The 25 Best Comics and Graphic Novels of 2015
By Rich Barrett
Every week, I write about the most interesting new comics, webcomics, and graphic novels. It’s now that time again to round up the ones I consider the best and most interesting of the year. Please feel free to agree, disagree, and recommend others in the comments below.
25. The Omega Men
By Tom King, Barnaby Bagenda, Jose Marzan Jr. and Romulo Farjado Jr.
When DC Comics released sneak previews of this year’s new books, one that got a lot of attention was The Omega Men. The scene, made to look like a glitchy terrorist video, showed Green Lantern Kyle Rayner seemingly being beheaded by a group whose name bears the title of the comic. Eventually, this scene turned out to not be what it appeared, and it’s twists like this that make The Omega Men such an engaging read.
Writer Tom King is a former counter-terrorism officer for the CIA and he uses that experience to craft a story about insurgencies and religion set in the deep cosmos of the DC Universe. This has been a breakout year in comics for King, with not only this series but Grayson, The Sheriff of Babylon, and The Vision all receiving worthy acclaim. Critical praise doesn't always equal sales, however, and DC announced a premature cancelation of this 12-issue series until a vocal fan base rose up and demanded a stay of execution.
By Kyle Starks
Sexcastle is one of the funniest books of the year and absolutely essential for anyone who grew up on ‘80s action films. It plays with every trope you can remember from that era, and sets its hero, Shane Sexcastle (an amalgam of Kurt Russell, Patrick Swayze, and David Carradine), against a cast of tough guys that look much like ‘80s mainstays Sylvester Stallone, Mr. T, Steven Seagal, and others.
23. Roller Girl
By Victoria Jamieson
There’s been an increase in the number of high-quality graphic novels aimed at tween-age girls since Raina Telgemeier proved to publishers that this audience was out there with her bestselling graphic novels Smile and Sisters. Victoria Jamieson’s first graphic novel, Roller Girl, is a welcome addition that at first may seem to be more niche than Telgemeier’s work. Roller derbies have been growing in popularity in recent years and seem to have a lot of crossover appeal with comics, but Jamieson’s story about a young girl who decides to pursue her newfound interest while drifting apart from her best friend is a pretty universal story about discovering who you are and what really makes you tick.
22. Wuvable Oaf
By Ed Luce
While the mainstream comics industry has made great strides this year to be more LGBT-inclusive, indie comics continue to show them how it's done with a wide array of comics coming from the web and various indie publishers. Still, you won’t find many out there that are quite like Ed Luce’s Wuvable Oaf. This is a book that is proud and confident in its depiction of a gay subculture that's made up of thrash metal, professional wrestling, and cats. Oaf is a shy, gentle “bear” who sells toy animals stuffed with his own body hair. When he falls for the diminutive Eiffel, the lead singer of the metal band The Ejaculoids, we get a sweet, hilarious, and surprising story of dating in a fictional version of San Francisco.
21. Girl in Dior
By Annie Goetzinger
Girl in Dior is perhaps the most beautiful book released this year. Written and drawn by French illustrator and costume designer Annie Goetzinger, it tells the true story of fashion designer Christian Dior’s rise to fame when he introduced his so-called “New Look” to an unsuspecting but welcoming public in 1947. Goetzinger fictionalizes the biography slightly by inserting her own character, a reporter-turned-model named Clara, to act as our eyes into this world of color that revolutionized the drab post-War fashion of that era. Goetzinger’s beautiful drawings of Dior’s models dressed in elegant and flowing gowns are resplendent. Girl in Dior made its English language debut this year after winning the prestigious Grand Prix Bd Boum award when it was first released in France in 2014.
20. Pope Hats #4
By Ethan Rilly
Ethan Rilly is one of the best cartoonists out there, and too many people aren’t aware of his work. His award-winning comic series Pope Hats often goes at least a year between issues, making him less visible in an increasingly social media-driven market. Still, the quality of his storytelling and production is something we don’t see enough of in “floppy” format comics.
While previous issues of Pope Hats focused on telling the story of a young woman named Frances balancing career and life, issue four breaks from that format to compile a bunch of short stories unrelated to the previous narrative. These little slices are without true beginnings or endings, and the highlight is probably “The Nest,” which is about parents dealing with the return from college of their teenage daughter who appears to be suffering from a nervous breakdown.
By Ales Kot, Jordie Bellaire and various
Zero starts off as a compelling political-espionage comic set in the near future about a highly competent agent named Edward Zero. Then come the aliens. Then Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs show up. And then things really start to get trippy.
Each issue of Zero is drawn by a different artist, with Jordie Bellaire serving as the regular colorist to provide some visual continuity. This works really well, as each chapter acts as a stand-alone piece of a larger story. Besides the mind-bending weirdness and violence, Zero has some of the most genuinely heartbreaking character moments I’ve read in any comic this year.
18. Frontier # 7: SexCoven
By Jillian Tamaki
Youth in Decline
Indie comics anthology Frontier hit the (indie) big time this year with contributions from comics stars Michael DeForge and Jillian Tamaki. Frontier showcases up-and-coming talent by giving them an entire issue to show their stuff. In issue #7, Jillian Tamaki’s “SexCoven” tells in a documentary-style approach the story of an mp3 file that only teenagers can hear.
Tamaki is the artist behind last year’s award-winning This One Summer, and has had a great follow-up year with the print collection of her webcomic SuperMutant Magic Academy (a book that could easily be on this list as well) and this issue of Frontier, which shows her mastery of page design and layered, thematic storytelling.
By Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr
There is probably no more important or influential comic that DC has put out this year than Batgirl. When the new creative team of Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, and Babs Tarr took over in late 2014, their lighter, more fun approach to the title was a breath of fresh air among the increasingly dark and brutal superhero comics the company has been putting out.
Aimed at a female audience that DC never seemed to make comics for, the success of this title sparked an awakening for the publisher, leading to a new initiative in 2015 to introduce more books of a similar ilk (see Black Canary, Prez). The more “cartoony” visual style of this comic is also something DC has shied away from in the past, but it works great for this character. They took a chance by giving unknown young artist Babs Tarr a shot on this book, and she is now well on her way to becoming a superstar.
16. The Eternaut
By Héctor Germán Oesterhel and Francisco Solano Lopez
The Eternaut is revered in Argentina, but until Fantagraphics brought an elegantly designed hardcover collection to Stateside bookstores this year, it had been virtually unknown in North America. Originally serialized in Buenos Aires newspaper Hora Cero from 1957 to 1959, The Eternaut begins when a mysterious snowfall kills everyone it touches, and a group of friends smart enough to keep safe inside find that they may be among the last people alive in their city.
The backstory of The Eternaut is just as gripping as the comic. Both writer Héctor Germán Oesterhel and artist Francisco Solano Lopez were forced into hiding from the military powers that ran Argentina at the time because of leftist works like The Eternaut. Lopez escaped to Spain, but Oesterhel, who also wrote a biography of Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevera, was never seen again.
15. The Fade Out
By Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips's first book of their unprecedented carte blanche publishing deal with Image Comics seems like the sum of everything they’ve done since their hit series Criminal. The creative team gives us a noir story full of morally compromised characters, femme fatales and, of course, murder. Set around a troubled 1948 film production that is halted when its leading lady turns up dead, The Fade Out explores the seediness of the movie business and the pathos behind the types of films that inspired Brubaker and Philips’s entire body of work.
14. Black River
By Josh Simmons
Nihilistic apocalyptic comics were a-dime-a-dozen this year thanks, probably, to the success of The Walking Dead, but Josh Simmons’s Black River makes everything else seem like all-ages fluff. This short graphic novel follows a group of women (and one man) across a devastated countryside in search of a town they learned of from a found diary. Along the way they do some things that sound fun on the surface (taking a drug called “Gumdrops," having sex, and even going to a comedy club), but everything is imbued with Simmons’s sense of absurdist depravity and unsettling horror.
13. Joan Cornellà’s Comics
By Joan Cornellà
If you have friends on Facebook with a twisted sense of humor, then you’ve probably seen them share one of Joan Cornellà’s comics. His wordless one-page strips took social media by storm this year, with 2.8 million people liking his Facebook page (so far). The Spanish cartoonist is not afraid to be disturbing and gory, nor does he shy away from controversial topics. Sometimes you have to spend a little time on each one to get what he’s doing, and sometimes you laugh even when you don’t want to. This year, Fantagraphics released a hardcover collection of some of his comics called Mox Nox.
12. The Story of My Tits
By Jennifer Hayden
Jennifer Hayden’s frank and quirky memoir about breast cancer begins by painting a portrait of her lifelong relationship with her own breasts. It isn’t until the last third of the book that we see Hayden get her first mammogram, but along the way we see how the specter of cancer hangs over her and how it affects the women in her life. It’s not easy to make a book about the death of family members and her own brush with mortality something enjoyable and fun to read, but Hayden's sense of humor and clever cartooning does just that. It is an impressive debut.
11. The Multiversity
By Grant Morrison and various
The top slot on my list from last year went to an issue of Grant Morrison’s mini-series The Multiversity. The series as a whole, now collected by DC Comics in a large hardcover deluxe edition, is in many ways the epitome of the Grant Morrison superhero comic. Layered with subtext and references to forgotten comics of old, these are crammed with unbelievably cool ideas and are about as meta as a comic can get.
As the existence of the multiverse faces an unstoppable threat, Morrison checks in on various parallel DC universes, like one in which Superman was adopted by Hitler and another where the spoiled grown children of the Justice League avoid paparazzi and party like a bunch of super-powered Kardashians. Each is so good that you wish he’d write stories about them forever.
10. Deep Dark Fears
By Fran Krause
Ten Speed Press
Fran Krause had a great idea a few years back: encourage readers to anonymously submit their deepest, darkest fears and he would turn them into a comic strip. Deep Dark Fears instantly became a popular Tumblr comic, and now Krause has compiled them into a hardcover. It’s a fine example of how, deep down, we’re all scared to death of the same stupid stuff.
9. Step Aside, Pops
By Kate Beaton
Drawn & Quarterly
Kate Beaton is arguably the best cartoonist of the past decade, and maybe the greatest to come out of the webcomic scene so far. Her wildly popular webcomic Hark! A Vagrant is known for its smart and cheeky retellings of moments from history and literature, but she branches out into other areas as well, such as autobio, parodies of vintage book covers, and even superheroes. Her new collection, Step Aside, Pops, showcases this variety of material and has some of her funniest moments to date. (Her belligerent, fed-up Wonder Woman and her intrepid Lois Lane who doesn’t have time for Superman’s secret identity shenanigans are great.) Rest assured, this collection also has strips about Chopin, Wuthering Heights, and Civil Rights activist Ida B. Wells among many other subjects.
8. Star Wars/ Darth Vader
By Jason Aaron, John Cassady, Laura Martin, Stuart Immonen, Wade Von Grawbadger, Justin Ponsor, Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larocca
It seems like all media in 2015 has been mobilized to get us excited for December’s release of the new Star Wars film. In comics, we saw Marvel launch their new Star Wars line, spearheaded by two ongoing titles: Star Wars and Darth Vader. By putting superstar creators like Jason Aaron, John Cassady, Stuart Immonen, Kieron Gillen, and Salvador Larocca on the books and working with input from Lucasfilm, these are the first Star Wars comics that truly feel like they belong in the franchise, and the promise from Lucasfilm that they are “in canon” makes them seem essential.
Both stories take place immediately after the events of Episode IV, and there are some great fanboy moments like a battle between Luke Skywalker and Boba Fett, and a meeting between Vader and Jabba the Hutt. Still, there are some new character developments that will truly take you by surprise.
7. Two Brothers
By Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon
Dark Horse Comics
Twin brothers Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá are used to collaborating closely on comics, and with Two Brothers, Moon writes while Bá draws. Their subject matter is the antagonistic relationship between twins whose conflicts tear their entire family apart. Adapted from Milton Hatoum’s The Brothers, one of the most popular novels in Brazil, it is Moon and Bá’s most sophisticated and mature work to date. Bá’s stylized lines and fluid sense of storytelling capture the setting of mid-century Manaus, where the dark, sexy, and tragic conflict bubbles up in a city where two rivers (one dark and one light) converge.
By Jason Little
Borb tells the story of a down-on-his-luck homeless man, playing it for laughs by using the punchline format of a newspaper comic strip. That may seem insensitive and offensive, but Jason Little is aiming for a visceral reaction from his readers. By presenting his story in a style derived from classic Depression era strips like Little Orphan Annie, Little calls to mind the lovable, hapless hobo archetype of that period, but pairs it with the horrific situations that real homeless people actually experience today. While it will make you laugh at times, it is sure to disturb you even more.
5. Killing and Dying
By Adrian Tomine
Drawn & Quarterly
Adrian Tomine rose to prominence in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s at a very early age with his contemplative short stories about troubled 20- and 30-somethings. Now in his early 40s, Tomine's work has taken on the wisdom of middle age. In his latest collection of stories, Killing and Dying, we even see him reaching out of his comfort zone a little. The opening story, “Hortisculpture,” is formatted like a newspaper strip and examines the risks of making art by telling the story of a landscaper who puts his career on the line to pursue his passion of making unsightly horticultural sculptures.
This sublime collection of stories showcases his immaculate drawing and perfectly realized characters, like the self-conscious teenager who decides to try stand-up comedy or the young woman continuously plagued by her uncanny resemblance to an online porn star
By Jason Aaron and Jason Latour
Southern Bastards seems to begin as a “southern fried” crime comic about a guy with a big stick ready to kick some ass, but then, a few issues in, it takes a shockingly unexpected turn and becomes a larger story about family, football, and southern life. Created by two good ol' boys themselves, Jason Aaron and Jason Latour, the comic steps carefully between honoring, poking fun at, and eviscerating the culture the creators grew up around. The two Jasons have had a big year outside of this book—Aaron as the writer of Marvel’s Star Wars and the excellent new female Thor comic, and Latour as the writer of the surprise hit Spider-Gwen—but Southern Bastards may become their biggest success yet.
3. Nanjing: The Burning City
By Ethan Young
Dark Horse Comics
Cartoonist Ethan Young seemed to come out of nowhere this year with this brilliant and accomplished fictional graphic novel about two Chinese soldiers trying to escape the fallen city of Nanjing during the second Sino-Japanese war. Along the way they are confronted by the atrocities committed by the conquering Japanese soldiers, some of the most horrific committed in the history of modern warfare. It is a war that is not depicted often in Western media, and Young, who is the son of Chinese immigrants, pours a lot of emotion into it. His bold brushwork and dramatic chiaroscuro lighting evoke some of the great creators of wartime comics like Harvey Kurtzman and Joe Kubert, and this story stands right up there with the best war comics of all time.
2. March Book Two
By Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell
Like any great trilogy, the middle volume of Congressman John Lewis’s graphic novel memoir March is where things get grim and hope seems almost out of reach. Working with congressional aide and writer Andrew Aydin and the award-winning artist Nate Powell, Lewis tells his story of being a key figure in the Civil Rights movement. Reading it at this moment in post-Ferguson America gives the comic an even sharper relevance. Where book one focuses on Lewis’s childhood and ends with his first experiences as an activist, this volume sees him become a leader of the movement, participating in many forms of non-violent protest.
As Lewis and others non-aggressively attempt to ride buses and go to movie theaters in segregated areas of the South, they are met with extreme and shocking violence not only from the KKK, but from average white citizens as well. It is a vivid and disturbing depiction of an ugly time in American history. Lewis frames his story with flashes forward to President Obama’s inauguration in 2008 which is meant to show how far we’ve come, but it can’t help but also remind readers of how today’s divisiveness is an extension of yesterday’s struggle.
1. Sacred Heart
By Liz Suburbia
The amazing thing about Liz Suburbia’s webcomic-turned-graphic-novel Sacred Heart is how the underlying plot just creeps up on you. At first, it seems to be a series of vignettes about high school parties, drinking, sex, and adolescent angst, but then kids start showing up dead and no one seems too preoccupied by it. The landscape starts to become littered with decadent graffiti, and you begin to notice the total absence of adults anywhere in the story. It’s a mystery that intrigues the reader much more than the characters within the story itself.
When Fantagraphics picked up Suburbia’s webcomic, she redrew the entire 300+ pages to make it a more consistent reading experience, and it was worth the effort. Her drawings are bold and confident and her characters are full of life and unique personality.
It’s so hard to narrow down a list like this, so here are a few more comics I thought were pretty amazing:
Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler
93-year-old manga master Shigeru Mizuki passed away just weeks after the English translation release of this biography of Adolf Hitler, told from a rare, non-Western viewpoint.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl
Webcomic veteran Ryan North and newcomer Erica Henderson bring the humor and self-referential sensibilities of the Internet to Marvel Comics in one of the few true all-ages comics in the publisher’s lineup.
Our Expanding Universe
Alex Robinson’s Box Office Poison was a seminal graphic novel for 20-somethings in the 1990s, and his latest is made for those same readers, who are now parents in their 40s.
Twin brothers Tomer and Asaf Hanuka tell a fictionalized account of the two twelve-year-old boys who led an army of guerrillas in Myanmar.
A prison comedy about Kaijus in a remote island Supermax. What more do you need to know?