By Beat Staff
2015 was a divisive year for the comic book industry. Depending on who you ask, it was either one of the best years or one of the worst. DC Comics’ Convergence event and DC You launches were slaughtered in the sales charts, while Marvel’s All-New All-Different relaunches initially sold strongly but are quickly appearing to stall. But Dark Knight III: The Master Race #1, the sequel to Frank Miller’s classic The Dark Knight Returns, sold over 500,000 copies in November. Marvel’s Star Wars comics have continuously floated near the tops of the sales charts every month, selling hundreds of thousands of copies consistently. Meanwhile, Valiant sold the keys to its cinematic universe, opening a brand new Pandora’s Box for superhero films. Image had another big year, promoting a new series from golden boy Brian K. Vaughan and witnessing a number of prolific writers such as Kieron Gillen, and Rick Remender swear off tights to devote their time to creator-owned work at the company.
Indeed, this is a big year for creators, both within and outside of comics. Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose biography Between the World and Me won the 2015 National Book Award, was announced as the writer for Marvel’s upcoming Black Panther series. Chuck Palahniuk, author of disaffected-teenage bible Fight Club, penned a comics-format sequel to the novel, with Cameron Stewart on illustrations. Jillian Tamaki, one half of the team that penned the delightful, award-winning, and controversial This One Summer last year, released a new webcomic and minicomic collection.
Indeed, while 2015 had its ups and downs, writers and artists released some “damned good comics” this year. We’re here to honor them today. Here are The Comics Beat’s staff picks for the Best Comics of 2015.
Cartoonist: Adrian Tomine Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
It is preternaturally difficult to summarize the themes that link Killing and Dying‘s six short stories together. Drawn & Quarterly’s website was not much help, calling Tomine’s newest work a “wry exploration of loss, creative ambition, identity, and family dynamics.” In essence, Killing and Dying is a book about the human experience, touching the reader in ways that few comics do. Tomine’s polished art style, reminiscent of Chris Ware and Dan Clowes, separates Killing and Dying from the rough and tumble DIY artwork featured in many other comics that attempt to explore themes similar to Killing and Dying‘s, and that polish makes all the difference. Each of the six stories features a drastically different variation on Tomine’s inking and coloring method, yet they remain easily decipherable. His characters express an endless range of emotions in ten pen strokes or fewer.
Another element of Killing and Dying that makes it such a strong work is its physical design. The hardcover is fitted with a transparent plastic dust jacket with the title printed on it. When one slides the jacket off the book, they are graced with an unobstructed view of the suburban landscape behind it. The whimsical way the title interacts with the illustration on the cover is a wonderful touch that elevates the experience of picking the book off the shelf. Killing and Dying is a well-designed object, and is one of those rare books that is as visually appealing as it is intellectually so.
Writer: G. Willow Wilson Artist: Adrian Alphona Publisher: Marvel
In retrospect, Secret Wars was an incredibly bloated event. Marvel comics took every idea they ever had and threw it at a wall. In its “Battleworld” miniseries, old events such as Siege and Civil War inexplicably featured as B-sides to the main apocalypse. Cult hits like Runaways and the Weirdworld were revived while oddities such as 1602: Angela were born. In Secret Wars’ concurrent “Last Days” tie-ins, ongoing titles such as Silk were brought to an end that was treated as permanent by the characters while the readers knew it was anything but permanent. Given readers’ ennui, it is to G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s credit that they managed to pen an incredibly poignant and moving “Last Days” story for Ms. Marvel.
Over the last few years, readers have watched Kamala Khan grow from a self-conscious fangirl into a confident superhero. She’s still learning to balance her heroism with family, friends, and love, but she’s young. She still has time. Until she doesn’t. Suddenly faced with the end of the world, Kamala is forced to confront her lingering self doubt, old feuds with friends and foes, and a superhero she may or may not have cribbed her alias from. In several incredibly moving issues, Wilson and Alphona prove why they are the best storytellers working on a superhero comic today: they’re telling a human story with real consequence and real heart. A story that, behind all its mystical trimmings, is ultimately about a young girl finding her place in the world. And yeah, Jersey City rocks.
Cartoonists: Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá Publisher: Dark Horse
When people think about the modern comics canon, one of the most oft nominated books is Daytripper, Fábio Moon’s and Gabriel Bá’s meditation on family, art, and life. It is with great pleasure then, that six years after Daytripper‘s publication, the Moon Twins released a brand new collaboration, the aptly named Two Brothers. Originally a novel by Milton Hatoum, Two Brothers tells the tragic story of Brazillian twins whose blood feud ends up tearing their entire family apart. The book forms a yang to the hopeful Daytripper‘s yin, and where the latter book was rendered with warm watercolors, Two Brothers is carefully inked in black and white, emphasizing the stark differences between the brothers. The Moon Twins’ art is a sight to behold as they faithfully render the tropical Brazilian landscape in all its glory.
There is little extraneous dialogue or captioning in Two Brothers. Many pages are completely silent, allowing the reader to drift through the world the Moon Twins have created. No character is wasted or left unchanged, as every member of the central family undergoes his or her own character arc and comes into conflict with someone else. Equal parts depressing, shocking, and sublime, Two Brothers is a work that truly elucidates the complexity of the world’s most difficult organism: family.
Cartoonist: Jillian Tamaki Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Collecting Jillian Tamaki’s webcomic and self-published minicomics, SMMA might be my most read and re-read book of 2015. Endlessly entertaining, the loosely chronological vignettes about Marsha, Wendy and their peers navigating their way though an obtuse and bizarre year at magic academy always hits the mark. Tamaki, just like in her award-winning collaboration This One Summer with her cousin Mariko Tamaki, has the ability to acutely evoke specific complex emotions and private situations that no one talks about outside of intimate conversation with ease. Though only following the cast for one school year, the development and care each character receives is truly incredible and makes me wish that every teen story could be as well crafted.
One Punch Man (Vol. 1-3)
Writer: One Artist: Yusuke Murata Publisher: Viz
This is the best superhero comic coming out right now, bar none. Sorry DC, sorry Marvel – One and Murata found what you’re missing: legit humor. Too complex and smart to be a parody, too action-packed to be a gag book, One Punch Man tells the story of Saitama, a hero for fun who trained so hard that he now is able to defeat all his enemies in just one punch. The hype is real for this series as Viz races to release the English language volumes, the first three out in 2015 and the fast-tracked 12-episode anime having just finished to an incredible response.
Cartoonist: Sam Bosma Publisher: Nobrow Press
Cartoonist: Michel Fiffe Publisher: Self-published
All due to respect to Zach above, but allow me to cast my own vote for the best superhero comic coming out right now. Sure, you’ve heard all about how its a love letter to Ostrander’s Suicide Squad, and how I outright stated in my two part interview with Michel Fiffe how COPRA is “one of the few superhero comics that really matter”. What else can I really say to add to that? Fiffe’s ongoing one man show is a self-publishing wonder and is basically akin to DC Comics asking prime Frank Miller (spliced with Steve Ditko, Klaus Janson, Walt Simonson and Jim Aparo) to reinvent Amanda Waller’s bunch of drafted convicts instead of Batman, at least in its outset. Deep into its fourth arc, the series has adopted the same sort of introspective and genre-spinning eye that Dave Sim provided to the peak days of Cerebus. While last year’s offering of the series gave readers a number of one shots that allowed Fiffe to profile a number of his team members in varying narrative directions, the 2015 set of issues returned to the major arc, with the team reunited and taking on its toughest mission yet, while in its backpages unfurling a secondary, more abstract tale occurring in another dimension altogether. And if that wasn’t enough, each back cover featured a one pager from Dieter VDO. COPRA just celebrated its 25th issue this month (featuring art by a number of talented cartoonists including Tim Hamilton), and it’s a fabulous jumping on point that leads right into the currently available collected editions.
Cartoonist: Benjamin Marra Publisher: Fantagraphics
When I say that after I put this book down, and the first thought I had was: “I’m pretty sure I’ve never read anything like this”, you should know that is pretty high praise. Benjamin Marra’s subversive look at America’s love of violence, counter-imposed with our nation’s attitudes towards sex and masculinity, pitched in the shadow of the post 9/11 War on Terror, makes Terror Assaulter one of the most unique action-based comics to hit the stands in years. This is basically a Delta Force-style b-movie taken to its logical extremes, with all of the male power fantasy satirical elements that sort of comparison implies. The title character drop-kicks from one situation to another, protecting America’s interests while making sure he’s got time to get down with any ladies (or gentlemen) that might be available, in as graphic a detail as possible. Marra voices his characters in a matter of fact, hilarious style, where everyone is basically narrating the basest version of their thoughts and actions, in a sort of spin on really badly written comics of the early 80’s. This is what hardcore punk looks like in comics form, with a hero whose dick is literally hanging out and guns ready to blow. I can’t wait to read it again.
Cartoonists: Jillian Tamaki, Anna DeFlorian, Becca Tobin, Michael DeForge Publisher: Youth in Decline
Anyone who knows me understands how much I miss the days of DC’s long cancelled series Solo, their wonderful single creator anthology. In 2013, Youth in Decline’s Ryan Sands took some influence from that long gone title as well as South Korea’s SSE project to create Frontier, a solo cartoonist spotlight that has featured creators like Sam Alden, Emily Carroll and Ping Zhu, among others. This year marked a banner year for Sands’ brainchild, as Jillian Tamaki gave way to perhaps her best work this year in Issue #7’s “Sex Coven”, a story focused on a mysterious piece of music that is distributed through early file sharing networks, and sparks a worldwide phenomenon. It was bookended by Michael DeForge’s effort in Issue #10, “Sensitive Property”, which details the story of a real estate agent whose past a radical is used by the company to infiltrate protest groups that are at odds with their agenda. In between came two wonderfully off-beat tales from Anna Deflorian and Becca Tobin, both worthy of your time and attention. Frontier is the kind of creator-focused effort that I’ve been searching for for over a decade.
Fight Club 2
Writer: Chuck Palahniuk Artist: Cameron Stewart Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
When this book was first announced no one knew what to expect. Sure the original novel was brilliant and the movie adapted from it often winds up in best film conversations. But could a follow up more than a decade after the original be relevant? Creator Chuck Palahniuk did more than continue the story of Tyler Durden and his hold over an average nameless joe. He made Fight Club relevant for a cynical internet fame generation. One of the big questions surrounding the book would be what would we get out of artist Cameron Stewart. His style’s typically been described as “cartoony” and at first glance probably not right for a story as dark as Fight Club. Foretunatley, he’s brought more than just his A-game. The massive explosions, over the top imagery, and imagination he brought to the book have reshaped the way a story as dramatic as Fight Club can be told. Fight Club 2 was right publisher, right artist, right time.
Writer: Robert Kirkman Artist: Ryan Ottley Publisher: Image Comics
It’s easy to get bored with Robert Kirkman’s work. After all the man is everywhere. Yet, one thing he’s never been is comfortable. Whenever things start to plateau in one of his books…BAM death. This year he did something poignant with one of his most beloved titles and the chance he took paid off huge. Reboots are all the rage in comics today, but Kirkman did more than forget everything and go back to square one. He took a jab at the industry while telling one of the series best stories ever. Giving Mark a chance to go back and fix every tragedy that’s ever occurred in Invincible’s run gave you a sense that this could be a reboot that ACTUALLY makes sense. Then when faced with the choice of one life or the millions he just saved, Mark showed the other decision heroes want to make. So nothing changed yet Mark’s life will never be the same again. This short three part stint showed you can breathe new life into a title without hitting a reset button.
The Story of My Tits
Cartoonist: Jennifer Hayden Publisher: Top Shelf Productions
There’s a reason Jennifer Hayden’s comic memoir has popped up as a must-read everywhere from Forbes to NPR. It’s an amazing journey through Hayden’s personal history, using her breasts as a through-line to tell the story of her inner life. From her childhood wishes for a chest as-seen-in her father’s playboys on up through explaining her cancer diagnosis to her children, The Story of My Tits proves a frank and intimate journal. It’s an account that never feels overwrought or tear-jerky (though you might shed a few).
Hayden’s portrait of life is so rich, her drawings so detailed, much of the story feels as if it’s nearly overflowing panels that struggle to contain and frame it. Ultimately the story is about a life that refuses to be defined by the cancer that threatens it, instead addressing the disease as one of many scary problems fate deals out to us, and how one’s identity and familial bonds can be reforged and strengthened in it’s wake.
Flutter Vol. 2
Writer: Jennie Wood Artist: Jeff McComsey Publisher: 215 Ink
Flutter Vol. 1, introduced us to Lily: a small-town girl who turns her shape-shifting ability towards the utterly mundane goal of dating her crush by literally becoming their dream-boy. Jennie Wood’s writing is deceptively simplistic, but don’t be fooled: these are big emotional moments she’s depicting, and they ring true every time. Balancing the high school, coming of age tale is a backstory involving the secret experiments that gave Lily her super power.
Flutter Vol. 2, titled Don’t Let Me Die Nervous continues Lily’s tale, which sees her reluctantly returning to St. Charles — the very town she left behind at the end of Vol. 1. Her identity problems continue to complicate her love life. While Lily no longer needs to adopt a male persona with her new girlfriend, she is forced to do so in attempting to protect those closest to her. McComsey’s art matches Wood’s straightforward storytelling, while deftly conveying complex emotions in a minimalist, sketchbook style. Flutter is the kind of comic you read through in one sitting, then re-read immediately.
Writer: Chris Roberson Artist: Michael Allred Publisher: DC Comics
Don’t you hate it when one of your favorite books gets the hook before its demise? iZombie was one of those monthly titles that didn’t get the audience it needed to sustain despite snagging an Eisner in 2012. Despite Chris Roberson publishing some of his most best work, and Mike and Laura Allred showing us another side of their expertise we haven’t seen since the infamous Madman days. Thankfully, the powers that be gave iZombie life after cancellation at the CW so we can get this amazing iZombie Omnibus. The 646 monster is a must for have for Gwen Dylan fans either of the comic or television series.
Cartoonist: Penelope Bagieu Publisher: First Second
If I were to be super technical about it, this graphic novel came out originally in 2010 in France. However, since this was released in an English translation to the states just this year, I’m counting it. The title is a reference to an art form where either a poem or a drawing is started by one person, but then added on to by others until finished. Not to give away an plots, this ties in well to the story’s conflict. Penelope Bagieu does beautiful simple illustrations that lend to the quirkiness of the book, but also keeping to the themes of distrust, loneliness, and falsehood. The relationship aspects also make you think about your own life in comparison. It sure did for me.
Sandman Overture: Deluxe Edition
Writer: Neil Gaiman Artist: J.H. Williams III & Dave Stewart Publisher: Vertigo
Neil Gaiman is the “rock star” of writing. Anything and everything of his I’ll buy. Not for the principle of it, but because I truly enjoy everything he makes. Overture is the prequel to the original Sandman comics that depicts everything leading up to the first issue. We get a unique, deeper look into the character of Morpheus (god of dreams) with some nice cameos by his sister, Death. Though this comic was made over the last couple years, this collection puts it in the 2015 category for me. I thought it did quite well with J.H. Williams III and Dave Stewart. Definitely something to have on the shelf.
Most of the other Beat Staffers picked books on my Top Twelve, so here it is with my annotations of the books — these are unranked BTW. Too hard!
Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine (Drawn & Quarterly)
Supermutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki (Drawn & Quarterly)
by Kate Beaton (Drawn & Quarterly)
Beaton’s excursions into history not only pop the balloon of pomposity but reveal the too little remembered pioneers of lady snark and feminism going all the way back to the dawn of recorded history. Communication mediums change, but human nature doesn’t. While Beaton is justly revered for her smart writing, her cartooning isn’t always given it’s due: her loose, jangly cartoons have the vivacity of diary entries and seem fresh and immediate. While Step Aside, Pops is a worthy companion to Hark a Vagrant! I look forward to seeing what she does with her autobiographical comics in the future, as well as her flourishing career as a children’s book author.
by Noelle Stevenson (HarperTeen)
In a book that’s as much about Stevenson’s growth as a cartoonist as the evolution of its protagonist, she manages to set every trope of YA fantasy on its head. The twists aren’t story related so much as character turns that (while foreshadowed) are still so much against what’s expected that they still arrive with the power to shock—resisting redemption for a major character? Scandalous! Along the way there’s also Stevenson’s completely marvelous invented world that combines magic and science, an unconventional romance that sets a standard for diversity, and rock solid cartooning. Still under 25, she’s already on her way to Orson Welles wunderkind status as the youngest ever National Book Award finalist, a job writing cartoons and a three book deal with Harper. (She also designed characters for the much lauded Lumberjanes.) The world of comics has been a lot kinder to underage phenoms than movies, so watching Stevenson’s career unfold could be a major pleasure for years to come.
by Sophie Goldstein (AdHouse) and Josh Simmons (Fantagraphics)
Dystopian SF isn’t just for the front of the Diamond catalog any more. Goldstein and Simmons offered two complimentary and powerful takes on the future that are matches right down to the way the edge painted pages reflect the contents. In Goldstein’s story, ecological disaster has led to domed cities and strict controls on reproduction; a young couple escapes to the desert outside the city, illicitly planning to have a baby the old fashioned way. Printed in an orange duotone that captures the scorching future sun, this is a tidy little story about the different ways people appraoch basic human survival; and a parable of our own reliance on technology.
Simmons’s world is far bleaker and more dangerous, as reflected in the decaying green and purple printing. This world has ended in ice, not fire, and a ragtag group of survivors from unnamed disaster wander a forbidding world of starvation, violence and rape—and stand-up comedy. Rumors of a city with electricity, warmth and food drive them on. It’s a relentlessly grim story, without even The Walking Dead’s zombie menace to blame for humankind’s descent into cruelty and violence—and the shreds of civilization that do remain make it even more horrific. Simmons contrasts the austere beauty of the winter world with the frantic, gushing human struggle beneath.
by Brian K Vaughan, Marcos Martin and Munsta Vicente (Panel Syndicate/Image)
This story about a world where a leak in “the cloud” has made privacy a major concern seems more prescient every day. but more than just a cracking good mystery and speculative science fiction, it’s a beautiful job by Martin and Vicente, and Marcos’s creepy designs and kinetic storytelling are worldbuilding at their best.
by Etienne Davodeau (NBM)
A married woman with a family goes on a job interview and then decides to chuck it all and wander around the French coast for a while roughing it with other drop outs and noncomformists. Meanwhile her family conducts an investigation around the dinner table into why she decided to leave them, and what was her final fate. Davodeau specializes in stories of people who start a new way of life (The Initiates) and Lulu Anew has a few clunky moments (Lulu’s ultimate benefactor comes is a bit unlikely) but the art is extraordinary at capturing the ordinary, from Lulu’s joyful homelessness to her daughter’s surprise at where her mother’s new life has taken her.
Darryl Cunningham (Abrams)
A clear, concise explanation of the 2008 crash with an emphasis on its roots in Ayn Rand’s impoverished childhood and subsequent friendship with Fed chairman Alan Greenspan. Cunningham gives space to all the causes of the crash—one of the most costly events in modern history—while zeroing in on the main one, and the reason why we’ll never be able to stop catastrophically stupid acts like this: human greed that leads to shortsightedness. Cunningham’s cartooning is bare bones, but his research (shored up by some financial experts in this remastered version of the webcomic/UK book) is easy enough even for financial dummies like comcis journalists to understand.
by Conor Stechshulte (Breakdown Press)
In the first part of this story by the author of The Amateurs, a man retells his amorous exploits when his car breaks down outside the home of an unusual couple. Is it the truth or a tall tale? In part two, all of the characters pasts and present actions explode into shards of doubt, self-delusion and just plain weirdness. This book is at present only available in a very limited edition risograph but I have no doubt that someday it will all be colelcted in a version that everyone can read. While Killing and Dying has justly earned comparisons to literary figures from Alice Munro to Raymond Carver, indie comics are on a literary roll right now, with complex narratives that capture all the intricacies of human interaction in ways that are still being invented. It’s a great time to be reading comics.
by Riad Sattouf (Metropolitan)
From Libya to France to Syria, Sattouf covers the central conflict of our times through his peripatetic childhood. Led by Sattouf’s father, a feckless dreamer, his family is dragged from one uncomfortable regime to another. But note well, Sattouf’s father’s dream is not jihad but a pan-Arab state. This is not only a fascinating memoir of a time and place, but a guide to the reality of the Muslim world, one as various and complicated as any, and that resists the demonization of the ignorant.
by Jason Little (Uncivilized Books)
What if all those lovable cartoon hobos who have populated comic strips from McManus and Bud Fischer on weren’t just figures of comedy but tragic alcoholics who have no insurance and struggle with desperate health problems? But what if the story of one it was drawn in the style of classic comic strips by the always meticulous Little (Motel Art Improvement Service). If it doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, it isn’t. Once again, Little has crafted a book that subverts our expectations, and shines a light on our own eagerness to laugh at the pain of others. It’s extremely uncomfortable and beautiful at the same time.
The Elite Beat Staff is a trained squad of ninja masters.