Over a few posts, I’m choosing different creators or creative teams–novelist, composer, scriptwriter, comic book artist, etc–who have influenced or inspired me, and in most cases brought me a lot of enjoyment.
For each year from 1919-2018, I’ll pick someone who produced something significant or recognizable from that year–based on what year it was published or released (with comic books being considered to have been released on the cover date, although I know that’s not usually true). And of course, lifetime accomplishments beyond that year will play a big role in who is chosen and who is not. Because certain years were tricky, I’ve also allowed myself to pick people who were born or even died in certain years.
1994 – J. Michael Straczynski
It’s hard to imagine today what it was like looking for science fiction TV back in the 1990’s, back when there was no Netflix and only a few of the now scores of original-content sharing platforms. Basically we had Star Trek: The Next Generation for full-blown space ships and aliens, and X-Files for occasional space ships and implication of aliens. Into all this comes writer J. Michael Straczynski to pitch the idea for a five year space opera, Babylon 5 which creates American pop culture’s first new major fictional landscape of interplanetary species and civilizations for decades. Straczynski conceived of Babylon 5 as a television novel, with five distinct chapters and fully developed character arcs and story beats. It ran from 1993 to 1998, and though most of it ended up changing over the course of real-world production realities, the mere idea of serialized science fiction TV, the commonplace today, was pretty revolutionary back in the day (at least in America). It’s not too much to say that Babylon 5 was a massive trendsetter for future sci-fi series as they became more and more common. Straczynski wrote an astonishing 92 out of the show’s 110 episodes (as well as the pilot and various special movies), giving him a level of control over his own extended property that was pretty unprecedented. His dialogue and characterization could often be a bit clunky and artificial, but the plotting was something special. It started off quite slow, but the slow burn paid off in the show’s middle seasons when it reached a fever pitch of twists and payoffs that’s rarely been matched. Straczynski also wrote some other TV and movies, and a whole lot of comics, including some extremely controversial Spider-Man stories and some pretty good Earth One graphic novels about Superman.
1995 – Paul Cornell
Paul Cornell is a British writer who has done a quite a bit of work for comic books and for Doctor Who, both the TV show and its spin-off media. For the TV series, he wrote Father’s Day for the one Christopher Eccleston series, and the two part Human Nature / Family of Blood for David Tennant’s 10th Doctor. Human Nature and its follow up is one of the best stories that Doctor Who has ever produced, and probably the very best episode from the revival series that was not written by Steven Moffat, so if that were all he’d done, it’d be enough. But on top of that, Cornell also co-wrote The Discontinuity Guide, a playful but respectful look at Doctor Who‘s decades of contradictory continuity which offered up a lot of fun theories to try to make it all gel together. The book is one of my standard references when I am rewatching the old show, and I enjoy a lot of the ideas it put forward. Paul Cornell also created Bernice Summerfield in the “New Adventures” series of Doctor Who novels in the 1990’s and has done a bunch of writing for comics, including a year or so of writing Action Comics, that I’m not really familiar with.
1996 – The Coen Brothers
When I was in college, I met some people who raved about a movie I’d never seen, about how good and funny it was. That was the screwball crime comedy, Raising Arizona. Later, those same people were going on about how much they enjoyed the mob film Miller’s Crossing. And then another friend was talking about how much she loved a surrealist look at life in Hollywood that was called Barton Fink. And a bit later yet another friend told me how much she thought I’d enjoy a movie she’d watched that was called The Hudsucker Proxy. And somewhere along the way my dad, of all people, talked about modern day noir film that he’d seen that he like called Blood Simple. But somehow it wasn’t until 1996 when I watched the neo-noir darkly comical Fargo that the Coen brothers got onto my radar. It’s a film that I’m not likely to watch again because of the amount of graphic sex, violence and language the it’s filled with, but at the time the gritty lunacy of the plot, style and performances completely drew me in. Frances McDormand brings to life one of film’s greatest protagonists in police chief Marge Gunderson, and the film has a fascinating sentimental quality in the midst of its moral bleakness. At the time, the films were credited only to Joel Coen as director, and Ethan Coen as producer, but the reality is that generally speaking, they produce, direct, write and edit most of their films jointly. They’ve done lots more since then, and though I don’t like them all, you can always count on something quirky and interesting going on with the Coen Brothers. My favorite film of theirs now is easily O Brother, Where Art Thou? from 2000. Borrowing as much from the work of Preston Sturges (see 1944) as it does Homer’s The Odyssey, the film is a hilarious story about a group of chain gang fugitives in the Great Depression on a flight for treasure, love and freedom, and finding all that and more as they become musical superstars.
1997 – Jeff Smith
It seems like as this list goes on, more and more of these guys come from comic books, so I guess that’s where it has to be a said a lot of my inspiration comes from. Certainly that’s true with Jeff Smith, the creator of Bone, a comic book tour-de-force that I discovered quite late in life. Bone was a 55 issue independently produced comics epic about three “Bone” cousins (think basically living cartoons) who get lost and wind up wrapped up in the affairs of humans. These affairs have to do with royal battles, mystical warriors, and ancient evils. Basically, the whole thing is as if characters from Peanuts or Pogo wandered into Lord of the Rings…and it’s absolutely epic and awesome. Jeff Smith has a cartoonist’s style and is a master of expression and visual pacing, allowing his book to be at once hilarious comedy and exhilarating adventure. Bone is available now in a variety of formats, including a series of nine trade-paperbacks. Volume 4 of these was published in 1997. Jeff Smith has also done other work, including a cool Captain Marvel comic (the DC one) called Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil which is quite good, and a more “adult” independent series called RASL which I have never read.
1998 – Aretha Franklin
Even though this isn’t the last year, Aretha Franklin is the last addition that I have added to this list. The Queen of Soul, as she is known, began singing professionally when she was very young, and had her first hit when she still a teenager. Her voice is powerful and energetic, and her most popular songs include “Respect,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Chain of Fools” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.” I’ve always enjoyed those tracks, but recently I was introduced to her gospel music through the movie Amazing Grace, and there is something transcendent about listening to her unbelievable talent lending itself to sublime songs of praise to a heavenly God. The combination of the voice and subject matter create an effect which is fittingly rapturous. In 1998, Aretha Franklin was performing at the Grammy awards when Luciano Pavarotti fell ill and had to drop out of singing the operatic piece “Nessun dorma” at the last minute. The producers turned to Aretha Franklin and she filled in without rehearsal. She was familiar with singing the song, but not normally in Pavarotti’s tenor range (which is what the accompanying orchestra were used to). Still, she stepped in, got a standing ovation, and proved once again her capacity to touch hearts with her music.
1999 – John Broome
John Broome is one of the most significant architects for the Silver Age of DC Comics, having co-created Hal Jordan (the Silver Age Green Lantern) and written many of his early stories. He also wrote a whole lot of early Barry Allen / Flash stories, starting with a story from that character’s debut issue. But Broome had actually started with DC during the “Golden Age” of comics, writing the earlier iteration of Green Lantern, the Justice Society, and more. He seems to have been cut from the same cloth as other pulp science fiction writers who have been featured on this list, such as Otto Binder (1958) or Ed Hamilton (1965), who all helped to make early DC the cool and exciting place that it was. Broome’s work on Green Lantern was especially notable, building up over his many stories a very engaging science fiction tableau of concepts, characters and threats that kept that series lively for its first decade of existence, including things Hal Jordan’s other identity as futuristic warrior Pol Manning, and the comical misadventures of Hal’s brother Jim who came to mistakenly believe he was Green Lantern, albeit with amnesia. In the midst of compelling plots, John Broome brought an incredible amount of characterization to the cocky Hal Jordan, making his efforts to win the love of Carol Ferris one of the more interesting reads compared to other similar storylines of the time. Amongst Broome’s other co-creations for DC are characters like Guy Gardner, Captain Boomerang, Captain Comet, Detective Chimp, Elongated Man, Kid Flash (Wally West), Phantom Stranger, Abra Kadabra, the Reverse Flash, Black Hand, Star Sapphire, and the Guardians of the Universe. The guy helped set the stage for a lot of things that are still mainstays in comics and their adaptations to this day. John Broome died in 1999, at age 85.
2000 – Adam Cadre
Adam Cadre is a big fish in the relatively small pond of Interactive Fiction–usually referring to a form of digital storytelling in which the reader actively participates through exploring environments, making choices, and solving problems which impact the direction and outcome of the story. I discovered these games in the glory days of Infocom and games like Zork and Planetfall. As the internet became a thing, so did the producing and distributing of them become more widespread, telling stories of all lengths, styles, genres and levels of quality. Into all this comes Adam Cadre and the game Photopia (released in 1998), which reduced the amount of control the player had but still used the interactive quality of the story as a way to immerse the reader and to call forth a powerful emotional response. Playing it and seeing how the narrative unfolds created one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had with a piece of fiction. In 2000, Cadre wrote at least two other games that also make innovative use of the medium–9:05 and Shrapnel. And he’s done more on top of that, plus written at least one novel. In 2001, Adam Cadre began the “Little-Lytton Contest”, an annual writing competition for people’s intentionally worst theoretical opening lines to a novel which are also under a certain length. It’s produced some pretty funny results. Incidentally, Adam Cadre is the first person on this list who is younger than I am.
2001 – DnA
“DnA” is shorthand for Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, two British comic book creators who had significant involvement at one point with, you guessed it, the Legion of Super-Heroes. Generally speaking, the pair plot stories together, with Abnett then providing the script while Lanning does the inks over a different penciller. Their run on the franchise began in 1999 with a soft reboot of the team with artist Olivier Coipel in a story called “Legion of the Damned” which brought in a devastating new enemy called the Blight. This was followed by the two Legion titles being cancelled with a concluding story called “Widening Rifts”, and then relaunched as the miniseries Legion Lost which ran from 2000-2001. All of these stories were excellent, with “Legion Lost” in particular being one of the best things I’d ever read, with a number of truly epic plot twists. In a book that had already been fraught with continuity relaunches (I had no idea how bad it was going to get eventually), the fact that they were able to completely revitalize the series while still respecting existing backstory was something I really appreciated. They followed this up with another miniseries called Legion Worlds, and then by on ongoing book called The Legion. Unfortunately, the book began to falter after a while, and eventually petered out without all of its plotlines resolves. Still, the earlier part of their run stands out as a good set of stories, and amongst my favorite.
2002 – Nicholas Briggs
Nick Briggs is, basically, a Doctor Who fan who made it big. Back in the 1980’s, while the original show was still on the air, Briggs was involved in the production of the Myth Makers series, which were straight to video interview documentaries with various personalities involved with the show. He also became involved in a variety of semi-official Doctor Who spin-offs, including some non-licensed audios in which he played the Doctor. Still later, he became one of the early creative forces for Big Finish Productions, who started producing fully licensed Doctor Who audio adventures featuring a lot of the original series’ cast members. Briggs actually wrote and directed the debut story of this line, Sirens of Time, and has continue do so with many other adventures over the years since then. This includes 2002 releases like Embrace the Darkness (which he wrote and directed) and The Time of the Daleks and …ish, both of which he directed only. And in 2005, Briggs became the go-to guy for the BBC itself, for the voices of the Daleks, the Cybermen, and many more of its alien and villainous creatures. Now the thing is, I’m not actually that much of a fan of Briggs’ work as a writer, but he’s been an Executive Producer for Big Finish since 2006, and is now overall responsible for its entire Main Range of Doctor Who audios. This extensive work, as well as his obvious devotion to the program, means he’s at least partly responsible for so much of the world’s Doctor Who material, lots of which I’ve enjoyed, that I have to include him here.
2003 – Aaron Sorkin
In the early 2000’s, I’d sometimes casually catch episodes of The West Wing whenever it showed up on Australian television. I frequently had no idea what was going on, was certainly mostly unfamiliar with the characters, and often could not even understand what people were talking about. But, I found myself fascinated by the show nonetheless, thanks of course to strong performances and direction, but mostly because of the incredible rhythmic dialogue, courtesy of creator-writer Aaron Sorkin. I’ve heard Sorkin say that to him, dialogue is like music, and you can definitely hear evidence of that in The West Wing–it’s almost hypnotic, and made the show fascinating to listen to. (It became even better when I started understanding the plot and characters!) Aaron Sorkin had a hand in writing all but three of the show’s first four seasons–making 85 scripts that he was directly involved with. That’s not quite as many as J. Michael Straczynski and Babylon 5 (see 1998, above), but pretty close. Sorkin left the series in 2003 after four seasons. Before and after that he wrote a whole bunch of other things I’ve really enjoyed (like The American President, A Few Good Men, and some of The Newsroom) and a bunch of things I haven’t seen (like The Social Network, Moneyball, and some of The Newsroom). He’s a pretty openly political guy, with his positions being quite clear in his work, but most of the time he’s been able to present these thoughtfully and intelligently, which I appreciate.
2004 – Darwyn Cooke
Darwyn Cooke was a Canadian artist and writer who in 2004 published a little story called DC: The New Frontier with DC Comics. It was a six issue limited series which revisited the whole history of the DC Universe, using most character’s publishing histories as a reference point. For example, in the story Hal Jordan–who was first published as Green Lantern in 1959–becomes the superhero Green Lantern in 1959. Over its nearly 400 pages, Cooke told an epic story filled with heroism and social conscience, setting its characters against many real world dynamics and events from the 1940’s & 1950’s to reveal. Cooke’s bold and retro style employed a grand “widescreen” approach which gives the story a huge sense of scope without ever sacrificing story pacing. Only rarely are there more than three panels on a page, but the visuals are so rich you never feel cheated out of actual story content. And of course, this wasn’t the only thing Darwyn Cooke did, even for DC Comics–he wrote a Superman story called “Kryptonite” with illustrations by Tim Sale, he did work on The Spirit, and he was notable for his work on a Catwoman story called “Selina’s Big Score” which betrayed his love for crime stories. And he did a bunch of great covers. But New Frontier would have been enough to get him on this list for me.
2005 – Jasper Fforde
Jasper Fforde is a Welsh author who has been my favorite modern novelist for some time. He’s best known for his “Thursday Next” series of books which kicked off with The Eyre Affair in 2001, and so far has six sequels. On top of this he has about a half dozen other books which a part of a variety of different series. Each takes place in some quirky speculative reality–one in which people hibernate, one in which social status is determined by the ability to perceive different colors, one in which fairy tale creatures exist alongside regular people. But in spite of how one-note these might sound, Fforde treats each premise thoughtfully, and crafts narratives within them that are at once quirky, intelligent and hilarious. His characters are both funny and relatable and well-developed. This is especially true of Thursday Next–a woman who works as a special operations police officer who investigates crimes related to literature, who also investigates crimes inside of the books she reads. She feels in every way like a normal human being struggling to deal with normal things–it’s just that her normality is a far cry from ours, and she tells her stories (her books are first-person narratives) in a way that assumes her reader is already familiar with the basics rules of her world. A lot of the fun of Fforde’s books is trying to keep up with almost stream-of-consciousness revelations about how the story’s world is different from ours. At the same time, he crafts compelling plots and genuinely gripping mysteries. Often the protagonist is dealing with multiple streams of challenges and complications running alongside the main plot, with both the problems and solutions dovetailing and intersecting in surprising ways. In 2005, Fforde published The Big Over-Easy, a “hard-boiled” style mystery about the death of Humpty-Dumpty, which takes place in a world where fairy tale creatures exist alongside normal humans. It’s not my favorite Fforde novel but it has all the trademarks of his work–good character development, page-turning plots and wild splashes of imagination, all wrapped up neatly between two covers.
2006 – Gene Luen Yang
Gene Luen Yang is an Asian-American writer and cartoonist who is only the second person on this list who is younger than me. He’s done some mainstream comic book work for DC but is mostly known for independent work that explores issues of identity, culture and faith. His work is consistently authentic, dramatically challenging and emotionally and spiritually uplifting. Best known of these is his 2006 work, American Born Chinese, which tells three concurrent tales (which all come together in a very surprising way at the end), all about characters struggling with some aspect of racial identity and trying to fit in. I first discovered Yang a book done with artist Derek Kirk Kim called The Eternal Smile–also a collection of three stories, all about the uncomfortable clash between fantasy and reality. I enjoyed it, but I liked something called Animal Crackers even better. Animal Crackers collects some of Yang’s earlier work, each of which make use of food as a theme, telling stories which blend, and deal with issues of alienation, forgiveness and redemption. And there are so many other examples of strong work from Yang which easily appeal to all ages: Level Up, Prime Baby, and Secret Coders, for example. He also did a hefty work called Boxers and Saints, which are two connected graphic novels which each deal with China’s Boxer Rebellion from different perspectives. For DC, Yang wrote Superman for a while, and also New Super-Man, an original story about China’s efforts to create their own Justice League. He has a young adult graphic novel coming out from DC soon called “Superman Smashes the Klan” which I’m looking forward to.