For all things sequential art, this year was arguably a time of transition. The biggest publishers embarked on two of the riskiest and most complex projects in their given histories, issuing editorial mandates to reshape the core values and directions for dozens of properties. Between Marvel’s Secret Wars and DC’s Convergence, three fourths of the comics market leaned toward more inclusive and fun titles. While few creators hit a new stride under these parameters, it sets the stage for a more diverse and eclectic playground than available in years’ past.
On the independent front, 2015 saw continued dialogue between the digital and print world, hinting at a very comfortable symbiosis more than a ragged competition. A significant number of books on this list started life on the digital screen before segueing to more refined and tactile incarnations between two covers.
For the big strokes, it was a year that amplified breadth and scope; even as The Big Two came to terms with characters designed for a growing readership, comics continued to address every other taxonomy of form and function. Jennifer Hayden’s The Story of My Tits deftly maneuvers cancer and gender identity, carrying Harvey Pekar’s legacy to new conversations. Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell continue to chart the elusive growth of the Civil Rights movement in March, and don’t get us started on the historical tear machine that is Nanjing: The Burning City. In summary, good comics were published in 2015. Here are the ones we liked a lot.
Craig Thompson’s work has continually flirted with adorable sprites and embraced precious coming-of-age epiphanies, though Good-Bye, Chunky Rice, Blankets and Habibi were all firmly tailored for adult eyes. Space Dumplins makes no mistake about its intentions as a space odyssey for grade-school explorers, framed through the eyes of a young girl coping with her father’s dangerous profession snatching industrial debris from the cosmos. What follows addresses real-world issues of catastrophe-driven displacement and classism through science fiction, with one foot in ‘70s Heavy Metal (sometimes literally) and the other in ‘20s Looney Tunes whimsy. Combined with Dave Stewart’s psychedelic color palate, Thompson’s maiden voyage into kids comics is absolutely stunning and emotionally engulfing. Sean Edgar
Comic books are a static, silent medium, so it’s a forgivable offense when they get music wrong. That’s not the case in Brenden Fletcher and Annie Wu’s ultra-fun Black Canary, which follows a brooding Dinah Lance on a tour that makes early-‘90s Guns N’ Roses concerts look like storytime at Ben Stein’s house. Through this re-vamped take on Black Canary, Dinah’s fallen into the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle—but instead of VH1-ready storylines, the music actually has something to do with her redemption, not her downfall. Here, Fletcher’s weaved a story that is enhanced (but not hindered) by rock ’n’ roll, but Wu’s kinetic comic renderings make the whole thing work. Tyler R. Kane
Good luck coming up with an easy summary of Incidents in the Night, David B.’s series of graphic novels. There are elements of a paranoid conspiracy thriller: in the first volume, David B. learns of the existence of a mysterious newspaper and a secret society, and teams up with a morally grey inspector, Commissioner Hunborgne, and a reporter named Marie to investigate them. Whether it’s read as a strange meditation on storytelling and obsession or a detective story unlike any other, this volume of Incidents in the Night has plenty of strange and compelling narratives to offer. As befits a story in which rare books and obscure histories play a key role, there’s a slightly insular quality here. The story being told is cerebral and visceral in equal measure, and it succeeds impressively in both qualities. Tobias Carroll
COPRA embarks on a multi-dimensional epic featuring characters from other worlds, a macabre “no one is safe” attitude and unpredictable danger around every corner. And looking at recent issues, it’s easy to see that Michel Fiffe has no plans to take it easy on his creation; recent issues have added major tonal shifts to the book, and we’re left with a real “who will survive and what will be left of them situation.” But even with an end in mind and most pages full of doom, Fiffe has not lost any of his initial inspiration or drive. Matthew Meylikhov
The original Squirrel Girl may have been created by Will Murray and Steve Ditko in the early 1990s, but The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl feels like writer Ryan North (Dinosaur Comics) and artist Erica Henderson just dreamed up an entirely original character. This new title thrives in a world defined by indie, off-the-wall whimsy, but also embraces the overarching Marvel Universe by poking fun at everything in it (especially itself). And if any long-time Marvel buffs don’t like Squirrel Girl’s lighthearted style, rest assured that she doesn’t care. Lilith Wood
As recently as last year, one was more likely to find an Archie Digest at the drug store than in a comic store. But with 2015’s Archie rebranding from Mark Waid, Fiona Staples and Annie Wu, the company brought on popular comics creators and took the Riverdale squad into the 21st century. An unbashed (and super fun) update, the series flips the Betty-Archie-Veronica love triangle on its head, with dopey Archie Andrews as the frequent cause of independent Betty and fish-out-of-water Veronica’s troubles.
Oh, yeah, and the titular character’s hot. And with the first few issues drawn by Saga favorite Fiona Staples, it suddenly becomes a little clearer why girls would actually fight over Archie. Tini Howard
Informed by dreams and shot through with gut-level anxiety rather than heroic cliché, Black River winds in an unpredictable pattern. No one is safe. No one is nice. Any one of its characters could be us. As population density increases, the idea of starting anew with all the amenities of modern life and very few of the world’s current people has a kind of appeal, but Black River is nothing but nightmare. There’s no wish fulfillment anywhere in the book, which is probably what makes it burrow into your brain and stay there. Hillary Brown
Southern Bastards is about a man coming to grips with the evil of his predecessors and the hopeless place he hails from. It’s most evident in Latour’s excellent, expressionist artwork — dark shadows constantly cover the cast. Any worthwhile Southern lit gets compared to Faulkner or O’Connor or McCullers, and even though the violence is at the forefront of Southern Bastards, the sadness and the pain of the South lies almost visible just underneath. It’s not a story of the South — it’s the story of the South. Garrett Martin
Joann Sfar’s art in Pascin skips, skitters, blurs, jumps around, gets blotchy, and then straightens out for a bit. The panels, when they exist, are blobby and uneven. The faces recall every negative thing that’s been said about modern art since the Impressionists made their appearance on the scene. Sfar is never afraid to make his work ugly, but it always contains an underlying glimmer of delight, which is what makes his stuff so readable. It might be messy, but there’s a real joy in its execution, and he presents his subject as coming from the same place—whether or not it’s true is irrelevant. This graphic novel feels like truth, or, as Picasso said of art, it’s a lie that makes us realize truth. Hillary Brown
Now concluded, Mind MGMT’s grand tapestry unfolded beautifully. Marked by its deft foreshadowing, sucker-punch back matter and clever twists, this series has always read like a labor of love that absorbed hour upon hour of writer/artist Matt Kindt’s time. That same care lies in the stylized linework and moody washes of autumnal colors as well. This book simply reads and looks singular, distilled narrative excellence that could only come from one patient auteur. Sean Edgar
Scott Snyder has always been a professed Stephen King fan, and that influence has never loomed larger over Snyder’s writing than in Wytches. The bare bones plot summary could apply to some of King’s most-loved works: a troubled writer in a small New England town struggles to save his family against a classic horror threat made newly terrifying. What sets Wytches apart from the slew of similarly King-inspired tales is the distorted, haunting artwork from Jock, made even eerier by Matt Hollingsworth’s wild splatters of color. Every page, even the most mundane scene, feels murky, off-kilter, and sinister. The story so far, driven by small-town conspiracies, a headstrong and troubled daughter, and grotesque, primal reimaginings of the witch myth, built beautifully to this year’s oversized first arc finale. Steve Foxe
Michael DeForge had a tremendous 2014. The cartoonist’s year kicked off with Ant Colony, followed up with A Body Beneath (Koyama Press’ collection of his occasional publication, Lose), concluded with Lose #6, and featured plenty of his singular webcomic, Sticks Angelica. Those are just some of the main works that marked the 365 days that concluded last month; he catalogues the full list on his website. Not only did he produce sequential art like a comics firehose, but the quality remained unbelievably high, marked by experimentation with both form and content. Now with the new year kicked off, DeForge has released the print version of First Year Healthy, a short Christmas tale that he originally posted online. Transformed into a physical object by publisher Drawn & Quarterly, the pages feel bigger and the colors subtler; and the three different finishes on the front cover will make you want to repeatedly run your fingertips over it. Explaining what it’s about (a woman starts a new life in a small town) is, as is often the case with DeForge, besides the point. Hillary Brown
Jennifer Hayden’s funny, sad, stunning graphic novel remixes various pieces of her life centered around a mastectomy in the wake of a diagnosis that 12 percent of all women encounter. Arranged in uniform four-panel pages, the loose art invites the reader on a journey that not only confronts mortality, but the neglected, bizarrely-important implications of breasts on identity and self-esteem. From Hayden witnessing her father’s living room pile of nudie magazines as a child to the daunting choice of reconstructive surgery, the impact of women’s chests on society receives a thorough examination. Hayden remains a relatable, charming guide throughout all 349 pages, offering a new touchstone of empathy and endurance that deftly complements the best work of slice-of-life prophets like Harvey Pekar. Sean Edgar
Ales Kot’s Zero is a story told in parts. Each issue, penciled by a different artist, presents a small vignette detailing the life of born-and-raised secret agent Edward Zero. In Zero, most events take place in the near future, a time that’s easily identifiable but isn’t exactly relatable. You feel like a passing tourist, not quite comfortable in your altered surroundings. Most importantly, Zero deals with loneliness, loss and the need for connection. Edward Zero has been conditioned since childhood to suppress empathy and vulnerability, only worrying about the mission — but there are cracks in that steely resolve as the reader catches glimpses of our protagonist’s humanity as he grows tired of perpetual loss. Darren Orf
We’ve all had that friend: a Charles Bukowski devotee who spends more time at the bottle than the typewriter. But the difference between that guy and Noah Van Sciver’s hilarious Fante Bukowski? You don’t want your time with this successful alcoholic/failed novelist to end. The book follows Fante Bukowski, a bar-dwelling writer who subs beers for honing his craft, or as he succinctly puts it to a fellow drinker: “I’ve been trying to be a famous writer for a year and I’m still empty-handed. I need to write a book! I have to show my father that I’m not a loser!” He’s a loyal follower of the drunk romantics, John Fante and the aforementioned Bukowski, so much so that he legally had his name changed. By the time I got to Fante Bukowski’s first piece of fiction, The Tragedy of Success, I’d laughed hard enough to stir a few tears. After the opening lines, how could you not? “Nothing I do is good enough for my dad. I sit in this cheap hotel and swig cheap wine. This is who I am. Dad. Dad. I want to kill you.” We’re unabashed fans of Van Sciver’s work, and Fante Bukowski only extends his vision of smart, flawed characters—just hilariously so.
Tyler R. Kane
The debut of The Wicked felt too cool—almost unapproachably so—for some readers. The tale of teens-turned-gods has David Bowie analogues, underground raves and its debut was marked with coverage from Pitchfork—all of which says more or less nothing about the quality of the work. If the danger in WicDiv’s first arc carried an air of excitement and sexiness, the following issues have been filled with all the desperation and terror of a clubhouse wired to detonate. Under the veil of exclusivity, that build has paid off; The Wicked The Divine’s second arc sparked a slow burn that’s evolved into a full-on inferno. Tyler R. Kane
Step Aside, Pops indulges in wonderfully absurd doses of pure comedy: the notion of America’s Founding Fathers wandering around a shopping mall is handled terrifically, as is a take on Cinderella in which its titular heroine and her prince bond over bodybuilding. The series of strips about rival sea captains who share an unacknowledged bond utilizes terrific body language and facial expressions. And “House Full of Mulders”—the title should be taken very literally—blends elements from The X-Files and Pride and Prejudice into something charmingly surreal. For those who enjoyed Beaton’s first collection, this represents an expansion of an already-impressive comic voice; readers who enjoy smart, irreverent takes on history and literature will find plenty to delight in here. Tobias Carroll
For a celebrated writer who’s built a reputation on crafting ornate, world-spanning epics, Grant Morrison and his latest descent down the rabbit hole—The Multiversity—touch on a sense of scale and complexity unique in comics, let alone any entertainment medium. The saga escorts readers through the various realities of the DC Universe and the ghoulish, nihilistic beings—The Gentry—who threaten to corrupt their foundation. The intoxicating project offers a chain of interlinking debut issues to comic series that don’t exist outside this umbrella title (yet), with a different artist tackling each chapter, save the opening and closing bookends from penciller Ivan Reis. In the course of The Multiversity, we’ve witnessed a world where the Nazis flourish with their own Superman, a 48-page dissection of Watchmen that mirrors the iconic work’s ambition, and an unholy alliance of super villains that creates a new day of the week. Sean Edgar
Whether it’s Ah-nold’s thumbs-up at the end of T2 or Wall-E recognizing his best friend after his memory was wiped, I’m not sure why seeing a machine display human emotion makes this writer cry organic tears. In the case of Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen’s Descender, that feat’s illustrated by the boy-robot TIM-21, whose actions set an example of what humanity can be at its best. TIM-21 shares the same bionic DNA as the Harvesters, a race of machines that tear apart human life on a cosmic scale. While you’d expect TIM-21’s mechanical mind to orbit around human destruction, Descender’s issues are filled with heartbreak and yearning for family members long fled or resting. We wouldn’t expect a sci-fi epic based around mechanical genocide to be dripping with emotion, but Descender delivers big time. With pink and blue faces popping out above a sterile spaceship backdrop, Nguyen’s minimalist approach highlights the humanity within Descender’s pages—not to mention Lemire’s cast, which had the Paste Comics staff hooked from issue #1. Tyler R. Kane
Founding X-Man Bobby Drake may have recently ventured outside the closet, introducing even more diversity to a title devoted to acceptance and tolerance. But Jillian Tamaki (That One Summer) has already been running her own progressive school for exceptional adolescents in SuperMutant Magic Academy, a poignant, hilarious and bold webcomic collected in print by Drawn & Quarterly. These raw panels may show kids with fantastical and physics-defying abilities, but Tamaki knows that magical mutant kids—even cat hybrids and boys that reincarnate throughout the cosmos—are still kids. They yearn, strive, hurt and meander into listless futures. Under this lens, SuperMutant Magic Academy is far more real than its title would ever suppose. Sean Edgar
Forcing blanket descriptions of Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying is an awkward prospect; the man studies the touching, charming and sad lives of men and women trying to recover from previous failure or boredom. In other words, he writes about human beings trying to be better. At some subtle point, the word balloons fall away to reveal bittersweet facets of the human condition. “Amber Sweet” revolves around a girl’s struggles as she’s perpetually confused for a ubiquitous porn star. She finally confronts her doppelgänger in an unexpected surge of empathy and catharsis. The titular story, “Killing and Dying,” stands as a high point. Two parents watch as their teenage daughter attempts live stand up-comedy. Defined in silent panels and domestic squabbles, the story telegraphs a sucker-punch twist examining the precious glue that holds families together. Tomine remains a master of characterization and mood, crafting absorbing glimpses into lives both familiar and deceptively exotic. Simply put, Killing and Dying showcases the depth and range of the comics medium in startling ways. Sean Edgar
Within Overture, Gaiman weaves a complex algorithm that’s both an independent story and a complement to stories he wrote decades ago, an articulate narrative man o’ war. Who’s the tragic princess ousted from her homeland at the end of “A Game of You?” What’s a Vortex? What was the Corinthian up to before embarking on his eye-opening murder spree? Gaiman answers these queries with skill and grace, following a domino path back to origins lying captive in his mind till freed in this book. And though Overture is a ravishing story about one anthropomorphic entity attempting to save creation from an unhinged celestial body, its pleasures are all the more tangible after reading through the original series. Sean Edgar
As in March: Book One, the plot of this sequel shifts back and forth from the early 1960s to President Obama’s inauguration six years ago. Subtle visual parallels between that ceremony and the March on Washington argue the importance of the latter and its long-reaching influence on today. The impetus behind the book has shifted slightly from the first volume, with issues like voter rezoning and the conflict in Ferguson casting a renewed sense of urgency. The point here isn’t to review how far we’ve come since the March on Washington — it’s the realization that we need to keep moving. Hillary Brown
Sacred Heart has already drawn comparisons to the work of Jaime Hernandez, and with its teenage protagonists, black-and-white palette, Hank Ketcham-influence, punk aesthetic and liberally scattered cultural references, it’s not hard to see why. But Charles Burns’ Black Hole is at least as relevant. A creeping sense of dread permeates these pages, which start with our protagonist, Ben Schiller, making her way through a graffitied landscape. Suburbia ignores exposition as much as she can, throwing the reader into the middle of an established scenario and expecting her to figure it out. Hillary Brown
American textbooks tend to omit huge and often horrific events if there’s not an opportunity to frame them through a white savior lens. Cartoonist Ethan Young’s Nanjing: The Burning City dramatizes the 1937 Japanese raid on the Chinese capital Nanjing without playing to Western-centric sensibilities or flinching from the atrocities committed in the name of patriotism. With sparse dialogue and expressive black-and-white art, Young’s debut Dark Horse work readies itself to be mentioned in the same breath as Boxers & Saints and Persepolis in classrooms, libraries and book stores for years to come. Steve Foxe