We all love a good one-off or anthology, but it’s the thrill of a series that keeps us coming back to our comic shop week-in, week-out. Whether it’s a brand new creator-owned series or a staple of the big two, serialized storytelling allows for bigger casts, bigger worlds, and bigger adventures. That bigness was on full display this year, as series made grand statement after grand statement about what they were all about. These are our top 10 series of 2015.
10. Darth Vader
Yeah, yeah, yeah, Star Wars, whatever. Marvel’s first of two on-going series set in the Star Wars universe was sort of destined for greatness — even a competent execution of those characters and those ideas was going to be exciting. But Darth Vader? There’s so much less to inherently love there. So, rather than being a series that benefits from great ideas, Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca’s series thrives on excellent execution. Darth Vader patiently explores the bewildering place the Sith Lord holds in the Military Imperial Complex, shedding light on the many ways he’s strategically and politically outclassed by his peers (and even by his subordinates). The series is a true portrait of, frequently impotent, rage and has grown the character immeasurably. In addition, Darth Vader has introduced immediately classic characters to the cannon, including the torture-obsessed protocol droid Triple-Zero, the gun-crazy astromech droid, BT-1, and the savvy anti-anti-hero, Dr. Aphra. Also, (astonishingly) Marvel published 14 regular issues of this series this year, all of which were drawn by Larroca – that’s an insanely prolific out-put for an artist working at this high quality.
9. Ms. Marvel
Ms. Marvel extended its winning streak throughout its second year as G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona, and Takeshi Miyazawa continued to establish Kamala Kahn as one of Marvel’s top-tier characters. Whether challenging Kamala with something as personal as a bad crush or something as grand as the (literal) end of the world, Wilson and company never lost sight of Kamala’s unique point of view, that mix of everyday teenage problems, more specific cultural concerns, and grand heroic action that’s made her a refreshing and relatable hero to readers of all ages, nationalities, and religions. Combine that with Alphona and Miyazawa’s cheerful and expressive art — chocked-full of fun details — and you’ve got a book that’s just an absolute pleasure to read month-in and month-out. It’s been a joy to see Kamala Kahn so readily embraced by fans both in-universe and in real life; she deserves it.
8. Paper Girls
What is Paper Girls? What started as a Spielberg-esque portrait of childhood in mid-80s middle America quickly transformed into some kind of adults vs. teens sci-fi rapture. Our understanding of just what this series is may still be developing, but the one thing we know for certain is how well it’s done. Writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Cliff Chiang both have the kind of track-record to warrant that kind of benefit of the doubt sight-unseen, but every single one of Paper Girls‘ 2015 issues was incredible, layering all of the otherworldy madness with well-observed period and character details. Vaughan and Chiang’s skills at both interpersonal dramas and batshit Fourth-World zaniness are on full display, cohering into a comic that is unlike anything we’ve seen before.
There’s no other comic quite like The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. Ryan North and Erica Henderson have created not only the funniest book on the stands, but quite possibly the most joke-packed comic I’ve ever read. Seriously, this book is comedically dense — jokes’re crammed into nearly every panel, all the backgrounds, even into a running narration in the margins! While that would be enough to make this book great on its own, North and Henderson aren’t content just to rely on their (unparalleled) senses of humor; Squirrel Girl is also blessed with a tremendous heart. Despite her (similarly unparalleled) physical prowess, Squirrel Girl is more likely to win a battle by befriending a foe than beating them up. Combine that with North and Henderson’s willingness to play with typical comic conventions and a cast full of characters of all shapes and sizes, and you’ve got a book that’s equal parts funny, aspirational, heartfelt, and unpredictable. That’s a hard combination to beat.
With only two issues that arguably should have landed in 2014, Hawkeye had an uphill battle to make it to this list, but no amount of demerits could undermine the power of those two issues. Packed with emotional climaxes for every character still in play, those final issues pulled the themes of the series into focus, revealing just how perfect the series’ inner-workings truly were. The first was issue 21, which started with a rousing “we can do it” attitude, only to end with Clint at the bottom of his pit of despair (albeit with the twinge of hope brought on by Kate’s unexpected return). Issue 22 sealed the deal, allowing Clint and Kate a kind of Phyrrhic victory, defeating the bad guys, but not without making themselves targets of much badder guys. That’s a perfect distillation of both Clint and Kate — their best intentions can’t save them from the one-two punch of the repercussions of getting involved and their own rotten luck.
At the start of Mark Waid’s Daredevil run (two volumes ago), Matt decided the best way to cope with the darkness in his life was to choose to be happy — a philosophy he doubled down in at the start of Waid’s second volume, escaping infamy and disbarment by heading to San Francisco. But Foggy was never convinced that Matt wasn’t just in denial, a kind of ticking time-bomb that finally started to self-destruct at the end of 2014. That darkness threatened to consume Matt as more of his past came back to haunt him in 2015 — a tonal shift reflected beautifully in Chris Samnee’s inks — but Matt’s friends proved just as stubborn as his depression, refusing to let him wallow in self-doubt. It was an inspiring ending to an inspired run, allowing Matt to hold on the the optimism he could only pretend at before.
For all its genre trappings and off-the-wall plots, the most interesting aspect of Grayson is, appropriately enough, Dick Grayson himself. After kicking off 2015 by asserting that, no matter what he’s put through, we’ll always recognize Grayson, writers Tim Seeley and Tom King proceeded to test their claim by pushing Dick to his limits, stripping away all of his comforts and safety nets to see if Dick could remain his usual suave, confident self. He could, but only for so long, because another one of those incontestable aspects of Dick Grayson is that he’s built up by the people who love him. He needs his family, and thus was eventually rewarded by being reunited — albeit briefly — with them. Throwing the rest of Gotham’s vigilantes into the mix added a new element to Grayson‘s already intriguing formula, yet it was still Dick Grayson in all his charismatic, quippy, sexy (thanks, Mikel Janin!) glory who stole the show in each and every issue, and made Grayson a “can’t miss” title.
Proving once and for all that no one “changed Thor into a girl” arbitrarily, Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman’s adjectiveless Thor title embraced both the mystery of Thor’s identity and the meta-emotional side of seeing a woman wielding the hammer. The mysterious figure wasn’t always welcomed or embraced as “Thor,” and the old-school Thor, going under the moniker “Odinson,” kept showing up and inserting himself into her business. But Aaron and Dauterman remained steadfast in their love and celebration of all the women of the Marvel Universe, high-lighting everyone from classic Thor cast members, to other female superheroes, to other characters Aaron had been seeding throughout this run on Thor, God of Thunder. For being such a radical new idea, which Dauterman’s amazingly clear aesthetic, Aaron was careful to tie this series into the past of, not only Thor, but the entire Marvel Universe. Bright, colorful, out-of-this-world and down-to-earth all at once, and with a final twist that defines the character as something new and exciting: it’s hard to deny Thor.
Midnighter is a character that necessarily has to keep the reader at arm’s length. He’s not like a Sherlock Holmes or a Batman – he’s not just very smart and observant, he’s literally forced to see all possible outcomes of a scenario and then is supplied with the information needed to address it. Hell, his brain is even called a “fight computer” – that’s not exactly a state of being anyone is going to understand. Steve Orlando and ACO have found a way not only to understand that, but to explore and express that micro-omnipotence in every issue of Midnighter. The series frequently dips into a detached mode of storytelling that would be off-putting if a) it weren’t so cool and b) that off-putting-ness weren’t a central part of Midnighter’s character — which it totally is. The character is just so frighteningly competent, and the audience so thoroughly buys into that competence, that the villain that finally gets the drop on him — Prometheus, in one of the finest character re-introductions you’ll ever see in any medium — truly violates our sense of how Midnighter’s world works. It’s an amazing series, one that establishes and subverts his own stellar mood in a scant six issues.
It was a banner year for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as the series hit its 50th issue. That issue was so good (one of our favorites, in fact), it’s easy to see everything else in relation to it, but much of the skill of the creative team lies in how they built up to that climactic battle. This year saw Krang defeated (however temporarily), Shredder knocked on his heels, and Donatello grievously injured. It also left plenty of room for artists Mateus Santolouco and Cory Smith to show off their skills with dynamic fight scenes, as the turtles faced off against everyone from the foot to the flyborgs. Eventually, of course, everything changed in issue 50, forcing the series in bold, unexpected directions. We have no idea where this series is headed in 2016, but we can’t wait to find out.