This past year was an exceptional one for comics. With webcomics and the proliferation of small press publishers, the barriers to entry for new creators are lower than ever, and with an infusion of new voices comes a rush of new and outstanding storytelling. So narrowing down the best comics of 2015 to even 30 was a daunting task.
I gave myself some rules:
- I didn’t want to be redundant. I could easily have filled this list with Image books, or spent six entries talking about Tom King or wrote up all fifty Secret Wars miniseries (I typed, ominously). So I tried to have publisher, genre, and creator balance in what I picked.
- When choosing books for the list, I went with gut reactions more than anything else. I looked back at all the comics I read this year and thought “What do I really want to talk about? What can I add to the conversation about them?” And that’s why there are some obvious omissions from this list.
My biggest problem with my own rankings is that they seem to penalize continued excellence: books like Saga or The Wicked + The Divine or Batman will come off my pull list when you pry them off with a crowbar, but when I thought about what the best comics of the year were, I think I took them for granted because they have operated at such a high level so consistently for years now. But rest assured, they remain incredible books.
That said, here, without reservation, are the 30 best comics I read in 2015.
If you ever thought “What if Margaret Atwood and Maurice Sendak made a comic together?” then have I got the comic for you.
Henni is a smart, accessible, gorgeous allegory from Miss Lasko Gross, an indie cartoonist who had previously specialized in semi-autobiographical comics. It’s the story of a young girl cat person (it’s not really clear what exactly they are, but it’s also not terribly important) whose innate brightness and relationship with her somewhat rebellious father cause her to start questioning the fundamentalist society in which she lives. And from there, Henni is transported into a great, classic adventure. This was a solid first volume, and I look forward to reading more of the story.
Here’s the thing with homage: if it’s not done perfectly, it just looks like it’s traced over the old art. There’s a fine line between “respectfully honoring influential work” and “making a shitty duplicate of influential work.” But the other side of the coin is that when it’s done perfectly, it ceases to be referential almost immediately. Part of the fun of Michel Fiffe’s Copra, a series that started as a riff on old Jon Ostrander Suicide Squad and Doctor Strange stories, is spotting the references, but the similarities are only there on the most superficial level.
The reality is I’ve never seen a superhero comic like this before. There are panels that are so indie in their construction - stark, simple headshots done with colored pencils and printed to look like a hand-run zine - and then there are pages that rival the psychedelia of the most intricate artists working in comics today, zigzagging across a two page spread to show the characters bouncing back and forth between dimensions. Copra is a labor of love for Fiffe, but it is so good I want it to make him wildly wealthy.
Vassilis Gogtzilas is a madman. Simply describing the plot of The Bigger Bang makes it sound like a standard, done-a-million-times superhero comic - Superman flies around the galaxy saving the broccoli people from the Dark Phoenix Saga. DJ Kirkbride’s script does a good job of differentiating Cosmos, the main character, from other Superman knockoffs, but even done well, it’s not anything that hasn’t been done before.
But Gogtzilas’s art is stunning: reading it, I felt like I was just seeing Bill Sienkiewicz or Sam Keith for the first time. I just scrolled through every page muttering “oh man” to myself. The painted artwork is stunning to look at: so well crafted, but at the same time exaggerated like the most ridiculous comic art is. Especially the cover of issue 4: you can see texture and brushwork on it that makes it look like a photograph of an oil painting. I’m still a little tingly thinking about it.
I don’t think there was a comic this year that had art better matched to the dialogue than Jen Van Meter and Meredith McClaren’s latest volume of Hopeless Savages. It’s the latest volume in a longer story about a family of old punk rockers and their kids, particularly Zero, the youngest daughter, and her band’s Holograms/Misfits style rivalry on their first tour).
The dialogue is heavily stylized, very distinct and with an almost manic patter. That might be detrimental in the hands of another artist, but McClaren’s art only makes it better. She draws the characters with vivid expressions, overflowing with energy and emotion that is perfectly suited to the dialogue, making Hopeless Savages a ton of fun to read.
Shaft was another outstanding creative team that fit well together. Bilquis Evely’s art was a lot more subtle than one would expect from a Shaft comic, but that fit much better with the story that David Walker told.
This Shaft wasn’t the blaxploitation movie hero. He was, as the theme song promised, a vastly more complicated man, but a smart one, too, one who knew not just how to beat The Man, but to make sure he stayed beat. Walker and Evely did a great job of making Shaft both relatable and a supreme badass at the same time. This was a really good comic.
It’s been a great year for humor comics, but I don’t think anything made me laugh quite as hard as one page from Spanish cartoonist Joan Cornella’s collection, Mox Nox. A woman is putting a baby in a recycling bin, and a man comes over, furious, and takes the baby out of her hands and moves it into the regular trash.
The combination of absurd, disturbing, almost evil subject matter with the Weeble-looking people and the vacant expressions, the empty smiles on all the characters’ faces makes Mox Nox ridiculous and hilarious.
I’ve read thousands of stories of misfit teenagers finding their calling through unexpected mentors. The most unexpected mentor out of all of them in this style has to be Korosensei, the smiley faced tentacle monster with the power to travel at mach 20, who can blow up half the moon with a glance and who manages to be the most caring, interested, and skilled teacher the students of class 3-E have ever had.
This comic would be rote if it wasn’t so bizarre, but once you move past the deliberate oddness of it, you also find a really earnest, endearing story. I made a resolution last year to start reading more manga, and Assassination Classroom totally validated that decision.
Jeremy Wheatley and Emily Martin’s latest volume of Princeless, the much-loved story of seven princess sisters who decide to forge their own paths, could very easily be preachy and terrible. But it’s not, because both of them have a great sense of humor about the fantasy tropes they’re playing with and because the characters have distinctive, enjoyable personalities that make it easy to see why people really appreciate this series.
Be Yourself is the story of Angoisse, the sister with middle child syndrome, a goth who lets others define her value for her; and her sister Adrienne, the oldest who’s fleeing her destiny to be a demure Queen and trying to swashbuckle her sisters out of the various fantasy dungeons they’re trapped in. The plot isn’t innovative, but the book is dotted with so many fun details (like a goblin pool with a swim up bar) that it’s still exciting to crack open every month.
I talked a little about this back when I did my quick survey of the Bat-books, but We Are Robin is one of the most unique comics DC put out all year. The latest development in the story - Robin War, where the 1 percenter Court of Owls decides they’ve had enough of these commoners thinking they can make a difference, so they declare war on the bird-themed sidekicks - is such a perfect concept that part of me thinks they created this whole book just to do this story.
But even with that being great, issue #4 stands out. James Harvey’s art in particular is an incredible accomplishment as a corporate comic - it’s so different from everything else that’s come from Marvel or DC, and that made it one of the best single issues of any comic I read all year.
Teenagers are grating and annoying and generally suck. This isn’t meant to be a rant about the damn kids these days and their damn smartphones all over my damn lawn. Teenagers are also inventive and passionate and creative in ways that adulthood hasn’t been able to beat out of them yet. No, it’s just an observation/confession: 18 year olds almost universally think they’re smarter and more indestructible than they actually are.
Capturing that essence in a way that isn’t grating or disingenuous is almost impossible, though. That’s what makes Carla Speed McNeil and Alex de Campi’s Image series about a college group travelling to Mexico such a great accomplishment. Every single one of these kids feels real and honest in a way that is rarely captured in any media. Which makes the creative team a bunch of sadists, to be honest: the horrors they’re putting the characters through are nasty - a bus crash far away from people, ravenous wildlife, drug gangs, terrible planning - but they’re incredibly entertaining to read.