2017 was a rough year in the news for comics. Even as the movies soared, the books plunged on the sales charts, and major changes were instituted. Amid it all, though, the industry kept putting out some great comics, and these five, in particular, stood out.
Mister Miracle, DC Comics
It makes sense that Scott Free, the Mister Miracle of the title, is suffering from depression. He’s a preternaturally brilliant escape artist not as a performer, but because of a horrifically abusive childhood growing up in a place called “Armaghetto.” He and his wife are refugees from their home. And he’s spent his entire life fighting the very embodiment of evil, Darkseid. In Tom King and Mitch Gerards’ book, Scott wants to escape himself, in any way possible. Well, at first, anyway, as the book opens with his attempted suicide. But it quickly becomes clear Scott has a much more dangerous escape to attempt.
King has shown himself to be a master of using superheroes to explore very real, very personal problems, and here, Scott and the rest of Jack Kirby’s New Gods serve as both metaphor and backdrop to struggling with depression. Gerads, meanwhile, uses a tense twelve-panel layout through much of the books, filling the panels with text and distortions that fill the book with a sense of unease. Scott’s depression (which the book presents with a black panel and the phrase “Darkseid Is”) is never far away, and it’s a testament to how great the book is that we want Scott to escape it, if only for a moment.
Bobby Drake has spent years, decades even, denying the most basic truths about himself. But, thanks to a coming-out tale that’s convoluted (and politically messy) even by comic book standards, Bobby Drake is now an openly gay mutant superhero struggling to figure out what that all means. Sina Grace and a stable of artists have explored that in a series of deft, witty stories. Iceman isn’t afraid to get serious: Bobby’s parents aren’t cartoonishly homophobic, but they are ignorant in some painful, very real ways.
But it’s also fun; one issue has Bobby doing the full James Bond, complete with an attempted seduction, and another has him hanging out with his ex-girlfriend (and boss), Kitty Pryde, as they beat up some villains and talk about their past. Perhaps the book’s lightest touch is that Bobby is at ease with himself. He’s a man who hasn’t had all his problems solved, but his biggest one is out the door, and no matter what happens, it’s clear Bobby is happier for it.
Rebels: These Free And Independent States, Dark Horse
Comic books aren’t usually concerned about American history. And when they do delve into it, it very rarely goes beyond the simplistic high school texts we’re all expected to read. We never hear about George Washington throwing his slave under the bus to escape the consequences of starting a war, or experience the war from any perspective other than the great men who triumphed thanks to American Exceptionalism. Rebels: These Free and Independent States, a sequel to the past miniseries Rebels with Brian Wood and Andrea Mutti returning, starts by following the autistic son of the original series’ Seth Abbott, John. John wants to build ships and becomes a master shipbuilder just in time for the young nation to decide it could really use a Navy. And that’s not good news, in the end, for John Abbott.
The rest of the series is dedicated to both real moments in history, like Washington’s 1753 disaster, and fictional stories based around real events, like the final issue, contrasting the petty bureaucratic squabbling in Philadelphia with the very real blood on the ground in Quebec as two Green Mountain Boys fight to protect wounded men and families from vengeful British soldiers. Mutti, in particular, gets to show off a huge range of skills, not just drawing from historical sources but bringing them to life. Rebels is not a veneration of American history, in the end, but simply an acknowledgment that American history is bloody, sad, and very often ignoble at best.
Secret Weapons, Valiant
Fans will venerate Peter Parker as a “realistic” hero, but Pete got a lot of problems you wish you had quite fast. Oh, the horror of being fought over by two beautiful women as you pursue your photojournalism career and go to college in New York. Poor Pete. And that’s really a function of the medium; comic books are escapism. People want to relate to the hero but also they want to be a tourist as he does cool stuff.
But Eric Heisserer, Raul Allen, and Patricia Martin actually deliver on this idea. For one thing, it’s set in Oklahoma City, which is presented as a fairly nice place but also not the urban center of the universe. This is a team of people with crappy day jobs, term papers, and plenty of problems. If that weren’t enough, they’re failures, people drawn into something vast and world-changing and then chucked aside once it became clear they could only talk to birds or make stuff glow. They’re just getting by, and most of them don’t want to be superheroes and don’t see themselves as heroic. But as they’re drawn together as a team, the book becomes the best kind of hero story; finding heroism inside yourself, not because you were given superpowers.
Moonstruck, Image Comics
On paper Grace Ellis and Shae Beagle are taking on almost too much, here. This isn’t just a romantic comedy, it’s also a supernatural story about twentysomething centaurs and werewolves living and loving, sort of Buffy The Vampire Slayer meets Friends. But it works, in part, because Ellis keeps the comedy front and center and is careful with her metaphors and characterizations. Everybody, in this story, is a mythical creature, but it’s also a metaphor. For example, a major thread is gender identity, as Chet the centaur gets his lower torso stolen by a trickster. It’s a potentially clumsy metaphor, but the book navigates it by exploring how Chet feels, having a piece of his identity stolen, without lecturing. Chet can still do his job, be with his friends, and live his life, but he’s been diminished. A part of him is, literally, missing and the book lets that unfold naturally.
Beagle’s cloud-like, welcoming work helps set the stage. Beagle’s cartooning gives the book a sense of warmth and friendliness that draws you in. It’s an unlikely book, on the page, but one of 2017’s best romantic comedies in comics, and proof we need more of them.
Have a favorite book of 2017? Let us know in the comments!