Compiling a year-end list is at once both the best and worst part of being a critic. You spend the better part of the year making mental notes every time you finish a standout work of art, but then, by the time November rolls around, everything sort of goes to hell.
Several years ago I began to outsource the task in an attempt to help democratize the process—first for my site, The Daily Cross Hatch, and then for Boing Boing—asking artists, writers, journalists, critics, and comedians to pick their top five comics of the year.
A number of people happily jump at the opportunity, but invariably each one issues the same disclaimer: they just didn't have the time to read all of the great comics that came out that year. It's a simultaneous testament to the sheer number of terrific books being produced in this golden age of comic books and to our perpetually shrinking free time.
Thankfully, we're able to cover most of our bases with a bit of crowdsourcing. Between the broad swath of people surveyed below, a lot of ground has been covered and a lot of comics have been read, so this should serve as a pretty solid starting point for anyone looking to catch up on the best of what this year had to offer.
Interestingly, there's not a lot in the way of consensus. Unlike past surveys, the conversation wasn't dominated by any one book in particular, though a few titles did garner multiple mentions, including Jillian Tamaki's hilarious and angsty X-Men sendup Super Mutant Magic Academy and Mowgli's Mirror, Belgian cartoonist Olivier Schrauwen's wordless take on The Jungle Book. Among the other books with multiple nominations are The Sculptor by Scott McCloud, The Story of My Tits by Jennifer Hayden, Not Funny Ha-Ha by Leah Hayes, Invisible Ink by Bill Griffith, and both Fante Bukowski and My Hot Date by Noah Van Sciver.
Check out the full results below.
Josh Bayer, Cartoonist
With Trashed by Derf Backderf, Pat Aulisio's Bowman, Box Brown's An Entity Observes All Things and a bunch of other comics coming out this year that I loved, this was a hard list to write, but here's my top five books.
Terror Assaulter (O.M.W.O.T.) by Ben Marra (Fantagraphics) [Pictured] – Super inspiring. A visceral shining beacon of lightning for lesser cartoonists to marvel at. Does what comics are supposed to do, builds a new world, sometimes a better world. This comic builds a different, cracked-mirror-view world. It's the world so tightly associated with fantasy itself that it says something essential about comics themselves, resonates on the highest frequency the medium is capable of. Or if it can get higher, f--- it, that's too high.
Fante Bukowski, Blammo # 8.5, and My Hot Date by Noah Van Sciver (Various) – Three-way tie. Check 'em all out. Fante is timeless, and Blammo 8.5 should not dispear under the radar, small but powerful.
Chicago by Glenn Head (Fantagraphics) – I discovered Glenn's head work in 1990, and thought "this guy is a punk comics force of nature." All of the other '80s and '90s underground artists have grown in different directions, some good, some stupid, some bad. I like this direction Glenn has gone, burrowing deeper into the heart of what makes him good.
Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart (Macmillan) – Powerful, essential comic about personal loss. A comics Proust, Tom speaks about continuing to exist, one teaspoon at a time, in the shadow of tragedy.
Crickets #4 by Sammy Harkham (Self-Published) – The scene where the screenwriter/protagonist finds himself in the director's chair is somehow incredibly profound; like invisible ink, the clearest image of everything a more capable creator can bring to art is suddenly made crystal clear by its absence.
Jeffrey Brown, Cartoonist
SuperMutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki (Drawn & Quarterly) [Pictured] – If you think it's unfair that Jillian Tamaki can draw so well, don't read this, because it's also unfair how funny she is. The only thing that would be more unfair is if she put a volume of this out every month, but I'd definitely be OK with her doing that, please.
Fante Bukowski by Noah Van Sciver (Fantagraphics) – Short and sweet, humorous, needling to any aspiring writer but also inspiring, because as much as it's about you, the book's about someone nothing like you. All wrapped up in a perfect little package that I wish I could put in my pocket and carry around to read. Oh, wait, I can put it in my pocket and carry it around, awesome!
Step Aside, Pops! by Kate Beaton (Drawn & Quarterly) – The amazing thing about Kate Beaton is how effortless she makes her comics seem. It takes a certain amount of brilliance to be that smart and funny while making drawings that are so perfect and expressive.
COPRA by Michel Fiffe (Self-Published) – With two dozen issues and counting (collection 2 came out this year), Copra recalls the comics of the mid-'80s while also commenting on the genre, and it looks and reads like no other superhero comic. What really sets it apart isn't just a creator in complete control of the medium, characters, and story—it's a creator who's having a ton of fun making the comic he wants to make.
Poetry Is Useless by Anders Nilsen (Drawn & Quarterly) – Walking the line between high- and low-brow without being too concerned about where it ends up, Nilsen's comics and drawings instead focus on big thoughts, small thoughts, funny thoughts ... his comics are poetic, and they are definitely not useless.
Geof Darrow, Artist
Hellboy in Hell: Hounds of Pluto by Mike Mignola, Dave Stewart (Dark Horse) [Pictured]
Rumble by John Arcudi, James Harren (Image Comics)
Frankenstein Underground by Mike Mignola, Ben Stenbeck, Dave Stewart (Dark Horse)
We Stand on Guard by Brian K. Vaughan, Steve Skroce (Image Comics)
Bob Fingerman, Cartoonist
Airboy by James Robinson, Greg Hinkle (Image) - Great script, great art, great, crazy, meta-bonkers and thoroughly entertaining.
Rat God by Richard Corben (Dark Horse) - Also bonkers, great art, Lovecraftian madness by a master.
Gag on This: The Scrofulous Cartoons of Charles Rodrigues (Fantagraphics) - Yeah, I put this collection together. Yeah, I am biased. But it's great work by an unsung comedic genius. I could have picked Minimum Wage, my own book, but didn't. So I exercised some restraint.
Ruins by Peter Kuper (Abrams) [Pictured] - Just a superb piece of work. Gorgeous to behold.
Le Republique du Catch by Nicolas De Crecy (Casterman) - He is one of the best in the world. His zany take on "manga" is phenomenal.
Jennifer Hayden, Cartoonist
Bright-Eyed at Midnight by Leslie Stein (Fantagraphics) [Pictured] - The winner by far is this gorgeous, sexy, groundbreaking, heart-ripping love object. I cannot believe what Stein is doing to the medium. Visually, she is deconstructing the structure of comics, leaving only emotion and character. Since those are the only two things I think are real: works for me! She seems to have released herself completely in using color. Feast on this.
The Age of Selfishness by Darryl Cunningham (Abrams) - A completely different sort of book, yet I enjoyed this thoroughly, principally because it taught me so much so easily and with such an intelligent blend of opinionated humility. Cunningham first depicts the life of Ayn Rand and then explains the financial crash in plain language and pictures that add up to the most sophisticated explanation I've ever managed to get through. A gem of comics nonfiction.
Saint Cole by Noah Van Sciver (Fantagraphics) - Young, absurdly prolific, and with the hysterical, nihilistic humor of an old seventies hippie (which I mean as a compliment), Van Sciver breathes life into his main character Joe, and then plunges him deeper and deeper into life's meaningless shit. The ending made me scream, laugh, weep, and throw up a little, so I can safely say I've never read anything like it. His inking is old school too and I do so love that.
Tim Ginger by Julian Hanshaw (Top Shelf) - This one is a very quiet, sneaking-up-on-you graphic novel, about a lonely man in New Mexico looking for his way after losing his wife. He is deserted and desolate and in the desert in so many ways. Hanshaw's drawing is spare and haunting, but the most amazing thing is his use of the very subtle color palette. Never have I seen color used not for descriptive but for purely emotional reasons.
The Sculptor by Scott McCloud (First Second) - A study of male ego in relation to art, love, and mundane existence. This book would have been very different, had it been about (or by) a woman artist, but nonetheless I found the skill of the storytelling and drawing snapped me to attention. I ended up finding it had lots of heart and the page layouts were so good, I felt like I was watching a movie. Mesmerizing. A great tale.
Leah Hayes, Artist
Invisible Ink by Bill Griffith (Fantagraphics) [Pictured]
How to Be Happy by Eleanor Davis (Fantagraphics)
Not Funny Ha-Ha by Leah Hayes ;) (Fantagraphics)
Dean Haspiel, Cartoonist
2015 was a good year for semi-autobio and wordless comix. Here are five of my faves:
Smoke by Gregory Benton (Hang Dai Editions) [Pictured]
Schmuck by Seth Kushner, Various (Hang Dai Editions)
The Story of My Tits by Jennifer Hayden (Top Shelf)
Minimum Wage by Bob Fingerman (Image Comics)
Ghetto Klown by John Leguizamo, Christa Cassano, Shamus Beyale (Abrams)
Brian Heater, Journalist
The Sculptor by Scott McCloud (First Second Books) [Pictured] – After penning several iconic volumes on the art of crafting comics, Scott McCloud has set the bar awfully high for his own work. With The Sculptor, he manages to clear it handily even while embracing the Faustian bargain, one of fiction's most well-trod constructs. With a character who uses his own world as a medium, the artist designs a perfectly paced meta meditation on the importance of creativity.
Not Funny Ha-Ha by Leah Hayes (Fantagraphics) – A warm and understated book that boldly takes on the topic of abortion through the eyes of two distinct young women undergoing different procedures. It's a warm embrace of one of the last truly taboo subjects.
Mowgli's Mirror by Olivier Schrauwen (Retrofit) – Funny and weird and ridiculously human. Schwauren conveys the full spectrum of human emotion in incredibly unexpected ways. I'm still not entirely sure why I liked this book so much, but I'll happily go back and read it again to try and figure out.
Becoming Unbecoming by Una (Myriad) – A disturbing personal story set against the disturbing backdrop of serial murders, but Una somehow manages to render everything beautifully with a high concept visual style that is seemingly barely contained by the pages across which it unfolds.
Displacement by Lucy Knisley (Fantagraphics) – This is going alongside "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'd Never Do Again" as required reading ahead of a cruise. Knisley celebrates the lives of her grandparents and grapples with her own mortality aboard the deck of a vacation cruise ship.
Joe Keatinge, Writer
Hellboy in Hell by Mike Mignola (Dark Horse) – Despite only having a smattering of issues out this year, Mignola once again produced my three favorite comics of the year with Hellboy in Hell. It's fascinating watching a master on the top of his game doing whatever the hell he wants.
The Fade Out by Sean Philips, Ed Brubaker (Image Comics) [Pictured] – The best crime team in comics maneuvering through film history on a slow burn historical thriller I can't get enough of.
Last Man, vol. 1-3 by Bastien Vivès, Michaël Sanlaville and Balak (First Second) – While I have loved Bastien Vivès work in the past, this series took me by surprise and I highly recommend it to just about anyone. The way they mix worlds and genres so flawlessly without ever seeming arbitrary is something to behold.
Dark Corridor by Rich Tommaso (Image Comics) – Rich's a fantastic cartoonist fusing together crime and horror to create something unique.
Master Keaton by Naoki Urasawa and Hokusei Katsushika (Viz Media) – Technically, this was created in the 1980s, but I didn't discover it until Viz's recent serialization/repackaging and I love it. I should note it took until the end of the first volume for me to get into Urasawa and Katsushika's world-hopping insurance-agent-as-detective series, but now I look forward to it more than any other manga.
Ian McGinty, Artist
Memetic by James Tynion IV and Eryk Donovan (Boom) – Memetic is about a WEAPONIZED MEME. Look at those two words in capital letters for a moment. Let it sink in. WEAPONIZED MEME. A meme that has been weaponized. WEAPONIZED. MEME. Personally, I think memes have already been weaponized in the form of Minions-themed Facebook shares from your racist great aunt, but still, a very cool concept. James is always on point with his writing and the art (by Eryk) is gorgeous. [Full disclosure, Eryk and James are two of my very best friends, I was even in Eryk's wedding, but I assure you this is not me flagellating these two punks at all. The book is really good!]. Basically it's a post-apocalyptic tale at heart, but it's a very unique take on that and I think it's pretty rad.
Power Up by Kate Leth and Matt Cummings (Boom) – It's no secret that me and Kate Leth are supertight, like this: [I am crossing my fingers in my studio as I type this, so try to imagine it]. We rounded out Bravest Warriors and she's done some amazing work for Welcome to Showside, so I wasn't surprised when Power Up ended up being so much fun. Essentially, the comic focuses on a team of unlikely heroes (magical girl style), but the crux of it all is Matt Cummings' awesome chibi-style art and Kate's pretty hilarious dialogue. I read the first issue eating conveyor belt sushi in New York and I couldn't even tell you what sort of fish I had, that's how into this I was. I probably got sashimi, that's what I usually do. Anyway, this is a good one and it manages to be funny and pretty heartrending, too.
Invader Zim by Jhonen Vasquez, Aaron Alexovic, Megan Lawton, and Simon Hutt Troussellier (Oni Press) – Look, I'm gonna come right out and say it: I was a whiny goth teen who hated everything and bought all the lame Hot Topic shirts with things like "the penguins are watching me" splayed across the front or, even worse, Taking Back Sunday lyrics. So with all that, the only things I have never regretted getting into from that era are easy access to gauge 00 jewelry and Invader Zim stuff. Thankfully, the book is also great and really encapsulates what made the show so fantastic. It's twisted and demented, but most importantly its funny as heck, and that's a win to me. Check this one out, it's probably the closest you're going to get to a SQUEE sequel anyway.
Adventure Time by Chris Hastings, Zack Sterling (Boom Studios) [Pictured] – With the departure of Shelli and Braden Lamb, and Ryan North, I was really worried that my beloved Adventure Time comic series was going to tank. To my surprise, the new team of Zachary Sterling and Christopher Hastings has blown me away. Zach's stuff has always been beyond good, I'm insanely jealous of his skills, but here he is at his best. Chris' strength is that he's putting fewer panels on each page so we can absorb all that amazing art. Also, guess what? Chris is hysterical and the scripts are top-notch. If you haven't checked this out yet, you are a nerd and I don't like you.
Carver by Chris Hunt (Z2 Comics) – OK, here's the deal. This one isn't out yet, but I got to see an advance copy of Chris Hunt's Carver. Suck on that, ya'll. But look, Carver is really great. Here's a little story: I visited Chris in New York where he lives and he was like, "dude, let's go to this bar. I get a discount!" [the bar is called The Jeffery if you were curious. The lead bartender has a cool beard and loves comics, but if someone says 'yo, i get a discount at this bar' YOU GO]. So we head into this bar and almost every single page from the unreleased comic is splayed on almost every wall. If that isn't a ringing endorsement for how rad this book is, I don't know what to tell you. This one's out around Thanksgiving and it's gonna be amazing. Black and white, film noir-style, Carver is cool.
Annie Mok, Cartoonist
SuperMutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki (Drawn & Quarterly)
Lighten Up by Ronald Wimberly (The Nib)
Sacred Heart by Liz Suburbia (Fantagraphics) [Pictured]
See You Next Tuesday by Jane Mai (Koyama Press)
Fütchi Perf by Kevin Czap (Czap Books)
Jordan Morris, Comedian
Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Wiebe (Image Comics) – The four sh**-talking members of this D&D style raiding party have one of my favorite fictional friendships ever. Feelings, jokes, sex, drugs, monsters.
East of West by Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta (Image) – In a world where apocalypse stories are a dime a dozen, this series stands out for having a totally wild and original take on the End of the World. It's as brutal as it is funny and always a surprise from month to month.
Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson (Marvel) – Kamala Kahn, the new Ms. Marvel, achieves the amazing feat of feeling totally fresh, yet totally at home in the Marvel Universe. Her new arc sees her taking on gentrification while attending a high school filled with lightning golems and if that doesn't sound rad to you then we can't be friends.
Midnighter by Steve Orlando (DC) – Midnighter is a deep-cut DC hero who lives his life as an out gay man and an out superhero. Awesome action, one-liners and some delightful flirty banter with Dick Grayson.
Spider-Man and the X-Men by Elliot Kalan (Marvel) [Pictured] – Elliot Kalan is the former head writer of The Daily Show and current co-host of The Flop House, the funniest bad movie podcast in the world. This is a great Spidey story that's chock-full of great jokes, leaving just enough room for a big squishy heart.
Josh Neufeld, Cartoonist
I'm biased because I'm close pals with Dean Haspiel (Beef With Tomato, Alternative Comics/Hang Dai Editions) and Gregory Benton (Smoke, Hang Dai Editions), but I love both of their new books. Beef With Tomato is the long-awaited collection of Dean's autobio comics stories (and assorted essays and tone poems) about leaving Manhattan and becoming a born-again Brooklynite, which still shows the hippest borough in all its warts. Smoke is another Benton "children's book for grownups," beautifully illustrated, and somehow both heartwarming and heartbreaking.
I also shouldn't be allowed to mention the late Seth Kushner's, because I illustrated one of the stories—and because I was also good pals with him before he tragically passed away earlier this year. But Schmuck is such a triumph—of persistence, force-of-will, and of accumulating an amazing stable of illustrator talent: Haspiel, Benton, Nick Bertozzi, Christa Cassano, Leland Purvis, Jon Allen, Noah Van Sciver, etc., etc. All in the service of Seth's unflinching, hilarious—and ultimately sweetly romantic—tales of his New York dating life during his 20s. I'm so grateful that despite the tragedy of Seth's death, this work will live on forever....
Other titles I have to mention:
Unflattening by Nick Sousanis (Harvard University Press) – Sousanis uses "graphic narratives," i.e., comics, to expand our consciousness, to see beyond what we take for granted. I confess to not understanding a lot of this book, but the brilliance behind it—and the amazing, detailed art—will bring me back to it again and again. Belongs in the same category as McCloud's Understanding Comics. Which brings me to...
The Sculptor by Scott McCloud (First Second) – I feel like this was McCloud putting his money where his mouth is: after, in a sense, defining the form with Understanding Comics, The Sculptor is him using all the tricks of the trade to tell a story you could only do in comics form. And it's a book about the process—and sacrifices—required to make "great" art.
The Story of My Tits by Jennifer Hayden (Top Shelf) [Pictured] – A powerful story of illness and family, told with honesty and just the right amount of whimsy
Out on the Wire: the Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio by Jessica Abel (Broadway Books) – A nimble use of the comics form to take the reader inside the studios of such popular radio programs as This American Life, Radiolab, and Planet Money, where Abel breaks down their processes, from constructing narrative to production and editing. A great resource, both for radio enthusiasts (and future producers) and fans of comics-as-teaching-tools.
Mimi Pond, Cartoonist
Invisible Ink by Bill Griffith (Fantagraphics) – [This] is the engaging and poignant tale of a man trying to make sense of a long-held secret by his mother. While Griffith, known to all as the creator of the beloved cartoon character, "Zippy the Pinhead," was growing up on Long Island, N.Y., his mother, seeking escape from her unhappy marriage to Griffith's father, found what she called true love—with a professional cartoonist!
SuperMutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki (Drawn & Quarterly) – Is startlingly original and refreshingly breezy, both visually and in its narrative, as a tale of teenage angst set in a school for magical mutants. It's also hilarious.
Lowriders in Space by Cathy Camper, Raul the Third (Chronicle) – [This] is a wonderful children's book about a team—a girl, a mosquito, and an octopus—who restore a junker car and transform it into a lowrider so powerful it can go to space and back. Beautifully drawn using what looks like ballpoint pens, it captures the joie de vivre—maybe I should say alegria de vivir—of Latino lowrider style.
Palookaville #22 by Seth (Drawn & Quarterly) [Pictured] – Yet another masterwork from the brilliant Seth, a meditative and elegiac account of the past and long-buried emotions.
Showa 1953-1989 by Shigeru Mizuki (Drawn & Quarterly) – If the final of four massive volumes of 93-year old Japanese powerhouse Shigeru Mizuki's account of Japanese history since 1926 leaves you wanting for more entertainingly encyclopedic examination of WWII from the perspective of a Japanese iconoclast, not to worry: There's also his just-released book, Hitler.
Tom Spurgeon, Journalist
I haven't begun to do my sustained reading of 2015's comics, so this is a tough assignment. I have yet to chase down a lot of the manga I want to see, and at some point I'll review the webcomics I've been reading to see what 2015 was like feature to feature. I also have huge gaps in terms of my North American art/alt reading—I haven't read the Tomine, I haven't read Melody. I'm sure the White Boy book will knock something off the above list.
That said, these are five books I liked that were published in 2015 that I've already seen in some form, or with which I'm familiar enough to provide an endorsement. I think their virtues are self-evident: they're all well-drawn, all well-written, and all of the narratives/organizing principles help make the books intriguing to read and assist in holding one's attention. The first two are as thematically dark as any books in recent memory. The second March volume had a nice, driving pace and made elegant selections of some rough historical moments to drive home. The last two are particularly visually compelling, and funny. I look forward to seeing what the rest of the year offered.
Black River by Josh Simmons (Fantagraphics)
Colville by Steven Gilbert (King Ink)
March: Vol 2 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell (Top Shelf)
Mowgli's Mirror by Olivier Schrauwen (Retrofit) [Pictured]
SuperMutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki (Drawn & Quarterly)
Joey Weiser, Cartoonist
The Creepy Casefiles of Margo Maloo by Drew Weing (First Second) [Pictured] – An absolutely gorgeous webcomic that I was thrilled to follow as it updated. Some awesome monsters and ghouls, solid world building, and honest-to-goodness mysteries! Can't wait to see the print version next year!
Kaijumax by Zander Cannon (Oni) – I'll admit that I'm not a fan of the prison drama genre, and this story certainly gets pretty emotionally rough! But the kaiju hook and great art got me interested, and Cannon's excellent character writing and monster movie expertise has kept me loving the series.
March Grand Prix by Kean Soo (Capstone) – Cartoon animals and car racing! I'm not an auto-nut, but Soo obviously loves drawing these comics and it comes through. A blast to read, and fun art that I love to look at.
One Piece by Eiichiro Oda (Viz Media) – Over a decade in and still going strong! This year, Oda wrapped up a multiyear story arc with grand repercussions that will be felt throughout the series and started a new adventure on top of a giant elephant!
Space Dumplins by Craig Thompson (Graphix) – This book blew me away. The writing and art are equally dense with details, character, and jokes! Thompson's Nickelodeon Magazine work was so great back in the day, it's wonderful to see him return to kids comics!
J.T. Yost, Publisher
I'm going to confine this to only comics Birdcage Bottom Books distributes, for no apparent reason:
Mowgli's Mirror by Oliver Schrauwen (Retrofit/Big Planet) – Beautifully crafted, truly bizarre comic. Made me laugh out loud.
Globes by Aaron Whitaker (Self-Published) – I wasn't previously aware of Aaron's work, but this one impressed me enough to offer to publish a future work (ended up being Bangs & Beard Diary, a collaborative effort with his ladyfriend Melinda Tracy Boyce).
Baseline Blvd. by Emi Gennis (Self-Published) – An incredibly personal piece.
My Hot Date by Noah Van Sciver (Kilgore) [Pictured] – Noah has reached some sort of pinnacle with this comic. Granted, he keeps doing that over and over, but his storytelling skills are out in full force with this one.
Momento! Comics by Matias San Juan (Kilgore) – Matias' comic was my favorite piece in one of the Kilgore Quarterly anthologies, so I was glad to read more.
Honestly, my favorite comic of the year is Left Empty #1 by Jamie Vayda and Alan King, but I would feel weird including it since I published it! I was incredibly impressed by Jamie's ability to maintain his usual over-the-top drawing style to so effectively tell Alan's quiet story of the aftermath of losing his wife to cancer.