My Thirteen Favorite Comics of 2015

Starve by Brian Wood & Danijel Zezelj (Image): Brian is a friend and now an occasional collaborator, but conflict of interest aside, I’m confident I can objectively say this is a pinnacle accomplishment in his career. It weaves together so many of his go-to backdrop themes as context, surfing from urban life and multiculturalism to environmental stewardship and disproportionate resource allocation to identity to the price of fame in the modern age, all while focusing hard on mature father-daughter complexities. When you drench it all in that gorgeous Danijel Zezelj art sludge, it’s one of the most unique, entertaining, and intelligent offerings of 2015, to the point that I question the credibility of any list without it.

Rebels by Brian Wood & Andrea Mutti (Dark Horse): Rebels was one of the few books written by Brian Wood that I deliberately didn’t read in advance despite having access, savoring every illuminating artistic choice cold off the shelf, including the autobio backmatter. It’s full of trenchant views about what it means to be American, the sacrifices required to forge a country and your place in it, both then and now. Rebels is awash in the gritty textures of Andrea Mutti. Full Disclosure: I’m working on a project with Andrea, but I just love when he goes off with full-bleed spackled ink on the page, adhering to a level of realism most artists are afraid to dirty up their pages with.

Lazarus by Greg Rucka & Michael Lark (Image): There are books I like more as personal favorites, but Lazarus is one I feel comfortable saying is among the best currently available. Rucka and Lark build a world around the hard truths resulting from a post-capitalist society, with so much tantalizing window-dressing about bio-engineered soldiers enforcing the rule of families functioning as organized crime corporations that control the world. It’s full of brutal violence and life choices driven by the reality that you’re either ruling class or waste; there is no middle class. It’s a bleak but prescient reality, one that we’re starting to fray toward today.

Black River by Josh Simmons (Fantagraphics): Simmons is best known for the surreal horror he infuses into indie projects like Jessica Farm and The Furry Trap (both exquisite and highly recommended), so it’s surprising to see an equally brutal post-apocalyptic tale that bears some small sliver of gendered hope. Here he elevates the women to leads in a genre typically dominated by men, and through a roving cohort explores a rich gray area of morality that puts household names like The Walking Dead to shame. If even one percent of those viewers were tuning into work like this instead, well, the industry would really be getting somewhere.

They’re Not Like Us by Eric Stephenson & Simon Gane (Image): TNLU uses immaculate art detail to overwhelming effect with a killer thematic hook playing like it’s the creator owned X-Men for today. It’s a perfect modern aesthetic that seamlessly blends indie intrigue with mainstream sensibility, examining the complex morality of the power paradigm present in so much genre fiction, all with an impending sense of millennial dread. As a group of powered kids fractures, we witness factions forming in the model of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr. With layers of emotional tessellation reflected in the bold wisps of atmospheric pencils, Gane’s art achieves a rare state of perfection.

The Autumnlands by Kurt Busiek & Benjamin Dewey (Image): I’ve been a fan of Busiek’s  writing for ages, from his stalwart Avengers runs in the mainstream of days past with an in-his-prime George Perez, to the reliable cape deconstruction of Astro City, to the effortless imagination on display in the pages of his oft-overlooked alt history tale Arrowsmith. The Autumnlands works with the lush anthropomorphic work of Dewey, which belies the title’s more cerebral themes, upending superficial fantasy tropes in an expansive world that also bears subtle post-9/11 commentary about fallen Sky Cities and the subsequent social aftermath.

No Mercy by Alex de Campi & Carla Speed McNeil (Image): With CSM on board, this is one of those rare titles I’d tell people to buy for the art alone, but then they’d be overlooking the master class in character-first scripting. The writer composes a sort of inverse closed room drama about the breakdown of humanity that ensues when kids on a humanitarian trip to Latin America are faced with crisis. With innovative use of language that doesn’t feel like forced hip, lettering panache for days, and an all female creative team, No Mercy simply leads with quality. There’s an organic progressiveness on display that the industry desperately needs.

We Can Never Go Home by Matthew Rosenberg, Patrick Kindlon, and Josh Hood (Black Mask): Black Mask had a breakout year in 2015 (see also: Space Riders), due in part to this series about disenfranchised and disaffected millennials that take so much abuse in pop fiction. Occupying the same confessional territory as They’re Not Like Us, and Demo before them, this loner isolationist joint is the Indie Road Trip Bonnie & Clyde. Attacking tropes from different angles, yet still concerned with that old chestnut about latent adolescent power manifestation, it embodies a sense of post-genre paranoia with light sensual lines that entice readers into the world.

The Fuse by Antony Johnston & Justin Greenwood (Image): As a kid, I remember late nights with my dad watching Michael Mann’s Miami Vice and ahead-of-their-time crime serials like Wiseguy and Crime Story, which instilled an appreciation of the police procedural (enough that I sought a criminal justice degree as an undergrad and worked in Federal Law Enforcement). For a generation that grew up with Star Wars and was steeped in the intricacies of sci-fi world-building from The Black Hole (first film I saw in a theatre) to Battlestar Galactica, it’s like Johnston and Greenwood married their criminally underappreciated skills with these beloved genres and made a comic just for me.  

Deadly Class by Rick Remender & Wes Craig (Image): It’s always a toss-up between this and Remender’s Black Science. While I enjoy the sci-fi familial bonds of Black Science that read like an FF pitch that was too hot for Marvel, Deadly Class sneaks up on you. Craig’s lines are a weird confluence of Javier Pulido and old-school Frank Miller, enabling commentary about the pros and cons of tribalism. Imagine a deeply subverted Harry Potter, kids in an assassin school, with gut-wrenching twists and turns, matter-of-fact violence, social tension, and an infusion of autobiographical 80’s threads that demonstrate how real-world trauma can make literature blossom.

James Bond by Warren Ellis & Jason Masters (Dynamite Entertainment): I came close to including Injection on the list, due in large part to the luscious Declan Shalvey art, but felt that the scripts tended toward being a little too nebulous for their own good, especially early on. Conversely, the Vargr arc of James Bond is like a mainline shot of tradecraft with clear intent, introducing us to a Bond who is more Queen & Country than Roger Moore. The detailed dialogue is grounded yet sings, and whether Ellis has MI-6 referring to “The Cousins” across the pond, or it’s debating the efficacy of a Walther P99, the air of authenticity is pure reading pleasure.

Manifest Destiny by Chris Dingess & Matthew Roberts (Image): It’s a brilliant example of how to do historical fiction right, an absolute visual feast that mirrors the wonderment of the fabled expedition. The speculative account blends in creepy monster mayhem that never fails to twist and shock (see issue #18!). Thomas Jefferson’s off-book spec ops mission for Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark, namely investigating supernatural forces inhabiting the territory of the Louisiana Purchase (the real reason POTUS got such a deal from the French!) is like an HBO, Showtime, or Netflix pitch waiting to happen.

Trashed by Derf Backderf (Abrams): Backderf’s work always has a way of illuminating the mundane in the fantastical (My Friend Dahmer) and the fantastical in the mundane. Here, it’s the latter, highlighting the subculture of garbage and its myriad hidden atrocities. From the staggering quantities we actually produce as a society, to its dangerous methodology that seems to teeter on the brink of total collapse. Backderf’s own wobbly line is like a modern Charles Schulz, a fragile thread that’s as socially relevant as it is entertaining, creating the type of work that should be required reading for anyone who’s ever generated even a single piece of refuse.


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