Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photo by The Wicked + The Divine
This month Vulture will be publishing our critics’ year-end lists. Last week’s lists included albums, art, and video games. This week we’ve covered comedy — sketches, specials, and podcasts — plus Margaret Lyons’s top shows, Bilge Ebiri’s top movies, and music videos and memes. Now it’s on to late-night clips, comic books, graphic novels, and album reissues.
This year was the year publishers could no longer ignore the diversity of comic readership. Marvel and DC, the two primary publishers of mainstream superhero comics, both attempted massive overhauls of their titles — which included long-awaited strides toward appealing to wider audiences, sometimes with mixed results. Taken in conjunction with the vast output of other such publishers as BOOM! Studios, Oni Press, Image, and Valiant, we’re left with a year where, more than ever, there were comics being made for every type of reader. It’s impossible to narrow all the quality ongoing series down to a list of ten, but here are some of the best comics that were published monthly in 2015:
1. The Wicked + The Divine (Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matthew Wilson, et al.)
On paper, The Wicked + The Divine really shouldn’t work. A story about gods from various mythologies reincarnated as pop stars for two years once every century (and the fans who worship them), it’s a mouthful of an elevator pitch that really doesn’t say much about what’s supposed to happen in its pages. After spending the second half of 2014 proving that their crazy high concept not only worked but was a huge hit, Gillen and McKelvie set about their first proper year on the series doing their best to blow it to hell.
After introducing readers to Ur-fan and protagonist Laura, as well as the pantheon of gods she admired, W+D suddenly and violently puts them all at odds with each other, right before almost halting the central narrative entirely for a slew of powerful stories about the rarely discussed underbelly of fan culture, taking a scalpel to ideas of fan entitlement, misogyny, and patriarchy. The creators bill the series as being about making art, but that’s only half the story. It’s also about the painful, troubling things that happen around art, and how — if we’re not careful — they can destroy us.
2. The Fade Out (Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Elizabeth Breitweiser)
One of comics’ dream teams delivers their best story yet in The Fade Out, an Old Hollywood murder-mystery draped against HUAC and the Red Scare. The latest in Brubaker and Phillips’s comics-as-film-noir oeuvre, it’s the story of a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who gets swallowed up in the dark side of Hollywood’s golden age, and the bruisers, dames, and powerful men he might not live to regret getting involved with.
3. Secret Wars (Jonathan Hickman, Esad Ribic, et al.)
Superhero comics are obsessed with the notion of “events” — giant crossover stories that involve top characters and promise to change the status quo. But never has there been an event like Secret Wars, which fulfills the usual need for big cosmic shifts (and nostalgic callbacks) in a remarkably understated way, while doubling as the long-simmering finale to the six-year tenure of writer Jonathan Hickman, who — across years of Fantastic Four and Avengers comics — crafted some of the most ambitious serial storytelling Marvel has ever seen.
4. Giant Days (John Allison, Lissa Treiman)
Giant Days feels like an animated series aimed at college-age readers who grew up on Adventure Time. The story of three best friends one month into university, Giant Days is clever with its jokes and its characters, effectively spinning its plots out of the unique tics and idiosyncrasies of its core cast of young women. Take that in conjunction with Lissa Treiman’s wonderfully expressive art, and you have one of the most pleasurable reads of the year.
5. The Spire (Si Spurrier, Jeff Stokely, André May)
The team behind 2013’s stealth masterpiece Six-Gun Gorilla returned this year for The Spire, a strange fantasy set in a city where all manner of races are crammed together and divided across social strata, but are mainly divided between “normal” and “sculpted” — those born with traits that aren’t quite human. Sprawling yet small, The Spire lures readers with a central mystery and looming dread, but keeps them invested by quietly probing with questions about the difficulty of realizing progressive ideals.
6. Squirrel Girl (Ryan North, Erica Henderson, et al.)
Marvel’s surprise delight of the year is an all-ages book about what once was an obscure punchline of a character. As Squirrel Girl, Doreen Green attends college while finding herself continually caught up in conflicts with some of the Marvel Universe’s biggest threats — which she always easily beats. Breezy, confident, and very funny, Squirrel Girl reads like a confident web-comic playing out across the Marvel Universe.
7. Action Comics (Greg Pak, Aaron Kuder, et al.)
This year was a turning point for the comic book that first gave the world Superman. Following a year and a half of exceptional stories under its current creative team, Superman lost most of his powers, only to become more relevant than ever. Action Comics reasserted the Man of Steel as a populist champion in the midst of troubling current events, pulling no punches — even in the face of police brutality that evoked the real-life chaos of Ferguson, Missouri.
8. Midnighter (Steve Orlando, ACO, et al.)
Another obscure DC revival done right, Midnighter is on a mission to turn one of the publisher’s little-used queer characters into a prominent badass in superhero comics. It’s a rousing success: Every issue is full of smirking, violent, fun, with an easy swagger most comics would kill for. Despite their annoying proclivity for putting women in titillating outfits, superhero comics tend to shy away from sex. Midnighter is smart, satisfying storytelling that refuses to back away from its lead character’s sexuality, and it’s all the better for it.
9. Omega Men (Tom King, Barnaby Bagenda, et al.)
A surprise reboot of a little-known DC Comics team of space-faring heroes, Omega Men might sound like a riff on Guardians of the Galaxy, but it’s something far more complex than that. Omega Men reads like a fantasy novel in space, a nuanced political thriller full of tense situations that explore just how far can people go to challenge an authoritarian government and still have us root for them.
10. Saga (Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples)
A powerful gateway drug to the world of ongoing comic-book series, Saga’s story of a family coming together across battle lines in a vibrant sci-fi universe still feels fresh and heartfelt three years in. It’s art remains beautiful, its writing consistently spot-on; Saga makes you care about its characters like few other stories, even as it mercilessly tears them apart.