In the comic book industry, 2015 was more of the same, and that's a good thing.
More talented writers and artists teamed up with independent publishers, where they produced flashy, stellar works. At juggernauts DC and Marvel, there were more epic crossover events, culminating with each company rebooting its comic book universe and pushing it in new directions. Across the industry, there were more stories featuring nonwhite and female gunslingers, kaijus, Hulks, Thors, Spider-People, and Captain Americas — a sign that pop culture discussions of race, feminism, and diversity — conversations that began a few years ago — aren't just fads.
There were also more outstanding comic books — more than last year, and more than the year before. The overall quality of the medium is better than it's ever been, and more types of stories are being told. From world-crushing cataclysmic events to spy thrillers to a planetary prison for women behaving badly to a Muslim American girl who just wants a date — the subjects of 2015's best comic books were as disparate as the writers, artists, colorists, and letterers who created them.
Choosing 12 comic books from a year full of excellent ones was a difficult task. But here are my favorites from 2015:
Secret Wars (Marvel)
Writer Jonathan Hickman will challenge you. His work at Marvel has been a showcase of meticulous planning, interconnected stories, strange new characters, and gripping, spiraling drama. It makes sense that Marvel wanted him to helm Secret Wars, the company's six-month, universe-breaking crossover event. Combined with Esad Ribic's dreamy, ethereal art, Hickman's grand style made Secret Wars an epic, magnetic story that you almost need to read two or three times to absorb its considerable heat. The only negative thing I can say about Secret Wars is that it was plagued by delay after delay — the book would have ended up higher on this list if it had been released on time — but that wasn't enough to derail its gravity.
Image credit: (Marvel)
Bombshells would be a Cinderella story if Cinderella wore motorcycle boots and traded in her ball gown for a leather jacket. The book is set in a universe where female superheroes like Batwoman, Mera, and Wonder Woman fight Nazis, and these female heroes are all that stands between Hitler and global domination. But they're more than just a vintage, badass team of female superheroes styled as Vargas girls. The creative team of Marguerite Bennett and Marguerite Sauvage plays with the idea of living in a world where female superheroes aren't merely derivatives of the male superheroes who came before them. There's a bit of a meta-feminist origami at play, and it's executed in playful, intelligent, and deeply hilarious style.
Image credit: (DC Comics)
The Book of Death (Valiant)
While DC and Marvel were busy tearing apart their respective universes, Valiant was quietly setting the standard for how it's done. The Book of Death imagines how Valiant's superheroes would react if a child from the future showed them how they will one day meet their demise in a world-ending event. It allows for some weird stuff — including trees purposely impaling people, noxious and gnarled woodland creatures out for blood, demonic possession, and a relationship that evokes the unbreakable foster father-daughter bond of The Last of Us — that's more unbridled and sometimes even more shockingly casual than stuff you'd see at a company like Marvel or DC.
Image credit: Valiant comics
Though Monstress (more on this comic book in a bit) might give it a run for its money, there wasn't a more beautiful comic published this year than Huck, an earnest story about a Forrest Gump–like character with superpowers. I worry that the comic might eventually come off as patronizing or condescending, as it walks a fine line in its portrayal of a man with a developmental disability, but so far writer Mark Millar has managed to give the title character a dignified humanity. And really, it's artist Rafael Albuquerque's illustrations that will take your breath away. His fairy-tale style evokes an ache and sickness for the Midwest (something I didn't even know existed in me), a perfect accompaniment to the hopefulness of the book. This comic has already been optioned for a live-action cinematic adaptation, but even the most advanced CGI and meticulous cinematography might not be able to match what Albuquerque has created.
Image credit: Image Comics
Lumberjanes is the kind of comic book you wish you had when you were a kid. It's part Buffy, Daria, Adventure Time, and Tumblr all thrown into the frenetic, slapstick world of a supernatural camp for young girl scouts. It's a disarming read that invites you into a world where there's no rush to become an adult — and thankfully so, because there's too much friendship, too many mermaids, and just the right number of yetis with vintage Bieber sweeps to make you want to stay a while.
Image credit: Boom
Bitch Planet (Image)
Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artists Valentine de Landro's Bitch Planet is a love letter to women who insist on getting what they want rather than settling for what's offered. This love letter happens to take the form of vintage exploitation and grindhouse films. The story is set in the distant future where the patriarchy has gone unchecked and become omnipotent, and nonconforming women are sent to a hellish, galactic prison called Bitch Planet. Bitch Planet's feminism is angry and raw, with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer; it's the kind of comic book that would watch the world burn, leaving the tediousness of nuance and politeness to everyone else.
Image credit: Image Comics
When Grayson — a mysterious tale about Dick Grayson's new life as a spy who's cut all ties to the alter egos of Nightwing or Robin — debuted toward the end of 2014, we had to recalibrate everything we knew about the Boy Wonder. But with each panel and each page, Grayson's decision to give up superheroics for a life of international spydom made more and more sense. It allowed us to see the character in a new way without shelving the parts that made him him, while opening up an expansive world filled with spies, double agents, and humor. Writers Tim Seeley and Tom King and artist Mikel Janin (who's made Grayson the sexiest man in DC comics) invested a substantial amount of effort in building out the comic book's world, and it paid off in the 12th issue, when Grayson was reunited with his Bat family and not everyone was pleased to see him. The moment was emotional and human, revealing just how well these creators know and trust the splendid story they've created.
Image credit: DC Comics
Writer-artist Jeff Lemire is prolific. He's independently creating the fantastic sci-fi comic book Descender with artist Dustin Nguyen; at Marvel's he's in charge of the rapidly improving Extraordinary X-Men as well as Hawkeye and Moon Knight; he's also doing work at Valiant. It's possible that in a year or two, you could be reading a best-of-the-year list composed entirely of Lemire titles.
What Lemire does so very well, and better than anyone in the business right now, is conjure up the feeling of being a kid — the awkwardness, the pain, the hope, the moxie, the fear, and the fearlessness — and translate that into the pages of a comic book. He's also savvy about working with artists who complement his strengths.
This all comes together in Plutona. With Emi Lenox's delicate, thoughtful art, the book stands out as an eerie, creaky, Stand By Me–ish mystery about five suburban kids who discover that the world's strongest superhero is dead. It's a fascinating riff on the concept of superhero fatigue and fandom — but it's also about the loneliness of being a kid.
Image credit: Image Comics
Marjorie Liu's and Sana Takeda's Monstress might be the most ambitious comic book of 2015. It takes guts to go all out and create a swirling fantasy adventure against an industry that's been trending toward sci-fi, superhero, and more grounded stories, but in this case, that gamble has paid off. Liu and Takeda have created a world that's as gorgeous — think the dreamy steampunk aesthetic of the best Final Fantasy games — as it is gruesome and a story that's as urgent as it is enduring. Our heroine is Maika, a girl with a monster (a literal, hairy monster) inside of her; we get to watch her learn, and she teaches us about survival. It isn't natural. It isn't easy. It's earned.
Image credit: Image comics
The Wicked + the Divine (Image)
In 2015, The Wicked + the Divine (WicDiv) grew up.
WicDiv was my favorite comic of 2014, a chic book brimming with so much swagger. The story — 12 gods are reincarnated every 90 or so years and only allowed to live for two, so they become pop stars — began as riveting mystery. But since the title's early meteoric rise, things have settled down a bit, allowing creators Jamie McKelvie (the artist) and Kieron Gillen (the writer) to have fun and be more ambitious than they were in the first arc. The standout issue is No. 14, a dark dive into the psyche of the misogynistic Woden, a norse god who's taken the form of one half of Daft Punk. It splices together art from every other issue of WicDiv and sets that art under the patina of digital technology — exactly as a misogynistic DJ god might do.
Over the past year, this book has unfurled its wings and unveiled something bigger, badder, and grander than it first showed. When it launched, it was clear that WicDiv could be the hippest comic book in the land. What I didn't realize at the time was how good it would become at everything else.
Image credit: Image Comics
Paper Girls (Image)
Following up a hit comic like Saga would be intimidating for anyone not named Brian K. Vaughan. Saga, which Vaughan created with artist Fiona Staples, is still the standard by which all other comic books are judged. And this year, Vaughan teamed up with Cliff Chiang to deliver Paper Girls, about the weird, jaw-dropping adventures of a gang of newspaper delivery girls in suburban Cleveland (Vaughan's hometown). The story opens with an earnest, Amblin-esque vibe that sends you soaring before abruptly plunging you down into the creepy and bizarre, ultimately leaving you with the most WTF cliffhanger of the year. I have no idea where Paper Girls is going next — there are so many questions — but it's clear the ride is going to be fantastic.
Image credit: Image Comics
Ms. Marvel (Marvel)
There is no more joyful, hopeful comic in the game than Ms. Marvel. It's the story of Kamala Khan, a shape-shifting, Muslim American superhero who, at the end of the day, wants to save Jersey City and maybe snag a cheeseburger and a date along the way. The creative team behind the character and comic — writer G. Willow, artist Adrian Alphona, and editors Sana Amanat and Steve Wacker — has created an intelligent, endearing story that soars and redefines who superheroes are, what they stand for, and how we see them.
It's hard to read Ms. Marvel and not reflect on our own real-life culture and the Islamophobia that is alive and well in it. In that respect, the book takes on a weightier tone, something that feels like an alternate path that can save us from the ugly stuff that threatens to strangle our hope, our joy, and our love. That's why superheroes were first created, and it's why Ms. Marvel is one of the greatest heroes of our generation.
Image credit: Marvel Comics
Seven titles that could have easily made the list…
Ody-C is an acid-trip, high-concept riff on Homer's Odyssey. I Hate Fairyland makes me feel like a kid who just learned his first curse word and experienced all the joy that comes with it. Saga and Descender are just so very good at sci-fi. Jupiter's Circle makes me miss Mad Men a little bit less each day. And finally, I cannot stop reading Midnighter and Bizarro, two immensely entertaining DC titles that are criminally underloved.
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