It’s an odd and wonderful year to be a fan of comic books. Marvel and DC are both in the process of hitting the metaphysical relaunch button, which has made latching onto longer runs a tad more slippery. But the new and emerging works embrace a greater diversity of characters and content that’s eluded mainstream publishing to this point. And what is the mainstream? Creator-owned haven Image commandeers 10 percent of the market while writers and artists have continued to play musical chairs across the companies. It’s a golden age of opportunity, engagement and self-assessment.
Knee-deep in this sea change, the entire Paste comics crew decided to take a quick snapshot of the work that’s made comics a continued oasis of art, innovation and excitement. Let us know your favorites in the comments.
Writer/Artist: Nick Sousanis
Publisher: Harvard University Press
If you prefer your mind-melt, dimension-bending comics with less costumes and melodrama, Nick Sousanis’ cerebral exploration of psychology and perspective offers a refreshing palate cleanser on taking the blue pill. Though it touts itself with gloriously hyperbolic lines like “an insurrection against the fixed viewpoint,” the rebellion here is admittedly academic, and the nonfiction book’s greatest strength is presenting dry, weighty concepts with fluid illustrations that make comprehension intuitive. The biggest surprise is how familiar these heavy tenants are within comics’ history. Whether its Grant Morrision demolishing the fourth wall or Jack Kirby chatting up higher dimensions, quantum conjecture has found a nice home in comics. In Flattening, those themes take flight into simultaneously higher and deeper directions, presented with a visual vocabulary that will blow readers minds in the most scholarly way possible. Sean Edgar
19. Incidents in the Night
Writer/Artist: David B.
Publisher: Uncivilized Books
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
Writer/Artist: Michel Fife
Publisher: Bergen Street Comics
Now on its 22nd issue, COPRA follows an outfit of government-sponsored anti-heroes and misfits. After recovering an alien artifact, COPRA is attacked by a group of unknown villains and, in the chaos of battle, a bomb destroys a nearby city. The team and their handler, Sonia Stone, end up as fugitives on the run. By the end of issue #1, half of the introductory cast is dead, and as the survivors attempt to figure out who was responsible for the attack, we embark 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 for the book’s fourth arc, it’s easy to see that 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” as the fourth arc finale looms close. 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
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan?
Artist: Fiona Staples?
Personally, the last volume of Saga didn’t quite pack the exhilaration and likability as the first three story arcs. As both protagonists Marko and Alana drifted from each other, I felt a similar Honeymoon ending between myself and the comic — probably for that that very reason. The imminent threat of Prince Robot had subsided and now boredom and domesticity were pulling my favorite fictional couple apart. It felt too much like real life. But that same daring emotional development is what makes Saga the innovative, critical darling it’s remained since issue one. Vaughan is writing a much more relatable romantic arc between its characters than any of his realistic fiction contemporaries, even with the fluorescent-spotted dragons and magical spells. Accepting this progress, as well as the dramatic outside forces that have stranded Marko’s family, allows the cast to grow to places that most characters are usually kept miles away from. With Gwendolyn, Sophie, Lying Cat and The Brand on an adventure to save The Will, the title has also veered back into some sci-fi swagger. Also: florescent-spotted dragons and magical spells. Sean Edgar
16. An Entity Observes All Things
Writer & Artist: Box Brown
Publisher: Retrofit Comics/Big Planet
Box Brown—who also runs the appropriately named publisher Retrofit Comics—has made no effort to hide his adoration of the ‘80s. Whether framing the biography of larger-than-life wrestlers or prepping explorations of pioneering geometric puzzle games, the man clearly prefers the decade in which he was born above all others. An Entity Observes All Things likewise dives into the colorful, bizarre surrealism of the era. One story revolves around distilled god flesh used to flavor waffles, while another depicts a woman who achieves perfection, soon regretting the fragility and charm of inadequacy. (There are exceptions: one lengthy section merges religion and social media into a head trip that’s thoroughly disturbing.) Brown’s illustrations pivot from polygonal patterns to ben-day dot expressionism, constructing an immersive, minimalist aesthetic to ground these endlessly creative respites. Sean Edgar
15. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl
Writer: Ryan North
Artist: Erica Henderson?
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 (Adventure Time) North 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
14. Southern Bastards
Writer: Jason Aaron
Artist: Jason Latour
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 Tubb and most of Craw, with flashbacks to Tubb Sr. tinted blood red. 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
13. Black River
Writer and Artist: Josh Simmons
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books
Josh Simmons’ Black River is an impressively unnerving work, a slim black-and-white tale of a group of (mostly) women making their way through a post-apocalyptic landscape, struggling for survival and hope. With The Walking Dead leading the way, ragtag bands finding solace in the dying remains of human society have found new significance, but Simmons’ book is something very different.
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 (for a comedic take, see Will Forte’s TV series The Last Man on Earth), 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
12. Fante Bukowski
Writer and Artist: Noah Van Sciver
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books
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 the 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 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
Writers: Cameron Stewart, Breden Fletcher
Artist: Babs Tarr
In DC’s pantheon of near-omnipotent gods, cosmic titans and kevlar strongmen, no character has made a bigger impact in 2015 than Barbara Gordon, a 21-year-old computer wiz with an epic amount of sass. Revamped in last October’s Batgirl #35, Babs displays an accessibility and perseverance meticulously honed to Generation Y’s growing female comic readership. Writers Cameron Stewart (who also contributed pencil breakdowns), Brenden Fletcher, artist Babs Tarr and colorist Maris Wicks use the feverish backdrop of social media celebrity, urban hipster culture and real-world cyber villainy for an experience that’s at once breathlessly fun and thoughtfully relevant. As Fletcher states, “We’re creating this to speak to people right now.” Sean Edgar
10. First Year Healthy
Writer and Artist: Michael DeForge
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
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
Writer: Scott Snyder
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, has been building slowly (perhaps too slowly) to this year’s oversized first arc finale. Steve Foxe
Writer: Ales Kot
Like Cosmicomics, 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. Both works also tell stories that lie just beyond our perceived reality. 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 and Cosmicomics both deal 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
Writer: Grant Morrison
Publisher: DC Comics
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. Sean Edgar
6. Mind MGMT
Writer and Artist: Matt Kindt
Publisher: Dark Horse
With two issues to go, Mind MGMT’s grand tapestry is unfolding beautifully. Marked by its deft foreshadowing, sucker-punch back matter and clever twists, this series has always read like a labor 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, focused auteur. Within this last act, Protagonist Meru has finally breached the inner layer of the telekinetic, telepathic savants secretly controlling humanity. Though these last issues will surely feature subversively creative battles, there’s still a lingering hope that Meru—to borrow from the first arc—might return home in another amnesiac daze, if only so we could begin the adventure once more. Sean Edgar
5. The Wicked and the Divine
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Jamie McKelvie
Publisher: Image Comics
The debut of The Wicked and the Divine felt too cool—almost unapproachably so—for some readers. The tale of teens-turned-Gods had 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. Since its inception, The Wicked and the Divine has been a smart look at fame from the inside-out, but it’s been a slow build for those who’ve stuck by writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie’s pop star-inspired vision of teen Gods. 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 big-time; The Wicked and the Divine’s second arc sparked a slow burn that evolved into a full-on inferno, making The Wicked and the Divine the title I look forward to the most every month. Tyler R. Kane
Writer: Jeff Lemire
Artist: Dustin Nguyen
Publisher: Image Comics
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 that makes this writer cry organic tears. In the case of Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen’s Descender, that’s illustrated by the boy-robot TIM-21, whose actions set an example of what humanity can be at its best. TIM-21’s a Harvester, one of many machines that tore apart human life almost as quickly as man developed them. While you’d expect TIM-21’s mechanical mind to orbit around human destruction, Descender’s five issues are filled with heartbreak due to the absence of his adopted family. 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
3. New Avengers/Avengers
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
If the Marvel Universe as we know it had to end, closing the book(s) after 77 dense, winding issues of intrigue and betrayal from Jonathan Hickman isn’t exactly the worst way to go. The cerebral writer posited a simple notion: realities are colliding and extreme measures have become the only measures worth taking. Marvel’s classic “Heroes” like Ironman, Black Panther, Doctor Strange and Mr. Fantastic fought and floundered as a perpetual jet stream of desperation unveiled character fault lines no other creator has had the balls to unearth. This epic is salient example of narration as design; Hickman employs recurring motifs, weights and an inhumanly perfect symmetry for a story that stands as a complete, unnerving whole. The heroes failed. There are no heroes. The bad guy won. Everyone’s a bad guy. The Marvel Universe is dead, long live the Marvel Universe. Sean Edgar
2. SuperMutant Magic Academy
Writer and Artist: Jillian Tamaki?
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
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 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 light, SuperMutant Magic Academy is far more real than its title would ever suppose. The students also (sometimes) perform hysterical live art installations that involve toilets in the middle of the hall and profane acts at zoos (we love you, Frances). Sean Edgar
1. March: Book Two
Writers: John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
Artist: Nate Powell
Publisher: Top Shelf
Not only do trilogies proliferate these days, but their narratives rarely merit their excessive length or achieve the gravitas they promise. March: Book Two, the second volume from Congressman John Lewis chronicling his work in the Cilvil Rights Movement, luckily falls outside this trend. The care given to every page of this moving and beautiful story is obvious, as Book Two escalates the drama of its predecessor considerably. Covering the beginning of 1961, when the Freedom Riders began their bus trips into the Deep South, to the Birmingham Church Bombing in September 1963, this graphic novel vibrates with emotion.
As in Book One, the plot 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