As Polygon wraps up each year with a look back at the best of film, television and music — oh, right, and games — our editors and writers come together to collaborate on those lists. The ranking becomes a mathematical and textual consensus on the best of what we saw, played and listened to over the year.
But as Polygon's resident comics expert, the task of making a best comics list falls to me, and me alone. Reader, please insert the maniacal laugh of your choice.
It's been a good year for comics, one which continues to show that even in this tiny, insular industry, stories can succeed whether or not they're about a costumed crimefighter with several major movie adaptations. On this list alone we've got misandrist space warriors, classic superheroes shaking the genre out of its classic rhythms, and meditations on fame and horror and wonder and magic. Here there be deities — or near-deities — prisoners, robots and even squirrels, all in books that remind the reader at every turn of the page that these stories couldn't be told as well in any other medium.
We're going to start with the best and work our way down, because I felt like it, and — as I may have mentioned — I'm the only one writing this list. We'll cap the whole thing off with the best single issue of 2015. So, without further adieu, give a warm welcome to the women of the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, or...
Like Penny Rolle herself, Bitch Planet arrived on the scene with a roundhouse punch of a story and a self-confidence that would not be silenced. But, then again, once you've decided that each issue of your comic will have the words "Bitch Planet" on it in the boldest letters, there's no reason not to lean into it. The series struck a nerve almost immediately, or perhaps un-pinched one long held, as fans of all genders shared their own tattoos of the comic's NC logo — shorthand for "non-compliant," the umbrella term for women who've committed crimes against the patriarchy.
In a dystopian future of complete patriarchal hegemony where women are shipped off to space prison for crimes like "persistent obesity," a diverse team of prisoners enter into a rigged tournament of a globally televised bloodsport in the hopes that it just might give them a chance to assassinate the ringleaders of their government — and DeConnick and De Landro reclaim the women-in-prison genre as a narrative of empowerment and righteous fury.
DeConnick's world-building takes the pulp sensibilities of Bitch Planet's core concept and grounds it in a believably horrifying setting worthy of science fiction's greatest dystopias, while her character work leaves you devastated at every plot turn. In an industry consistently criticized for the sexualization and objectification of female characters, De Landro's women vibrate with agency, humanity and power — even when literally stripped naked by the patriarchy — while his panel layouts deserve to be taught in college courses.
Each issue's back matter, fronted by a new essay on feminist theory by a succession of notable women writers, makes the comic's purpose utterly unmistakable. Bitch Planet is an unapologetically violent and exquisitely balanced pulp narrative, and one that's fiercely determined to address the way the fight for gender equality intersects with race and sexuality.
For his part, Gaiman took up the reins on a character character long dormant with aplomb. When Dream of the Endless realizes that there is a cancer driving the universe insane, and that he created it, the reader is promised a story that would address a foundational but unanswered question of The Sandman — what cosmic battle so weakened the Dream Lord that he could be imprisoned by a mortal sorcerer for 70 years, kicking off the events of the series?
What wasn't promised was that the story would expand upon an fill in some of The Sandman's other remaining mysteries, big and small, and that it would do so in such a way as to remind the reader why so many people were introduced to a lifelong interest in comics through The Sandman.
The Wicked + The Divine struck out into brave new territory this year, as the narrative comic — until now driven by the perspective of a single character — switched to an anthology style. Instead of following the life of Laura, a young fan swept into the world of the Pantheon — a variegated group of teenage pop stars who are also actual gods — the comic has instead been creeping its plot deliberately along with issues focusing on individual Pantheon members.
Every 90 years, in The Wicked + The Divine, a group of twelve teenagers in disparate parts of the globe realize that they are gods — and that they have only two years to live. Each time they rise, they define and are defined by the culture of the time. The Pantheon's rise now, in this decade, is the first time that their powers and influence have been empirically observable, recordable, tweet-able, post-able, hashtag-able and transmittable instantly around the world. Designed in clear homage to musicians from Florence Welch to Prince to David Bowie, they are pop gods. And they are pop gods.
In that shift from Laura to the Pantheon, Gillen and McKelvie — along with a host of guest artists from Kate Brown to Matthew Wilson — have produced some of the comic's most affecting stories and most daring visuals. From Wōden's remix issue — in which virtually all of the artwork was recolored and recontextualized art from previous issues — to Tara's one-issue variations on the tune of fame, objectification, identity and femininity. The only reason I didn't consider these individual issues for Best Single Issue is that I'd be considering most of them.
The Wicked + The Divine has always been about the nature of fame and identity, but nowhere has that been more clear or more compelling than in the comic's third arc.
Midnighter's first story arc, Out (what else would you call it?) concerns the titular character's efforts to recover the stolen artifacts of the God Garden, an orbiting stronghold of science too advanced for humanity to be trusted with. Midnighter has recently sabotaged his relationship with his partner and boyfriend Apollo, and is taking advantage of his single status as only someone running from their identity issues can. What identity issues? Well, the process that gave him his super-soldier body and supercomputer brain erased his memory of who he used to be — and that secret is one that may have just gotten out along with all of the God Garden's other toys.
Orlando, ACO, Morgan and Mooney give the Midnighter his due in the DC Universe, taking full advantage of the potential of both the character and the setting. It's made for one of the year's most fun, unique and visually experimental super-books, and one of the freshest takes on a gay superhero out there at the moment.
When it was announced that Matt Fraction and Christian Ward would be reimagining Homer's Odyssey in space with a cast of all women, we knew it would be interesting. When the first issue arrived with an eight-page fold out cover featuring witchjack wanderer Odyssia and her Achaean sisters laying waste to the mothers of Troy on one side and a timeline of the universe multiple feet long on the other, we knew we were in for a wild ride.
And at the close of the first arc of ODY-C, a story in which father-mother Zeus destroyed all mortal men so that no child could ever grow to usurp their power as they had usurped their own father — a story in which the titan Promethene gave up her sanity to invent the intersex gender sebex so that mortal women would not die out — a story in which trickster Odyssia hides her identity by telling the Cyclops that her name is All-Men — we knew that Fraction and Ward had put together something incredible.
ODY-C can be a dense read, textually and visually, but it is worth the effort. Ward's art is so psychedelic it practically assaults the eyes, rendering gore and opulence with the same impossible-to-look-away-from intensity. Fraction delivers each issue in full verse — only the gods are allowed regular old speech balloons — a poetry that beats like music, worthy of the epic stories it is recrafting. 'Cause, yeah, the second arc has brought elements from the One Thousand and One Nights into play: ODY-C has only just begun to rock.
But in addition to all of that, G. Willow Wilson and regular series artist Adrian Alphona gave us a story about a community coming together against insurmountable odds, a family supporting the best in its nearly grown children and a young girl touchingly mentored by her greatest hero.
What's more, Ms. Marvel: Last Days attacked a problem that many superhero stories, heck, many adventure stories, never find the fortitude to sensibly address: what does a superhero do when they can't save everybody? Are they rescued by a plot device? A convenient ethical out? Do they mope and angst about what they could have done?
Or do they accept the very human (and not very superheroic) idea that you can't save everyone, and being a person who tries to save anyone means not just living with that, but expecting it.
Take the guy who writes the Internet's Dinosaur Comics. Pair him with an artist with superb comedic timing and a talent for expression. Give them the Marvel Universe's goofiest, running gag-iest superhero concept.
And watch them turn Squirrel Girl into the most earnest superhero comedy out there. Doreen Green was introduced in a brief but incredibly memorable story in which the teenager — whose powers are most accurately (if vaguely) described as "squirrel-themed" — petitioned Iron Man to let her become his sidekick and defeated Doctor Doom with an army of squirrels. Squirrel Girl became something of a gag character, occasionally cameoing in stories to inexplicably, improbably — but charmingly — defeat the biggest villains of the Marvel Universe.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl isn't the first time somebody's tried to make a more consistent character out of her, but it's the first time she's ever starred in her own series, and what a series. Henderson's charming art is perfect for North's stories, in which Doreen is just as likely to spend two issues trying to defeat Galactus on the moon by stealing an Iron Man suit as she is to happily drag her new college roommate to the campus club fair as she is to wonder whether she can defeat Kraven the Hunter by tossing him into the air "over and over forever until it's the future where everything is awesome." Look at that Galactus dialogue over there: if I was going to give an award for Best Panel of the Year, half of the contenders would be from Squirrel Girl.
Squirrel Girl is that rare thing at DC and Marvel, a genuinely all-ages, incredibly funny, completely accessible, utterly optimistic superhero book.
If anything speaks to Wytches' effectiveness as a book, it's that I — someone who generally can't stand horror and never wants to have kids — was entirely swept away by it.
Grayson was an odd pitch of a comic: Batman's first sidekick, no longer Robin, no longer Nightwing, now a super spy under his own name? Stretch the concept of a character too far and instead of a fun juxtaposition you just might wind up with something unrecognizable. But if Tom King and Tim Seeley's series says one thing, it's that they know Dick Grayson. And Grayson is about putting Dick in a place where he can truly surpass the role of Robin.
(And if they King and Seeley understand one other major facet about Dick Grayson's history, it's that he's one of the DC Universe's biggest heartthrobs. Artist Mikel Janin's grasp of anatomy is a gift.)
Nightwing, after all, was still an identity formed in opposition to Batman. But who is Dick Grayson when he can't be a superhero anymore? Who is he when he can't let his surrogate family know he's alive? Who is he when there's no one he can trust? These were the questions posed by Grayson's first story arc, and this year, in its second, the series forged ahead into true super spy territory.
Which is to say: it's an unpredictable adventure comic full of gadgets, banter and characters criss-crossing the globe as they try to keep the secret peace — and it's also a book that prizes character interaction as a core competency. The very first issue of the arc is perhaps the most emblematic of these two themes.
On the one hand, Dick, his spymaster Helena, his rival Midnighter — another character created in reaction to the metatextual shadow of Batman, and an inspired choice of foil — and a newborn baby are all stuck in a desert with no hope of walking to civilization. On the other, its a story that emphasizes that — no matter the situation — Dick Grayson's greatest superpower is the perseverance he learned under the mentorship of the Caped Crusader.
Now, a small, naive child's companion bot, Tim-21, wakes up alone on a devastated mining planet, only to become a pawn in the struggles between several galactic factions. Tim-21, it turns out, may be the galaxy's only hope in understanding where those metal men came from, where they disappeared to, why they nearly destroyed civilization and whether they will ever come back.
Dustin Nguyen's character designs and expressive faces, especially that of Tim himself, sells the scale of this story from the galactic to the emotional, while his watercolors give the entire book a handmade feel that came through even when reading it digitally, contrasting wonderfully with the clean, chromed ship interiors and the inky blacks of space. Jeff Lemire's story twists and turns unpredictably, introducing a broad cast of characters as complicated as they are sympathetic.
If you want more Star Wars after seeing The Force Awakens, there are plenty of Star Wars comics and books out there for you to devour. But if you still want more after that, Descender might be a good place to start.
The reason why this conversation gets Batman fans so cheesed is that Bruce Wayne already does that, it's just that his commitment to philanthropy, ex-con employment programs, mental health facilities and encouraging other billionaires to pitch in as well is usually the first thing to get left out of major blockbuster adaptations.
But 2015 saw something else happen in Batman comics: it saw a police officer take up the role of Gotham's new state- and corporate-sponsored Batman — in a time when real-world news has been dominated by discussion of the disproportionate violence levied by police forces around the country on African American communities.
And to his credit, Batman writer Scott Snyder did not shirk an opportunity to address the fact that without good communication and real empathy, philanthropy can become gentrification, neighborhood improvement efforts can destroy communities — and Bruce Wayne can become as culpable in a young boy's death as any gang lord, racist cop or supervillain. "A Simple Case" doesn't just tie into the current conversation about racialized police brutality in America, it reminds us that if Gotham City is truly to be a crooked reflection of this country's worst urban decay, it must have the same roots as our urban decay. Roots in decades of housing discrimination, in the War on Drugs, in the prohibitive costs of basic health care and in the system that creates officers who can believe they did the right thing when they shot an unarmed, fleeing teenager in the back.
Batman #44 reminds us that if Gotham City is to mean something as a metaphor, these are issues that Batman must grapple with in order to mean something as a hero.