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.
30. Henni (Z2 Publishing)
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.
29. Copra (Bergen Street Comics)
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.
28. The Bigger Bang (IDW Publishing)
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.
27. Hopeless Savages: Break (Oni Press)
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.
26. Shaft (Dynamite Entertainment)
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.
25. Mox Nox (Fantagraphics)
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.
24. Assassination Classroom (Viz Manga)
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.
23. Princeless: Be Yourself (Action Lab Comics)
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.
22. We Are Robin (DC Comics)
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.
21. No Mercy (Image Comics)
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.
20. Descender (Image Comics)
Dustin Nguyen should be a superstar. I’ve been yelling that to people since he was drawing future Kobra in Batman Beyond Unlimited, but on Descender, he takes his game to a whole new level. His painted artwork, the watercolor-ey wash to everything, gives the book a hazy, dreamlike quality that makes the book exciting and memorable every issue.
And Jeff Lemire is at the top of his game, too: the book has managed to assemble a classic ragtag sci-fi cast, but one piece at a time while dripping out backstory to the universe and letting the focus be on Nguyen’s fantastic artwork.
19. Vinland Saga (Kodansha Comics)
I had a conversation a couple of weeks back about manga artists who have made the jump to mainstream western comics (the same way that western creators are working on an Attack on Titan anthology), and the list we came up with was…one. Kia Asamiya, on a run of Uncanny X-Men with a man named “Chuck Austen,” a comic I’m sure I read at the time, but must have only skimmed or had my memory wiped by someone or maybe bought and never read.
But that seems ridiculous to me – look at Vinland Saga, one of the best manga published in America right now. Makoto Yukimura draws talking head panels that are as interesting as anything in western comics, and his action sequences are blazing fast but crystal clear at the same time. You can’t tell me that seeing him on a Flash comic wouldn’t be incredible.
But! If he jumped on a western comic, that would take time away from Vinland Saga, a slow burn revenge story about vikings murdering the hell out of each other and a great read every volume.
18. Wild’s End/Wild’s End: The Enemy Within (BOOM! Studios)
I.N.J. Culbard will sneak up on you. There’s nothing about his art that jumps at you right away, no stylistic flourish that makes you say “HOT DAMN That’s I.N.J. Culbard! THROW THAT ON MY PULL LIST!” But spend some time with his art (and counting the first Wild’s End and New Deadwardians, I’ve been reading his work for probably four years now) and you’ll realize that he’s quietly incredible.
Wild’s End is War of the Worlds if it happened in the countryside of anthropomorphic Edwardian England. It ended with one of the best car chases in comics all year. The Enemy Within follows that alien romp through the countryside with some good old fashioned alien invasion related government paranoia. I feel like Clive, the mastiff main character of both series, is the embodiment of everything I love about Culbard’s art: he has a facade of propriety and control, but is a ball of energy and passion underneath that’s easy to see if you look close enough.
Listen, I get that that metaphor was strained, but trust me, you should check Wild’s End out.
17. Midnighter (DC Comics)
Midnighter is another title that came up in the Bat-family roundup, but there have been developments. Like I mentioned there, Aco’s art in the fight scenes is almost David Aja/Iron Fist great, but the writing on Midnighter is just incredible. First of all, the main bad guy for the series was revealed to be Prometheus. Like with We Are Robin, that’s such a logical choice for a nemesis that the book felt right when the reveal happened – a living fight computer versus a walking bootleg program.
Steve Orlando (who has had a great year – his Virgil with JD Faith came thisclose to making the list) got free play off of Prometheus’s contrast to Midnighter, but he earned the emotional punch of the reveal by portraying Lucas and Matt’s relationship so well before the twist.
16. The Divine (First Second Books)
The comic coloring renaissance is largely responsible for The Divine’s place on this list. The story was inspired by a photograph of two Burmese child soldiers smoking a cigarette. It’s about two contractors going to blow the top off of a mountain in a made up Southeast Asian country and running into a pissed off god and the child soldiers who worship it.
Asaf and Tomer Hanuka and Boaz Lavie’s story is creative and beautiful and sad and weird, but it’s also bright and gaudy and discomforting in places and awe inspiring in others, and without those assaultive colors, the art wouldn’t have had the same impact.
15. The Autumnlands: Tooth and Claw (Image Comics)
Kurt Busiek swung hard for high fantasy with The Autumnlands and absolutely crushed it, but Ben Dewey and Jordie Bellaire have a lot to do with it. At least, it’s high fantasy now. That may change soon – the story starts out with a calcified, rigidly classed society literally collapsing, and the survivors having to pick up the pieces of that collapse. But there is a whiff of sci-fi in Learoyd’s story, and that will probably keep leaking into the comic as the story goes on.
Bellaire’s colors are up to her typical quality – that is to say they are absurdly good – and Ben Dewey, coming off of I Was The Cat can draw anthropomorphic animals….shit, this is the fourth talking pet comic so far, isn’t it. And there are ::counts:: crap two more. Oh god…am I a furry?
14. Fantasy Sports (Nobrow Press)
Everyone who does fantasy sports has at least once had someone say something like “cool have fun with your Dungeons & Baseball, dweeb” to them. The best thing about Sam Bosma’s comic is that it leans so hard into it that I think I heard “Smooth Criminal” playing while I read it.*
Fantasy Sports has treasure hunters crashing a tomb to try and dig up some loot, but they find themselves facing off with He of the Giant Steps, a mummy with a boss fade and a sick sky hook, in a game of basketball with their lives at stake. It’s Gauntlet, but also a comic book about how great basketball is.
Seriously, Bosma’s in-game scenes are so real that I ended up cheering when the book was done. There weren’t many comics this year that were more fun to read than this one.
*Judging by how frequently I listen to the entirety of Bad, it is very likely.
13. The Valiant (Valiant Comics)
You can go out right now and pick up just about any Valiant comic, and assuming it’s the first issue of a series or a new story arc, I am reasonably confident that you will like it a lot.
No publisher has been as consistently good in 2015 as Valiant has. Their ongoing series remained very good, and they had a number of limited series or new launches (Ninjak, Imperium, Divinity, the gone-too-soon Ivar, Timewalker) that were awesome.
But none of them were as good as the one they started the year with.
The Valiant was Matt Kindt, Paolo Rivera and Jeff Lemire doing some of the best superhero work of their careers. It was a rare crossover that had high stakes and an emotional payoff that actually felt like something had been changed because of it. And it was loaded with fanservice – literally everyone from the Valiant Universe showed up in the story.
I actually gave a copy of this as a Christmas gift with the express intent of getting someone into Valiant comics, and I’m 100% certain it will work.
12. Prez (DC Comics)
It hurts my heart that the DC You relaunch wasn’t the sales success that it was creatively, because it is responsible for some of the best and most different DC books of my lifetime.
Perfect point: Prez, Mark Russell and Ben Caldwell’s update of a character who showed up in four issues back in the ‘70s and that one time in Sandman, is an unqualified success. It’s satire that manages to be funny without falling into any lazy comedy tropes, a combination of off the wall absurdist humor with dry, borderline savage stabs at modern society – Pharmaduke the Drug Company Lobbyist is both ridiculous and a brutal condemnation of Marmaduke as a tool for the maintenance of a corrupt and broken society.
11. Jughead (Archie Comics)
Kaptara and Squirrel Girl and Howard the Duck are all great, but I feel like the best thing either Chip Zdarsky or Erica Henderson did this year was relaunching Jughead. It’s weird how the most restrictive universe that either creator is working in produces their best work, but I think the handcuffs of working on an immediately recognizable, archetypical character like Jughead, of working in a clearly defined world like Riverdale, serves to channel and distill Zdarsky’s humor in a way that none of his other books have.
Meanwhile, those same restrictions amplify everything that’s great about Henderson’s work – her gifts for facial expressions and body language, and her incredible comedic timing. The Archie reboot has been exceptional so far, but I think Jughead really was the best because of how it brought out the best in its creators.
10. Wuvable Oaf (Fantagraphics)
Imagine if you will Sex and the City, NO COME BACK IT GETS BETTER I PROMISE.
Ahem. Imagine that whole mess I was just talking about, only instead of being about protecting access to safe, legal vajazzling in Bahrain or some stupid shit like that, it was about bears and psychotic kittens and the overlap point on a Venn diagram of “the San Francisco gay scene” and “the San Francisco black metal scene.”
The best thing about Ed Luce’s comic is how nice it is – the comedy in Wuvable Oaf most resembles something like Parks & Recreation, where the humor comes from earnestness rather than ball-busting or something less kind. The title character is a former underground wrestler who raises cats and makes dolls out of his chest hair clippings, and he falls in love with a tiny, angry little man who sings in a metal band, and this book is the story of their courtship. It’s sweet in a completely unexpected way, and hilarious in a completely expected one.
9. Darth Vader (Marvel Comics)
The biggest crime of the prequels…okay the seventh biggest crime of the prequels is how completely and totally they neutered Darth Vader. He went from being a force of nature in the OT to being a whiny, shitty teenager, and then Lucas made him a whiny, shitty teenager in the special edition of Return of the Jedi too.
But one of the best things about 2015 is the Darth Vader redemption tour – in Rebels, they made him back into the terrifying murder machine he was in Empire Strikes Back; in The Force Awakens he’s an object of religious ecstasy; and in the comic…oh god he’s just so good.
The hardest part of this entry was deciding whether to put Vader Down as a cop out to talk about how good the main Star Wars comic also was, but ultimately what pushed Vader over the top was the scene where he finds out that his son is the pilot who blew up the Death Star. The emotion of the scene is so powerful and understated at the same time that I’m entirely confident that this is the right choice.
8. Odd Schnozz and the Odd Squad (Oni Press)
It’s weird that in a time where almost everything is angling to trigger nostalgia in its users, something like Odd Schnozz, which had very little nostalgic intent behind it, uses it better than anything else. It’s a quirky little story about a group of teenagers in Plano, Texas in a punk band that get caught up with a bunch of talking cyborg animals in a vast government-military conspiracy, and they have to win a battle of the bands while one of them is grounded.
There are traces of so many things here – Josie and the Pussycats, We3, Scott Pilgrim – but that’s only if you look hard at it. The book feels like a throwback to ‘80s teen adventure movies like Goonies or Adventures in Babysitting without ever being referential of them. That’s a great accomplishment, and why I knew as soon as I read it that it was one of my favorite comics from this year.
7. The Private Eye (Panel Syndicate)
There’s been a lot of innovation in comics this year. And by “innovation,” I mean “a dramatic shift in the funding model to the point where even big companies think it’s ok to beg for cash on the internet.” So the nice thing about The Private Eye is the fact that Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin played off of their considerable reputations to actually make some cash off of a pay-what-you-want model of funding.
Also the nice thing about The Private Eye is that it’s crazy good.
I want Martin and BKV to work together forever – this was maybe the best looking comic of the year (especially in the horizontal deluxe edition that Image put out. Hooray coffee table book!). It was an interesting experiment in worldbuilding: whereas most stories concerned about privacy feel spartan and paranoid and singular because of how personal information is being hoarded and used privately, in The Private Eye the inciting event for the society is when every tidbit of everyone’s personal information is dumped online, and the focus is mostly on staying untraceable so none of that can exist any longer. The book was fascinating as a story and stunning as a piece of comic art.
6. Secret Wars (Marvel Comics)
Delays or not, Secret Wars has been the best big-2 crossover I’ve ever read. The series inspired some truly wonderful tie-in comics (Infinity Gauntlet and Civil War were good enough to justify the whole event even if it were bad), but nothing compares to the feeling I had when I finished reading the first issue and screamed “HOLY SHIT” into an empty room because I realized I stopped breathing for a minute.
Esad Ribic is worth every penny Marvel’s paying him, because every time he puts pencil to paper (or stylus to Wacom pad or whatever…YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN), the art that comes out is epic and beautiful. Secret Wars functions as the culmination of the meta-story Jonathan Hickman’s been telling since he first started writing at Marvel – he’s drawn on everything from S.H.I.E.L.D. to The Ultimates to really finish the emotional story of Reed Richards that he started when he took over on Fantastic Four, and with one issue to go, it has felt every bit as epic and emotional as its lead up.
5. March: Book Two (Top Shelf Comics)
Congressman John Lewis is a national treasure. He’s a civil rights hero who committed himself to public service at an early age and never turned away from that calling. He’s also an incredible storyteller, and Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, the Fellowship of Reconciliation comic book about the Montgomery bus boycott that inspired Lewis not only to join the movement, but to tell his story in graphic novel form, is to all our benefit.
Nate Powell, the artist working with Congressman Lewis and Andrew Aydin to tell this story, is an inspired choice for translating that story into comic form. Powell is a meticulous craftsman, using every corner of the page and every comics storytelling trick to amplify the mood of the segment of story he’s telling, and his heavy inks and impeccable pacing turns the second volume of this story from an exceptional but standardly structured biography comic to a historical story that’s genuinely scary: its focus is on the Freedom Rides, and there’s one passage where the bus gets firebombed that scared me more than any of the best horror comics out there did this year.
4. Nanjing: The Burning City (Dark Horse Comics)
It feels weird to read a comic and know immediately that it’s going to be taught in high schools, but I’m pretty sure Ethan Young’s Nanjing: The Burning City will be. It’s a fictionalized account of the Japanese capture of Nanjing, following two Chinese soldiers as they try and pick their way through the bombed out hull of the city back to a (bullshit, as we find out) “safe zone.”
Young’s art is classically cartoony, and sharply contrasts with the savagery he shows on the page. It’s stunning work, and one of the most emotionally affecting comics I read all year.
3. Step Aside, Pops (Drawn & Quarterly)
Kate Beaton is brilliant. She’s a gifted cartoonist not because of the detail she puts into the work, or her drafting ability, but because of her comedic timing and the way she sells her jokes. Comic book comedy is hard, and smart comedy is tougher, but she combines the two so well that I’m dumbstruck and jealous at the same time.
I don’t think I went more than a page in Step Aside, Pops, the second collection of Beaton’s comics, without laughing hard. There’s something about the way she uses intellect in everything, from the Wuthering Heights jokes to the velocipedestrienne to angry, chain-smoking Wonder Woman, that makes them hilarious.
This is another comic I gave as a Christmas present, and I read through it three times before I handed it off. “For research.”
2. Omega Men (DC Comics)
Remember how I said I wasn’t going to make this list “25 books that were good and also everything from Tom King that was as good or better”? I’m sticking to that, but there’s no way I’m going to miss an opportunity to gush about Omega Men, the ballsiest comic of the year by a country mile.
It starts out with the Omega Men fake-beheading Kyle Rayner like they’re space ISIS in a free preview comic that DC gave away. Then the first issue has a Vegan (from Vega, not an herbivore) soldier learning how to say “We are friends” in the language of the people he’s heading to kill.
It’s hard to separate King’s past life as a CIA staffer from his work here, and the sense of brutal honesty only makes the comic that much more effective. It helps that the script and layouts are meticulous, and that Barnaby Bagenda is incredible at drawing action scenes – the sword fighting sequence in issue 3 is amazing, methodical and narratively significant.
Everything King wrote in 2015 was worth whatever you had to pay to read it – Grayson, Vision, The Sheriff of Babylon, that Green Lantern-Darkseid War tie in – but Omega Men is a comics masterpiece, and you’re doing yourself a disservice if you’re not checking it out.
1. Two Brothers (Dark Horse Comics)
It feels weird to gush about Omega Men so much and then have one comic ranked higher, but while Omega Men is an incredible feat of comics storytelling, Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon’s Two Brothers is an amazing piece of literature.
The Brazilian cartoonists adapted The Brothers, a novel by Milton Hatoum about a Lebanese family living in Manaus just after World War II. The story is about the brothers slowly growing to hate each other, and the lengths to which they’ll go to screw with the other; about a family disintegrating and the father’s heartbreak watching it fall apart.
I read both the novel and the comic, and the reason Ba and Moon’s comic is at the top of the list is because it’s the rare case of an adaptation being better than the source material. Hatoum’s novel takes its time establishing the atmosphere of Brazil and Manaus, while Moon and Ba cram all of that detail into the background of the panels, making the story move quicker but be more immersive at the same time.
And there are sequences that the comic flat out does better than the book: there is a key sequence in the middle of the story where one of the brothers has his new girlfriend at the house during a party, and she dances for the entire room in a silver dress. That sequence is important and interesting in the novel, but it is positively vibrant in the comic, because of how well Moon and Ba use light and shadow leading up to it, making Dalia’s silver dress radiant because of its lack of any inks at all and making her dance feel as momentous as the book makes it out to be.
I’ve read this comic three times since I got it, and every time more details jump out and the story becomes even richer than the last. Two Brothers was easily the best comic I read this year.