It’s that time of year again… time to bust out the year-end “best of” lists. Between DC and Marvel, big indies, small presses, and the World Wide Web, thousands of comics made their way to your hands and screens this year. Despite Secret Wars and DCU, 2015 was an all-around gangbuster year for comics. This is the first of a two-part roundup. And don’t forget to drop by the comments to let us know what were your top picks.
Best Representations of Diversity
Bitch Planet (Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, Cris Peters, Clayton Cowles—Image Comics)
If I were teaching a class on intersectional feminism, this is the first text we’d read. Women of all sorts are represented here: queer, trans, heteronormative, women of color, white women; pretty, plain, fat, thin, muscular, waifish, women who resist the patriarchy; women who have convinced themselves they like it; women who find ways to manipulate it from within the system… The series is an uncompromising glimpse at a future that seems increasingly likely where the patriarchy and white supremacy get cranked up to 11 and everyone—men, women, white, non-white, and everything in between—suffers from it… except, of course, the ones in charge.
Lumberjanes (Grace Ellis, Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters, Brooke Allen, Maarta Laiho, Aubrey Aiese, Kate Leth—BOOM! Studios)
I know it’s a bit odd to sandwich Lumberjanes in between two very adult comics, but readers, publishers, and creators should strive for diversity at all age ranges. What Bitch Planet does for adults, Lumberjanes does for kids, minus all the sex and politics. It’s the series I recommend to just about every reader looking for something wholesome and with positive race, gender, and orientation representation. It’s got a lot in common with the late, beloved TV show Parks and Recreation: Both are anti-patriarchy, sunshiney and chipper, and all about self-empowerment and community betterment through kindness and hard work.
Sex Criminals (Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky—Image Comics)
Beyond being a great feminist comic, Sex Criminals tackles head on mental illness frankly and without flinching. It never reduces mental illness to something you can just power through or move on from. As for orientation representation, there aren’t many ace/aro characters in comic books, so when I find one that isn’t reduced to a stereotype of a frigid ice queen, it’s like finding a unicorn and Shangri-la all at once. Side note: If you’re not already reading Sex Crimz, go ahead and add this to your subscriptions. Make sure to tell your shop that you want the variants. They are so utterly, wonderfully filthy and perverted.
Best of the Big Two
Catwoman (Genevieve Valentine, Garry Brown, Travis Lanham, David Messina, Lee Loughridge, Gaetano Carlucci, Sal Cipriano, Taylor Esposito—DC Comics)
Batgirl and Catwoman make for two very different takes on what it’s like to be a female superhero in Gotham. Under Genevieve Valentine’s steady guidance, Selina Kyle has gone from pouty sex kitten to angsty criminal mastermind. She works out her bisexuality through a troubled relationship with the daughter of an enemy and her guilt at how things turned out with Bruce Wayne, all while also trying to keep her family together and her city intact.
Batgirl (Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, Babs Tarr, Maris Wicks, Jared K. Fletcher, Serge LaPointe, Steve Wands—DC Comics)
On a smaller scale is Stewart and Fletcher’s Batgirl. It takes a lighter look at being a young, hipster superhero while never forgetting the personal and physical damage villains cause. The series has had some bumps along the way—their handling of the reveal of Alysia Yeoh being trans was shaky, and I’m still pretty annoyed that the New 52 got rid of Oracle, one of the best superheroes with a disability—but it’s grown in leaps and bounds. For those interested in grimdark serious drama, Catwoman is top notch. And those looking for something a little more shōjo, Batgirl’s the comic for you.
Hawkeye (Matt Fraction, David Aja, Chris Eliopoulos, Matt Hollingsworth—Marvel Comics)
You know all that stuff you love about Netflix’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones, like how those shows are all about superheroes dealing with emotional crises while punching things and making plans with their human teammates? Well, that’s Hawkeye to a T. Kate Bishop and Clint Barton share more than a title: They’re both neurotic, battle-scarred, help-averse, and mutual disappointments. And that’s probably why they care about each other so much.
Ms. Marvel (G. Willow Wilson, Takeshi Miyazawa, Adrian Alphona, Ian Herring, Joe Caramagna—Marvel Comics)
Everyone glows about Ms. Marvel, and for good reason. The writing is nuanced and earnest, the artwork playful and lively, and the plot heartfelt Bildungsroman. Kamala Khan’s experiences as a Muslim girl, a teenager, and a child of an immigrant family are niche yet relateable—at some point, we’ve all felt trapped by their parents, overwhelmed by emotions and hormones, and worried about how much their lives have deviated from their plans. And good news, everyone! Kamala survived Secret Wars relatively unscathed.
Archie (Mark Waid, Fiona Staples, Annie Wu, Veronica Fish, Andre Szymanowicz, Jen Vaughn, Jack Morelli—Archie Comics)
Archie has never been this good. Waid and Staples (artists Wu and Fish replaced Staples starting with issue #4) bring a sharp focus to adolescent drama. They meld the day-to-day stresses of being a teenager with the heft of a long-running comic series, and while many a relaunch has converted traditional twee into rebooted grimdark, Archie remains firmly on the side of fun. Waid, Staples, Wu, and Fish never look down on their characters and imbue them with the same creative verve they bring to Saga, Black Canary, and Daredevil.
Bizarro (Heath Corson, Gustavo Duarte, Tom Napolitano, Pete Pantazis—DC Comics)
Bizarro was a goofy standalone six-issue miniseries that was better than it had any right to be. Corson and Duarte infuse this kooky little buddy comedy roadtrip tale with sprightly heart that will charm kids and adults alike.
Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur (Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare—Marvel Comics)
Less wacky but just as weird is Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. Only the first issue has been released so far (#2 is due out December 23), but it’s a cracking premiere. Lunella is an under-stimulated kid in a mundane world who dreams of science-y adventures, a wish that comes true when Devil Dinosaur roars his way into her world. She is a nerd punished by her peers for her interests but stays true to herself no matter how frustrating it gets.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (Ryan North, Erica Henderson, Rico Renzi, Clayton Cowles—Marvel Comics)
Because of Marvel’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Secret Wars crossover event, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl holds the unusual distinction of being a series with two #1s by the same creators in the same year. Good thing both relaunches are breezy and amiable. Squirrel Girl is a superhero who only works on the page with the right writer and artist, and North and Henderson are perfectly perfect for Doreen. This series is technically rated Teen, but unless you have a particularly sensitive child, there’s no reason to fret about it.
ODY-C (Matt Fraction, Christian Ward, Chris Eliopoulos—Image Comics)
Christian Ward’s artwork is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. ODY-C isn’t the easiest graphic novel to wrap your head around—I have to read each issue at least twice to feel like I have even the barest grasp on it—but the visuals are well worth the price of admission. To quote myself from an earlier review of the series: “Fraction’s laconic script is contrasted by the symphony of color in Ward’s artwork. It is visceral, vicious, vivacious, vivid… Each page, each panel, each character, each bit of mise-en-scene is a masterpiece in and of itself… Dazzling, sublime, sumptuous, opulent… there just aren’t words for how incredible Ward’s art is.” So yeah, it’s pretty darn great.
Pretty Deadly (Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Ríos, Jordie Bellaire, Clayton Cowles—Image Comics)
This was very nearly a tie between Pretty Deadly and Monstress (elsewhere on this list), but Emma Ríos is just soooo good. Her style is both wispy and calculated, a conflicting yet complementary match between heavy linework and delicate features. She is as uncompromising as Valentine De Landro and as subtly expressive as Fiona Staples. And with Jordie Bellaire’s gorgeous coloring, Pretty Deadly goes from looking like a dime-a-dozen western reboot to a lurid update à la technicolor Sergio Leone.
The Sandman: Overture (Neil Gaiman, J.H. Williams III, Dave Stewart, Todd Klein—Vertigo Comics)
Overture is a prequel to the 1990s-era series that completely broke the rules about what comics could do. Overture is just as stunningly gorgeous as its predecessor, high praise indeed for Williams, Stewart, and Klein. Williams’ covers could hang in an art gallery and give the competition a run for their money. Not many artists would be up to the task of depicting Gaiman’s prose, but Williams et. al don’t just meet him head on, they push Gaiman’s writing to even greater heights.
DC Comics Bombshells (Marguerite Bennett and various—DC Comics)
This was probably the biggest surprise of the year for me. A comic book miniseries based off a busty line of statuettes seemed misguided at best yet in line with DC’s usual ineptitude, but I have never been happier to be proved wrong. Bombshells is the bomb, pun intended. Set in an alternate WWII, the non-canon trifle brings the punchy fun to Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Zatanna, Stargirl, Harley Quinn, Catwoman, Batwoman, Duela Dent, and on and on. It’s digital-first, so if you want it in print, you’ll have to wait a bit for the issues.
Fresh Romance (various—Rosy Press)
Captained by Janelle Asselin, this ongoing anthology is one of the best Kickstarters I’ve ever backed. Each issue is digital-only and available on Comixology (so far… I’d be surprised if a print version isn’t in the works) and contains diverse themes and characters. It hearkens back to those old school romance comics that permeated the mid-century but died out once the good ol’ boys decided girls weren’t allowed to read comics anymore. There’s romance of the historical/Victorian, high school, and paranormal, plus regular articles about romance-related topics and featured covers by some very big names.
Island (various—Image Comics)
Speaking of anthologies (must be something in the water), Island has to be the most Image thing to ever come out of Image Comics. It’s weird and scattered but fascinating and one-of-a-kind. Some of the stories work better than others, but it’s a great way to connect new and up-and-coming creators with an untapped audience waiting for the next big thing. You won’t find anything like it, that’s for sure.
Secret Wars oneshots (various—Marvel Comics)
The best thing to come out of Marvel’s universe-colliding crossover Secret Wars are the two non-canon-ish oneshots: Secret Wars: Secret Love and Secret Wars, Too. Both are anthologies, the first of a romantic nature and the second straight-up comedy, and both are absolutely delightful. In Secret Love, Karen Page ponders whether Daredevil might be cheating on her with Typhoid Mary; Ms. Marvel and Ghost Rider get a bit of a chaste flirt on; Misty Knight and Iron Fist consult with Jessica Jones and Luke Cage on how to be parents, marrieds, and superheroes all at the same time; Squirrel Girl goes on a date with Thor that becomes every shipper’s dream; and insect versions of The Avengers doing a cutesy scavenger hunt. Too is one giant mock fest of some of Marvel’s more ridiculous elements. I can’t decide which story I love the most, Wolverine taunting three Cyclopses or Kate Leth’s story about Amerikate on an multiverse quest for pizza, but my life is happier with both stories in it.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.