By Molly Jane Kremer, Scott Southard, Arpad Okay, and Jarrod Jones. If you thumb through the back issues of comics published in 2015, you’ll notice a strange narrative at play. DC and Marvel damn near mirrored each other this year in a squirrely race to rebrand themselves to an audience that seemed to grow more diverse by the millisecond. Meanwhile, creator-owned books from Image (and Black Mask Studios and AfterShock too, being the new kids on the block) enjoyed greater popularity than ever, stretching themselves out comfortably among the stands with daring (and headline-grabbing) sagas.
These are the issues that cut the deepest, the issues we’ll hold close for years to come.
THE BEST SINGLE ISSUES OF THE YEAR
The Sheriff of Babylon #1. Tom King has built a pretty stellar resume this year—especially considering his newcomer status—but the most noticeable (and most promising) addition to it is definitely The Sheriff of Babylon #1. King’s work at Marvel and DC feature surprisingly thought-provoking thrills considering the content, but with Sheriff in the conspicuous position of being King’s first Vertigo title, and his first major foray outside the realm of superheroics, the comic feels more like the work of a confident and assured veteran.
The visual prowess of Mitch Gerads certainly helps in that department: his intricately researched art, and propensity for drawing finely detailed military-centric graphics, gives the book a realistic feel, and combines with King’s personal experience as a former CIA operative in the Green Zone to give the book an intensely—even viscerally—authentic environment. Vertigo has a promising one here, folks. You can’t miss it. — MJ
Batman #44. Before Brian Azzarello went and decimated expectations with his long-gestating Batman: Europa and his #1 stunner DK III: The Master Race, the Be-Grizzled One set his piercing gaze upon Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman.
The result? One of the finest single issues DC Comics published this year.
With beautiful, career-defining artwork from Jock (Snyder’s Wytches co-conspirator), Batman #44 brought us all back to the days when Bruce Wayne still wore the cowl, just as uncertain how to properly end senseless violence as we are perplexed by our numbing acquaintance with it. Azzarello’s voice simply bleeds into The Book That Snyder Built, lending to it a ground-level harshness that isn’t typically associated with Batman‘s operatic ambitions. Superhero sagas told through heartache. It should go without saying that those are stories that need to be told more often. — JJ
Tokyo Ghost #2. If there was a Pleasant Surprise of the Year award (or maybe one for a Fifth Element-Adjacent Series of the Year), this might have been an easier category to nail down, but I guess awarding Tokyo Ghost the Best Single Issue will have to do. Not only did Rick Remender and Sean Murphy’s new property blow up out of nowhere, it caught its stride early on. If the first issue perked my ears, the arrival of the second gave me that tingly leg excitement you get on the way to Six Flags or the night before Christmas. Pure adrenal anticipation for the possibility of the infinite.
Behind the glitz of its set pieces and harsh glimpses into the bleak nature of capitalism, Tokyo Ghost is secretly all about characters. In #2, we get to know its morally righteous and emotionally screwed do-gooders, while getting a good, long look at the kind of people we may one day become. I’m hoping for a long, healthy life for this crew. The people and places they’ve built are far too rich to let such a series slip away. — SS
Island #3. Island is an ambitious anthology series of short speculative fiction. It can be as highbrow and sophisticated as a Drawn & Quarterly Showcase or as obscure and depraved as a comic from Métal Hurlant. Island is overstuffed with mysterious shorts and essays and artwork bookends. The third issue stands out to me particularly for Matt Sheean and Malachi Ward’s story, “The Ancestor”. It is science fiction that shows a future that viscerally feels as if it could be mine. It is undeniably a fiction, but it rings as true to my personal experience as the writing of Margaret Atwood does, or the most crushing YA book ever written. There is a silent story of transformation and another that shows the same house party from several layers of points of view. Everything found inside of Island #3 simmers with creativity.
Anthologies of shorts are a great way for creators to tell those crazy stories that burn twice as bright in half the time. Issue #3 satisfied in a way that made me long for the next installment to come out already. — AOK
The Wicked + The Divine #13. Though much of this year’s The Wicked + The Divine has been missing two-thirds of its creator lineup (the Commercial Suicide arc takes on a new artist for each subsequent character-focused issue), each successive artist has been a perfect fit. Tula Lotay’s spellbinding turn at WicDiv interiors, along with Gillen’s flawless script, made #13 one of the best single issues of the year, introducing the masked and mysterious Tara to the fore, and showing how dangerously sharp the double-edged sword of modern celebrity is for women.
Lotay’s painterly art is lush and elegant, underlying the dark, toxic misogyny the comic spotlights. Tara, in her one (and now seemingly only) spotlight in the series, is both placed upon a pedestal and torn from it. Lotay succeeds in depicting Tara’s beauty to the same extent as her humanity and depth. The entire comic is like a truly great singer-songwriter’s apex confessional album: it’s heartrending and lyrical, over before you’re ready, and quietly echoes in your mind long after it’s finished. — MJ
JJ: Action Comics #40. Holy bananas, what a comic. Whenever I think that the Superman books have totally gone off the rails into the annals of mediocrity, I remind myself that Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder still steer the massive ship that is Action Comics. And 2015 saw their finest work yet: with issue #40, the creators offered us a stand-alone issue featuring the Man of Steel confounded by his doofiest adversary on the creature’s strange home planet. The result was one of the sweetest, most ably constructed issues published this year.
Stack every single comic book featuring Superman since he debuted in the New 52 together, and attempt to pick more than five that meant a damn. Once you come across Action Comics #40, you’ll find that you’ll only need the one. What puts this issue heads and shoulders over every other Super-book published this year was Pak & Kuder’s creative hearts beating in unison, guiding us ever closer towards comic book nirvana. — JJ
Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #3. During 2015, I’ve gone through the first two series of Phonogram, and came to (sort of) know and (totally) love the magical musical universe of phonomancers contained within. The love of music is truth and it’s communicated here with unmatched clarity and force.
But let’s get to the heart of the issue. Have you given a real listen to Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”? Not a cursory radio listen or a laugh-along-to-that-scene-in-Old-School listen, but a serious, sit-down, critical listen? It’s an incredible epic of a track, and Image’s current Dream Team knows it.
Phonogram is a stellar entity, but each issue’s thoughtful meditation on music (and the graphic execution thereof) shifts it towards high art. Its praise for everything from Madonna to Dexy’s Midnight Runners to CSS is impressive, but Phonogram‘s execution of “Total Eclipse” set a new watermark for the series, it’s creators, and the magic of the music surrounding it. — SS
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1. Squirrel Girl had two #1s this year, but her second was All-New, All-Different perfection. Doreen Green is more than just the hero nobody can beat; she’s a bonafide Avenger now, smashing crime and pursuing her computer science major all at the same time. So you couldn’t ask for a better character for her to face off against than a crazy brain-in-a-jar robot leftover from WWII.
Dor and the book’s other heroine, her roommate Nancy Whitehead handle things the Avengers way — with a little coaching from Doreen’s mom. Instead of judging Brain Drain as a villain by his behavior, the girls attempt to free the sound mind within by giving the robot’s system a much-needed upgrade. So. A message of tolerance to look beyond appearances, some absolutely bonkers evil genius dialogue, page annotations that easily recall Mad Magazine, glib bouncy and fun artwork that matches the glee in the writing — there is something for absolutely everyone found inside this colossal re-debut. — AOK
ODY-C #8. There’s something poetic about taking a seminal piece of literature from ancient Greece, a culture infamous for its misogyny, and flipping genders around (not to mention turning it into a galaxy-spanning space adventure). The uncomfortable subject of violence against women could have been addressed obliquely, but Matt Fraction and Christian Ward’s eighth issue faces the matter head-on in their most unsettlingly painful and affecting issue yet.
Ward’s gorgeous art goes from squirm-in-your-seat sexy to brutally, horrifically violent within the space of a couple pages. The intensity multiplies with each page of the sequence, increasing its panel count until nothing but row upon row of tiny squares filled with human cruelty remain. The narrative structure allows some measure of distance for the reader, but doesn’t permit the imagery and emotional resonance to be any less potent, or any less haunting. — MJ
Criminal: Savage Edition. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have been working tirelessly to give us one of comics’ finest noirs with The Fade Out, but their greatest achievement of 2015 came when the gentlemen returned to the series that endeared us to them in the first place. Criminal came back to us in the form of The Savage Edition, a pure, undiluted entity of comics majesty, presented in a pulpy, magazine-sized edition. That, my friends, is what you call, “an event comic”.
And Brubaker & Phillips’ return was in fine form. The burst of raw energy Phillips provided his partner’s words gave us the startling realism we’ve always known from Criminal, while infusing the issue with flourishes that would make Barry Windsor-Smith proud. So long as I have a coffee table, Criminal: Savage Edition sits on top of it. — JJ
Agree? Disagree? What were YOUR picks for the best single issues of the year? Let us know in the comments section below!