Under the Radar’s Top 25 Comic Books and Graphic Novels of 2015

Jan 16, 2016
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Comic books just keep getting better and better, and 2015 was a glorious year for the medium. From trades (hard- or paperback editions that typically collect five or six issues of an on-going series) to original graphic novels to single monthly issues, the year was rife with magnificent, deep, multi-layered storytelling that offered something to virtually everyone. (Image Comics, one of the largest and only creator-owned publishers in the industry, dominates the list with our picks for both first and second best comic of 2015, as well as a handful of others. DC, Top Shelf, Fantagraphics, and First Second also appear frequently.) 

As always, you have your capes and tights-superhero books are as strong as ever and comprise a substantial part of our Top 10 best of the year. Yet, comic book newcomers who look down upon the medium as exclusively a home for masked crime-fighters are liable to be surprised by what else the medium offers (and that's saying nothing about the detailed and deeply moving story arcs prevalent in superhero titles these days). From Scott McCloud's masterful The Sculptor to Mike's Place, which chronicles the days leading up to and after a real life suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, modern comics and graphic novels eschew the "funny-pages" of yesteryear, replacing them with intensely emotional, relatable, fully developed characters and stories that delve into the human experience in ways that rival any movie, book, or other art form.

1.

Descender

Image

What happens when you combine the unstoppable force of Jeff Lemire with powerhouse artist Dustin Nguyen? You get Descender, a new achievement in science fiction that follows TIM-21, a robot boy-the last of his kind-whose design could hold the key to an invasion that decimated Earth's population. Lemire's writing is synonymous with acute attention to both detail and heart, and Descender is no exception. He and Nguyen deliver an intensely thrilling adventure from first page to last with an eccentric helping of robots, humans, and aliens at its core. By Zach Hollwedel

2.

They're Not Like Us

Image

Not your average superhero book by any means, Eric Stephenson and Simon Gane turn the trope on its head with They're Not Like Us. What if you had abilities you couldn't control or explain? What if you discovered you weren't alone? What, then, would you do if the people who took you in and taught you to harness your powers felt their otherness entitled them to take (and do) whatever they want from the world's normals? Stephenson and Gane explore these fundamental questions in page-turning fashion in their on-going series from Image Comics, the first six issues of which were collected in They're Not Like Us, Vol. 1: Black Holes for the Young in July. By Zach Hollwedel

3.

The Multiversity Deluxe Edition

DC

Where do you even begin in explaining something like Multiversity? Comic books are known for their tangles of continuity, compartmentalizing characters into universes as a tool of explaining inconsistencies and numerous retcons. Instead of merely adding to the mess, Grant Morrison uses it as the backdrop for a bewildering dissection of the comic book medium, disguised as a series of stories featuring comics within comics, plenty of fourth-wall breaking, and a menacing issue of the fictional Ultra Man that can rip apart the borders between dimensions. Only Grant Morrison would attempt to map out the strangest byproducts of weird fiction, but reading it is a trip that rivals the best of post-modern storytelling. By Cody Ray Shafer

4.

The Sculptor

First Second

Legendary comic book guru Scott McCloud's first original graphic novel in over a decade is as stunning as it is massive. Beautifully published by First Second Books (a publisher you'd do well to familiarize yourself with if you have not previously heard of it), the 500-page tome is a stirring exploration of art, life, and death. The Sculptor follows titular artist David Smith, who at 26-years-old, has yet to have the impact on the art world he forever imagined he would. With no living family, no money, and an equal dearth of both prospects and hope, David makes a deal with Death. In exchange for his life at the end of a 200-day period, he receives the ability to sculpt anything from any material, simply by touching whatever he wants to mold. Yet, his mortal agreement is rendered complicated when David falls in love. McCloud's gorgeous art compliments his prowess as an emotional storyteller in one of 2015's best original graphic novels. By Zach Hollwedel

5.

Sandman: Overture

Vertigo/DC

Even though we're coming up on the twentieth anniversary of the final issue of Neil Gaiman's initial run with Sandman, Gaiman occasionally treats us with revisiting the Lord of Dreams, and thank god. Gaiman's stories are always rich in mythological allusions and literary traditions, but Overture's real beauty is in J. H. Williams' breathtaking and original artwork. Panels are constructed from psychedelic visions, and the entire volume is a warm and colorful reunion with Morpheus and the Dreaming. By Cody Ray Shafer

6.

Our Expanding Universe

Top Shelf

Alex Robinson's remarkable Our Expanding Universe is a definitive example of contemporary independent comics' ability to strike a personal chord with readers. The 250-page graphic novel tracks a trio of friends as they pass into their 40s. It's about relationships and parenting and family dynamics. It is 95% dialogue and entirely black and white. And it is nothing short of outstanding. If anything, some readers might find Robinson's work too familiar, too close to home. It isn't lofty or epic, but it is genuine and brilliant-a triumph of dramatic storytelling in illustrated format. By Zach Hollwedel

7.

Superman: American Alien

DC

Screenwriter and notorious pop culture pontificator Max Landis manages to irritate all manner of fandoms, and certainly appears to take great pleasure in doing so. But Superman: American Alien is easily the best treatment of the character since Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All Star Superman, so when it comes to geek credentials, Landis' arrogance is certainly deserved. Landis understands Superman better than any other living writer, save perhaps Morrison, and that's really saying something. Rather than a traditional adventure arc, Superman: American Alien explores the nuances of the archetypal superhero through vignettes taken from singular moments through Clark Kent's life. The first issue is a blast, merely hinting at some of the great ideas Landis has just been dying to get to print. By Cody Ray Shafer

8.

Black Canary

DC

Black Canary was one of the many titles relaunched for 2015's DC shakeup, but it couldn't be any more different or contemporary in its total overhaul of the classic superheroine. Dinah Lance dons the fishnet tights and takes on the mantle of Black Canary to fight crime, but she does so under the pretense of fronting an alt-rock band, also called Black Canary. Annie Wu's art visualizes the visceral rock-influenced aesthetic, and the resulting series is one of the most fun and intriguing DC main titles to come along since the New 52. By Cody Ray Shafer

9.

Saint Cole

Fantagraphics

In less than 120-pages, Noah Van Sciver delivers a truly heartbreaking success. Saint Cole's protagonist, Joe, has a young child, an out-of-work girlfriend, a low-paying job at a pizza parlor, and a blinding case of alcoholism. Despite his best efforts-and the tragedy of Joe's tale, is that he really does always set out to do what's best for his growing family-Joe's disease commands his nearly every action. At times quite difficult, Van Sciver's original work shines a gut-wrenching and brutally honest light upon the trials and tribulations of a man who wants nothing more than to shed the demons that consume him. By Zach Hollwedel

10.

Bacchus Omnibus Vol. 1 and Essex County Collected Edition

Top Shelf

Neither Bacchus nor the Essex County Trilogy was first published in 2015. In fact, Bacchus dates all the way back to the late 1980s. However, each remains a definitive entry in the graphic novel canon, and as Top Shelf Comics reprinted both in grand collected editions in 2015, they garnered a shared placement on this list. Eddie Campbell's (illustrator, From Hell) impressive Bacchus is a massive saga that tracks the eponymous Greek deity at the tail end of the 20th Century. Millennia old, he maintains a strict diet of wine while feuding with former mythological hero, Theseus. Bacchus spanned decades and publishers, and the collected omnibus (volume one of two, reportedly), is a true treat. Jeff Lemire reappears on this list with Essex County. Originally published in 2008 and 2009, the books chronicle the lives of a handful of characters set in Lemire's hometown of Essex County, Ontario. Essex is small and agrarian, and Lemire pays it and its residents reverential homage in his introspective series. Like many of the titles that precede it on this list, the Essex County Collected Edition is about everyday life-successes, failures, dreams, and reality. It is poignant and understated, and though it could not be more different than Descender, it is just as impressive. By Zach Hollwedel

11.

Leaf

Fantagraphics

Daishu Ma's beautifully illustrated Leaf ranks alone among these titles as the only wordless comic or graphic novel on this list. Reminiscent of Raymond Briggs' seminal 1978 classic, The Snowman, Leaf is told entirely through images. Perfect for nearly any age, Ma's story is set in a dirty, industrialized city, in which a young man finds a glowing leaf, and tries to harness the power of its natural beauty. Magically drawn in colored pencil, Leaf is at times breath taking, an undeniable achievement made all the more impressive for its total wordlessness. By Zach Hollwedel

12.

Here

Pantheon

Technically, Richard McGuire's Here was not a 2015 release. Officially published on December 9, 2014, it did not hit shelves in time for consideration on Under the Radar's Best of 2014 list. That said, had it done so, or had it been published a mere 23 days later, it would have easily garnered our title of Best Comic Book or Graphic Novel of the Year. What McGuire does in Here is brilliant and beautiful. The premise is simple enough-document the space occupied by a living room in a house in a typical American suburb. Who lives there? Who laughs there? Who cries? Who dies? Yet, McGuire's approach to what admittedly might sound a sort of banal or dull topic is anything but. Each turn of the page reveals another two-page spread, the background of which is a particular moment in a particular year. McGuire then overlays frames, chronicling events that occurred (or will) in that same space, perhaps a year before, perhaps a thousand in the future. Here spans millions of years, in fact, but it is always in the moment; it is an infinite yet precisely present document of the human existence, which harnesses the graphic novel in ways never before committed to paper. No Best List would be complete without mention of this instant and timeless classic. By Zach Hollwedel

13.

Paper Girls

Image

14.

Prez

DC

15.

Displacement

Fantagraphics

16.

The Wicked + Divine

Image

17.

Airboy

Image

18.

Tim Ginger

Top Shelf

19.

Batgirl

DC

20.

Low

Image

21.

Batman Earth One Vol. 2

DC

22.

The Fade Out

Image

23.

Mike's Place

First Second

24.

D4VE

IDW

25.

Fante Bukowski

Fantagraphics

Honorable Mentions

Batman: Endgame (DC), Batman & Robin Eternal (DC), Bitch Planet (Image), Constantine: The Hellblazer (DC), Cyborg (DC), Dark Knight III: The Master Race (DC), The Divine (First Second), Exquisite Corpse (First Second)Junction True (Top Shelf), Nod Away (Fantagraphics), Outcast (Image) Superman: Lois and Clark (DC), Stray Bullets (Image), Wytches (Image)

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Kyle
January 20th 2016
4:36pm

1) Someone doesn’t like Marvel, and 2) This is the first Top Comics of 2015 list I’ve seen without Saga. What in the world?