Top 10, No, 15…make that Top 20-ish Comics of 2015

The end of the year is rife with many fun and exciting events – there’s Christmas (and the other religious holidays) of course, the Boxing Day cricket test match (both the official one and the one in the backyard), family gatherings and the joy and self-reflection of New Year’s Eve.
Most important for us geeks, however, is the end of year tradition of top ten lists ! Whether the focus is on TV shows, films, books and more, we love to end the year with a list of our favourite specimens from our favourite genre. I am not immune to this urge, and being a comics fan I must stand proud and tell the world which comics I most enjoyed in 2015 (even if I’m giving you this list at the start of 2016) !

 

Now, because there have been so many great books that came out in 2015 I am going to cheat and separate my list into regular series (those which are ongoing with no end date planned)  and limited series (those stories which with a fixed – or limited – number of issues planned from the start).
This way, I can actually give you my top 15 books for the year ! Then, by also including a few titles which almost made the list you will end up seeing around 20 comics from 2015 which I think are fantastic and recommend you read !

 

1. Ivar, Timewalker  Fred Van Lente and Clayton Henry 

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Fred Van Lente once again proves he is the smartest man writing comics with a story which brilliantly plays with time travel paradoxes to create a hilarious and thought provoking series. The titular character Ivar starts the series by telling the scientist Neela she is about to create time travel before whisking her off into time to escape from villains who have travelled back in time to prevent her from doing so. From there we are treated to a twelve issue romp in which the true villain is revealed (more than once), the effects of timey wimey meddling are made apparent and history is romped through with joyous abandon. The characters are funny and clever and all have arcs which are satisfying (including Armstrong and Gilad, Ivar’s immortal brothers who are important parts of the Valiant universe). The art from Clayton Henry continues to be crisp with clean lines which provide detail without being overly rendered. His work on character expressions and body language is especially impressive, given the similarity many of the characters share (there is one scene in particular set in a bar which is just outstanding). I am admittedly skirting around the main reasons I enjoy this book, as to do so would be far too spoilery. What I will say is this is the perfect comic for fans of Doctor Who, time travel paradoxes and brilliant character development.

 

 

 

 

2.  Revival  Tim Seeley and Mike Norton

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This “rural noir” kicked up a notch this year with action and revelations aplenty ! Our main character Officer Dana Cypress solved her sister’s murder, and at the same time discovered just what the event was which caused the dead to be “revived”. Other plots are put into action, with (at times literally) explosive results, and the motivations of characters are twisted and turned with dizzying speed. All of this is beautifully portrayed by Mike Norton, with an almost water-colour effect on some pages which provide a bucolic (yet somewhat decayed) background. As a result, the outbreaks of violence and horror jump from the page, effectively showing how these acts are violating the peace of the setting.
This is the coolest mystery story currently being told, regardless of medium. Jump into it now by picking up the deluxe volume number one, which gives you a big chunk of the story, and prepare to be swept up into a story in which an unthinkable event reverberates through a small US town to provide unsettling horror.

 

3.  Mercury Heat  Kieron Gillen and Omar Francia
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Kieron Gillen has done some remarkable work this year – from the mythic odyssey which is The Wicked + The Divine, horrific WW2 alt-history Uber to the long awaited masterpiece Phonogram: The immaterial Girl (see below) – proving he is one of the medium’s modern masters. His work on Mercury Heat has been his best of the year, with deep world-building, excellent character development and cool sci-fi ideas all wrapped up in an action thriller ! The lead character is Luiza a cop who due to her not-quite psychotic tendencies cannot be a cop on Earth, but instead must try and find work on the energy-station which Mercury has become. The dark humour and brutal action (drawn in an almost Brian Bolland way by Omar Francia) remind me a lot of the early Judge Dredd strips, in which Dredd was larger than life and always willing to do what it took to enforce the law. However, by cleverly juxtaposing the hopes and dreams Luiza had as a young girl we are shown she is more than a law enforcement machine. The sci fi elements are present but do not overwhelm the plot, as the characters (and the central mystery) drive the story. As much as a study of a life hoped for being morphed into the life which must be as a cop thriller, this is a masterpiece !

 

 

4. Grayson  Tim Seeley, Tom King and Mikel Janin
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The espionage series written by an ex-CIA agent and starring the ex-Boy Wonder made me smile like a loon every time I opened a new issue. Dick Grayson proves to be more suave than James Bond, more inventive than Jason Bourne and more adept at playing the long game than George Smiley. 2015 saw Dick get his revenge on Lex Luthor (the man who “killed” him), fight an evil twin and deal with the fact his partner is now his boss. He also returned to Gotham City to tell his “family” he was not dead, and at the same time as reconnecting with the likes of Damian Wayne, Tim Drake and Barbara Gordon set up a new network within which Dick can gain the information he needs to take down the spy organisation Spyral once and for all. Everything about this book is wonderful – the wit and banter Dick cannot help but engage in during fights, perfectly choreographed fight scenes which show bodies in motion fluidly and clearly, the subversion of Dick as a sexual object firmly within the female gaze.  A fun, FUN book with some interesting espionage thrown in to boot.

 

 

5. Mind MGMT  Matt Kindt 

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Speaking of espionage, this tour de force from writer/artist Matt Kindt wrapped up this year with a climactic story arc which expanded the Mind MGMT Universe while focussing the conflict down to the two main protagonists. This conflict played out initially as a chess game between two master manipulators (made all the more satisfying as one of the masters has seemed to be a pawn for most of the series) before exploding into a brutal endgame. Through it all we had Kindt’s deceptively simple pencil work with watercolour wash art, giving each event a dreamy quality of unreality which matched the mood of a heightened (and paranoid) reality. This sense of  surrealism is matched by the ever present messages on the border of each page, the “ads” on the back covers and even the design of the covers themselves. The incredible cover shown above, for example, was created completely out of eraser shavings – a perfect image for the character known as The Eraser. Easily the most impressively designed book of the year, each issue of Mind MGMT seems almost like an artefact from a parallel world where Phillip K Dick stories are in fact history.

 

6. Astro City, Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson, Gary Chaloner (YAY),  Wade Von Grawbadger, Jesus Merino and others.

 

Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson and cover artist/character designer Alex Ross have been producing the finest superhero comics in Astro City for the last 20 years, and the August issue (which celebrated this milestone) was just one example we were treated to in 2015 of what makes the series so great. Where many superhero comics and universes seem to do nothing but rush headlong from one “universe-shattering-nothing-will-ever-be-the-same-you-won’t-believe-who-dies” event to another, Astro City takes the time to examine the lives and personalities of the characters within the universe. So in the last 12 issues we have been treated to a thematic sequel to the first issue of Astro City, in which we once again peer into the dreams of the Superman-analogue Samaritan to see how he deals with and feels about his never-ending mission to save humanity; watch the developing relationship of crime-fighting partners Quarrel and Crackerjack (and witness the poignancy of an aging hero struggling with their fading strength) and best of all witness the origin of the Aussie hero Wolf Spider, an issue whose artwork is done by legendary Aussie artist Gary Chaloner (and has some easter eggs just for us Aussies – Wolfgang Lager). However, the best issue of all takes us into the lives of an archetypal “alien world ruled by an evil tyrant” which so often form the foil for heroes like the Fantastic Four, Avengers and JLA. In this clever issue the aliens are given the same sort of aspirations, beliefs and daily lives that we have and in a stroke make the evil aliens more compelling than many of the heroes they are constantly defeated by in the “Big Two” universes. There has been a lot of talk lately about “event fatigue” and superhero comics giving us nothing more than shallow, cyclical blockbuster events in which nothing ever changes. Astro City is the perfect antidote to this type of event fatigue, and each issue is less a blockbuster and more the cool indie film which you fall in love with and keep coming back to.

 

7. Ninjak, Matt Kindt and Raul Allen (main story) Butch Guice (backup tale)

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More Matt Kindt espionage, this time in an action thriller set in the Valiant Universe. Ninjak Is a character equal parts James Bond and Bruce Lee, who can take down an opponent in fifty different ways either unarmed or with some funky gadget, who  thinks ten steps ahead of opponents and is never surprised. Yet he is also a man isolated by his skills, upbringing and career, someone who works best alone perhaps because alone is all he has ever been. The art portrays this sense of isolation perfectly, both in the poses and facial expressions of the lead and in the use of lonely mountains, towering skyscrapers and hidden temples. As such, we get the best of two worlds – high flying spy action and introspection on isolation and alienation. What more could you want from a book about a ninja spy ?

 

8. Harrow County, Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook 

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While Revival is described by its authors as “Rural Noir”, I can only think of Harrow County as “Rural Gothic”. Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook create a world in which the darkness and isolation of the countryside hide death, madness, witchcraft and a decaying power from long ago which may just threaten the world once again. Crook uses the watercolour wash palette to convey the scenes as a pastoral painting, albeit one that is rife with horror. The pages are a delight to look at, with hidden aspects coming to the fore with each viewing, and tell a story in which seemingly ordinary people learn that the sins of the past will always be visited on the present (and more horrific, the future too). Indicative of this aspect of the book is the inside front cover, which is always a double page spread showing the landscape in and around Harrow County, with the title itself woven into the scene in an inventive way (a rural equivalent of the old Spirit titles being woven into cityscapes). Like the best Gothic literature, the overt scares are just another way of showing the atmosphere of pervasive dread which pervades the story as a whole, and the true horror occurs off the page when you think about the ramifications of what has been shown.

 

 

9. Ultimates, Al Ewing and Kenneth Rocafort     

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Al Ewing has been writing the best Avengers comics for a few years now with the Mighty Avengers, and this all-new, all-different comic takes the best parts of this work and throws in huge sci-fi ideas and plots to crank the whole thing up to eleven ! Only two issues of the Ultimates have been released this year, and it is a testament to the intelligence and sheer confidence of Ewing that it is in my top ten. The story has Black Panther leading a new team of Avengers whose job will be to deal with  cosmic crises. To this end, the first two issues see him and several other of my favourite Avengers characters (Monica Rambeau, America Chavez and Captain Marvel) uncovering the building blocks of the universe and  “solving the problem” of Galactus ! Teamed with Al Ewing (who is one of my favourite writers) is Kenneth Rocafort, one of my favourite artists. His sense of angular design and art nouveau flourishes are fantastic for showing the weirdness of space, fantastic machines and larger than life personalities of the cast. These are the Avengers as I want them to be –  interesting characters with cool powers facing the threats that no one hero alone can handle !

 

 

10. Descender  Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen
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This is another comic which takes me a long, long time to read each month, as I spend ages looking at the stunning artwork ! Each page is like a painting, crying out to be admired from afar and inspected in minute detail and admired again from afar. The story is a simple one – a child discovering their place in the world – but is told with clever sci-fi twists and a world-building which is massive in scale.  In this tale Tim-21 – a companion robot – wakes up after being damaged, to find his human family has disappeared. What he does not know is that robots are hated and feared throughout the galaxy after an attack by robotic beings a decade earlier, and his idyllic world is an unusual oasis of calm in a tough galaxy. The action is guided perfectly by Tim’s discovery of the plot, which is set up via conflicts between the main characters’ personalities and goals. And with cute ancillary characters, the hint of an epic threat and revelation galore, this is a book which surprises and delights with every turn of the page

 

Limited series:

 

1.  Twilight Children, Gilbert Hernandez and Darwyn Cooke
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I will come straight out and admit that I love everything that Gilbert Hernandez has ever done, is doing and will do, so it is probably just my total and utter bias that has this book coming in as my favourite limited series of the year. Probably. Actually, no – the book is my favourite limited series because of the intriguing mystery that has been set up over the first three issues, the wonderful cartoony yet realistic artwork from Darwyn Cooke, the interesting and flawed characters we have met and the sense that if you walk far enough down the road out of town you will end up in Palomar  (OK, maybe that last one is just due to my obsession). This is a clever invasion story, in which the somewhat idyllic lives of a small town are shattered by a mysterious appearance, the effects of which are only just beginning to ripple out. The “invaders”  are suitably enigmatic, as is the woman who appears in their wake. Being a Beto comic there are plenty of small-town secrets and shenanigans to uncover, such that the overall mystery is merely the biggest rather than only one.

 

2.  Master of Kung Fu  (BATTLEWORLD) Haden Blackman and Dalibor Talajic 
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More confessions: I have been unimpressed with the Secret Wars event, and disappointed with many of the ancillary stories which came out of it (I won’t bore you with the details as to why; this article is a celebration of comics !). So it was with some reluctance I picked up this series after being impressed by the artwork, and man am I glad I did ! The idea is pure kung fu from the 70s, as we watch a fighter prepare for a tournament whose winner becomes the realm’s emperor. That fighter is Shang Chi, disgraced son of the current emperor and seeming loser. His return to form is well told, and with a art style which is reminiscent of both kung fu films and ancient Chinese woodblocks. This was the best series to come out of Secret Wars, and made the whole event seem worthwhile !

 

 

3.  Archie v Predator, Alex De Campi  and Fernando Ruiz with Rich Koslowski https://www.darkhorse.com/Comics/Previews/27-993

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I am a sucker for Archie crossovers – my comics collection contains both the L’il Archie/Tiny Titans limited series and the infamous Archie v Punisher one shot – so it was without a pause I picked up the latest intriguing event featuring America’s favourite teen. And it was as awesome as I expected ! The story works well as an Archie story, with some classic Betty vs Veronica conflict, Jughead’s focus on his stomach and Archie being a little out of depth no matter where he is – the art by Ruiz and Koslowski (whom has been an Archie artist for a few years now) is exactly what you think of when you hear the name Archie. Surprisingly, it also works well as a Predator story, where the titular beast inflicts violence and horror on unsuspecting victims in gory detail.
Like chocolate and caramel, it is two great flavours which blend perfectly !
4. Phonogram, the Immaterial Girl  Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

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This installment of the Phonogram series has been one fans of Gillen and McKelvie have been awaiting for what seems like forever and as a result expectations have been sky high. Fortunately for us fans these expectations are more than met, with a book which is close to perfect. Once again we focus on beloved characters, this time it is queen bitch of magic Emily Aster in the spotlight. It seems Emily made a deal with the music video devil years ago to be her best self, and now the “worst” self is back for revenge. The art from Jamie McKelvie is the best it has ever been, especially in those sequences homaging the seminal “Take on Me” video clip and Kieron Gillen is writing a clever story with dialogue which is pure poetry. Buy this book and all previous volumes of Phonogram today, you will love them.

 

5. Groot, Jeff Loveness and Brian Kesinger

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This book was another fantastic surprise, as it came out of nowhere to provide the most heartfelt, humorous and heroic series of the year. The story has Groot and his friend Rocket Raccoon embarking on a road trip to Earth, only for Rocket to be kidnapped. Cue Groot’s journey to rescue his friend and get to Earth before the worst can happen. Jeff Loveness and Brian Kesinger are both new to me, and are talents I will be looking out for from here on in. Loveness brings a Disney/Pixar animation style to the page, with exaggerated facial expressions, funny alien designs and a flow to each page which suggests motion brilliantly. He and Kesinger also show their comics cred as well, though, with great portrayals of the Silver Surfer, Rocket Raccoon and the Skrulls. Best of all is a panel which pays tribute to the famous “Wolverine in the sewer” image from Uncanny X-Men # 132 (this one: wolverinemyturn in a cool, funny way (which had me laughing and pumping my fist !). This is everything one could ask for from a limited series: a beloved character portrayed by new talent in a story which makes you see the character in a new way while showing us their core.
Honourable mentions:
  • Ms Marvel: Old-school Marvel shenanigans starring the Muslim American teenager Kamala Khan.
  • Transformers V GI Joe: Mind-bending art and story provide the most mega-epic crossover of all time.
  • PastAways:  More timey wimey fun, this time travellers from the far future are stuck in “pre-history” (i.e. 2015). Can they discover how to get home before their personality differences tear them apart ? Only time will tell !
  • Hip Hop Family Tree:  A comprehensive history of the early days of the hip-hop scene told with wit and insight.
  • TET:  Relationships in war can be hell.
  • Kanan the Last Padawan:  The history of the “cowboy Jedi” from the amazingly excellent Star Wars Rebels cartoon is revealed in this comic tie-in.
  • Oh, also check out the Darth Vader comic by Kieron Gillen, which is so good at showing Vader being so evil !
  • Rumble: An ancient monster hunter walks into a bar and slays monsters. Fun, horror and some poignant character moments ensue.
  • The Paybacks: A simple yet genius concept done perfectly ! When heroes can no longer afford to repay their loans for all that cool equipment they use, the Paybacks are called in to repossess it. Extremely funny with clever ideas liberally strewn about.
GS Blogger: Brett

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