THE BEST OF THE BEST: 2016
Lots of people do year end review lists. They drag out lists of 10, 20, or even 25 of the best movies, games, comics, and so on. This list is a little different for 2016. For a lot of us, from the elections to the loss of Carrie Fisher to our own personal demons, 2016 represents dizzying highs and terrifying lows. For whatever reason, those lows seemed so much lower this last year. I want to ignore the lows and the also-rans and focus on the best of the best. What were the moments in pop culture that really gave me a new or exciting familiar experience? What are the things that I want to share with everyone else, as a reminder that, hey, even in the darkest of times life is worth living? This list of bests is personal, opinionated, and maybe wrong. These are the bests based on critic scores or technical categories.
Nope. These are the things that made an impact on me, personally, in 2016… A year that started with a whimper, saw me hospitalized for mental illness, and ended with a strong, hopeful note with an engagement and huge plans for Nerdbot. Give the things – oddball and other – that I loved this year a shot.
MY COLLECTIBLE OF THE YEAR
When did 2016 become the year of the Funko Pop? Those stupid, deformed plastic bobble head things were all over the damned place. I swear everyone I know has one at their desk. Hell, I even have one on my desk from a movie I don’t even like. Thanks, society, for convincing me the new Beanie Baby crazy was a good idea. I swear that even if you hated these things, they’d give you one at birth and make you enjoy it. I can’t even think of a licensed property that doesn’t have a Funko Pop anymore. Will 2017 be the year the market bursts for these things?
MY MEME OF THE YEAR
In a year that gave us Harambe, alt-right Pepe, and more Kermit than we actually needed, the one meme that consistently made me laugh was Joe Freaking Biden. Our current Vice President is a guy that I like as a person and a politician, for better or worse, but that isn’t what makes these memes hit me in the funny bone. Nope. The Joe Biden memes encapsulate all of our experiences and pop culture, pushed through a needle that mixed a real person with some weird archetype of a goofy best friend. And it’s all hilarious.
Whether Joe Biden is staring longingly out a window while thinking about hiring the Avengers, or dropping some rap lyrics in the back of a presidential limo, he’s the best friend we all needed in 2016. It didn’t matter where you stood on the political spectrum or if you even liked the guy, you laughed when he asked ridiculously childlike questions into Obama’s years or refused to let the new guy come into the white house without being pranked. It was a playful, irreverent bit of fun in a time where people were seemingly violently opposed to one another. We could all stand back, laugh, and wish Joe Biden was our buddy.
MY CULTURAL REFERENCE OF THE YEAR
Every year we get some new reference to beat into the ground. “Wasssssup?!” “It’s time to make the donuts.” “Call it, friend-o.” Whatever that reference was, it was something that you would knowingly quote a few times, then beat into the ground with a big honking stick of humorlessly confusion. This year it had to have been the Member Berries from South Park.
For some reason the last few years have been a rocket ride into nostalgia land. There are seemingly no new ideas of properties coming out from anywhere. When a big movie comes out, it’s marred by self-referential winks and nods. Want to see Rogue One? Great! Here’s some creepy, CGI versions of those characters you loved. Want to watch a comic book movie? Awesome! Here are 30 references to other things you grew up with. Oh, and here are 76 remakes and reboots of things because new ideas are hard. Even our political and societal gauges seemed to point squarely back into the past, into a life that wasn’t really as good as we all remembered on Christmas morning as a kid…
Then the Member Berries showed up, showing us that, yes, nostalgia is our weird, funny addiction. We get high off of things we remember and we will go back asking for more. “Member Chewbacca? I member.”
MY TV SHOW OF THE YEAR
This year I really stopped watching episodic TV. It wasn’t that there aren’t great shows. Hell, this is a second Golden Age for television right now, with the best writing, acting, directing, and stories being found on the small screen. See, I had an opposite problem. I’m busy. There are tons of great shows. I can’t watch them all. A few I have to make time for – The Simpsons, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Game of Thrones, The Flash – and a few I wanted to make time for but really didn’t – Luke Cage, Black Mirror.
Luckily I did make time for something new and, dammit, if I wasn’t rewarded. Stranger Things is a rare moment where the Member Berries are running high but the result is entirely new. Stranger Things is basically every 80’s to early 90’s horror movie and kid adventure story combined into one movie that, somehow, works greater than the sum of the parts. There are moments, scenes, and archetypes lifted straight out of other things… ET, The Goonies, and more combined like some kind of weird Voltron robot into a super show of awesomeness.
How did it mesh so well? Good writing. Fun directing. Brilliant child actors. The right combination of cheese and seriousness. Memorable moments. Stranger Things had a little bit of all that, and then some, and if you don’t go watch it you are doing yourself a disservice. It’s the perfect balm for that burn I was feeling from all the lackluster horror properties out there.
MY CON OF THE YEAR
It may be self-serving to say so, but Nerdbot-Con was absolutely my con of the year. Lots of us go to conventions for many, many reasons. Some of us go to see our favorite celebrities. Some of us go to buy cool merchandise. Some of us go to wear cosplay, be seen, party, meet fellow nerds, or just because we were bored that day. Helping to put on a smooth, fun con like Nerdbot-Con was a real pleasure.
I got to say hi to a few folks I’d only met online or who had commented positively (and negatively) on my writing and videos. I met one of the few celebrities I go giddy for, John K, creator of Ren & Stimpy. He even said he liked my tattoo! I worked. I ran panels. I learned interesting tidbits and factoids from cosplayers, video creators, transgender folks, kids who make their own costumes, and more. It was a blast. I also managed to see many of my friends grow and prosper, performing on stage or just fitting in to their little niche. My recommendation is that in 2017 you stop by our con… And if you don’t want to, hit up some other smaller ones. Skip the big, overproduced Hollywood conventions and go to a small one run by geeks, nerds, and regular people who care about the culture they’re a part of.
If you have the chance, work at one! Most positions are volunteer. Forgo the pay for a day or a weekend and see what it’s like to meet thousands of folks, some of whom are amazing and a few of whom are jerks, while having a unique experience unlike any other. Standing in line for 13 hours at Comic Con can be a cultural touchstone moment for you. Helping run a panel at a convention run by a couple of people who care about the convention can be a life changer.
MY SCIENCE OF THE YEAR
It’s no secret that I am a science nerd. I am a professional scientist. I read science articles for fun. I write science-fiction. I read science-fiction. I read books about biology. This is the person I am and I am proud of it. Luckily, 2016 was full of discoveries and scientific problems. Really, this was the year of the battle over Climate Change. The science shows what’s happening but big swaths of the world are choosing to ignore it. But there was another, far stranger science story in 2016 that drew my interest like no others have in a long time.
This year was the year of the alien megastructure. For those not keeping tabs, star KIC 8462852 is a weird one. Astronomers using the Kepler telescope to hunt for planets notice an unusual dimming of the light coming from that star. Science fun: To search for planets, scientists often look at stars and see if the light dims on a regular basis coming from that star. Imagine a fly passing in front of a lightbulb. With strong enough instruments, you can measure that light overtime and notice that something small passed in front of it. Then you do some complicated science stuff and, hey, it could be a planet! Or any number of other celestial objects or physical reasons a light might dim. However, KIC 8462852 doesn’t seem to fit the characteristics of any known reason that a star’s light might dim on an irregular basis.
They key, here, is that the dimming is irregular. Objects orbiting a star should pretty much go around in the same amount of it. Here we have a star where everything seems random. After people much smarter than me ruled out the possibilities of things like dust clouds or comet clusters, they were left with a few ideas. Could it be a weird magnetic field? Could it be a new, undiscovered phenomenon? Or could it be… aliens building a giant object like huge solar collectors around a star? Well, it could be aliens. It probably isn’t aliens. But the fact that it could be aliens makes this discovered exciting and brings us one step closer to finding life outside of earth. Plus, it might help get people excited about space in 2017.
MY COMIC OF THE YEAR
This year was all about my rediscovery of comic books as a tool for storytelling. It wasn’t that I ever stopped reading, enjoying, and collecting comics. It was just that life was getting in the way of treating comic books as much more than a chore and a collectible. Luckily I found time to sit down and truly read comics. I read everything from most of the original 80’s Transformers run to weird, underground stuff you find at Goodwill. It was Vision that really made a lasting impression.
Vision actually started in late 2015 but finished up late this year. It’s hard to describe what the comic is really about without ruining what made the comic so good. Imagine if Vision tried to live a normal life, surrounded by his weird android family in kind of a cross between the Stepford Wives and the old 70’s Avengers comics. Then add some intrigue, death, love, and a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor. That’s about all I can say about the Vision solo run without ruining it. If you like sci-fi, superheroes, or character driven graphic novels, pick it up. It’s worth it. It also acts as the perfect foil for the mindless punching found on the big screen.
MY BOOK OF THE YEAR
I’ve read a ton of books this year, and listened to a ton more in my car heading to and from work. I finally got through the Game of Thrones books, read tons of graphic novels, and got back into the swing of reading science books regularly. Of all the random books in fiction and non-fiction that I read this year, the one that really felt like a book for 2016 was Bad Clowns by Benjamin Radford.
How circuitous a journey we had this year, somehow finding a crazy evil clown crazy along the way. Mr. Radford’s look at the bad clown archetype in history and modern culture was a perfect accompaniment for the strangeness we all suffered through. It’s a relatively short, fun read that gives a good overview of the clown cultural meme, dealing with everything from a masturbating TV clown to the Joker to serial killers. It’s fun, I learned something, and I got some ideas for my own fiction writing: the 3 things that I demand from my memorable books.
MY GAME OF THE YEAR
This year, I haven’t had nearly as much time to play video games as I wanted to. I’ve also found that the truly immersive games take too much time to get into, and as I get older I prefer games that I can take in mini information packets. This is one of the reasons why I play so many retro and portable games, but it’s also a result of the current game industry. Games are becoming the new blockbuster movies… Or, really, they have been for a while. Most of the major titles have a very similar art style and format, with similar character designs and voice acting. It’s not that they are bad games. On the contrary, many of them are excellent when I get a chance to sit down. It’s just that they aren’t, I guess, my games.
That’s where Pokemon GO comes in. Pokemon GO is not at all a good game. It was oversold, had a major lack of features, was buggy as hell, and became too much of an “it” game for the world. Still it got me – and almost everyone I know – outside and catching Pokemon for a couple of weeks to a few months. When was the last time any game had such a huge, rabid success on day 1? It was the first Nintendo app… Actually, no, it wasn’t. It was the second, kind of, if you count a controlling stake in Pokemon as being owned by Nintendo. It was the first major app that… No, it wasn’t. In no metric was this game amazing, groundbreaking, or important. Somehow, someway, Pokemon GO became a cultural phenomenon in spite of its massive failings. Oh, and even though it kind of sucked (and still does), it was fun. I got out, met people, and visited locations I never would’ve gone otherwise. It’s the perfect summary of 2016: not the thing we wanted or deserved, but somehow the thing we needed.
Though now I am stuck saying that, yes, I have a Pokemon tattoo but, no, it has nothing to do with Pokemon GO.
MY MOVIE OF THE YEAR
I am feeling the comic book movie fatigue. I have been collecting and reading comic books since I can remember. Marvel. DC. Image. IDW. Vintage. New. I am the exact market for comic book movies, superhero and otherwise. This year, though… Ugh. I am feeling the fatigue of all these explosions and destruction porn. Most of the movies Marvel brings out have been good. DC… Well, Batman movies are usually good. Usually. And now I have to watch a Star Wars movie every single year. I am just overwhelmed by it all. Part of the problem is that they really have 1 or 2 plots, recycled ad libitum until we finally give up leaving our houses.
Then came Deadpool. Deadpool was the same plot, kind of. It was the same basic bullet points for how to make a superhero movie. It had a likable, handsome lead. It had action and comedy and importance and destruction and… But it was the movie I needed in 2016 to remind me why I loved comic books to begin with. Deadpool was utter escapism that reminded the audience that it knew what we liked about comics. Everything didn’t need to be serious, weighted with the fate of the world, or full of devastating loss. We could have a real, honest feeling love story. We could have self-referential comedy. We could have fun. It was the antithesis of Batman v. Superman and Civil War. This was a movie designed to make you enjoy yourself for a couple of hours and leave quoting everything .Sometimes it’s really great to think about the gravity of your actions. Sometimes you want dick jokes. With all that was going on in 2016, I needed dick jokes.
MY MOMENT OF THE YEAR
The one moment that defined by 2016 more than any others was my engagement at Disneyland. Halfway through 2016 I was in the hospital for mental health issues and then at the end of it, I was on one knee outside the Haunted Mansion asking a beautiful blonde Nerdbot Girl to marry me. This year was a bizarre one, full of ups and downs, capped off by a strange day at Disneyland. It was great, our friends came, and I managed to not stumble too much over my own need for wordiness. It’s also bittersweet that the ring I had made was modeled after Princess Leia’s gold slave bikini and Carrie Fisher also left us in 2016. Maybe that’s the takeaway that the year gave us: there will be dizzying highs and painful lows, but we will get through it all.
Oh, and I got to meet Chewbacca at Disneyland!