Defending 2016 feels like a Kobyashi Maru-level task of no-win proportions. Even by the year’s midpoint, you’d be forgiven for posting the “Me at the Beginning/End of 2016” meme -- accompanied by duel images of a young, fresh-faced Luke Skywalker/Willow Rosenberg/Squidward/Rick Grimes and more haggard versions of the characters.
At a collection of holiday parties and family gatherings, “#WorstYearEver” has been a popular quote, and I know of one New Year’s Eve bash where a “2016” effigy will be burned. Meanwhile, media outlets have likewise jumped on this messaging, with stories dedicated to exploring all the ways 2016 let us down.
For me, the feces-tinged dye of the year was cast on Jan. 10 with the death of David Bowie. A creative genius who inspired fan culture as much as he impacted music, Ziggy Stardust’s departure from this earth cut deep, and his absence continued to be felt throughout many (many) tragedies: the death of countless icons, the Pulse nightclub shooting, the devastation of Aleppo, the terrorist attacks in Europe, Zika, Brexit, rising global temperatures, the collapse of Venezuela, unjust killings by and of cops, an increase in hate crimes, and of course, one of the nation’s most contentious presidential campaigns that culminated in divisive election results where the votes of a majority of the populace were not in step with the electoral college.
Realistically, this probably hasn’t been the worst year for the world. When pressed, 1918, 1942, 1945, 1963, 1965, 1990, 2001, 2003, and 2011 are strong contenders for the “worst” within the last century. But there is a rationale to collectively acknowledging, via memes and hashtags, that ’16 felt like a houseguest that trashed the joint, and wouldn’t leave; it offers us the hope that 2017 can be better.
And there was good that came out of 2016 as well that should fuel hope for 2017. Following tragedy, there were outpourings of support. The actions of the worst of humanity were often met with displays from the best. Even within fan culture, there was a lot to be pleased about – and I am willing to stand by this even after Carrie Fisher’s death served as another kick in the teeth this year.
So, instead of simply pouring one out to drown my sorrows and forget ’16 (or literally lighting it ablaze at a party), what follows is toast, in no particular order, to some of the good things that made life as a fan a little bit better this past year.
Love is Love #1
Available now online and in comic shops, Love is Love is so much more than 144 pages of comic book. It is a collaboration organized by writer Marc Andreyko (Batgirl, Wonder Woman ’77), and publishers IDW and DC Comics, with all proceeds going to Equality Florida, which benefits victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.
More than 300 contributors to the book include a who’s who of pop culture figures -- J.K. Rowling, Patton Oswalt, Morgan Spurlock, Damon Lindelof, Taran Killam, and Matt Bomer – as well as comic book creators Jim Lee, Brian Michael Bendis, Grant Morrison, Scott Snyder, Mark Millar, Amanda Conner, Phil Jimenez, Paul Dini, George Perez, and more. Stories and artwork include Archie Comics characters as well as Harry Potter, Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, and Harley Quinn.
This is a book that adds good to the world by showing love is stronger than terror. It is a defiant project to send a message that “The day is not made of darkness.” Pick it up.
Diana of Themyscira celebrated her 75th birthday this year with the fanfare befitting a warrior princess. Or, to borrow from Time's feature story, 2016 was the year "Wonder Woman Breaks Through."
First up, she was the best part of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and her Junkie XL theme in the movie, with the pounding tribal drums, was as a particularly metal way of introducing the character to the big screen. The trailers rolling out for the Patty Jenkins-directed film, due next June, only added to the excitement this year – and served as hope that the movie starring Gal Gadot could fix the issues Warner Bros. has been facing with its superhero flicks.
While it has unfortunately been canceled, Renae De Liz’s Eisner-nominated Legend of Wonder Woman digital-first comic will be remembered as a definitive story. A second volume is sadly not forthcoming, but it is worth reading the first story. Likewise worth a look is Grant Morrison’s Wonder Woman: Earth One. A very different type of book that isn’t for everyone, the story returns Diana to Paradise Island to explore her feminist origins and the bondage themes that followed the character in earlier stories. Additionally, Wonder Woman Rebirth writer Greg Rucka officially confirmed an element of Diana's personality many of us long took for granted, but which adds depth to the character: That she is "queer" or "not necessarily exclusively, romantic and/or sexual interest toward persons of the same gender."
Finally, 2016 is the year Wonder Woman was recognized as a United Nations Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls. I was fortunate to cover the moving ceremony in October, which involved powerful statements by Gadot and TV’s Wonder Woman, Lynda Carter. Check out videos from the event, and you'll see the dynamic duo of the charismatic Carter, and the steely force that is soldier/actor/model Gadot was something to behold (served as yet another reminder that the mantle of Diana is in the right hands with Gadot).
A misguided petition succeeded in stripping the title two months later for being culturally insensitive, and glorifying an “overtly sexualized” figure. I will avoid getting too into the weeds here, but fictional characters can serve as inspiration across the globe, often even moreso than real-life figures. Characters such as Wonder Woman, Princess Leia, Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and Darth Vader can transcend cultural, geographic, and linguistic barriers – as can the principles they stand for.
Wonder Woman’s story has changed and evolved over time, yet she is best known as a warrior and diplomat, an ambassador for peace from Themyscira. And she remains, in my mind, an ambassador of empowerment.
Original Science Fiction
In a landscape populated by mega-franchises and shared universes, 2016 was still a damn fine year for standalone science-fiction, and for stories based on original works. Sophisticated and thought-provoking, Arrival was one of the best films of the year, with Amy Adams receiving a Golden Globe nomination for her performance as a linguist attempting to untangle the language of extraterrestrials. Meanwhile, for another one of the year’s best, director Jeff Nichols re-teamed with his muse Michael Shannon for Midnight Special, about a man who abducts his super-powered son from a religious cult.
On the book front, Allen Steele’s Arkwright is a realistic novel about a dying science fiction author who decides writing about interstellar travel isn’t as good as making it happen. In an argument for privatized space exploration, he wills his fortunes and future royalties to invest in technology, and the construction of a space craft.
While technically part of a pre-existing franchise, the HBO series Westworld made a mark on television as a philosophical, trippy, conspiracy-laden, violent, and thrilling sci-fi show. Immediately a water-cooler hit, the show is about an amusement park with A.I. “hosts” who are more than the sum of their parts. Finally, 2016 gave us Stranger Things, a show that channeled the sci-fi and horror of Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, and Stephen King. Original without being derivative, the Netflix show was a reminder that you can tell an exciting adventure story with darkness without being dour. Kudos to both these shows as well for creating compelling characters for women (e.g. Golden Globe nominees Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Winona Ryder) that are complex, believable, and fully fleshed-out – even when they’re androids.
In 2016, Hamilton: An American Musical won 11 Tony Awards (of its record 16 nominations), a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album, and a Pulitzer. And the phenomenal Broadway cast recording was followed up by The Hamilton Mixtape, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
So yeah, in case you weren’t already aware, Hamilton continues to be a big deal. But what about the man behind the music, Lin-Manuel Miranda?
Other than having a great year reaping the rewards of hard work from his musical, Miranda delivered insta-classic Disney songs on the Moana soundtrack (still can’t get enough of “Shiny,” sung by Jemaine Clement), and his involvement in Mary Poppins Returns and the live-action Little Mermaid has me cautiously optimistic.
More than his talents, Miranda has been most excellent to watch this year. He is as addicted to social media as the rest of us, and his on-point use of memes from Voltron, Wonder Woman, Labyrinth, Supernatural, Super Mario Bros., and on and on, reveal him to be a true-blue goofy nerd. Moreover, he has been a humble, inspiring voice during some dark days. And when he gives a damn about something, he lets it be known in exceptional ways (seriously, check out his Puerto Rico rap/plea on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver).
A down-to-earth, relatable, and authentic voice (who, I’d bet my non-existing Tony, knows what it’s like to be socially awkward), Miranda doesn’t seem so much like a celebrity as “one of us.” As such, his success, and his response to it, has made him a joy to root for in 2016.
Flashback to May 2016: I was in a Manhattan office with maybe three or four other journalists for a hush-hush meeting with DC Comics Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns. In our hands was an advance issue of DC Universe: Rebirth Special #1. On my face was a look of skepticism. This was DC’s latest attempt to correct course on its titles. About 30 minutes later, having read the issue, my skeptical expression was replaced by a fanboy grin. Somehow, DC Comics rediscovered its heart.
Rather than a relaunch or reboot, DC Comics’ publisher-wide initiative felt like a reconciliation and a reunion. Leaping a tall building’s worth of nearly insurmountable odds, and wrangling nearly a century’s worth of continuity more powerful than a locomotive, Rebirth returned to the core of what was memorable about DC Comics pre-New 52, while preserving what clicked from that 2011 reboot. Under the guidance of “showrunner” Johns – without a doubt an able majordomo of a fan – the publisher rescued characters such as Wally West from the realm of the forgotten (and resurrected relationships such as the iconic one between Green Arrow and Black Canary). However, while re-establishing classic comic book elements, Rebirth did not exclude new fans, and instead welcomed everyone into the pool with fun stories that are buoyed by decades of history, instead of weighed down.
Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War
You’ll believe a boy from Queens can do whatever a spider can.
That paraphrasing of the 1978 Superman tagline came to my mind with the reveal of Tom Holland as the new Spider-Man in the Captain America: Civil War trailer. Sure enough, I believed it when I saw the movie and recognized the awkward boy-genius, and wisecracking wallcrawler as the same Peter Parker I knew from comics – but never quite encountered on the big screen. While I still have a fondness for Sam Raimi’s version, played by Tobey Maguire -- especially in Spider-Man 2 – Spidey’s scenes in Civil War were pitch perfect, from the gee-whiz attitude down to the fighting style.
(In fact, the airport fight sequence remains a highlight from this year -- although it requires you to excuse a few nagging realizations, such as these guys are trying to kill each other, as pointed out by Editor in Chief Adam Swiderski in our Who Won The Week podcast).
The interplay of the webhead with Cap and Tony Stark reinforced the notion that the MCU is the right ‘hood for our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, and this homecoming makes me all the more excited for Homecoming in 2017.
Director Kevin Smith’s May 2016 episode of The Flash, “Runaway Dinosaur,” remains my favorite entry of the CW series. It is a full-on comic-booky ep which packs an emotional punch.
But it is as a goodwill ambassador, not as a director, that Smith is included on this list.
He has become a consistently upbeat, optimistic voice within fan culture. As a personality, and through his podcasts, or on Comic Book Men, Smith has been vocal that the nerds have won, so let’s enjoy it instead of hating on things. He encourages celebration, not cynicism – and we need that in spades in the world in general. Smith has emerged as a poignant fan voice; a nerd who realized the dream of working with his heroes. As a result, when he shares memories and reflects on the death of Carrie Fisher, for instance, it resonates.
On a personal note, throughout 2016, I watched him direct the Jan. 23 episode of Supergirl, I interviewed the man a couple times, and even briefly shared the stage with him at a comic con, and have not seen him be anything less than gracious to fans, backstage staff, or crew. I might be getting old and sentimental, but it’s heartening to see one of the good ones out there combating nerd rage.
Star Wars Rebels and Rogue One
2016 was a good year in a galaxy far, far away -- especially for stories beyond the Skywalker clan -- where the fabric of our beloved fandom became more intricate, and interesting.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story had a lot riding on it as the first standalone movie set in the Star Wars galaxy, and it has succeeded critically and commercially, ensuring that these non-Episode adventures will continue. The movie was also good and lovingly led a story right up to the front door of A New Hope (and the Tantive IV). While it has its detractors, this is a war movie focused on the expendable joes who aren't Jedi or chosen one types. It introduced entirely new characters, and some, like K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), are destined to be favorites. Others, like Chirrut and Baze (Donnie Yen and Weng Jiang, respectively) are such excellent, mysterious characters they beg for more adventures (which I hope never comes so I can dream up my own).
During the second half of its second season, and the first half of its third, Star Wars Rebels told compelling, adventure-filled, and at times downright heavy storylines in the early days of the Rebel Alliance through the ragtag crew of the Ghost. While this series could have existed on the sidelines, with the occasional fan service shout out, it has instead been interwoven into Star Wars lore. Sure, we've had fun cameos, such as from Lando Calrissian or Princess Leia, but the Season 2 finale showdown between an adult Ahsoka (from Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and still excellently voiced by Ashley Eckstein) and her former apprentice Anakin Skywalker a full-on villainous Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) tied Rebels together with Clone Wars, and connected it to the Sith Lord we saw in Rogue One. That satisfying finale also gave us more Maul (Sam Witwer, back as the horned one).
As if that wasn't enough for Rebels, the series jumped ahead an indeterminate time for Season 3. This aged up the character Ezra (Taylor Gray), making him more interesting to watch, and allowed for a blinded Kanan (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) to have more gravitas. Moreover, this season's time jump brings it ever closer to the events in Rogue One, which referenced the show at least three times (including a nod to Hera Syndulla, played by Vanessa Marshall, one of the most capable leaders in the SW-verse) and four if you count Fulcrum. Finally, the show has brought to life Grand Admiral Thrawn (Lars Mikkelsen), the deliciously evil art-lover, created by Timothy Zahn in his 1991 book Heir to the Empire -- and the most popular character (sorry, Mara Jade) from the now-defunct Expanded Universe of books.
As much as this has been a good year for new characters in the Star Wars realm, if you're still craving more Vader following the dueling and rampaging from Rebels and Rogue One, pick up Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larocca's Darth Vader title from Marvel Comics. The book gives us the Vader we know, and adds to the Sith's story, without overdoing it with the character and while resisting the temptation to nudge him to the Light Side before Luke gets his chance.
Blackstar by David Bowie
As I mentioned at the top of this piece, David Bowie’s death hit me hard. Not only was he cool, but he was weird, and he made weird cool. His impact was felt throughout my love of music, as well as within the sci-fi/fantasy/horror genres within which most of my career as a writer has dwelled.
Yet, as shattered as I was (and remain) over the departure of David Bowie from this crude earthly plane, I am inspired by his final work, Blackstar, released days before his “death.” This is an album about figuring out life, and figuring out (and coming to terms with) death. As a Bowie record, it is both different but very much in line with the career of a man who saw a plan for his life; who knew his path.
Perhaps it is selfish to think so, but Blackstar is more than a final work from a musician who consistently showed that rock was indeed art; it is somehow a farewell note to his fans. Clearly Bowie understood that he’d soon shuffle off his mortal coil, and this album recognizes that, and tells us that it will be cool, in the end.
2016 began with my eyes closed in mourning, before writing a tribute to Bowie, and his legacy within sci-fi. It ends with me once again remembering our Starman, and, sadly, bookended by the loss of our Princess Leia/Carrie Fisher. But nearly 12 months later, I am keeping my eyes open and looking ahead towards 2017.
See, while there is sadness, there is something more to grasp onto here: What Bowie left us (and Prince, Carrie Fisher, Alan Rickman, Kenny Baker, Gene Wilder, Anton Yelchin, Garry Shandling, Robert Vaughn, Ron Glass, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, and damn, so many, many other artists) was not only a glimpse into their own lives that, in turn, offered us a chance to know ourselves a little better through their work.
And that allows them to live on. If their work inspires you, it can live on every day, and provide solace, regardless of the tribulations next year may present.
Though I don’t want to wax too spiritual, I do like to think there’s a starman waiting in the sky who told us not to blow it, ‘cause he knows it’s all worthwhile.