Hello, and welcome to what will be my 6th annual countdown of my favourite comics of the year. 2015 has been another interesting year for comics. It seems to have been something of a transitional year for the Big Two, with both Marvel and DC having big shakeups. In DC’s case, it has involved launching a whole series of new books within the DCU, and more recently under the Vertigo banner too, while in Marvel, it has been a line-wide relaunch. This meant that Marvel’s year seems to have been split between their titles being wrapped up in the first half of the year, and their replacements only really getting going over the past couple of months, which has likely hurt their standing on this year’s list. Scheduling has made a few rankings tricky on this list, going by my usual “a series must have 3 issues released within the year to qualify” barometer. The Sandman: Overture was brilliant, but the staggered release schedule meant that no one year had enough issues released within it to garner inclusion. And on the other end, we’ve had some amazing launches right at the tail-end of the year that have just missed out the cut. Vertigo’s Sheriff of Babylon was one of the best first issues of anything I’ve read in some time, and I think the odds of it ranking in next year’s countdown are very high indeed if the quality remains consistent. Negative Space from Dark Horse is another title which blew me away with its first issue and which may have qualified if we’d gotten more from it this year. Marvel’s standouts thus far in its All-New, All-Different initiative have been Doctor Strange and Invincible Iron Man, but I feel they’re still relatively fresh and I need to see how they settle down before ranking them. Over on the DC side, Midnighter, Martian Manhunter and Constantine: The Hellblazer all get honourable mentions and have proven to be highly successful new launches brimming with ideas for their respective protagonists. And while Image still lead the pack for titles on my list, I’d say my reading has been quite widely spread this year, with me enjoying titles from BOOM!, Oni Press, Dark Horse and IDW – including a binge-reading session of IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles run, which is cracking and very nearly made the list! Special mention also goes to Rumble from John Arcudi and James Harren, which was actually on the list at #10 until the last minute when I realised another book I loved but didn’t think qualified as a 2015 release was eligible. But now that I’ve explained away the various comics that didn’t make the cut, it’s time to get down to the books that did…
Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s landmark run returns to the list after failing to rank for the first time last year. But really, this team is so finely honed now that they could make a well-crafted adaptation of the phone-book, so even arcs that I might not have been so personally engaged by, like the extended “Zero Year” saga of last year, still have an undeniable level of talent behind them. But my interest was grabbed back with a vengeance with “Endgame,” which was kicking into high gear as the year began. Batman and The Joker are two of my favourite characters in fiction, and so watching them set against each other is always a joy, but this took things to a whole new, climactic level of drama. One of Scott Snyder’s great skills as a writer is that he can take a character like Batman, someone we KNOW is going to be around long after we’re all dead and gone, and ramp up the tension so high that we start to question how the hell Batman can possibly get out of the corner he’s been backed into, how can The Joker possibly be defeated? “Endgame” seems to have had its detractors, but I loved it, for me it played out with all the gravitas we might imagine The Last Ever Batman Story would have. The current “Superheavy” arc has been a fun change of pace, exploring interesting ideas about Gotham without Batman, and Bruce Wayne without Batman, remixing some of the themes Snyder first explored back in his “Black Mirror” story. And of course, Greg Capullo’s visuals are always stunning. Far from resting on his laurels, Capullo uses Batman as a platform to keep pushing the envelope in terms of page construction and what visuals can do to inform the story. Snyder and Capullo have already secured their legacy as one of the all-time great Batman creative teams, and everything they do going into 2016 is just an extended victory lap.
Speaking of victory laps, that’s what these last couple of arcs of Daredevil Volume 4 felt a bit like. Mark Waid and Chris Samnee may not have quite hit the dizzying heights they reached during Volume 3 or even earlier in Volume 4, but they still had a few remaining tricks up their sleeve as they brought their acclaimed run to a close. For me, the biggest ace was bringing in The Kingpin for that last arc. Arguably my favourite Marvel villain, his absence – deliberately enforced, according to Waid – was the one thing Waid’s instant classic run was missing for me. So I relished seeing how Waid and Samnee brought him to life. And really, every chapter of this series was a delight, each issue making me let out a little gasp or chuckle at the cleverness of its construction at least once. I think it came to a rewarding close as well, bringing things full circle and using its closing moments to focus on what we all knew this whole run was about at its core: the friendship between Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson. This was a comic that made me smile, not something one might expect to say about the famously grim Daredevil… but that was its charm. I’m sure Charles Soule and Ron Garney will do fine taking Ol’ Hornhead back into more familiar terrain, but it doesn’t quite feel the same. History will be very kind to what Waid and Samnee did on this series, perhaps remembering their work as fondly as the iconic Frank Miller run.
8. SEX CRIMINALS
Here’s another comic returning to the top 10 after going missing for a year. Back in 2013, based off the first 3 issues, I remarked that this series was so much more than its “lovers who can stop time by having sex decide to rob banks” premise, and that applies even more now than it did then. In fact, the whole “robbing banks” element seems to have at the very least been pushed far into the background. Instead, the book has become this all-encompassing, multi-faceted look at sexuality in all its diverse, strange forms. The second arc saw the famously goofy book turn serious with a poignant look into depression and the impact it can have on a relationship. And the current third arc has saw the series expand its scope, with central protagonists Jon and Suzie giving up centre stage to let a varying ensemble of characters showcase their weird sex powers and, in the process, open up a dialogue about a different aspect of sexuality that many a story might find taboo. In doing so, stereotypes have been busted. For example, the idealistic young girl who stumbled into the porn industry and a world of drugs and debauchery wasn’t destroyed by her experience… nope, she had a good time, learned a few lessons and applied them to a successful academics career. It is also worth remarking that this is absolutely a book that should be bought in single issue format, as the comic experience is much more than just the wonderful main story from Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky. It’s also the best letters page in comics, with Fraction and Zdarsky curating a community of readers and a sense of ongoing, evolving discussion from issue to issue that it feels like an organic extension of the narrative. My only complaint about Sex Criminals is that I wish we’d get it more often!
2015 was the year that Grant Morrison came back with a vengeance. The stage was set in 2014 with The Multiversity and Annihilator starting, but both went out with a bang this year, and then Morrison and his Batman Inc running mate Chris Burnham followed that up with Nameless. Morrison revisits some of his recurring motifs of magic and living fictions and wicked alien intelligences and gives them their darkest possible spin here, weaving a tale that starts creepy and gets increasingly nightmarish as it progresses, deftly transitioning from an arcane Armageddon to Event Horizon, and from there pushes things even further into the realms of demented, relentless fever dream. Morrison and Burnham manage to craft a sense of hell on the comic page. And as much as Grant Morrison is the greatest comic writer ever in my opinion, I have to give special credit here to the artwork of Chris Burnham. I’ve always enjoyed Burnham’s work, but here he just takes it to the next level, pushing the envelope to craft some nauseating, horrifying imagery that will leave you wanting to turn back the page or close the book. And he has the ideal partner in colourist Nathan Fairbairn, who is able to bring just the right amount of grisly texture to Burnham’s visuals. The release schedule tailed off a little towards the end of the year, meaning we didn’t get to see the resolution which might have helped Nameless rank even higher, but this is still superlative work from a writer proving that he’s still a master of his craft and an artist ascending to that level.
6. BURNING FIELDS
For those who read Curse, the previous collaboration between co-writers Michael Moreci and Tim Daniel and artist Colin Lorimer, Burning Fields was earmarked as a comics project to anticipate from the moment it was announced. But I think even the team’s existing fans were surprised by just how great this ended up being, ranking right up there as one of the best titles BOOM Studios has ever put out. What was so excellent about it was how, over its 8-issue run, the series just kept on evolving. Set against the backdrop of Iraq, with the shadow of the war and America’s malign influence on the region hanging over it, this starts off as an offbeat serial killer procedural laced with an astute commentary on the corruption of the private security firms filling up power vacuums and setting up shop in the region. Initially I was reminded of the film Black Rain in its American fish-out-of-water crime trappings – though with that film the location in question was Japan – though by a couple of issues in the tone felt more like Angel Heart as the killings became more occult-flavoured and the layers were peeled back to reveal death cults and demonic presences. Then in its second half the series evolved again into a tense, claustrophobic creature feature, before in its final issues coming full circle and revealing itself to all along be a very human story about our protagonists, Dana and Aban, and how their respective connections to the world around them would determine their fates. Since I’m throwing around film comparisons already, I recently watched Sicario, and that for me captured something of the singular aesthetic established here, straddling the line between war and horror and presenting a foreign country as frightening, alien terrain. I also think there’s something interesting to be written about Burning Fields and two other great comics with a war backdrop that launched this year – Tet and Sheriff of Babylon – and what they all have to say about the conflicts of today. I really hope the team of Moreci, Daniel and Lorimer have something else coming up in the pipeline.
5. THE MULTIVERSITY
Originally, I wasn’t going to include The Multiversity in this list, because I thought of it as a 2014 book, and didn’t think enough issues had been released this year to merit inclusion for a second year running. But upon looking into it more closely I discovered there was enough to make the series eligible as a 2015 entry too – yes, this is the 11th-hour entry that knocked Rumble off the list, sorry! “Thunderworld” came in at the very tail-end of last year, after the publication of my 2014 list, and that was sheer joy, Morrison teaming up with artist Cameron Stewart to make the struggling Shazam franchise seem like the coolest, most exciting and joyful corner of the DCU. I would love that in-development Shazam movie to take this tone, though I sadly doubt it will. This year brought us “Mastermen,” exploring a world where Superman landed in Nazi Germany and was used to create a glorious Reich which still endures to this day, drawn ably by Jim Lee, while Doug Mahnke drew “Ultra Comics,” the infamous “haunted comic” Morrison has spent years talking about through the development of this series – it proved to be as skin-crawlingly unsettling as we might have hoped. Then there was the big blow-up finale which, far from ending the story, seemed to open it up for many more stories to be explored in this sandpit. But perhaps my favourite of all the Multiversity comics released this year was “The Multiversity Guidebook,” even if that might be cheating as it is mostly prose. This book is essentially, “Grant Morrison draws out a blueprint for the whole DC Multiverse and its surrounding celestial bodies,” and is as wildly inventive as that sounds. As well as a comic prologue and epilogue laced with mysteries that would be explored in the ensuing issues, this was packed with detailed diagrams and a heap of universe breakdowns – and accompanying illustrations by a range of great artists – loaded to the brim with various delightful DC Easter Eggs. I swear, I’ve read and reread that comic book more than any other this year, and in fact still have it sat by my computer now so I can grab it and browse through when in need of inspiration. The Multiversity is the kind of story that enriches your imagination and leaves your mind buzzing with possibilities of what new directions the vibrant worlds could expand out into… there are few if any writers that generate this effect in me so well as Grant Morrison.
4. EAST OF WEST
It could be easy to overlook East of West because it’s just so damn consistently awesome with each passing issue… it almost becomes a case of running out of things to say about it other than, “Yep, still great.” But even as the mad sci-fi Western epic blasted into its third year, Jonathan Hickman was still expanding the world and further filling out his sprawling ensemble of significant players. I feel like I would really benefit now from going right back to the start and doing a reread of the whole series just to see how everything connects together, as there are times when a character is absent for too long I’ve near forgotten what they were doing last by the time they re-emerge. But Hickman’s gift is that he ensures that every issue, as well as being a chunk of a larger whole, is in itself a self-contained treat, like a little poem in comics form that paints a portrait of a character, place, idea or key moment. But the MVP of the series has got to be Nick Dragotta, who with each passing month further solidifies his case to at very least be in the conversation for best comics artist active today. His character designs are iconic, the kind of figures you instantly want to have as an action figure on your shelf, or as a piece of original art on your wall. His locations all feel lived in, and his staging of scenes generates a palpable sense of mood and scale. The sun-scorched colours of Frank Martin ably enhance the whole desolate aesthetic being presented, and this is regularly one of the finest looking comics on the stands. Perhaps the best showcase for this dynamic duo was the most recent issue, which was presented almost entirely without any dialogue or narration, the visuals completely carrying the story. I have talked before about Nick Dragotta as an “auteur” artist, and I think that issue underlined what I was talking about. Though perhaps my favourite East of West issues of the year were the ones focusing on Babylon, son of Death, and his manipulative robotic “friend,” Balloon. These managed to run the emotional gamut from horrifying, to funny, to sad and poignant. But this world is rich with stories and characters I’m keen to return to, and I’m very excited to see where things go from here. It may seem at times like it’s going quietly under the radar now, but when it’s all said and done, I’m confident East of West will go down in history as one of the all-time great comics narratives.
3. THE SCULPTOR
The Sculptor was perhaps the new comic release I was most hotly anticipating going into 2015. While most perhaps know Scott McCloud best for his Understanding Comics series, I’ll always think of him most fondly as the cartoonist behind one of my favourite comics of all time, Zot! And yet, decades have passed without McCloud doing a follow-up to his one major work of fiction, with McCloud remarking that he sets such high standards for himself that he doubted he might ever again have a work of such perfection that he’d feel confident in sharing with the world. Which might give you an idea of just how good that follow-up is in the form of The Sculptor. In addition to just really looking forward to it for the longest time and the experience of reading it being a climactic experience in itself, the timing of when I got to read it hit particularly hard, as I had just experienced a bereavement, and it was on a quiet weekend at home leading up to the funeral that I binge-read the book, with some of its ideas and moments hitting me like a sledgehammer. This is a comic that deals with big, heavy issues such as mortality, what we do with our life, how we come to terms with our death or the deaths of those we love, and how we find meaning in it all. And it is tackled by McCloud with such poetry and melancholy beauty that it would be very hard not to get emotional reading it. The craft at work is astounding, McCloud applying all his many years of acquired knowledge about what makes comics work and putting it stunningly into practise, while also experimenting with the medium and seeing just how far he can push it. An immensely powerful work of comics literature.
2. HARROW COUNTY
It was the cover that did it for me. How could a horror fan like me take one look at that deliciously sinister cover – the boneless skin of an arm and hand dangling out of a box, with menacing eyes glowing yellow from the shadows within – and not immediately want to check out the comic it came from? Thankfully, this was an example of it being perfectly okay to just a book by its cover, as the story that unfolded inside was gripping. By turns chillingly frightening and disarmingly poignant, Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook have, over the course of 8 issues, established a rich mythology of witchcraft and haints that populate through the remote rural community of Harrow County. The little backup stories – with the best ones being beautifully rendered by the great Owen Gieni – served to further establish Harrow County as a place where all kinds of weird things happen, but our most gripping thread was our main story, which sees young girl Emmy come of age and start discovering her supernatural heritage and the powers that come with it. Cullen Bunn is a writer I’ve always liked, going back to his breakout work on The Sixth Gun, but with Harrow County you get a palpable sense of a creator truly coming into the height of his powers, in a manner not unlike when a director has a few quality films under his belt then ups his game to wow people with an acclaimed Oscar contender. In lesser hands, the omniscient narrator device Bunn employs might have felt heavy-handed, but with Bunn at the helm this technique is used to enrich the story with chilling wordplay and an arch, Gothic tone. And Tyler Crook, oh man, Tyler Crook. His work here has made him a breakout artist of the year for me. I carried issue #1 around in my bag for weeks just to show people – I’d open it up and be like, “LOOK AT THIS ART!” – and he’s just got better and better. I love the time lapse process videos Crook posts up on Youtube, which just show how lovingly rendered each tableau is. This book is visually stunning. And the whole comic package each issue really is a delight. I mentioned the “Tales of Harrow County” short stories, but each issue also has pinups, and an extended letters page featuring prose ghost stories and spooky recollections from the creators, readers and guest contributors. Everything about this comic is great. It’s no surprise it’s already been picked up for a TV adaptation.
1. SOUTHERN BASTARDS
Yep, Southern Bastards has done it again. For the first time since a certain other Jason Aaron penned crime saga, the same comic has ranked #1 in my top 10 countdown on multiple consecutive years. Growing out from the pulpy roots of its opening arc in its first year, Jason Aaron and Jason Latour have made their hard-boiled Southern noir into a diverse beast that can tackle a number of issues from different perspectives. The second arc, “Gridiron,” came to a devastating conclusion as 2015 began, with us seeing how Coach Boss completed his transformation into the vile human being he is today. But then the series reached perhaps its highest point yet with “Homecoming,” a series of single-chapter stories which provided showcases for various supporting players and new characters, broadening the scope of the world surrounding Craw County. First, we got a closer look at the disillusioned Sheriff Hardy and his story of blighted potential, which did a fine job of immediately placing Coach Boss firmly back in the role of antagonist and voiding out much of the sympathy we’d gained for him. Then, perennial punching bag Esaw Goings took centre stage in a terrifying dissection of toxic masculinity, which chillingly dove inside Goings’ head and found little but more of the aimless rage and futile profanity that characterises his external self. Issue #11 introduced us to perhaps my new favourite character, and another prospective nemesis for Boss to worry about, in Deacon Boone, in a story which eschewed the football focus to look at the South’s relationship with religion and how that conflicted with Boone’s deeds. And then in the most recent chapter we saw series artist Jason Latour switch to writing duties for a trippy tale which checked back in with Tad Ledbetter, a character who I thought was an incidental figure in Earl’s story who we’d never see again but who instead has taken on an intriguing new life. Jason Aaron as a writer is damn near peerless in the comics field. I love all the stuff he’s doing, from Doctor Strange to The Mighty Thor to The Goddamned, but Southern Bastards is his finest work currently on shelves, perhaps his finest since Scalped. The characters are so well realised, their voices so distinctive and real. And Latour’s art just about leaps off the page, his chunky figures feeling stylised and a little cartoonish while never losing gravitas, his staging rich in emotion. And he’s someone else who just seems to be adding more strings to their bow and becoming more refined with each passing issue, the visual style of the series constantly evolving and shifting to adapt the needs of the story being told. Last year, I talked about how Southern Bastards felt like it was building to a catastrophic confrontation, and one year down the line that feeling is still there, the reckoning being brought by the impending arrival of Roberta Tubb still just around the corner. And yet the series never felt like it was spinning its wheels. This, more than any other comic, is the book I’m itching to read as soon as I buy the latest issue, where I can barely make it in the door before I have to rip it on and get my latest fix. It really is the spiritual successor to Scalped, which is about the highest compliment I can give any comic.
And that’s the top 10 down for another year! It was so hard getting this list finalised, as there were so many great comics and it was hard narrowing it down to just 10. But let’s have a look at how the year-end standings now look for each year I’ve done this countdown:
2012: The Underwater Welder
2013: The Manhattan Projects
2014: Southern Bastards
2015: Southern Bastards
What will 2016 bring? As mentioned above, there are a whole lot of potentially spectacular comics that were just getting going as this year drew to a close, and I’m sure a few of them will be in the mix. There have been some big debuts announced for next year, and I’m sure there will be plenty of others which will take me by surprise. Or will Southern Bastards still reign supreme and make it three years in a row? Find out next year. Thanks for reading!