2021 marked my first (almost-full) year of retirement, so I had plenty of time to watch, read, and wander in my never-ending quest for new movies, TV shows, and books. Here are my top five picks for the year in comics and graphic novels, books, movies, and TV. Longer reviews of the books can be found in my monthly write-ups of what I read on this blog. Unless otherwise noted, these books, shows, and movies were published or released in 2021.
TOP FIVE BOOKS
Wild Minds: The Artists and Rivalries That Inspired the Golden Age of Animation by Reid Mitenbuler
This is the best book of the year for me, a meaty, gossipy history of the American animation industry from its very beginnings until Ralph Bashki takes over Max Fleischer’s old Paramount studio for about a minute in the mid-1960s. They’re all here: Fleischer, Winsor McCay, the WB anarchists (a great chapter on Chuck Jones creating Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote and Pepe LePew), the rise of TV “animation” based around commercials, and of course, the rise of Walt Disney and his empire. Amazing book, well-written by an author whose previous claim to fame was a history of whiskey.
All of the Marvels by Douglas Wolk
Wolk read every Marvel comic book from Fantastic Four #1 in 1961 until about 2018, over 27,000 separate books totaling over 500,000 story pages. This isn’t a “and then this happened” type of book … more like a travelogue to the Marvel Comics Universe, centering on certain books and characters and what they mean to the greater, ongoing story (my favorite chapter: the one on Master of Kung Fu). There are numerous asides on the artists and writers who created the characters, plus publishing notes. Don’t let the first few chapters turn you off … the meat of the book is when he actually starts talking about the comics themselves. An amazing achievement.
Mike Nichols: A Life by Mark Harris
The life and career of the great Broadway and film director and comedian. I knew very little of Nichols beyond The Graduate, but found this book absolutely fascinating, with long chapters on his work as a comedy and improv duo with Elaine May, his Broadway plays, and his films. Harris (along with Scott Eyman, see below) is one of my favorite film historians, and I loved his first two books, Scenes from a Revolution and Five Came Back.
Grave’s End by William Shaw
The third (or fourth, if you include The Birdwatcher, and you should) book by Shaw featuring Detective Inspector Alexandra Cupidi, investigating crimes on the southeastern coast of England. Cupidi is a great character, juggling her career with being a single mom with a … let’s say “odd” teenage daughter … and delving into some weird crimes of a decidedly British-bent. And how many books have badgers as main characters?
The Dark Hours by Michael Connelly
Connelly returns with a new Renee Ballard/Harry Bosch novel, but this one is more Ballard than Bosch. Still, any new Michael Connelly book is eagerly awaited and this one that addresses COVID-19 and the changes in policing, while still telling a great LAPD-based story, is one of his best.
Nick Petrie’s Peter Ash series, featuring an enigmatic character involved in a series of ridiculously cinematic action adventures. I read three of these books in 2021 (The Drifter, Burning Bright, Light It Up) and throughly enjoyed all three of them.
Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise by Scott Eyman
Eyman is one of my favorite movie historians, and his biography on Cary Grant is fascinating, showing that the movie star was not what he seemed to be on screen. Cary Grant was just another role for Archie Leach from Leeds, England. (I also read Eyman’s history of 20th Century Fox, published as a TCM book.)
TOP FIVE MOVIES
Spider-Man: No Way Home
The perfect “ending” to the Sony/Marvel Spider-Man collaboration, this film has to be seen to be believed. It looks like we will actually get to see more Spidey movies with these stars, but if we don’t, this one resets the franchise in such a way that it’s okay. Definitely the best of the trilogy, and I loved both Homecoming and Far From Home.
Yes, another Marvel movie, but this final look at Scarlett Johansson’s seminal Marvel character introduced the new Widow, Florence Pugh (see also Hawkeye, below) and was a rip-roaring action adventure flick proving that women can kick ass just as well as men. I never really bought ScarJo as Natasha, but she does well here, and Pugh is a hoot.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Yep … I evidently only watch Marvel movies. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this one, since it adapted one of my favorite 1970s Marvel titles. There’s not much left from that great series by Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy (except Razorfist!), but enough of its DNA made for a very entertaining action flick presented in a different way for Marvel.
I Care A Lot
This very black comedy starring Rosamund Pike as a particularly evil con artist kind of won my heart when it first showed up earlier in the year on Netflix. Pike is a legal guardian who worms her way into old people’s lives, taking over their care and draining their bank accounts … until she picks on the wrong person.
Sadly, I can’t pick a fifth movie for 2021 or any Honorable Mentions. I’d like to tell you I loved the final Daniel Craig 007 thriller, No Time to Die, but I didn’t. It’s better than Spectre and MUCH better than the horrible Quantum of Solace, but it’s no Casino Royale of Skyfall. Likewise with The King’s Man, the prequel to the Kingsmen films; it has it’s moments (notably the final half-hour or so), but it’s nowhere near the great movie the first Kingsmen film was.
I’m also sad that three out of my four picks are Marvel movies, not because of Martin Scorsese, but sad nonetheless that that’s the only thing that can kind of get me to “brave” the movie theater these days. With the current outbreak of the Omicron variant, I’ll be waiting for Licorice Pizza— movie I’m sure I’ll like; I loved Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, his paean to the 1970s porn industry in the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles, so I think I’ll love this gentler story based in the same milieu—to appear on a streaming service. I’m staying away from theaters until things calm down.
I would like to thank Warner Bros. for releasing their entire 2021 movie slate on HBO Max, since the majority of them were dogs. The Suicide Squad was more enjoyable than just plain Suicide Squad, and The Matrix Resurrections has its moments (cut out any scene with Jada Pinkett Smith and you have a much more enjoyable—and shorter—film). Dune isn’t my cup of tea (and no one will ever be able to explain the appeal of emo-boy Timothy Chalamet to me), and the other films I watched—The Little Things, Those Who Wish Me Dead, Reminiscence (about 20 minutes of that turkey), No Sudden Move, Godzilla vs. Kong—were all not worth watching, let alone paying movie theater prices to do so. (I did enjoy the two-part animated adaptation of Batman: The Long Halloween, though.)
TOP FIVE TV SHOWS
Line of Duty Series 6
Just about my favorite British telly show, this ongoing (season 6 or as the Brits say “series 6”) copper drama showcased the great Kelly MacDonald as the big bad this season (or was she really bad?), aided and abetted by stellar acting by the usual suspects: Martin Compston, Vicki McClure, and Adrian Dunbar. Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the Wee Donkey … I hope this wasn’t the final season!
The absolute best of the five Marvel TV series on Disney+ that premiered this year. WandaVision was enjoyable, but both Loki and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier were solid disappointments to me, while What If? had its ups and downs. The winning combination of Jeremy Renner and Hailee Steinfeld as Hawkeye and … um … Hawkeye was wonderful. There are also great connections to the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe. My only regret Is that this was just six episodes.
For All Mankind Seasons 1 & 2
This great alternate universe Apple+ series debuted when the streamer started, but I only got around to it this year. There are two seasons (so far) that bring us up to dueling US and USSR moon bases. Great writing, special effects and acting, especially by Joel Kinnaman and Sarah Jones. (Released in 2019 & 2020)
Ted Lasso Season 2
Ted’s second season was as good as—if not better than—the first and even included a lovely Christmas episode in the middle of August. We got to see a much different side of Ted Lasso himself. This warm, witty, character-driven sitcom is so much better than any other show in that genre and makes the network-driven comedies seem just like so much drivel (which they are).
Okay, it’s a YouTube “show” but it’s charming and enjoyable nonetheless (when I start reviewing anything on TikTok just shoot me, okay?). This homemade DIY weekly series chronicles the adventures of Mackenzie and Spencer as they build their shipping container home in the wilds of Texas. They’re doing the whole thing on their own (the only help I’ve seen them get is with insulation) while having a couple of babies. They’re both charming and likable (she’s a bit silly and punny, he’s a solid straight man) and their episodes are usually less than 20 minutes, but their ongoing plan (at three years now) to build their own off-grid home is a great little primer on how to do it—and sometimes how NOT to do it.
Cartoonists Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg delve into all kinds of aspects of the world of comics. While they lost me with a recent spate of comics-oriented court cases (and what they see in long dissections of old Wizard magazines totally escapes me), they more often than not pull an ace from the deck with deep dives into specific comics and/or artists, including Kirby, Steranko, Miller, and many more.
Bosch Season 7
A shortened season for Amazon Prime’s first series was also, sadly, the last one. Only eight episodes this time around, as Bosch, Edgar, Maddie, et al go on with their lives with one final case. Not the best season, but still extremely well-done and enjoyable. I’m happy to say that part of the cast will continue in the new Bosch: Legacy show on IMDb TV this spring.
Numerous BritBox Shows
My love of Line of Duty and being unable to visit England in 2020 and 2021 got me into British TV in a big way, and I sprung for a yearly subscription to BritBox. I’ve watched a number of great shows on there, including Grace, Macdonald & Dobbs, The Tower, Honour, The Victim, and many more. AMC+ also has a great line-up of British shows, including BBC America as part of their app.
TOP FIVE COMICS & GRAPHIC NOVELS
Hawkeye: The Saga of Barton and Bishop by Matt Fraction and David Aja
This new repackaging of Fraction’s Hawkeye series presents the entire run of the enjoyable and visually groundbreaking series with art primarily by David Aja and Annie Wu and is clearly the inspiration for the Disney+ series, both story-wise and visually.
Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula by Koren Shadmi
A biographical look at one of Hollywood’s most tragic stars. Bela Lugosi started at the top (starring in Universal’s Dracula in 1931) and took a long slide down until his death in the late 1950s. Shadmi’s great writing and minimalist art style tell the story well.
Old Gods and New: A Companion to Jack Kirby’s Fourth World by John Morrow
I love comics history and TwoMorrows is THE company for magazines about that topic, but they also publish books that take even deeper dives into various topics. Old Gods and New is a great in-depth look at Jack Kirby’s 1970s DC Comics work—his Fourth World series, including New Gods, Forever People, Mister Miracle, and Jimmy Olsen—told in a chronological fashion and profusely illustrated.
Breakwater by Katriona Chapman
This wonderfully drawn graphic novel about mental illness takes place in Brighton, UK, a city I visited in 2018, so I felt a bit of a personal connection to it. Chapman’s story concerns an introverted theater manager who meets a new friend at work and then has to decide what the limits of friendship are. (Published in 2020)
Mighty Marvel Masterworks Series
Marvel is reprinting their famous Masterworks series, which presents the earliest books from the Marvel Age of Comics, in a new smaller format geared towards a younger audience. I’m thoroughly enjoying reading these again (even though I’ve read and re-read these stories more times than I can count) and I love the new Michael Cho covers (you can also get them with covers featuring the original first issues). At $15.99 each, these are a great bargain.
Daredevil by Chip Zdarsky and Marco Checchetto Vols. 1-6
The only current Marvel book I read, and I’ve opted to wait for the trade paperback collections as they come out. Zdarsky’s dark take on Matt Murdock is wonderful, especially when drawn by Checchetto.
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