December 22, 2015

The Pull List: Best Superhero Comics of 2015

All things considered it has been a fairly shaky year for the superhero comic genre. DC Comics continued to flounder creatively with the majority of its titles. Marvel spent much of the year wallowing in it's overly involved, maddeningly disruptive Secret Wars event series - not to mention an endless series of relaunches and re-numberings. Smaller publishers like Valiant and Dark Horse produced some pretty good stuff, but struggled to get their books in front of an audience.

On one level that's a little disappointing, but on another it's maybe good news for the American comic book as an artistic medium. American comics have been near-exclusively slaved to the superhero genre for decades, and it's only recently that the industry has started to properly expand into different genres and types of stories. I don't think superheroes are ever going fall entirely out of favour, but I do see the scale of DC and Marvel's books slowly contract over the next few years.

Despite some rocky territory in 2015, there were a bunch of books worth mentioning. Let's begin with some honourable mentions.

Thor/The Mighty Thor
Marvel. Written by Jason Aaron. Art by Russell Dautermann.
Jason Aaron and Russell Dautermann got a lot of headlines when they replaced Thor Odinson with a masked woman - secretly Thor's former girlfriend Jane Foster. As with all the best stunt recastings, this one's based in story, and thus far it's been a pretty entertaining one. At its heart is a really tragic plot twist: Jane is dying of cancer, and every time she changes into Thor, her immortal powers flush away all the toxins in her body - including the chemotherapy working to keep her alive. A silly relaunch halfway through the arc seems to have thrown the book's momentum a little, but I'm hopefully it's going to bounce back to its early greatness really soon.

Bloodshot Reborn
Valiant. Written by Jeff Lemire. Art by Mico Suayan.
Valiant's best series for 2015 was this dark, slightly harrowing take on Bloodshot, a former government soldier whose blood is packed with body-repairing nanotechnology. Part of the book's appeal was Suayan's exceptional and realistic artwork. Another was the gripping plot, as former Bloodshot Ray Garrison tracked down a string of random psychopaths boosted by nanites of their own. Best of all was the brilliant way in which Ray's visions of a dead girlfriend and a cartoon character named Bloodsquirt reflected his continuing descend into mental unwellness. A dark but very gripping take on a long-running superhero character.

DC Comics. Written by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher. Art by Babs Tarr.
Bas Tarr has such a beautiful cartoon-like aesthetic that just screams brightness and optimism. That's largely what we got from Batgirl this year: bright, positive and regularly amusing vigilante adventure. Since its relaunch this book has given DC a much-needed lightness of touch, relocating Batgirl to the hip Gotham suburb of Burnside and giving her a proper supporting cast of friends and associates. While not perfect, it's still the closest DC Comics has to a properly decent all-ages superhero title.

DC Comics. Written by Genevieve Valentine. Art by Garry Brown and David Messina.
Catwoman has always been a tricky character to feature in her own monthly comic, but she's so easily sexualised by poor writers and rendered for a male gaze by sensationalistic artists. In the hands of Genevieve Valentine and Garry Brown (later David Messina), Selina Kyle finally got a storyline worthy of her character. This all-too-brief run saw Selina abandon her Catwoman persona to become head of a Gotham City crime syndicate. The series showcased several strong women, offered intelligent storylines and evocative art (I adored Kevin Wada's covers), and managed to do it while maintaining Selina's power and not sexualising anybody.

Silver Surfer
Marvel. Written by Dan Slott. Art by Michael Allred.
First and foremost, getting Michael Allred to draw the art on a Silver Surfer comic was such an obvious no-brainer that it probably qualified as a stroke of genius. Dan Slott's angle on the character was similarly inspired: essentially turning him into the Marvel Universe equivalent of Doctor Who, travelling the universe with a human companion and fighting injustice wherever he goes. The end of the series stumbled pretty badly thanks to Marvel's intrusive Secret Wars, but it's all set to relaunch in early 2016 - hopefully without the shadow of a line-wide cross-over hanging over its head.

#3: Batman
DC Comics. Written by Scott Snyder. Art by Greg Capullo and Danny Miki.
DC's best monthly comic continued to impress in 2015. When it was confirmed that Bruce Wayne would be leaving the role of Batman, and replaced by former police commissioner Jim Gordon inside a robotic Batman suit, many readers were pretty doubtful. It's genuinely impressive that Snyder, Capullo and Miki managed to not only prove the doubters wrong but write some genuinely effective stuff with a brilliantly creepy new villain.

Before we even got to Jim Gordon as Batman and the insidious Mr Bloom, the book reached a tremendous and iconic climax with the end of the "Endgame" story arc, in which Batman and the Joker had their final fight for Gotham City. Sure it was a fake-out, and nobody died, but to their credit the creative team made it evidently clear that Bruce was still alive in the same issue in which he apparently died.

I've really enjoyed the 'widescreen' blockbuster-style take on Batman that these guys have been following for the past four years. With it all but confirmed that the entire team will be departing during 2016, it makes this a slightly melancholic book to praise - it's all going to end quite soon.

#2: Ms Marvel
Marvel. Written by G. Willow Wilson. Art by Adrian Alphonsa and Takeshi Miyazawa.
Kamala Khan is the single-greatest character find of the Marvel Universe in recent years. She has a fantastic personality, a great visual look, wonderfully goofy powers and a distinctive identity as a Muslim American. Critically the book has never shied away from Islam, and has instead made it a positive and realistic aspect of Kamala's life and environment.

Ms Marvel has also benefitted from some great art by Adrian Alphonsa and Takeshi Miyazawa, who both have given it a distinctive aesthetic quite unlike any other superhero comic out there. The look forms part of the book's very pleasant, likeable appeal. It's such a warm-hearted comic book.

Marvel has cleverly avoided crossing Kamala's adventures over with too many other Marvel heroes until just recently, and this has given Wilson and her art team the chance to really bed the character down first. Now that's well established and secure in her role as a superhero, I suspect we'll see Kamala adventuring out into the Marvel Universe a bit more in 2016.

#1: Daredevil
Marvel. Written by Mark Waid. Art by Chris Samnee.
I could simply describe Waid and Samnee's Daredevil as "utterly faultless" and leave it at that. Waid's long run on the character ended this year with a twisting final battle against the Kingpin that surprised me on more than one occasion. Sadly it's subsequent relaunch under Charles Soule seems to have stripped much of what made this run so enjoyable.

Put simply: Waid made Daredevil fun again. For decades the character had been mired in guilt, tragedy and misery, to the point of self-parody. Waid managed to lift Matt Murdock out of that funk. He kept the darker elements of the character and his story around, but he skilfully leavened them with humour, romance and proper all-ages adventure.

There may have been more adventurous superhero comics on the market in 2015, and more original storylines, but when it comes down to pure skill, technique and creative ability, nothing this year came close. Whether it was Waid's constantly surprising, perfectly constructed storylines, or Samnee's wonderfull economical artwork, toe-for-toe Daredevil was the 2015 superhero title to beat.

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