Best Comics of 2015
Posted by Panel Beats Team at 10:28 on 31 Dec 2015
Rather than doing a ranked countdown based on any kind of consensus, we've instead individually written about which books stood out for us this year. As ever, our tastes and consumption habits can vary hugely (although there is some crossover); and of course, we're aware that we don't necessarily cover the full spectrum of everything that was published across the industry in 2015. Nevertheless, if we've mentioned it below, then as far as this site's concerned, it was a highlight of our year - and is well worth checking out if you haven't already.
There must be something telling about the fact that my two favourite comics this year were similarly-themed books by Marvel that are actually going to cross over in 2016. Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones' Howard the Duck was hilarious throughout its initial five-issue run, and has actually managed to start its second one arguably even stronger, with issue #2 of the current volume a striking and touching done-in-one about female clones of Howard and Rocket Raccoon. But as great as Howard has been, it's beaten to the top spot for me by The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (Ryan North and Erica Henderson), which has been just as relentlessly funny but with an endearing and completely un-cynical charm about it as well. Other writers would have to work for years to be as funny as its page-by-page footnotes, never mind the rest of it.
Elsewhere at Marvel, an excellent five-issue Groot mini by Jeff Loveness and Brian Kesinger admirably picked up the mantle left by Skottie Young's previous Rocket Raccoon series. Issue #2, which finally told the origin of the pair's meeting, is a strong contender for my favourite single of the year. Dan Slott and Giuseppe Camuncoli's Amazing Spider-Man continued to be fairly strong - if not as good as Superior - and the Renew Your Vows mini was one of the high points of the Secret Wars block for me. Spider-Gwen started well, but I confess it's lost a bit of its momentum for me and I've yet to catch up on the relaunched volume.
It's not been an especially stellar year for DC, despite the promise of the "Divergence" relaunch (although it would help if the company themselves had had any confidence in it rather than basically giving up on it almost immediately). I enjoyed early issues of Black Canary and Prez but haven't got around to going back to them, and I even dropped behind a bit on Batgirl. One of best of the new launches for me was Starfire - Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner writing some terrific and hugely likeable fish-out-of-water comedy, with beautiful art by Emanuela Lupacchino. I really hope this team find their way onto a new Supergirl book before too long.
But pick of the bunch for DC this year, seemingly out of nowhere, was Martian Manhunter by Rob Williams and Eddy Barrows. A complete reinvention of the character, but one that stayed faithful to much of his better moments over the years, it featured the Exciting New Character Find of 2015 in the shape of Mr Biscuits, whose every moment on the page has been an absolute joy. But the deeper story has been fascinating too, and quite unlike anything else either Marvel or DC have done in a good while.
Prior to Divergence, DC got a bit lost in the Convergence crossover event, which paired a pretty terrible main series with some mildly diverting sojourns back to previous continuity. Of those two-issue minis, I think the standouts were probably Greg Rucka and Cully Hamner's The Question, and Dan Jurgens and Lee Weeks on the 1990s Superman. A word, too, for the final few issues of Grant Morrison's Multiversity (particularly Ultra Comics with Doug Mahnke) and the excellent "Endgame" arc of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's Batman.
Oh, and of course, there was All-Star Section Eight by the Hitman team of Garth Ennis and John McCrea; which was (aside from the ill-judged Wonder Woman issue) predictably excellent, and in typical Ennis/McCrea fashion surprisingly touching at the end.
Some of the Image stalwarts were on good, rather than great form this year - it hasn't been Saga's strongest arc but it's still Saga, and Sex Criminals had some great individual issues but struggled a bit for momentum due to scheduling issues. I enjoyed Chew's climactic arc a lot, though, and Velvet continues to be strong. But as far as Image goes, it really was something of a Gillen-McKelvie year - The Wicked + The Divine building on its first year with a stunning and shocking conclusion to its second arc, and then the experimental third arc with guest artists. The highlight was #13, the devastating and hugely timely Tara issue, drawn by Tula Lotay - but the boundary-pushing of #14 (made up entirely of reworked art from previous issues) also further confirms them as the foremost storytelling team working in comics right now.
And, of course, Kieron and Jamie brought back Phonogram this year, with typically superb results. It's hard for me to judge this book in any way reasonably, objectively or rationally, but I've loved every moment of its return, particularly the sublime Scott Pilgrim pastiche of issue #4.
And finally, I have to give a word to Double D, the debut Image OGN by Eddie Argos and Steven Horry. While the fact that it's their first major comics work clearly shows in places, it's a tremendously entertaining (and very British) yarn, and we'll surely be seeing a lot of Horry's work in future.
A comic book about the storytelling techniques used by the masters of American radio seems a perversely counterintuitive undertaking, but Jessica Abel's Out on the Wire (Broadway Books) has been my highlight of 2015. I remembered her name from her Artbabe publication, which came along in the late 1980s, early 1990s – part of the vaguely hipster trend for slice-of-life stories, following in the stead of Daniel Clowes and Chester Brown. And now, here she is, intersecting with the likes of This American Life and Radiolab – staples of my podcast listening.
Her book is, at the most basic level, a series of illustrated interviews as she talks to Ira Glass, Jad Abumrad, Robert Smith et al, about how they put radio stories together. However, as she literally illustrates, it turns out the secret to good radio is often to think visually. For example, Glass talks about the benefits of setting interviews where an event happened – and having the subject give us a tour of the locale.
Although the publication goes deep into the specifics of wrangling "good tape" – a section on the mechanics of sound editing is particularly satisfying – it works equally well as a general self-help book for anyone hoping to get a creative project of any type off the ground, with techniques to help you marshal your thoughts and structure a story. Plus, it's always inspiring to learn how other people approach their endeavours. And it doesn't end there. Abel's spin-off podcast, also titled Out on the Wire, and resource-rich website, jessicaabel.com provide plenty in terms of aftercare if you're now fired up with the prospect of making something, but don't quite know how to direct that energy.
My other highlight this year is Wild's End: The Enemy Within (Boom! Studios) by Dan Abnett and INJ Culbard. A sequel to a series which began in 2014, it's a Talking Animal comic take on HG Wells' War of the Worlds. If anything, this run is even better than the first. Following the Martian invasion of rural Lower Crowchurch, the military arrive, and intern all witnesses to the event, who are treated with the utmost suspicion. A study in paranoia and authoritarianism, the joy of this comic is twofold. Abnett's writing – particularly his dialogue – is superb; you will rarely find characters in any medium possessed of such distinctive voices. And Culbard's artwork is first rate. Deceptively simple, his creations are equally distinctive while his storytelling is so mellifluous, it's easy to envisage this whole thing as an animated film.
If there's any comic-creator better positioned to write a Howard the Duck comic than Chip Zdarsky, I don't think anyone wants to know about it. Launching (twice) this year, Howard - like Silver Surfer and Hawkeye before it - has been evidence of Marvel's commitment to allowing creators as free a rein as they need to produce the best comics they can. It could come from no other pen. Admittedly, if your sense of humour doesn't click with his then you'll probably hate it, but I don't have that problem. It's hilarious on a panel-to-panel basis but sticks the plot landings when it needs to - and the most recent issue (at time of writing) proves it can even be sincere if need be. Between Zdarsky's writing and the fantastic art of Joe Quinones (which brings surprising amounts of subtlety to a cartoon duck) it's easily the first use of Howard that remotely justifies the character existing outside Gerber's own work. Better still, if you love the Marvel Universe, this is one of the few places you can feel it weighing on every story. Because let's face it - if you're turning up for a Howard the Duck comic, you're probably a hardcore fan by default.
Sometimes it seems like comics are where aging media properties go to die, kept alive in a zombified state by half-interested creators for a half-interested audience. For a while, you could've credibly made that case, but from sanctioned Buffy and Angel series to IDW's Transformers comics, we're in a golden age of licensed material. No more is that more obvious than in the Invader Zim comic, which launched this year from Oni Press and achieved the seemingly -impossible task of getting Jhonen Vasquez back into the medium where most of us fell in love with him.
Featuring returning writers and artists from the cartoon series in addition to Vasquez, it's fair to say that the Invader Zim comic is pretty successful at matching the tone and content cartoon itself, which is obviously a good thing. By necessity the show's distinctive voice work and soundscape are sacrificed, but in their place we get funnier, more polished visuals and a purer creative vision, unfettered by budgetary restrictions. I'm not sure I'd recommend the comic to people who didn't watch Zim at the time - but for those of us that did, it's as close to a second coming as we could hope for.