The Best and Brightest, Part One: The Best Comics You Should be Reading from 2015
With so many great stories beginning and continuing into and throughout 2015, it may be tough trying to narrow down the best comics of the year. To compile this list out of hundreds of comics, I used the simple condition that each series or arc had to begin in the year 2015. This, unfortunately, disqualified some of the best comics (issues, conclusions, and ongoing titles) from the year — Wytches, Bitch Planet, Saga are immediate standards — but it also enabled a deeper look at the true gems that were born during the year. Below is a list of the five best comics the year had to offer, from a variety of creators, publishers, and genres.
Frankenstein Underground — Written by Mike Mignola, Art by Ben Stenbeck, Published by Dark Horse
If there’s ever a day where I’ve had too much of Hellboy and the universe he inhabits, call the police because the space aliens have probably succeeded in taking over my brain. After a lot of teasing in the tail-end of 2014, Dark Horse rolled out the first issue of Frankenstein Underground in March, 2015. Frankenstein Underground uses the same genre-blending formula that made Hellboy such a success: one part Lovecraftian terror, one part adventure pulp, and one part mystery thriller mixed with dashes of alternate history and classic literature adaptation. An uncommon isolated five-issue arc (published as a single unnumbered trade paperback this past December), the story follows Frankenstein’s monster, fresh from a losing battle against Hellboy, as he flees into a subterranean cavern as he tries to evade his captors.
On his journey through the center of the Earth, Frankenstein’s monster unravels a mystery involving cults, underground mutants, and a lost ancient city. Mike Mignola is writing in peak form, never missing a beat throughout the five-issue run, while his counterpart on the drawing board, Ben Stenbeck, flawlessly replicates the look and feel of earlier Hellboy work. Part of me misses seeing Mignola’s original art on these stories, but Stenbeck proves himself to be a worthy successor. While we won’t be seeing any more Frankenstein Underground issues, it is likely the character will pop up in other books taking place in the universe. This book has all the charm and intrigue readers have come to know and love from Hellboy and BPRD but features new characters, environments, and secrets.
Frankenstein Underground has concluded its five-issue run and is now collected in trade paperback form.
Wolf — Written by Ales Kot, Art by Matt Taylor, Published by Image
If you’re like me, you’ve probably been rolling your eyes at the nonstop abuse DC comics has been handing down onto its franchises. Ripped from his home in the DC imprint Vertigo, John Constantine has not been immune to these trespasses. With the cancellation of Vertigo’s Hellblazer, DC rolled out the new John Constantine with little more reason than to give their cash-grabbing abomination Justice League Dark a face that would be easier to recognize for younger audiences (thanks to that Keanu Reeves movie) and have thusly reimagined the character, resembling something like a struggling fashion model deciding whether punk rock is going to make a comeback. If you’re as disgusted by this thought as I am, you’re in luck: Wolf is everything a contemporary Hellblazer should be.
Wolf centers squarely on an oblique portrayal of Los Angeles, instantly recognizable from its structure and smog but thoroughly tinted with the shade of the paranormal. The lens through which we see this possessed version of the city of angels is Antoine Wolfe, a seemingly immortal military-man-gone-paranormal-investigator. In his travels though LA, Wolfe becomes the defacto caretaker and reluctant caretaker of a teenaged girl who is plagued with visions of a pending apocalypse. Wolfe himself is as compelling and interesting as any of the best protagonists from series similar to this one, right up there with Constantine and Hellboy. I can’t overestimate the level of weirdness in this book — from a stoner Cthulhu-esque sidekick to a vampire perpetually cursed live out the worst day of her worst menstrual cycle, this book is the epitome of strange.
Ales Kot masterfully takes control of the plot and pace, slowing the narrative down when the tension needs to simmer and speeding it up when the action demands nothing less. Matt Taylor’s art is adequate, though it seems to come from an artist still mastering his craft. To compensate, Lee Loughridge lends a mesmerizing pallet of colors to the ink-splattered pages, coating them in layers of oily, bold complexions.
Wolf is currently on issue #7, while issues #1-4 have been collected into a trade paperback volume.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl — Written by Ryan North, Art by Erica Henderson, Published by Marvel
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is the comic that saved my relationship with my niece. Increasingly unwilling to hang out with me because I spend too much time doing “boy things,” I went out on a limb and grabbed Squirrel Girl thinking it would be something we could both be interested in. Suffice to say, my niece now has a pull-list at our local comic book shop. For the most part, I’ve hit my limit with the comic industry’s big two thanks to their constant reboots and perpetual multi-title umbrella events, but Squirrel Girl proves to be the hanger-on. Even with it’s recent reboot (“Only our second #1 so far this year!” the cover proudly exclaims), the book has proven itself to be worthy on every level in ways X-Men, Fantastic Four, and even The Avengers are not. In a world where Marvel is content to rest on its laurels by repeating its past glories (I’m looking at you, Civil War II) while trying to somehow beat Image in terms of dark grittiness, Squirrel Girl remains a remarkably buoyant breath of fresh air from the publisher that can only be described as stale, despite how well their movies do at the box office.
Squirrel Girl, or Doreen Green as she’s known out-and-about, is a college freshman struggling to fit in not only with her classmates but also with her superhero peers. Gifted with the speed and strength of a squirrel (not an original idea, but this is Marvel, after all) and backed up by her actual-squirrel sidekick Tippy, Squirrel Girl has developed a reputation as unbeatable after besting the likes of Thanos, Wolverine, and even current-crowd favorite Deadpool. Writer Ryan North makes a habit of taking tired and worn out tropes and situations from superhero comics and performing heavy duty CPR to get them going again through a unique filter of situational comedy and concise action, paired perfectly with Erica Henderson’s cartoon style, at times reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoons. Impressively, though, Squirrel Girl and its creative team manage to tackle weighty topics important to young people (body acceptance, anxiety, and coping with unlikely friendships) with subtle aplomb in a way that is both modest and effective. Squirrel Girl proves to not only be one of the best comics of 2015, but one of the best comics in Marvel’s history.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl ran from January 2015, amassing eight issues and two trade paperback volumes, before being rebooted in October 2015 as part of All-New All-Different Marvel. The reboot is currently on issue #3.
Huck — Written by Mark Millar, Art by Rafael Albuquerque, Published by Image
Huck is not only one of the best comics from 2015, it’s also the biggest surprise. I’ve been very familiar with creator Mark Millar, and I can only say that I’ve never been a fan. The unique blend of Ren and Stimpy-style toilet humor and A Clockwork Orange’s patented intensity and ultraviolence he used in his earlier works such as Wanted and Kick-Ass did little to resonate with me on either side of the spectrum. I was, however, hooked on Huck from the very first time I read it’s synopsis in Previews.
Huck is the story of a somewhat simple-minded albeit entirely good-hearted man gifted with superhuman abilities. The man, the eponymous Huck, uses his powers to help the residents of the small town in which he lives until his life is complicated when a pair of newcomers sell out his secret. A master of pacing, Millar proves his worth as a writer without even a single mention of feces and manages to close each issue on a bang. Supported by artwork from Rafael, who’s work is the same powerfully complex mixture of graceful delicacy and stern power that he provided for American Vampire, the book becomes a surprisingly gentle narrative of a man searching for his origin and, ultimately, his purpose.
Huck is currently on issue #3.
Head Lopper — Written by Andrew MacLean,Art by Andrew MacLean, Published by Image
Years from now, when I’m a grizzled old comic book veteran remembering on the golden age comics renesaince of the twenty-aughts, I’ll remember Head Lopper as the undeniable highlight. Inspired as much by contemporary cartoons like Adventure Time as it is by classic copy-shop comics like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Head Lopper fuses bold line work with bright, vibrant coloring to create a spectacular masterwork of indie comics spirit and one of the best comics of 2015.
The comic follows Norgal — the Executioner, the Son of the Minotaur, Head Lopper — a kind of medieval bounty hunter as a ventures a strange island on a quest to slay the evil spirit that inhabits it. Joined by the severed head of Agatha Blue Witch, who serves as a lowbrow foil for Norgal’s stern bloodlust — Norgal goes toe-to-toe with the likes of giant wolves, zombie giants, ghost knights, and other foes of night and magic. Andrew MacLean takes on both the script and the page art in a singular tour de force of comics excellence in this limited quarterly.
Head Lopper is currently on issue #2 of 4.