By Molly Jane Kremer, Arpad Okay, and Jarrod Jones. They are the storytellers, the gatekeepers of myth. They relate epic stories of heroism, of bravery, of generally being awesome. They are the stewards of legends, and they’re pretty cool people by our reckoning. They are the best writers of 2017.
THE BEST WRITERS OF THE YEAR
Loo Hui Phang. (The Smell of Starving Boys) Loo Hui Phang has written an enthralling story where nothing is as it seems. The Smell of Starving Boys is a period Western rich with magic and mystery, more concerned with history and the essence of the genre than trappings. Western expansion. The dichotomy of civilization’s outsiders (for who else could survive in the wild?) bringing the modern world beyond its borders. To build up a new nation, to tear down the one that came before, is a war of dreams against ghosts.
The players: a disgraced spirit photographer. An eccentric civil planner. A young drudge on the lam. And beyond the pale, a shadow stalker man in a black hat, an unreal white magic First Nation shaman. Either you get to know them too well and climb deep inside their histories, or you get wisps of their depth, glimpses of action that set the imagination ablaze. The supernatural is omnipresent and yet subtle. The Wild West a backdrop and a driving force.
But Starving Boys is essentially carried by five characters, they have to be real, they have to matter for their paranormal fates to have impact beyond spectacle. They do. Phang writes as raw and solemn as you could wish for, as perfect a match for the badlands as it gets. The story is about photography and progress, love and sex, body magic, magic. The Smell of Starving Boys is sophisticated, a mature, inspired high water mark for the medium of comics. Beyond an adult book, this is a subtle sundry for the literati.– AOK
Jeff Lemire. (Black Hammer, Royal City, Bloodshot Salvation) I think one of the more exciting parts about Black Hammer is that it feels like an epilogue to all these superhero comics I’ve read over the span of my life. A final crisis for all those heroes I’ve come to adore, on a small scale. Or, rather, on an intimate scale. Just imagine if the books following Crisis on Infinite Earths zeroed in on a small handful of DC’s heroes and doomed them to live out the rest of their lives on a farm trapped in time. What would that read like? Thanks to Jeff Lemire, I have a pretty damn good idea. And it’s equal parts depressing and exhilarating.
The effect Lemire has had on me this year can’t be understated. He threw a bucket of ice water on me when my enthusiasm for comics was at its lowest. His stories have spanned from multiversal maladies to familial doom, venturing through space and time to show us what happens after the unthinkable takes place. And whether he wrote about the Weber family or the Pike, Lemire’s focus on overcoming loss against insurmountable odds — and finding solace in failure — felt the most timely in 2017. — JJ
Tom King. (Batman, Mister Miracle) Part of what contributes to DC Comics’ latest successes are the lengths they’ve gone in nurturing new creators. But all the nurturing in the world means nothing without a seed of legitimate talent. Tom King is certainly the real deal.
At this point he has cemented his status in the echelons of what readers consider “good writers” thanks to his excellent run on Batman, a series that has only gotten better and better as King has progressed. Many writers have difficulty finding the balance between telling a story about what the Batman is, and simply telling a Batman story, but King has discovered that sweet spot—and as of recently, has also turned Batman into a very adventuresome romance comic.
His Mister Miracle series (with the great Mitch Gerads) has garnered yet more praise, and is one of the most critically acclaimed series of the year. Five issues in, and the reader is still left mired in uncertainty about what exactly is going on with Scott and his state of mind, and that doubt permeates the entire narrative. It’s a powerful read, and it’s deservedly struck a chord with readers. Mister Miracle (as well as Batman) also reveals King’s talent for writing couple interactions: the relationship between Scott and Barda reads effortlessly, and it’s wonderful that only two years after the demise of the “no one gets married!” New 52, two of DC’s biggest books have a married or engaged couple centered as their beating heart.
Tom King was one of my selections for best writer last year too, and I wouldn’t have picked him two years in a row except that his output this year has been too damn good not to. I find it very gratifying that he’s been able to keep up the remarkable pace and quality set previously by The Vision, The Omega Men, and Sheriff of Babylon (which I still want an eventual return to, fellas!). And I simply cannot wait to see where he might go next. — MJ
Kristen Gudsnuk. (Henchgirl) Kristen Gudsnuk has written the sleeper hit of the year. Henchgirl satirizes comics on a blissful, Bob Burden frequency, but more than that, it satirizes life. Jobs suck, right, but working for a super-villain super sucks. The elements of bending over backwards to pay the bills feel vividly real despite their total saturation steeped in a stew of puns and gags. The girl stuff (for lack of a better phrase), body images, patriarchy problems, snacks, is double real. The girl part of Henchgirl is pure Gudsnuk capturing life on the page. She’s got heart, and it comes across, along with humor, a bit of tragedy, the occasional horrifying idea. It’s a brick of a book, delightful, incredibly creative, the solid product of hard work.
The craftsmanship in Henchgirl is staggering at times. Gudsnuk sneaks humor into every nook, cranny, bit of empty space on every page. But for a book that is largely conversations with the occasional bout of robbery or fisticuffs, the shots panel by panel are wildly sophisticated. The staging is arthouse, its angles Dutch. Gudsnuk lays out her book like a DOP’s dream, free from the shackles of physics and reality. Never overworked, never boring, consistently surprising.
Gudsnuk’s seemingly inexhaustible creativity makes for distinct characters. Henchgirl does some straight send-ups (somebody likes Sailor Moon), but mostly the superpowers are very weird ideas nobody has used before. A guy who can turn into a statue, a girl who produces carrots. The plot, too, changes direction many times, never really settling, but closing in a very satisfying manner. Henchgirl builds upon itself into something great and dense and hard to describe. Throw the spaghetti against the wall and all of it sticks, a Van Gogh macaroni art masterpiece. — AOK
Mariko Tamaki. (Hulk, Supergirl: Being Super) Grief is a helluva thing. In the books Mariko Tamaki writes, grief is as much a character as the Hulk or Supergirl. It has a presence. Hangs over everything like a pall. But in Tamaki’s worlds, grief can be managed, even when it seems like it can’t.
Hulk dove into the trauma that comes after the loss of a loved one. It only seemed obvious that a Marvel monster story was possible of juggling such pathos after it had already happened. Tamaki already knew. She took bursts of rage, the marquee reason why a book like Hulk has been a successful comic book for decades, and gave them consequences. She allowed Jen Walters to grieve, to process her loss, to quantify her blessings. And, when the time came, Tamaki allowed Jen to smash. “Catharsis” doesn’t seem fitting enough a word to describe the effect.
Similar themes were found in DC’s Supergirl: Being Super. Kara Danvers grappling with her developing powers, and wondering if they’re worth the trouble at all. What use are powers if they fail you? And while things certainly looked grim for Kara and Jen, throughout both series, Tamaki’s sense of humor always arrived to knock me flat. (“Enjoy watching your weird baking videos!” being one of my favorite lines of the year.) Laughter in the face of grief. Its a power we all possess, even if it doesn’t seem like it sometimes.
Jen Walters, Kara Danvers… they hold on, if only for a second more. And that second makes all the difference in the world. — JJ
(Where we made room to love all over a few more.)
Declan Shalvey. (Savage Town) Shalvey’s got the craic. Savage Town is the most charming, authentic story about slob gangsters, ghastly outfits, titanic screw-ups, and horse apples you’re likely to come across. Savage Town is Ireland’s Palomar. Small time gangsters toppling the house of cards that is local crime by doing things wrong over and over. The Savage family at the heart of things are a few good men and a bunch of dummies being given chances they shouldn’t get. Fate falls into place with the twists and turns of Snatch and the stillness of Stalker. A large piece of Declan Shalvey’s genius is that he can meticulously orchestrate a story with so many payoffs that the reader’s jaw drops, and all the while Savage Town reads like a natural unfolding of events. You’d never see it coming. They certainly didn’t.
It’s the soup and potatoes of it all that makes Savage Town fly. Folks are ordinary punters, dreaming of big scores, living off cheap ones. The families and friendships are the web the story spins out of. Teenagers blowing smoke instead of paying attention to their jobs. The wives’ club talking discounts. Dad looking out. The one guy who can get a job done. It seems mundane, but then there’s blood. All these normal lives are constantly behind the eight ball. It doesn’t seem that way because all they’ve ever known is this side of the tracks. The reader comes to care about them making their shots because you come to care about them as people. It’s all planned, it’s all quietly fantastic, and it’s a bit rough but it’s a lot real. And the payout is a score of legendary proportions. — AOK
Cecil Castellucci. (Shade, The Changing Girl) The Young Animal imprint has added eloquent and much-needed female voices to DC Comics’ overall output. In modern media, teenage girl characters can be often vilified—or sidelined and trivialized—in multiple ways, and most superhero comics do little to avoid that pitfall. And though Shade, the Changing Girl isn’t really a superhero comic per se, it’s refreshing to see a DC comic attempt to make a cast of teenagers feel developed, even nuanced, and — *gasp* — even appealing to an actual teenage readership. And it’s all due to Cecil Castellucci. (And let’s not forget her artist partner-in-crime, Marley Zarcone.)
The funny thing is, Shade’s main character technically isn’t a teenager at all: she’s an avian alien from the planet Meta named Loma who uses the stolen Madness coat to come to earth and inhabit the comatose body of stereotypical mean girl high school student, Megan Boyer. As Loma discovers more about her new life, and as her old life tries to catch up to her, Castellucci incrementally reveals to us more and more about Megan and her “friends”, and of Lima’s world Meta. The slow build of both characterization and suspense is incredible.
Castellucci has authored many young adult novels, and some young adult-aimed comics for DC’s Minx line (which still feels like it was ten years early). She has an unerring ear for dialog both authentic and effortlessly expressive. I’m very glad that both she and Zarcone will be returning for more Shade in the new year. Fingers crossed we’ll get to see additional Castellucci-penned comic works as well. — MJ
Chip Zdarsky. (Star-Lord, Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man, Harley Quinn 25th Anniversary, Marvel Two-In-One) It’s likely that you follow young Chip Zdarsky on Twitter, where he’s a real wisenheimer at least 80% of the time. Thing is, behind all the tweet-speak and innuendo, Chip fosters deep cosmic wells of creative inspiration. As each year rolls by, he reveals a little more of himself to his readership, and… dammit, I’m just walking into these double entendres, aren’t I.
Lemme be serious. Chip Zdarsky has been evolving before our very eyes for years now. He’s already written one of my all-time favorite Marvel stories. His newest and truest Spidey run already rules. I have no idea what the future holds for Chip or his career, but if his work on this year’s Star-Lord, Marvel Two-In-One, and The Spectacular Spider-Man is any indication (not to mention last year’s Howard the Duck), Marvel may very well have another Al Ewing on their hands. Only feistier. — JJ
Who was your favorite writer of 2016? Let us know in the comments section below!