Before we descend into the dystopian nightmare of Trump’s 2016 America, let’s take a look at some of the best that pop culture had to offer this past year. While my fellow AiPT brethren will be making a longer list focused exclusively on comics, this one will highlight a small number of titles along with categories for best novel, debut novel, short story, movie, and television series.
It’s also solely based on my opinion, but when have I ever let you people down?
As always, feel free to agree, disagree, or–my favorite–discover something new to enjoy.
Best Comic of 2015
Josh Williamson (w) Mike Henderson (a)
When the staff at Captain’s Comics & Toys recommended I give the first Nailbiter trade a shot, I had no idea I was buying the comic series I’d always wanted. Since that fateful day, I’ve written multiple reviews expressing my adoration for this wonderfully twisted title.
The premise—a small town in Oregon known as ‘The Birthplace of Serial Killers’—is one that begs for a fascinating story. Writer Josh Williamson completely delivers, creating a rich and intriguing mythology while striking a perfect balance between answering questions and building new mysteries. More importantly, he creates characters that crawl inside your head and refuse to leave. There are clear good and bad guys, but that line is blurred both often and effectively.
Artist Mike Henderson’s ability to switch from beauty to gore is so good it’s cruel—a comic isn’t supposed to have jump scares. He also does a superb job with facial expressions, which is no small feat when the cast is filled with damaged and mentally unstable characters on both sides. Colorist Adam Guzowski also deserves a shout out for making the book look so good.
But maybe the best thing about Nailbiter is how it takes the tired tropes of serial killer fiction and twists them into delicious story pretzels…and that bit of hyperbole is a sign that I’ve made my point and should probably stop.
This book is amazing. Read it.
Best Novel of 2015
Much like last year, this category presented one of my most difficult decisions. That’s going to be true for any year Stephen King publishes a new book, especially one as good as Finders Keepers. But then there was Paul Tremblay’s brilliant and terrifying Head Full of Ghost…Delilah Dawson’s beautifully tragic Hit…Chuck Wendig’s masterful techno thriller, Zeroes…and plenty more if my editors would let me go on.
So it’s fitting that the best novel I read in 2015 is titled The Unnoticeables, especially since it seemed to fly under a lot of people’s radars. The book starts with someone being shot in the face by an angel and never lets up. The reader is bounced back and forth from two wildly different perspectives: Kaitlyn, a Hollywood stuntwoman in 2015 Los Angeles, and Carey, a punk rock hooligan in 1977 New York. Both are fighting a battle against supernatural forces that threaten to unravel the world around them, leading to an insane climax in which both characters face down their literal and figurative demons.
Author Robert Brockway does a ton of good stuff here, starting with his character work. Kaitlyn and Carrey couldn’t be more different. Brockway’s ability to change voice and perspective is positively Beukesian.*
*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.
Since the 1977 and 2015 stories eventually link up, I figured I’d be slogging through the past sections to get to the present. Brockway was having none of that. He made me care about the stories and characters from both timelines so much that the cliffhanger endings to every chapter made me want to scream…until I turned the page and became intoxicated by the narrative all over again.
The Unnoticeables also utilizes common metaphors—like how Hollywood chews people up and spits them out—with terrifying results. The big ideas/themes (and the horror they entail) are driven by fantastic dialogue along with some breathtaking action sequences. No joke: there’s a motorcycle chase in the book’s third act that makes the freeway scenes from The Matrix: Reloaded look like a tricycle derby.
But all comparisons aside, one thing Brockway does better than most is humor. His articles on Cracked.com are funny, but not like this. Making things funny while supernatural forces attempt to rip people apart or take them over—while also maintaining a fearful tone and dramatic tension—ain’t easy. But The Unnoticeables could go from making me sweat to cackling like a brain damaged hyena—not LQTM (laughing quietly to myself), but actually LOL—and back without missing a beat.
This book will haunt your dreams, in a good way. Mostly. I’m still wary of random people I interact with, especially if I can’t recall what they looked like. But I won’t be forgetting this wonderful gem of a book any time soon.
Best New Comic Series of 2015
Matt Hawkins (w) Bryan Hill (w) Isaac Goodhart (a)
A town that acts as a haven for fugitives has its first murder in 25 years.
That premise alone makes Postal worth checking out. But Matt Hawkins and Bryan Hill weren’t content stopping there. Month after month, they continue to mold the series’ mythology and characters into an incredible story. They don’t just slap masks on everybody and hint at something involving the occult (although that ground does get covered a bit).
The interactions and reactions people would experience in town full criminals should explode with complex emotions and problems…and Postal delivers on that potential 100%.
Artist Isaac Goodhart contrasts clean, beautiful character designs with a setting that is constantly deluged with chaos and a decent amount of blood. He also does a great job portraying the emotions and reactions of the book’s main character, Mark, who has Asperger syndrome. As someone who has worked with a lot of kids who have AS, it’s great to see a creative team portray it so accurately. Mark isn’t an idiot savant or a sociopath. He’s a kind-hearted, intelligent person who sees things from a perspective devoid of the unspoken social contracts most folks don’t even think about. This may put him at a disadvantage when he’s trying to talk to a girl, but it helps him work through a murder investigation (and other various side projects) with enviable clarity.
Hard sell: Imagine if Twin Peaks was a comic book, but without all the boring stuff involving the town’s finances…and the writers weren’t just making things up as they went along. If you didn’t read Postal in 2015, go pick up the first two trades, add the singles to your pull list, and thank me later…except for all the mail puns I make in my reviews. Even I hate myself for those.
Best New Debut Novel of 2015
A person discovering they can shape reality via writing isn’t a terribly original premise. Word Processor of the Gods, Printer’s Devil, Typewriter in the Sky, and many other stories have been written about molding existence via the power of the one’s pen/keyboard. Andrea Phillips’ decision to facilitate the act via a Wikipedia-like web service is wickedly clever, but her debut novel still looked to be treading some well-worn ground.
Phillips also decided to write the whole thing in first person, which from a narrative perspective is like tying a hand behind your back. Trust me, I know.
My own writing failures aside, some of my very favorite authors have stumbled attempting to write prose from the narrator’s point of view. Perspectives become narrowed, action can feel stilted, and don’t even get me started on the tense issues. One of the few people who can do it effortlessly is Stephen King…and apparently Andrea Phillips, who uses it like a seasoned pro to craft Revision.
The voice of Mia, the story’s central figure, flows perfectly. It helps that Phillips also plopped her down into such a great and engrossing story. Instead of delving into some type existential crisis over omnipotent power, Phillips uses the Wikipedia angle to give us a pulse pounding techno-thriller.
Yes, a techno-thriller.
Unlike the other stories I mentioned, Phillips sets up consistent (and brilliant) parameters for the revisions. The phenomenon relies on a lot of junk science (duh, it kind of has to), but it’s fascinating junk science. These limitations are also utilized to ratchet up the story’s tension, making what could have been a predictable tale into something you won’t be able to put down.
Combine that with a fantastic supporting cast that never feels thin despite only seeing them from Mia’s perspective, and you’ve got one heck of a debut novel. Or just one heck of a novel, period. Whatever Phillips writes next, she’s guaranteed to have me as a reader.
Best Comic Miniseries of 2015
Ash Maczko (w) Ashley Witter (a)
Posted below is some of Ashley Witter’s artwork from Squarriors. Every page is that beautiful, by the way. Not just the covers. Not just the splash pages. EVERY. SINGLE. PAGE.
If you don’t think that’s some of the best comic artwork produced this decade, then you’re wrong (or afflicted with rabies). Witter has been publishing/creating for a while, but Squarriors will likely mark the beginning of her rise as one of the best new artists in the industry.
The series could have stopped here and been worth the cover price, but writer Ash Maczko weaves a tale combining tribal warfare violence with House of Cards-style politics. There’s an overarching mystery and mythology behind it all, but Maczko uses this as a canvas to create a cast of distinct and charismatic characters. The various rodents, varmints, and felines prove to be incredibly human, both in their nobility and wickedness.
Squirrels might not give you rabies, but they will give you hell once the world is theirs. Read and enjoy this wonderful series while you still can.
Best Short Story of 2015
Joshua Reynolds, from Apotheosis
I read a lot of short stories. I also submit a lot of short stories to various publications. So when writing colleague/internet friend Jason Andrew rejected me TWICE for this anthology—which featured tales of survival in a world after Lovecraft’s old gods return—I was desperately curious to read it.
Of course, my interest was purely about reading some good stories…and maybe to see what type of stories made it in…with no intention at all to look for stories I judged to be poor.
If I had been that petty, however, then reading Apotheosis from Simian Publishing would have been a disappointing experience. The anthology is filled with fantastic stories, most of which made me sigh and express some variation of “Yeah…I’m still not there yet.”
It was hard to pick a favorite, but the one that continues to haunt me the most is Joshua Reynold’s Eliza. The escape story is thrilling enough on its own, but its true brilliance resides in the world building. Reynolds makes fantastic use of the Tindalos hounds, a criminally underutilized aspect of Lovecraft’s mythos. His words evoked images of them and the world they inhabited that still bounces through my daydreams. The story’s main character also benefits from Reynolds’ superb descriptions, becoming equal parts badass and tragic.
Much as I loved Eliza, Apotheosis is chock full of great tales. (Peter Rawlik’s The Pestilence of Pandora Peaslee is another standout). If you like mythos fiction, or just want some good post-apocalyptic stories that don’t have to always involve zombies, this book is definitely worth your coin and time.
Best Movie of 2015
Yes, Star Wars: The Force Awakens was great.
I liked this one better, though.
I really shouldn’t be doing movie reviews, anyway. These two films made up a good percentage of my time in movie theaters this year.
Best Television Series of 2015
This one was close. I thought Jessica Jones was going to beat it until the last couple episodes went off the rails a bit. Then I binged-watched Ash vs. The Evil Dead a few days ago and had to debate my decision all over again.
And before that, there was The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, excellent seasons of Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, another strong showing from Game of Thrones…
…hey wait a second. These are all premium channel and Netflix shows…and I STILL haven’t gotten to all of them. I swear, if it weren’t for live sports and The Walking Dead, I’d have no reason to keep overpaying for cable.
I know this isn’t a shocking revelation to most of you, but I thought I’d share/vent.
Anyway, I already unpacked the many reasons I loved Daredevil in my review of the first season. The cast and high production values are fantastic, but that doesn’t guarantee anything (looking at you, Fantastic Four reboot). Daredevil smartly utilizes the serial episode format to show the character evolve while also careful building a cool mythology.
Also, there are cool scenes in it like this:
Thanks for reading. Feel free to let me know what I missed in comments; I’d love to read/watch it!
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