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Our favorite ongoing and serial comics of 2015

2015 was a great year for readers to move away from Marvel and DC for exceptional monthly (or bi-monthly, or quarterly) comics. There were still some strong releases from the “Big Two,” but as Marvel and DC shook up their publishing line-ups with major events that sidelined regular titles, Image continued to exert its dominance as the strongest place for creator-owned monthly comics, and publishers like Boom! and IDW stepped up their game to compete. The ever-evolving world of digital comics and webcomics also delivered some remarkable series, with creators taking advantage of the freedom allowed by distributing their content online. Here are The A.V. Club’s picks for the top comic-book series of the year.

1. The Autumnlands by Kurt Busiek, Benjamin Dewey, and Jordie Bellaire (Image)

Even in a marketplace crowded with visually compelling, strikingly original fantasy books—many from the same publisher—there’s still nothing else on the stands quite like Autumnlands. Many of the pieces are familiar, but the deft way that they are assembled by veteran creator Kurt Busiek and rising star Ben Dewey is wholly original. In a world populated by talking animals, a council of the mightiest wizards gathers for the purpose of concocting a plan to save the world. In their hour of greatest need, they reach back into the distant past to resurrect their world’s greatest hero—but succeed only in summoning a tiny pink hairless ape with a penchant for profanity and a genius for tactical brutality. Busiek and Dewey have created a world that defies easy categorization, an epic fantasy backdrop filled with dozens of colorful species, spanning centuries of political and military history, all so far barely explored. Everything about the book is sumptuous, designed for pleasing verisimilitude and built to last. Autumnlands could easily run for another 10 years and not come close to exhausting the potential of its premise. [Tim O’Neil]

2. Batgirl by Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, Babs Tarr, Maris Wicks, and Serge LaPointe (DC)

Ever since its dramatic revamp last year, Batgirl has been one of the best superhero titles for readers who want fun, romance, and a kickass female lead. Co-writers Brenden Fletcher and Cameron Stewart craft stories that blend the best elements of street-level superheroics and shōjo manga, offering spectacular action but keeping the focus on the interpersonal relationships within the cast. Artist Babs Tarr is an essential part of the book’s allure, realizing Batgirl’s friends and neighborhood with detailed designs that bring out the personality of the individual people and places. She’s a brilliant costume designer, with a sharp understanding of how clothes can reflect character. The manga influence in her art makes for big expressions, but it also makes for big action, and Tarr’s fight choreography and staging have elevated Barbara’s Gordon’s threat level. With a distinct visual style (reinforced by the vivid coloring of Maris Wicks and Serge LaPointe), diverse cast, and stories that effortlessly balance humor and drama, Batgirl has risen to the top of DC’s Bat-titles, which is especially impressive considering just how the strong the Batman line was this year. [Oliver Sava]

3. Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, Robert Wilson IV, and Cris Peter (Image)

Kelly Sue DeConnick has become a fierce comic mama to a group of readers attracted by Captain Marvel and Pretty Deadly, so it’s no surprise that her next project is focused on the question of what it means to be a woman and how unrepentant womanhood is treated. The key to a good dystopia is how believable the creators can make the fall from the present, and for many people the idea of criminalizing independent womanhood is not so far removed from how we live now. Adding the success of a show like Orange Is The New Black to the age-old knowledge that the masses can be pacified when prisoners are forced to fight like gladiators, Bitch Planet shouts truths most people are uncomfortable hearing. With a diverse cast of women, DeConnick relies heavily on artist Valentine De Landro to populate Bitch Planet’s prison and the men who send people to it. His style is kinetic and active, with strong lines that are complemented by Cris Peter’s excellent, poppy colors. The art features female bodies in various stages of dress (and undress) without feeling exploitative, even if it weren’t for the expert hand DeConnick has at the writing helm. The backmatter essays by bright, fascinating women on topics like feminism and intersectionality only underscore the whole purpose behind the book: badass, non-compliant bitches exist in this world, and should be unapologetic about it so the world has no choice but to accept them. [Caitlin Rosberg]

4. Bloom County by Berkeley Breathed (web)

Donald Trump dominates the news. Everyone’s excited about Star Wars. Apple products inspire cult-like devotion across the globe. What year is it, again? You could be forgiven for thinking you fell into a time warp and woke up in the 1980s. But like King Arthur arising in the time of Britain’s greatest need, so to has Berkeley Breathed returned to save us from the absurd tragedy of life in the far-flung future time of 2015. Breathed decided to resurrect his beloved comic seemingly on a whim: the first strip appeared unexpectedly on Facebook in July, and almost daily updates have followed ever since. He’s learned a lot in the 25 or so years since Bloom County was last a going concern. Self-publishing online, he’s beholden to no one, obeys no deadlines, and no longer needs to worry about a constantly shrinking newspaper page or the imminent demise of print media. Was there an actual causal relationship between The Donald’s political ascent this summer and Breathed’s return? Who knows? With Doonesbury in limbo, we need an experienced hand to wade back into those trenches and combat the incessant ludicrousness in this Fox News world. In our time of need, a hero arises. [Tim O’Neil]

5. The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Elizabeth Breitweiser (Image)

Writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips’ creative partnership has resulted in some of the best crime comics of the 21st century, and The Fade Out represents a new high point for their collaboration. A murder mystery set in post-World War II Hollywood, the 12-issue miniseries is pure crime noir with no gimmicks. While Brubaker and Phillips can do outstanding things with a good gimmick (recent examples: crime noir Archie in Criminal: The Last Of The Innocents, crime noir Lovercraft in Fatale), they prove to be especially brilliant when they tackle the genre head-on without a high concept. The history of Hollywood is riddled with mysterious deaths and studio cover-ups, many of which are chronicled in the comic’s backmatter essays, and Brubaker uses those true events as the inspiration for a suspenseful, twisting plot. The visuals from Phillips, who makes a striking, seamless transition to digital art, and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser highlight both the glamour of the environment and the shady seediness at the root of the extravagance, and committing to a single time and place (unlike Criminal and Fatale) has made The Fade Out a particularly immersive series. The world is so engaging that it’s almost a shame the book only goes for 12 issues, but that finite structure is a big reason why the story is so tight. Hollywood does love sequels, though, so maybe this creative team will reunite for another gripping mystery with the movie industry. [Oliver Sava]

6. Fresh Romance by various (Rosy Press)

Romance is an underrepresented genre in the modern comics landscape, but Rosy Press’ digital comics anthology Fresh Romance seeks to change that. Edited by Janelle Asselin, a journalist and activist staunchly dedicated to improving representation of women in comics, the series is a spotlight for emerging female talent, who create comics that illuminate different aspects of being a woman in love. Kate Leth and Arielle Jovellanos’ “School Spirit” is an Archie-esque tale about the magic-tinged drama of two high school couples, one of which is a lesbian pair. Sarah Kuhn and Sally Jane Thompson’s “The Ruby Equation” stars a young woman who makes romantic matches for others with her supernatural abilities, but won’t open herself to love. The strongest story is also the one with no mystical ties, with Sarah Vaughn and Sarah Winifred Searle’s “Ruined” exploring the emotional distress of a young woman in Regency-era England forced to marry a suitor when her heart belongs to the man who took her virginity. Somber and tense, but beautifully illustrated, “Ruined” details Catherine’s experience with nuance and sophistication, and the realistic approach makes it a refreshing break from the anthology’s more whimsical narratives. In addition to these short comics, each issue also includes a relationship advice column, essays about major elements of the romance genre, and process pieces delving into the work that goes into creating the stories, giving the series extra value as a resource for those that want to create their own romance comics. [Oliver Sava]

7. Frontier by various (Youth In Decline)

Frontier, Youth In Decline’s series of discrete monographs, is immediately interesting on a formal level—particularly in 2015. To say nothing of publisher Ryan Sands’ international ethos, which has led to an incredibly eclectic roster of vital contributors, the series is aberrant in the current landscape. The comics industry pie has been, more or less, sliced into a few distinct slices: serials (endless, longform, and graphic novel series), novel-length stand-alone stories, and short-short form. There’s not really a spot for self-contained short-form work. Frontier, though, is reclaiming that space. The series, which saw releases from Jillian Tamaki, Anna Deflorian, Becca Tobin, and Michael DeForge this year, gives cartoonists (an important mix of established indie “names” and up-and-comers) the outlet to hone their skills in a format that has become increasingly uncommon. Sands, who obviously has an eye for talent, has created a space that feels so necessary at the present moment, and that space is consistently filled by potent cartooning. Becca Tobin’s issue #9, for example, which was written about on this very site, is a perfect example. Hers is a story that doesn’t feel possible through any other publisher; it’s a weird work that aggressively flaunts categorization. But it’s also personal and complex—this sticky morass that both attracts and repels. It’s not constrained by having been squished into eight or 11 pages, but it’s not worn thin by having been stretched into 180 either. This just-so pacing of Frontier is consistent throughout, and it would be nice if there were more places to get satisfying stories that didn’t also require a bloated engorgement. [Shea Hennum]

8. Giant Days by John Allison, Lissa Treiman, Max Sarin, and Whitney Cogar (Boom Box)

With well over a decade of experience working on webcomics, John Allison has a good handle on how to write characters that walk that fine line between adorably off-beat and annoyingly eccentric. Bringing his motley crew from their existence online to print comics, where people that have never even heard of Tackleford would meet them for the very first time, ran the risk of confusing readers that arrived without any of the backstory from Bad Machinery or Scary Go Round. Allison managed to maintain the feel and tone of his previous work without including so much that it would turn off people who’d never read his comics before. The story is only enhanced by adding artist Lissa Treiman and, later, Max Sarin to the mix. Though similar, Treiman and Sarin have distinct art styles that take Allison’s fun and funny college romp and make it colorful and almost too bright, cartoony and campy without losing its sense of reality. Main characters Susan, Esther, and Daisy are universal enough to remind you of the girls who lived down the hall your first year of college, but specific enough to be compelling and sympathetic. Though they have their share of drama, there is a solid thread of love, support, and affection that weaves through each of the issues, making it clear that Allison understands just how quickly real friends rally when one of them is in need, even if sometimes they seem to barely stand one another. [Caitlin Rosberg]

9. Hellboy In Hell by Mike Mignola and Dave Stewart (Dark Horse)

Mike Mignola puts out Hellboy In Hell so infrequently that each issue is akin to an annual event. But those events make them gaps between them absolutely worth it. Mignola drapes opaque black shadows over his figures like they’re velvety cloth, leaving only the minimally required number of lines. This leaves his pages feeling sparse, but they take on an expressive quality. The figures and forms are heavily abstracted, and their readability to speaks to the pliability of the medium, but Mignola leaves enough detail to carry incredible pathos. Over the years, he’s gotten intensely good at communicating ire, annoyance, and melancholy with the slightest curvature of lips, the minutest of changes to the way he draws eyes. He’s continued to evolve as a cartoonist and as a storyteller, and regardless of the merits of early iterations of his style, he’s continually coming into his most potent mode of expression. The aforementioned naturalness of this aesthetic speaks to that; Mignola isn’t forcing himself into a mold. This of course means that Mignola probably spends an inordinate amount of time and labor on them, because nothing this wonderfully polished is accidental. If all that anyone remembers it the end product, though, Mignola is leaving himself quite a legacy. [Shea Hennum]

10. The Humans by Keenan Marshall Keller, Tom Neely, and Kristina Collantes (Image)

It’s understandable why someone might not take a book about a biker gang of anthropomorphic primates seriously, but those that laugh at The Humans do so at their own peril. These apes established themselves as the hardest motherfuckers in comics over the past year, fighting rival gangs, corrupt cops, and their own demons in a 10-issue miniseries full of brutal vehicular action and riveting character drama rooted in one soldier’s uneasy transition back into civilian life after fighting in the Vietnam War. Writer Keenan Marshall Keller’s briskly paced narrative delivers many over-the-top moments of hedonism and violence, but it’s Johnny’s emotional descent that gives The Humans its depth, making the story a haunting exploration of PTSD and the ways it tears a soldier’s life apart after he leaves the battlefield. Tom Neely’s boldly animated artwork brings vitality to the simian characters, and their animal qualities are emphasized during the heightened moments to bring a primal energy to the page. Working with colorist Kristina Collantes, who is equally skilled at rendering a dry desert landscape as she is a rainbow-colored splash page of psychedelia, Neely gives the book a strong visual identity that is rooted in an early alt-comics aesthetic: raw, earthy, and brimming with creative passion. [Oliver Sava]

11. Island by various (Image)

Island is the bouillabaisse of comics. Rich, savory components are blended together into this hearty stew of complementary and contradictory flavors, and the result is this thing that is only definable by what it is not. In the case of Island, it’s not “alt” and it’s not mainstream. It’s populist, but it’s got a different flavor than most of the latter-day work associated with that vein. While it’s obviously oriented by—and therefore toward—genre aficionados, the comics between Island’s covers operate in a kaleidoscope of idioms and modes. Some of them are sociological near-future rushes of blood to the head; others are hard sci-fi where every facet of an alien culture is laid bare by just a few brief allusions, and it’s obvious that editors Brandon Graham and Emma Ríos are trying to recreate the kinds of anthologies they came up reading. While it lacks the overt eroticism of something like Heavy Metal, that ethos is very much at work. Graham and Ríos are giving space to people who don’t quite fit in at other places, but whose work deserves to be seen by a lot of eyes. Island detractors though there may be, it’s impossible (and irresponsible) to knock the ambition. [Shea Hennum]

12. It Will All Hurt by Farel Dalrymple (Study Group Comics)

Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” has a reputation as an unreadable cacophony of imagery and verbiage. Though that reputation isn’t entirely unearned, it’s the result of Shelley trying to affect the same encounter with the sublime that he’s trying to depict. It Will All Hurt, which concluded earlier this year, feels like a similar feat. The series is more poetic than prosaic, and it’s almost difficult to derive meaning at certain points. The series concerns a number of parties converging to vanquish the Red Wizard, but it’s so much more than that. Dalrymple is constantly inter-cutting between fantastical and phantasmagorical, and there’s a greater emphasis on the movement of bodies and beings through space than there is on narrative. Rendered in an aesthetic that shifts between the more refined, defined one he is known for and a raw, sketchbook-style one, the series is constantly playing with the way information is delivered and composed. From entry to entry, you can see Dalrymple moving panels around, shrinking and expanding them, flipping on their side, doing away with them all together. The subject matter is very serious, and it’s obviously pitched at a populist audience, but it’s experimental and playful. It’s Dalrymple hurling idea after idea at his audience in attempt to just see for himself how the medium functions. [Shea Hennum]

13. Jem And The Holograms by Kelly Thompson, Sophie Campbell, Emma Vieceli, and M. Victoria Robado (IDW)

It’s been a busy year for Jem fans. After decades of quiet, the almost (but not quite) forgotten franchise roused itself from slumber and decided to spawn not merely a new comic book but a movie as well. (The less said about the movie the better.) The good news is that IDW was all about giving people the Jem And The Holograms they really wanted, perfectly updated to fit the year 2015. The singular high-concept premise so glaringly absent from the film is here intact: shy singer Jerrica Benton still uses the supercomputer Synergy to transform into the truly outrageous singing sensation Jem, lead singer of the Holograms. They do battle, both figuratively and sometimes literally, with the Misfits, a competing girl group composed of bad girls with worse attitudes (even if their songs are still better). Jem is a labor of love from two devoted fans: writer Kelly Thompson and artist Sophie Campbell. Campbell’s charmingly preposterous character designs capture the vivid visual imagination of the original cartoon, while the series also benefits from a light grounding in the realities of the music biz in 2015, where what matters most is YouTube views and TMZ hits. The series also benefits from some plot elements that simply weren’t available to kids cartoons in the 1980s, like inter-band romance between the two all-girl groups. It’s a rare thing to see a franchise so successfully updated that it manages to push all the necessary nostalgia buttons while also fully acclimating to the contemporary era, but Thompson and Campbell have succeeded. [Tim O’Neil]

14. Material by Ales Kot and Will Tempest (Image)

Ales Kot has never shied away from politics, but with Material he was more overt and explicit than ever. Pushing stories toward topics that most mainstream journalists aren’t even covering, he created plots for a former Guantanamo Bay detainee and the secret prison in Chicago known as Homan Square. Most of the pages include editorial notes in the margins, either links for the reader to further explore a topic brought up in-panel or listing the names of people murdered by police. Kot worked with Will Tempest, Clayton Cowles, and Tom Muller—the team that contributed to the acclaimed series Zero that wrapped up this year—who gave the book a finished but not too polished look with atmospheric color coding. Each page is very character focused, keeping panels tight and sometimes uncomfortably intimate to force the reader to confront human failings and corruption as honestly as possible. Reuniting with trusted collaborators allowed Kot to focus on writing something truly new and necessary, a comic with something important to say and the courage to say it loudly. Unfortunately, the book may have been a bit too confrontational, a bit too political, or a bit too unfamiliar to many comics fans: Kot recently announced that after just four issues Material has been canceled. Thankfully, the issues printed so far have been collected in a trade paperback, and it’s well worth picking up. [Caitlin Rosberg]

15. Midnighter by Steve Orlando, ACO, Stephen Mooney, and Romulo Fajardo Jr. (DC)

Steve Orlando has been sticking his thumb in a variety of comic pies this year, and with an astonishing amount of success, especially when you consider just how terrifying it could be to be writing a character created by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch. For the second time, Midnighter has been given a solo title, without any team members from Stormwatch or The Authority, without even his husband Apollo. And while that last point has concerned some readers, Orlando has proven that his desire to explore who the infamous M when he’s a single man, to give the character an opportunity to define himself without a mate, is one that’s absolutely worth the time and effort. Midnighter’s sense of self and duty are fascinating, and they’re far more difficult to fully understand when he’s at the risk of being literally cast in the shadow of other characters. ACO’s art is gritty and fully of teeth and threats, the perfect accompaniment to Orlando’s biting humor and Midnighter’s stellar one-liners. Particularly when read in tandem with Grayson, the book that spawned the anti-hero’s new adventures, Midnighter has proven to be one of the laugh-out-loud funniest books, as well as one of the more emotionally weighty ones. It doesn’t hurt that the plot isn’t totally driven by revenge or violence, giving Midnighter moments to flirt and love and make jokes about Dick Grayson’s ass, and there’s never enough of that. [Caitlin Rosberg]

16. Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa, and Ian Herring (Marvel)

Despite having become one of the company’s best selling titles (in digital and collected form, if not in direct market sales), Ms. Marvel refused to let the attention go to her head in her second year of publication. She’s still Jersey City’s premiere superheroine, fighting the good fight to keep her town safe from supervillains and rampaging monsters. The most remarkable thing about Ms. Marvel in 2015 was its studied normalcy: the book succeeds because of its insistence on treating the million tiny crises of high school and family life with as much serious consideration as the end of the world. Kamala Khan’s Jersey feels lived-in, a real place inhabited by real people, only a few of whom happen to fight crime. The inevitable Secret Wars crossover served as Kamala’s first exposure to the frequent apocalypses that dot the horizon of the Marvel Universe: every superhero gets used to the world ending every other Tuesday, but this was Ms. Marvel’s first time as a face in the crowd. She got to finally meet her idol Carol Danvers, and discovered that her family knows her better than she thought. The “All-New, All-Different” relaunch finds her better adjusted to her superhero career, but seeing her grip on her high school life start to slip. Despite some delays, the alternating art team of Takeshi Miyazawa and Adrian Alphona maintain a high consistency, and writer G. Willow Wilson continues to demonstrate why she is among the industry’s fastest rising talents. Will success spoil Kamala Khan? Not yet, at any rate. [Tim O’Neil]

17. O Human Star by Blue Delliquanti (web)

As printed comics foray deeper into sci fi and fantasy than they have in a long time, some of the best work in the industry is still being done by webcomics that launched years ago. Blue Delliquanti’s O Human Star is three years old now, and in that short time established itself as one of the best science fiction comics out there in both tone and scope. Science fiction really shines when technology and futurism serve as a backdrop to character-driven story, and Delliquanti’s skill shines both in terms of her imaginative setting and the cast who populates it. In the not too distant future, the man whose inventions serve as the foundation for modern life wakes up in an lifelike robotic body long after his death, confused by the advances that technology has made as well as his own status as the architect of all this change. In trying to uncover who has brought him back to this world, Al reunites with his former research partner and the other man’s teenaged daughter, an artificial intelligence that was built with Al’s mind and has subsequently come out as trans. By embracing the same type of story that the masters of science fiction have been working on for decades, Delliquanti has created a comic that fans of Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Philip K. Dick will delight in, exploring an entirely believable future with not-unreachable technology and deeply,beautifully human characters. [Caitlin Rosberg]

18. Octopus Pie by Meredith Gran (web)

The world is full of comics about fraught twentysomethings in New York; even if you narrow it to Brooklyn it’s not difficult to find an abundance of vaguely autobiographical stories that are the comic equivalent of Friends: characters with inexplicably avoidable jobs, outrageous adventures, and apartments so imaginary they might as well be unicorns. Meredith Gran’s webcomic Octopus Pie is the antidote to all of that, featuring well-rounded characters with crappy jobs they don’t like, social obligations they’d like to avoid, and love lives they neglect and obsess over in turns. That deeply rooted sense of reality, established over the better part of the last decade, has allowed Gran to push her skills both as a writer and an artist this year. With the help of colorist Valerie Halla, Gran has created long pages with astonishing cinematic shots and styles that explore her skill in new ways. Even more than that, Gran has proven she’s not afraid to shake things up, make big changes to the lives of her characters in a way that feels true to life in both how mundane the changes are and how earth-shattering they feel for the people living through them. For those who follow her work, it’s a thrilling time to be a fan and even more exciting to be an evangelist and share the comic with others. Gran’s skills and her characters are developing as she grows, and every would do well to keep an eye on her talent. [Caitlin Rosberg]

19. The Omega Men by Tom King, Barnaby Bagenda, Toby Cypress, and Romulo Fajardo Jr. (DC)

2015 was a breakout year for writer Tom King, who launched three new series while regularly impressing with his co-writing work on Grayson. This fall’s The Vision and The Sheriff Of Babylon both had remarkable debut issues, but those series haven’t yet had the chance to grow like King’s The Omega Men, a sci-fi allegory for the present-day turmoil in the Middle East starring a band of cosmic outlaws. King’s unconventional take on the C-list DC superhero team has made for a surprising, exciting miniseries, masterfully juggling political commentary, complex characterizations, and blockbuster action in a tense sci-fi narrative. Artists Barnaby Bagenda and Toby Cypress bring King’s ideas to the page with different styles that fit the specific content of their respective issues, with colorist Romulo Fajardo Jr. serving as the connective tissue between artists that lends the book visual consistency. The book is so strong that it can even overcome cancellation; when DC announced that the 12-issue miniseries would be ending prematurely with issue #7, fan backlash compelled the publisher to reverse the decision and allow King to finish his story the way he had originally planned. [Oliver Sava]

20. Power Up by Kate Leth and Matt Cummings (Boom Box)

Three total strangers and one goldfish find themselves the recipients of magical powers in Kate Leth and Matt Cummings’ Power Up. Their lives are immediately thrown into chaos, and someone—or something—is determined to reclaim these gifts. Power Up introduces a group of magical heroes with nothing in common save for their strange abilities, forced to band together in order to survive in the face of this mystery. The book’s appeal lies in the matter-of-fact wit with which the new heroes face their duties. There’s no question as to whether the heroes will come together for the sake of the world: They’re all genuinely nice people who react with amusing calmness to their lives having been turned upside down. Sandy, a modest mother of two, becomes a super-strong powerhouse; Amie, a former art student and ex-pet shop employee can heal and seemingly enhance the power sets of her teammates; and ex-high school athlete Kevin gets the Sailor Scout schoolgirl uniform. (As for the fish, he turns into a bigger fish with laser eyes—but is still a fish.) A book like this is all execution, and Cummings’ stylish designs successfully communicate the sly humor the concept demands. Leth’s skill with character-based comedy, honed from years spent working on licensed titles like Adventure Time, serves her in good stead. Her ability to communicate character nuance with brevity and charm will serve her in good stead as she prepares to take the reigns on Marvel’s Hellcat. [Tim O’Neil]

21. Ragnarök by Walter Simonson, Laura Martin, and John Workman (IDW)

A creator-owned series by Walter Simonson chronicling the exploits of an undead Thor in a dystopian world, Ragnarök reads very much like a continuation of Simonson’s legendary The Mighty Thor run, albeit one that goes in a much darker direction. Freed from the restrictions of working within a larger superhero universe, Simonson lets his imagination run wild on this book, crafting a rich fantasy world with incredibly dynamic visuals. Simonson’s artwork is as sharp as ever, and he’s written himself a narrative that plays to his strengths as a designer and action storyteller. His fascination with sci-fi and fantasy design elements shines through in his characters and environments, and his fight sequences are overflowing with energy that highlights the mythical powers at play. Colorist Laura Martin and letter John Workman play important roles in creating the book’s exhilarating momentum. Her vivid palette and his evocative sound effects work together to make Simonson’s artwork even more forceful, and the combined might of these three industry veterans makes Ragnarök a rousing read. [Oliver Sava]

22. Silver Surfer by Dan Slott, Michael Allred, and Laura Allred (Marvel)

After years as a perpetual guest star, the Silver Surfer returned to monthly comics in 2014 thanks to Dan Slott and Mike Allred. In revamping the Surfer for the contemporary market, they jettisoned the self-important melodrama that had been the character’s go-to since the late ’60s. Gone also was much of the Surfer’s rogues’ gallery, with villains such as Mephisto or Thanos notably absent. In their place was a quieter book that borrowed more than a little from the post-2005 Doctor Who relaunch: For instance, the Surfer needed someone to talk to, so Slott and Allred gave him a “companion” in the form of homebody Earth girl Dawn Greenwood. If the first year saw the book sometimes struggle to land its tone, 2015 was the year Slott and Allred’s take on the character fully jelled. The Surfer’s past caught up to him as he was forced to once again confront his responsibility for decades’ spent in the service of Galactus—a revelation that could have drove the duo apart but instead brought them closer together. Secret Wars became an opportunity for the series to offer its main characters the most dangerous temptation: the chance to rebuild the universe in their own imperfect images. With an “All-New, All-Different” relaunch imminent, Silver Surfer deserves a great deal more attention—sales have flagged despite near-universal acclaim. With the same team at the helm, it’s unlikely that the new volume will be anything less than stellar. [Tim O’Neil]

23. Southern Bastards by Jason Aaron, Jason Latour, and Chris Brunner (Image)

Southern Bastards is a brutal comic. It was written and drawn in the 21st century and retains a “magical negro” character, so its politics are bizarre and disjointed, but Jason Latour is a powerful illustrator of violence. His characters are blocky and chunky, but you get an incredible intense sense of the meat on their bones. Their muscles don’t just look like muscles, they feel like muscles. When his characters slaughter each other, there’s an affect to it. It’s not just two drawings kind of vaguely punching each other—it’s rough. Latour imbues that actions with a sense of movement, a sense of action, and it’s all in service to this melancholic nostalgia. That’s not to say that Jason Aaron and Latour are trafficking in the same kind of nostalgia that perennially keeps Transformers on those end-of-year gift guides. Theirs is a more incisive nostalgia. Theirs is the nostalgia of an old man going home to talk to his dead father and make peace with his garbage childhood. Unfortunately, Southern Bastards is a male weepy, which means that the men of the series can only sublimate their feelings into violent tendencies. These become the axis on which the series pivots, and Aaron and Latour pivot with glee. In any other series, this would quickly get boring. Fortunately, Latour draws the collision of blood and bone the way others draw cathartic scenes of crying and reconciliation, and so the punch-drunk action is both why you come and way you stay. [Shea Hennum]

24. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North, Erica Henderson, and Rico Renzi (Marvel)

After the triumph of the Marvels, both Captain and Ms., it’s no surprise that Marvel began to mine some benched female characters to expand the diversity of the titles they offered. What has been a bit of a shock is the runaway success of Doreen Green, a.k.a. Squirrel Girl, who has long served as the butt of jokes despite her history of victory and her powerful abilities. In the hands of another team, the book my have floundered and quickly been canceled, but the powerhouse duo of artist Erica Henderson and writer Ryan North has proven that there is still something Doreen offers that some readers are desperate for. North is probably best known for Dinosaur Comics, and his wry but upbeat sense of humor translates well from that to Squirrel Girl, especially if you read the tiny commentary on most pages. Doreen’s unapologetic positivity is at the heart of the book, guiding her and her friends through adventures that can best be described as zany without any unnecessary bloodshed, often with emotional catharsis and growth for the bad guys. That fact that wacky hijinks and real human connection are not mutually exclusive for North and Henderson proves just how well they understand Doreen Green and the readers who love her. Squirrel Girl is not struggling with her identity or her role as a superhero, she is not fraught or conflicted. She’s here to eat nuts and kick butts, and that’s exactly what the world needs sometimes. [Caitlin Rosberg]

25. Zero by Ales Kot, Jordie Bellaire, and various artists (Image)

Zero is messy. Visually, narratively, emotionally—the series is asymmetric, angular, sharp. These inevitable leads to criticism decrying the haphazard writing of Ales Kot, but that messiness is precisely why Zero is so good. It’s not an overly self-analyzed comic, designed for precision and complexity; it feels personal. There is the veneer of fiction and the appurtenant genre trappings, but it feels as raw and heartfelt as a psychedelic sci-fi actioner can. Kot is pouring so much of himself into the work, and that’s apparent in its exploration of violence—not the act, but its effects. Joined by a murderers’ row of some of the best cartoonists working today (Tradd Moore, Morgan Jeske, Ian Bertram, and Tula Lotay), Kot shaped the story of Edward Zero, a trained-from-birth perfect assassin pitted against other humans, and then otherworldly fungus, and then himself. It’s not The Wire or Breaking Bad—not every one of its threads is acutely resolved just in time for the finale—and there doesn’t feel like a central blueprint that Kot is following. That would be boring. Instead, he and his compatriots feel like they’re building a mosaic one tile at a time. Each tile looks good, and when it’s finished, it’s situated into its place in the larger whole. But as they’re making the tiles, they’re too close to the whole to see it for what it is. When you pull back, you can see the hinges, the slight inconsistencies from tile to tile, and the artifice of it all. But you can also see the beauty and the majesty. [Shea Hennum]