The Best of the Year 2006
Yes, it is that time, as nights grow long, days grow short and icicles grow here in the Blogcave, to have a look at some of the releases from the last twelve months who which tickled our fancies. Rather than just list some of my highlights of 2006 I decided to ask some friends if they would share some of their favourite comics, books, movies and TV of the last year with us, so say hello to John Freeman, stalwart of British comics and master of the Down The Tubes comics site, novelists James Lovegrove (a major comics fan who has also contributed to the blog and FPI magazine), Brian Ruckley (who we chatted with about his debut Winterbirth back in September), George Walkley of top UK SF&F publisher Orbit Books (and writer of many an online review), Mike Carey, comics genius and novelist (via the aforementioned Orbit Books), novelist and now comics writer Mark Chadbourn, Kenny Penman and myself.
George Walkley; George is an SF&F guru at top publisher Orbit Books (home to Iain M Banks, Charlie Stross and Mike Carey among many others) as well as being a lifelong fan in his own right and the writer of many a book and graphic novel review over the years. His choices for 2006 are:
Any of the Queen and Country trades (I’m not just being obsessive – it is an unmissable series that I have been recommending to everyone I know)
(George has deliberately avoided selecting any books he has been involved in publishing, which I think is very commendable and even handed – Joe)
The Forever War, Joe Haldeman (as re-released in Gollancz’s Top 10 SF Books this year)
Three Days to Never, Tim Powers
Old Man’s War, John Scalzi
The State Within
The West Wing
(since my daughter was born I’ve hardly been to the cinema so my choices are all things I’ve seen on DVD and thus behind the times)
John Freeman: John is a solid supporter of the British comics community, running the Down The Tubes website as well as being involved in a number of publications and co-creating the strip The Really Heavy Greatcoat (as seen in Comics International). A Really Heavy Greatcoat collection is still on the cards for 2007, and he’s “working on a successor to The Eagle Flies Again after everyone told me it was a shame it was gone (so why do I have 15 copies unsold. Eh? Eh!).” You can purchase The Eagle Flies Again via DTT. John’s choices are:
Has to be The Norm by Michael Jantze. His near-daily online strip (subscriber only) delivered straight to my mail box has made me laugh, cry and nod my head in agreement. I’m eagerly awaiting the collected edition, due for publication soon in colour.
That’s closely followed by Beaver and Steve, another funny online strip. We’ve only just seen the return of a comics shop to Lancaster after years in the wilderness, so I haven’t had chance to read any US titles on a regular basis, but not much appeals these days.
Beaver and Steve. If FPI isn’t stocking it, they should be (thanks for the suggestion – talking to him about it now – Joe).
The Book of Lost Things by John Connelly. I saw this while en route to Turkey in the airport but didn’t read it until I got back to Blighty. Shades of Narnia in this adult fairy tale, but plenty of humour along the way. Closely followed by several Clifford Simak I found in the hotel bar in Turkey which I hadn’t read before, particularly Heritage of Stars.
Although it’s got a little preachy this season, Spooks remains at the top of my viewing list, along with Heroes and The Clangers. (At nine o’clock some nights, even with Sky, it’s the best thing on TV).
Oh, all right, Doctor Who…
Getting to the cinema seems to get harder – I’ve grown increasingly irritated by people with mobile phones texting friends while the film’s running, and other annoyances that make cinema-going pretty miserable. I recently got to see Enkil Bilal’s “Immortal” on DVD, which got a UK release earlier in the year: a strange blend of the computer and human that works a lot better than Final Fantasy did, although story-wise it was a little rough at the edges. In terms of sheer inventiveness and experimentation with CGI it’s one that’s well worth checking out, especially as it includes a fascinating behind the scenes documentary.
And for reasons best known to John he really wants everyone to know about Monkey News Network.
Brian Ruckley; following the tried and tested route of short stories Brian published his first full-length novel this autumn, Winterbirth. The first part of the Godless World series it was one of my book picks on the podcast a few months back and I am looking forward eagerly to the second part; Brian was interviewed here on the blog back in September and you can check his official site for regular updates and information. His choices are:
I read loads of comics this year, but it was all old stuff from the 80s and early 90s encountered while I was sorting out my cupboards, so doesn’t really count (but honestly, Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run: just brilliant, even 20 years on).
Instead, since we exist in this disintermediated 21st century of transitory celebrity and self-perpetuating phenomena, how about my favourite YouTube video of 2006: OK GO – Here It Goes Again.
Well, I only read one graphic novel for the first time in 2006, and it was first published way back in 2003, so it’s a big stretch to include it here, but it was good, so … Notes from a Defeatist by Joe Sacco: an anthology from the creator of Palestine. A heady mix of autobiography, travel, rude stuff and hard-edged comedy.
The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson: yes, it wasn’t first published in 2006, but this is three huuuuge novels, and I’m a bit behind schedule – I’m only just drawing near to the end of the saga now. Immersive, hypnotic fiction that just kind of overwhelms you with the sheer accumulation of detail and invention.
The People’s Act of Love by James Meek: came out in paperback this year. Notionally mainstream historical fiction, it has a rich, vaguely hallucinatory, tone that makes it feel a bit like magic realism or semi-fantasy. Cannibals, castrates, religious sects, revolutionaries and escaped convicts in Siberia during the Russian Civil War. Odd. But very good.
The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch: another mainstream book with faint (very faint, to be honest) overtones of the not-so-mainstream. Simple and short but potent – a gentle evocation of the magic and mystery of both childhood and the sea.
Planet Earth: sure, it’s largely content-free eye candy, but what eye candy! By turns beautiful, fascinating and moving. However much SF you watched or read in 2006, I reckon it was Planet Earth that carried the biggest Sense of Wonder cargo this year. The one and only type of telly that us Brits still do better than anyone else.
West Wing: I can’t claim to have been a loyal fan of this throughout its run – there have been ups and downs in quality over the years. The last series was a bit patchy, but the very final episode was, for me, pitch-perfect. Top quality TV.
The Girl in the Fireplace (Dr. Who): one of the very, very few episodes of Dr. Who that really captures something of the bittersweet otherness of the Doctor and his life. If nothing else, it had a texture and intelligence that overshadows most other Dr. Who episodes (and every single episode of Torchwood so far, but that belongs in a whole other one of my lists).
Syriana: not without its shortcomings, but it packs quite a punch and I remember it a lot more vividly than most films I’ve seen in the last 12 months. The present day as corporate dystopia, and George Clooney demonstrating that he’s an excellent actor when he puts his mind to it.
The Prestige: loved the book, and the film was a lot better than it might have been at capturing the complexity and atmosphere of the text. The director’s the real star – has Christopher Nolan ever made a bad film?
Casino Royale: was pretty sure I was going to like it as soon as I heard the advance publicity about ‘gritty Bond’. And sure enough, like it I did. It’s too long, and loses all its drama and tension in the last half hour or so, but nevertheless earns a mention here purely because it’s good enough to have saved the hallowed franchise from stagnant irrelevance for me, and that’s no mean feat.
Mike Carey; Mike is the amazingly prolific writer of a diverse number of comics, from Carver Hale in 2000 AD to Hellblazer and Lucifer for DC and Ultimate Fantastic Four and X-Men for Marvel as well as making his prose novel debut this year with the first two Felix Castor books Devil You Know and Vicious Circle (both highly recommended); you can read an interview with Mike on the blog here. Mike’s choices are:
Astonishing X-Men. Okay, we don’t get it very often, but when we do it’s always a mind-bending experience. Nobody does dialogue like Whedon. Well, I guess if Shakespeare were alive he could give Joss a run for his money, but nobody else can.
I’d also nominate Exterminators, a new Vertigo monthly that had an excellent opening arc, and Junji Ito’s Museum of Terror, which collects some of the Tomie stories. Ito is the best graphic horror writer of our time, and it’s always great when any of his stuff gets a US or European publication.
Amphigorey Again. Okay, it’s not a novel, it’s more of a one-man anthology. I don’t care. Edward Gorey is a unique flavour in the ice cream parlour of the imagination: probably pistachio and anchovy citrus sorbet.
Bubbling under – Brian Vaughan’s Pride of Baghdad
The paperback edition of Looking for Jake by China Miéville. Yeah, this is another cheat, because the hardcover came out in 2005. But China didn’t have a [new] novel published this year, and I wanted to give him my vote. I love fantasy writers who are great stylists as well as having great ideas and telling great stories. China’s writing is so rich in essential nutrients you could probably live on it. He belongs to the branch of the evolutionary tree that has Mervyn Peake, M. John Harrison and Ursula Le Guin on it. I don’t know of any higher praise than that.
In a way I’d like to postpone my nomination here until after I’ve seen Pan’s Labyrinth, because I have very high hopes for that movie. But on the basis of what I’ve seen so far, it would have to be either Night Watch or Slither. Night Watch was quirky, wild, unpredictable fun with a dark, dark edge. Slither was all the above plus it had Nathan Fillion in it. So why not Serenity? Because they killed one of my two favourite characters, that’s why! Curse you, Whedon. If only I could stop caring, I could stop getting hurt.
Well, duh. Duh as in Doctor. Doctor Who. I know it’s crashingly inevitable, but that doesn’t stop it from being right. The new series is taking the franchise to ever greater heights, with Girl in the Fireplace being my personal favourite Who episode of all time.(A popular choice, that episode – Joe)
Mark Chadbourn; Mark has built up a big following in the UK and then overseas with his cracking series of fantasy novels, the latest of which is Jack of Ravens, published this summer and he has also made the leap into writing for comics, beginning with The Book of Shadows from Image, based on his own fantasy work. Mark’s choices for 2006 are:
Graphic Novels (reprints)
James Lovegrove; James is one of the best of our new wave of British SF writers of the last few years, with books like Worldstorm and Provender Gleed (the anagrammatic detectives are a brilliant invention) as well as being a huge comics fiend who has kindly contributed to the FPI magazine and this blog; his choices are:
Young Avengers by Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung: on paper, a naff concept (teen versions of the adult, mighty Avengers), but it’s grown into a much more inventive and complex proposition, getting twistier and turnier with every issue.
Fables by Bill Willingham and various artists, mainly Mark Buckingham: a series about classic fairytale characters trying to get by in the “real” world, each story arc gets to grips with knotty political problems in a skilful, witty way.
All Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely: each almost-self-contained issue is a box of delights, a winning combination of tradition and irreverence.
DMZ: On the Ground by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli: clever evocation of New York as an isolated, strife-torn no-go zone, as seen through the eyes of an unwillingly “embedded” journalist.
Essential Tales of the Zombie by various: reprint of the complete run of the short-lived 70s black-and-white Marvel magazine, by turns naff and affecting, with excellent art throughout.
Gødland: Hello Cosmic and Gødland: Another Sunny Delight by Joe Casey and Tom Scioli: set in a “Jack-Kirby-verse” and channelling some of the goofy spirit of Hellboy, these bizarre superhero adventure tales refuse to make any sense and are all the better for that.
World War Z by Max (son of Mel) Brooks: ridiculously entertaining “oral history of the Zombie War”, packed with research and detail, written by someone who’s clearly thought far too hard about the subject.
R is for Rocket and S is for Space by Ray Bradbury: long out-of-print configurations of the Bradbury back catalogue, reissued by PS Publishing in simply GORGEOUS new editions garlanded with illustrations from the pulps in which the tales originally appeared.
Cell by Stephen King: a return to classic horror territory for Big Steve, this is a kind of Stand-lite but huge fun nonetheless.
Dr Who: I’d like my first choice to be more original than that, but Dr Who was the only thing on TV this year that I actively looked forward to watching and switched on the answering machine for. (Now, if we were doing a Worst of the Year, all three slots would be occupied by Torchwood.)
Supernatural: pretty much rubbish, but it fills a Buffy-shaped hole.
Lost: it drags on, meandering, but somehow remains compulsive viewing, like some sort of televisiual heroin that you know is ruining your brain but can’t resist.
X-Men: The Last Stand: nowhere near as good as the first two, but nowhere near as bad as everyone seems to think.
Slither: a comic monsters-take-over-town movie which isn’t shy of salting the laughs with some hardcore, old-school gore FX, and which is much aided by having Nathan Fillion as its deadpan leading man.
Mission: Impossible 3: by far the best in the series, so slick and sleek that it’s just about possible not to be annoyed by the presence of its frowning, shortarsed, Scientology-stunted star.
Joe Gordon; yeah, that’s me of course. Most folks have great difficulty in picking out favourites for the year and I’m no different, so it is appropriate that after persuading others to go through that exquisite torture I now have to do it myself. Right off the bat I can think on several candidates, but then when I stop and look back on a list of books read and films watched this year I suddenly realise, hold on, I can’t leave that out… or that… or… Well, you get the picture – my top three movies alone could easily run to a top ten if I wasn’t ruthless with myself, so bearing in mind I may well pick a different group of titles if writing this in a different week, here we go:
I have to confess that these days I more often than not wait for series to be collected into graphic novels before reading them, although Doug Rushkoff’s Testament had me too intrigued to wait and Fantgraphics’ lovely Ignatz range is just a delight for any comics fan (Mattotti’s Chimera was an especial favourite, first time I have seen Lorenzo working in monochrome instead of his usual amazing colours).
Pride of Baghdad by Brian K Vaughan and Niko Henrichon. I could tell you it’s because of the fable-like allegory of current events in Iraq and it is, but mostly it’s my top pick because it is simply beautiful.
Concrete by Paul Chadwick; I totally missed the original run of Concrete and this series be collected again into a proper library by Dark Horse has been brilliant. Concrete has such a simple face yet Paul can convey a huge amount of emotion with just a few lines of ink; that’s good cartooning.
Absolute Sandman Volume 1; I feel as if it is perhaps a cheat to bring a special-edition reprint into my list, but frankly it has given me so much reading pleasure it simply has to be in here. Much as I love my comics there are only a few I would shell out this amount of money for a special edition and Neil’s Sandman is one of them.
Bubbling under: Hellboy: Strange Places by Mike Mignola et al, Judge Dredd the Complete Case Files by Wagner, Grant, Ezquerra, Bolland et al, Kickback by David Lloyd. The Fountain by Darren Aronofsky and Kent Williams, Mammoth Book of Best New Manga edited by Ilya.
Shriek: an Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer. 2006’s book season started on a big note for me with this novel from Jeff in January. It’s a tale full of imagery and ideas which will colonise your mind, springing up unbidden long after you’ve finished reading the book. I’m not sure how someone can be like both Moorcock and Borges at the same time, but he does.
The Adventures of Captain Alatriste by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Superb swashbuckling historical adventure from one of Spain’s best contemporary writers. Yes there are comments about Spanish history, religion and politics but mostly this is something you read for the sheer joy of it all, like crossing Don Quixote with Errol Flynn. When the movie version comes out with Lord of the Rings’ Viggo Mortensen everyone will want to read this.
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. On first glance yet another massively thick fantasy tome, but within a few pages you’re snared into the devious plots and scams of master thief Locke Lamora and his gang the Gentlemen Bastards. Think Harry Harrison’s immortal Stainless Steel Rat in Renaissance Venice crossed with Charles Dickens and Ocean’s Eleven.
Bubbling under – ye gods, a multitude; my top three needs to be a lot bigger! Special mention for Mike Carey’s Devil You Know and Vicious Circle which are simply brilliant (and building an ongoing chain of events so the whole will be even better than the sum of its parts). Adam Roberts’ Gradisil, Margo Lanagan’s haunting collection Black Juice, Neal Asher’s Voyage of the Sable Keach, Alan Campbell’s Scar Night, Brian Ruckley’s Winterbirth… Oh, you see what I mean about choosing just three?!?!?
Battlestar Galactica. Despite the odd dropped ball overall this continues to be gripping even into its third season, with the stakes and stress levels (and therefore the drama and my interest as a viewer) increasing, to say nothing of the obvious parallels with contemporary politics and events (season three turning a Galactica resistance member into a suicide bomber at a Cylon-sponsored police militia parade).
Doctor Who: the Girl in the Fireplace. I have reservations on season two of the new Who with some episodes simply not working for me or else falling flat on a second viewing (too much reliance on a fast pace over detail) but this episode combining future SF with period details was brilliant. And Tennant’s Doctor on a horse in a spaceship cutting to them leaping through a portal and out of a mirror into a ballroom at Versailles – how brilliant was that?
Planet Earth – Brian Ruckley is quite right, this is the type of documentary done better here than by anyone else, mostly because the way the BBC is funded means they are pretty much the only broadcaster able to sustain the massive, years-long, globe-trotting endeavour of a series like this. You don’t have to be a person who is interested in natural history to any extent, just sit there and marvel at the sheer beauty of the astonishing images these intrepid camera crews caught. Suddenly the world looks like a more amazing place.
Bubbling under: Torchwood, but since it is still running right now I can’t in all fairness put it in the top three yet, but the potential is huge for this if handled right – good now, could be great next time (if there is a second one). Mythbusters and not just because of Kari Byron or because someone pointed out I have a passing similarity to Adam Savage.
Wristcutters: a Love Story. My favourite film of the year and it still hasn’t got a distribution deal in the US or UK, so you need to watch out for it at film festivals (it was my top movie at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival – you can read a review here). Based on the same short story by Israeli author Etgar Keret as the graphic novel Pizzeria Kamikaze (by Asaf Hanuka – a brilliant piece) this tale of the afterlife for suicides should be depressing but is incredibly life-affirming without ever being schmaltzy. Plus it has Tom Waits as an angel and a mute Eskimo throat-singing. Deserves the cult status of Donnie Darko, some distributor please buy the rights and screen it.
Pan’s Labyrinth – I feel a bit guilty at putting such a recent release in, but Guillermo Del Toro has been a film-maker I have admired since Cronos. This is a visually astonishing fairy tale which never spoon-feeds the audience, encouraging them to decide if what they see is real or the escapist delusions of a young girl amid the brutality of Franco’s Spain. When it comes out on DVD I will need to watch and re-watch this one.
My Country, My Country – an incredible documentary from Laura Poitras who spent eight months filming (without a crew) in the middle of Baghdad, spending much of the time at the family home of Dr Riyadh, an honest man trying desperately to make his home country a better place again and being slowly, heartbreakingly crushed under the events. The danger he and Poitras were in makes this all the more amazing; ironically she came home from this enclave of Baghdad without a scratch only to find her own government in the US decided she should be on the list of suspect passengers on airlines.
Bubbling under: Superman Returns (loved it, but it falls short of perfection), Syriana, Slither, V For Vendetta, The Host, Casino Royale, The Departed, the Prestige.
Kenny Penman; Kenny is one of the founders of Forbidden Planet International and a lifelong comics fan – he has picked out three of his favourite graphic novels from the last twelve months here:
Fun Home – Involving, and occasionally demanding family memoir (my lack of a classics education showed me up). I still can’t make out if “Fun Home” as well as describing the funeral home it’s set in is ironic. Barring the odd moment it actually looks a kinda fun home to me.
Leviathan, my British comic of the year Ian Edgington’s script is all a bit sub-Lovecraft but hints at many stories still to be told of the liner trapped in a world not their own.The feel of the turn of the century action is beautifully drawn by D’Israeli whose art is outstanding.
Premillennial Maakies – yeah I know it’s reprints but still the funniest book of the year and in a lovely hardcover.
So what about you guys? What rocked your world in 2006? What comics did you love, what movies moved you, what books kept you turning pages in rapt silence?