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It’s been an interesting year for the comic book industry.
Marvel found massive success with its relaunched Star Wars license — to give a sense of how massive, the Star Wars titles alone outsell the combined output of the fourth-largest publisher in the American market — even as it relaunched its superhero line as All-New All-Different Marvel. DC Entertainment made a significant push towards diversity with its summer DC You relaunch, but stumbled in the marketplace, while Image Comics continued a slow sales renaissance to strengthen its position in the marketplace with a lineup of original, creator-owned properties.
At the heart of it all, of course, were the comic books themselves. 2015 had a really strong lineup of material from many publishers, with highlights coming in unexpected places. Marvel’s Secret Wars event (and DC’s similar, but smaller, Convergence) offered nostalgia and epic scope to faithful fan bases, but it was less-heralded titles like The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and The Omega Men that remained in our hearts after reading.
What follows is a Best Of that’s more of a recommended reading list; there are many, many titles that could have been included — Image Comics’ Saga and Southern Bastards, or Marvel’s Ms. Marvel, for example, all of which remain as strong as ever — and others that came so close to making the grade that it feels cruel not to mention them (DC’s Convergence: Shazam, which offered a pitch- perfect take on all-ages derring-do adventure comics that should be studied by anyone wanting to make superhero comics, say). It’s been a good year for comics, but these titles are the cream of the crop.
The Wicked + The Divine (Image Comics)
Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s mash-up of pop culture and mythology — in which 12 people are discovered to be the reincarnation of mythical beings, giving them both super powers and a cultural cache beyond compare, with the cost being that they will all die within two years — continued with a second year that was, if anything, stronger than its first. Unafraid to make bold choices and grand gestures, the strength of the series is its intimacy, which manifests both in Gillen’s smart, precise writing and McKelvie’s well-observed, human artwork. (Colorist Matt Wilson deserves mention here; his work adds significantly to the finished book.) Even a run of issues with guest artists — called, with tongue-in-cheek knowingness, “Commercial Suicide” — couldn’t dull the momentum of one of the most contemporary, immediate stories being told today.
Giant Days (BOOM! Studios)/Bad Machinery (Oni Press)
Technically, Giant Days and Bad Machinery are two separate series — the former, about students spending their first years away from home at college, the latter, a bunch of high school students who set out to solve increasingly ridiculous and unbelievable mysteries — but they share a writer (John Allison, who also draws Bad Machinery, the webcomic which Oni collects in print annually) and a sense of humor that’s heavy on the absurd and the awkward, but never less than hilarious. Lissa Treiman and Max Sarin provide art on Giant Days, which is arguably the more accessible, and certainly the more down-to-earth, of the two series, and their kinetic, cartoony ways only make the characters feel more lifelike.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (Marvel Entertainment)
It’s difficult to describe Squirrel Girl in a way that matches the appeal of the series. Ryan North and Erica Henderson have created a superhero series so optimistic and charming that it’s impossible to resist, no matter how many puns — the titles of the collected editions to date include Squirrel, You Know It’s True — rhymes (Squirrel Girl teams up with Chipmunk Hunk and Koi Boy) and general examples of silliness are thrown at the reader. An oasis from the angst and apocalypse that fills most superhero comics, the word that best describes Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is “joyful.”
The Omega Men (DC Entertainment)
Tom King and Barnady Bagenda’s reboot of the obscure space opera property is, in many ways, the anti-Guardians of the Galaxy: an unapologetically complex political thriller in which the good guys aren’t above implanting explosives in the necks of those they hope to recruit and the bad guys genuinely believe they’re fighting the terrorists. It’s all the better for that, as well; unlike any other superhero book at DC or Marvel, it makes for fascinating, grim and utterly compelling reading — and Trevor Hutchison’s covers make it one of the best looking books on the stands.
Zero (Image Comics)
Talking of political thrillers, Ales Kot’s anti-spy series reached its (entirely unpredictable) conclusion this year, and expanded Kot’s range by folding William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg into proceedings to add a psychedelic layer to a story already trying to find some way for the spy genre to escape from the seemingly endless cycle of violence. With a number of amazing artists contributing, Kot’s ambition might have exceeded his grasp at points, but Zero remains one of the most interesting, most human comic books to have been published by a major company in recent years.
The Multiversity (DC Entertainment)
Grant Morrison’s anthology series exploring the possibilities of the superhero genre while examining DC Entertainment’s back catalog also reached its finale this year with a pair of issues that suggested that the greatest danger to the genre — and perhaps the comic medium as a whole — is cynicism and a desire to become a commodity in the wider entertainment industry, but that its most potent defense is imagination and an acceptance of the untapped potential, whether that comes in the form of a cartoon rabbit Superman or simply choosing to believe the best in any given situation. At once a series of straightforward adventures told in different styles and a road map to a potential future, there’s a lot to unpack in Multiversity if you care to look beyond the (continually strong) artwork of the likes of Jim Lee, Frank Quitely, Ivan Reis, Cameron Stewart and more.
Nimona (Harper Collins)
2015 may have been Noelle Stevenson’s year; her Lumberjanes won a number of awards, and Nimona, her webcomic that finished last year, appeared in a revised print edition that introduced countless newcomers to its eponymous heroine, as well as Lord Ballister Blackheart, Sir Ambriosius Goldenloin and a story that contains multiple layers and surprising depth to bolster its surface hilarity. Imagine The Princess Bride meets Adventure Time, and you’ll be somewhere close to its appeal, and that’s without touching on Stevenson’s skillfully simple artwork.
Drawn & Quarterly: 25 Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics and Graphic Novels (Drawn & Quarterly)
A collection of new and classic work from the army of cartoonists published by the Canadian indie over its quarter-century history to date, the contributor list alone should explain its place on this list: Kate Beaton, Jillian Tamaki, Kevin Huizenga, Art Spiegelman, Adrian Tomine, Jonathan Lethem, Chris Ware, Lemony Snicket, Margaret Atwood and many, many more can be found in this mammoth (776 page) tome. If you’re looking for a one-stop shop to learn about where comics outside of the superhero mainstream are at, you could do worse than picking this up.
Judge Dredd: Enceladus (2000AD)
One of the joys of Judge Dredd in recent years is the way in which the strip embraces the fact that it’s been around for almost 40 years, with the character aging in real time during its run. This year, creators Rob Williams and Henry Flint made the most of that with a storyline that was as much about the futuristic lawman facing up to past decisions (and current relationships) as much as it was a threat to the giant Mega-City One that he’s dedicated his life to protecting. Managing to combine over-the-top action and subtle character development is difficult at the best of times, but Williams and Flint somehow make it look effortless.
Loki: Agent of Asgard (Marvel Entertainment)
Another title that ended this year — sacrificed to the great god Secret Wars, which collapsed the Marvel Universe altogether this summer — Loki saw writer Al Ewing and artist Lee Garbett swap what could have been the easy out of relying on fan affection for Tom Hiddleston’s screen portrayal of the longtime Marvel villain for a surprisingly personal story about the importance of change, personal responsibility and being honest with yourself. Trying to do that with a Trickster God as a central character might appear to be an impossible feat, but Ewing and Garbett demonstrated what’s possible with myth, metaphor and a little magic.
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Red Sea Film Festival
Red Sea Film Festival