets the writing apart. Sebela delivers a lot of depth to these characters with very simple strokes. He takes stock tropes like the world-weary bodyguard and transforms them into deep, complex characters that you come to care about. Even the villain of the arc, slimy livestereaming assassin Trotter, is if not sympathetic, complicated in his motivations.
Stein’s art, with inking by Brandt, is expressive, bold and easy to follow. Farrell’s colors are a mix of glaring digital neons and the grays and browns of urban decay. The art really sells the story, which walks a fine line between goofy action and cyberpunk horror.
Crowded juxtaposes over the top action sequences with the very real cyberpunk horrors of a rising gig economy, omnipresent digital surveillance, and collapsing American infrastructure. As ridiculous as it all seems, it is a frighteningly plausible near future.
Crowded: Soft Apocalypse collects the first six issues of the comic, and is available from Comixology, the usual digital retailers, or your local comics shop.
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Hugh Likes Comics: Ascender

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Ascender #1
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Dustin Nguyen
Lettered by Steve Wands
Published by image

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The Skinny: In a galaxy ruled by a despotic witch, a young girl dreams of freedom.

Even though I’ve never read Descender, the long-running science fiction series to which this book serves as a sequel, I’m still intrigued by the premise. In a galaxy where technology is outlawed, the universe is under the control of a powerful witch. Raised in isolation by her father, a girl
Most of the first issue of Lemire and Nguyen’s Ascender is table-setting. As someone coming in fresh, I was captivated by the world building, with hints of a growing rebellion and a compelling space fantasy premise. We spend most of the episode with the authoritarian Mother and her cronies and henchmen as she plots to keep her iron grip on the universe in the face of a mysterious opposition. The mystery here is strong enough to make up for the lack of movement in the plot, and we get a good look at how bad life is under this regime.
Nguyen’s art is the real star of the show, though. Everything is done in a beautiful watercolor style. it’s more intimate and graceful than your average story about space magic, and it lends something unique and resonant to the book. It contrasts the brutality of the regime by painting it in soft blues and grays. Each page has something surprising and gorgeous in the midst of horror.
Much like Star Wars, Ascender #1 starts at the lowest point of an ongoing story, but invites the audience in on a new adventure to save the galaxy from the forces of darkness. I’m 100% on board. You can find it in floppies at your local comics shop, or digitally from Comixology.
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Hugh Likes Comics: Fairlady

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Fairlady #1
Written by Brian Schirmer
Drawn by Claudia Balboni
Colored by Marissa Louise
Lettered by David Bowman
Published by Image Comics

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The Skinny: A post-war pulp genre mashup that goes off like a well executed heist spell.

In the Harshlands, a war has come to an end. With the standing army disbanded, many soldiers became private investigators called ‘Freemen.’ Jenner Faulds works as the Feld’s one and only Fairlady, taking the cases nobody else will. When she is hired to find a missing woman,
Fairlady #1 is the first issue in a new series that combines pulp genres in compelling and inventive ways. Schimer leans in to pulp fantasy and detective tropes by teasing hints of a conflict as equally devastating as the two World Wars, and giving us hard-boiled character in fantasy clothing. He’s also unafraid to embrace earlier pulp traditions of telling short stories. The first issue is one complete case, and this seems to be the format going forward. In an industry that has embraced the trade collection so fully, it’s a nice change of pace.
Schimer’s writing has a nice mix of stock pulp noir and fantasy tropes at work, and he does a good job telling a compact noir tale that leaves a good impression in the space it has. The story feels complete, but I’m still left wanting to know more about Jenner and the other characters.
Claudia Balboni’s art is outstanding. In particular, her inventive architecture brings something unique to the book right up front. From a city built in the remains of a half-buried giant golem to a village of shell-like spiraling seaside buildings, the designs are unique and evocative. Marissa Louise’s colors are a bit brighter than I’d expect for this kind of story, but they provide a good contrast.
Fairlady #1 is an intriguing introduction to a new series. You can pick it up in print at your local comics shop, or digitally through Comixology.

Hugh Likes Comics: Die

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Die #1
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Stephanie Hans
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image

Die

The Skinny: Less “Dungeons and Dragons” and more “It.”

In 1991, Dominic and his friends played a game, and then disappeared. In 1993, they returned, unable to tell a soul where they had been or what they were doing. And one of them, Dominic’s best friend and GM Solomon, never returned at all. Twenty-five years after that, Dominic receives a strange and chilling birthday present: A crystalline 20-sided die. The game isn’t over.
Writer Kieron Gillen’s first creator-owned project since The Wicked + The Divine tackles nostalgia, trauma, and the scars left by fantastical childhood journeys on adults. This isn’t untrodden ground, of course. It has been approached in all sorts of ways, from the Robin Williams movie “Hook” to Stephen King’s It. This tale hews more closely to the latter, as you might expect. Gillen makes things more interesting by incorporating another element: Dungeons and Dragons. His epigraph at the end of the comic makes the reference more explicit: The unfinished 80’s cartoon which transported six real-world kids to the roleplaying fantasy land. He’s also tapping into the 80’s “satanic panic” surrounding the game, with six kids who were literally swallowed and chewed up by the game. It’s an interesting twist on the concept, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes.
Hans’s art is gorgeous, and impliments some cool tricks with light. The is dull, dark, and full of shadows. Not to spoil things, but this is reversed in a double-page spread late in the issue to great effect. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the outstanding logo design from Rian Hughes, which takes a D-20 and spreads it flat into a maze of triangular segments. Hans takes it and pulls off a neat trick on the cover, interposing the design for a character and her in-game persona.
Die #1 is an intriguing new fantasy horror series, and I can’t wait to see where it goes next. You can find it at Your Local Comic Shop or digitally from Comixology.

Hugh Likes Comics: Bitter Root

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Bitter Root #1
Created by David F. Walker, Chuck Brown, and Sanford Greene
Color Artists: Rico Renzi and Sanford Greene
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image

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The Skinny: Dieselpunk Monster Hunting in the Harlem Renaissance

Set in 1920’s Harlem, Bitter Root is the story of the Sangerye family, monster hunters who protect humanity from terrifying monsters called “Jinoo.” But they work in secret, and not without cost. As the older generation passes, the younger members of the family are called upon to step up, but trainee Cullen struggles, and Blink chafes at her role doing “women’s work.” But with the forces of darkness closing in around them, can they afford family tension?
Following their run on Power Man and Iron Fist in 2016, Walker and Greene are back, along with co-writer Chuck Brown, and they are killing it.
Pairing the monster hunting aesthetic with the Harlem Renaissance is a bold and brilliant move from this team. Greene’s designs and costuming are great, full of big chunky machines and a variety of period fashion that looks great on these characters. The night-time coloring is moody and atmospheric, and the period setting reminds the reader that we don’t have to visit fictional countries to see black excellence in comics.
Period punk sub-genres too often get caught up in the pomp of Empire and the glitz of Roaring Twenties, and forego the punk responsibilities for pulpier trappings. Bitter Root does an excellent job of bringing the shine and the shadow of the times to the front. I can’t wait to see where this series goes next. You can find it at Your Local Comics Shop or digitally via Comixology!

 

Hugh Likes Comics: Man-eaters

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Man-eaters #1
Written by Chelsea Cain
Drawn by Kate Niemczyk
Colored by Rachelle Rosenberg
Lettered by Joe Carmagna
Published by Image

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The Skinny: A mutated parasite turns adolescent girls into were-panthers in this metafictional horror comic.

Not very many horror comics have sparkly, pink covers. But “Man-eaters,” is something special. From the creative team whose work on “Mockingbird” for Marvel drew the ire of what became comicsgate, and also became a best-seller in trade, this metafictional horror story is doing a lot of waving to their haters. And it is glorious.
Thanks to a mutation in toxoplasmosis, adolescent girls are subject to a terrifying transformation during their period. Maude, daughter of a single homicide detective, is left on her own while he investigates a grisly killing. But the crime scene indicates a large cat attack. And repaying anything else, would spoil the issue.
There is something to be applauded in not just facing controversy, but diving towards it with arms outstretched. When Cain was hounded from social media for the galling crime of having her polymath/spy/superheorine Mockingbird wear a t-shirt referring to herself as ‘feminist,’ she could have done the safe thing and wrote charming and inoffensive stories. Instead, she and Mockingbird artist Kate Niemczyk are doing a horror comic about menstruation, and the panels are filled with easter eggs, references, and downright middle fingers to their haters. This is a book that no one could accuse of being voiceless.
And the tone is so striking. Maude is a delightful, energetic twelve-year-old who comes through brilliantly on the page. She is a spotlight in a very dark world, which is constantly pushing at the corners. This is a horror book that doesn’t look like one at first glance. It is bubbly and unsettling in equal measure, and it works so well.
A lot of this first issue is world building, so we only have a few short scenes and character introductions, but Image seems to be banking on “Man-eaters as the next “Bitch Planet,” and it certainly has a strong start. I’m already looking forward to the next issue.
This is a book people will be talking about, and you can pick one up at your local comic shop, or get a digital copy from Comixolgy.

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