Lots of things got shaken up in the comics I enjoyed from the last twelve months, with characters and themes getting re-invented, resurrected and repurposed in surprising or clever ways. Here’s what I’ll remember from the comics I read in 2015.

Spoilers follow.

A Superman who can’t fly. A female Wolverine. An Archie who isn’t in an eternal love triangle. Both Marvel and DC shook up their status quos over the last year, in some cases changing up the identities of the people bearing the mantles of their biggest superhero franchises. That kind of shift tends to be a reliably cyclical trend in comics but it’s not that often that the two big cape-comics companies hit the same beats in the same timeframe. Tons of great non-superhero-centric work got released as well, speaking to the human condition and our own individual complexities in ways that only sequential storytelling can do. I definitely felt like I could read even more good comics in 2015 than I actually did, but the list below sums up the high points of what I stayed on top of.

Action Comics #42: “I Can Still Stand With Them”

In a year that saw Superman’s power levels go back to where they roughly were in 1938, we also got an issue that saw Clark Kent re-embodying the “fight for the little guy” ideals that characterized his earliest adventures. This is a Superman comic about out-of-control police, fueled by the deaths of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and others at the hands of officers meant to uphold the law. It’s rare that superhero comics try and grapple with thorny real-world tensions and even rarer when those attempts feel well-handled. Superman is often invoked as as a metaphor of how humans should treat each other, and this issue was a great example of that thematic tradition.

Sex Criminals #13: “There’s Nothing Wrong With Me”

There’s been a constant roiling randiness in Sex Criminals, which makes sense since it’s a series about characters with sex-based special abilities. But my favorite 2015 story from Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s comic centered on an asexual character, one who finds a different kind of risk-taking fulfillment completely unto herself. This character might be an off-putting manipulator but her very existence is a testament to Sex Criminals’ clever handling of the continuum of physicality that we all find ourselves on.

Secret Wars #6: “Ever [Get] the Feeling You’re Being Lied To?”

It’s stretched on a lot longer than initially planned but Marvel’s current ongoing event series isn’t just the vehicle for a comprehensive line-wide relaunch. It’s also the culmination of a chain of linked meta-stories written by Jonathan Hickman, arcs that explored what the publisher’s smartest and most noble characters do when their backs are against the inevitability of existence’s end. Doom being Doom, the evil monarch snatches omnipotence and reshapes all of reality to serve his own dysfunctional ego. Secret Wars excels because it’s become a fascinating character portrait of one of Marvel’s biggest bad guys.

The Mighty Thor #1: “Right Now, I’m Just Trying Not to Die”

The previous Thor was a guy who was nigh-invulnerable. Yeah, he got hurt—and even died—but the fact that he was born immortal made those injuries and deaths seem like mere road-bumps. Things are different for current hammer-thrower Jane Foster, former girlfriend of the Odinson. As someone who’s fighting metastatic cancer, she’s human in the frailest of ways and the recent revelation that her Thunder God transformations have been counteracting her chemotherapy was a genuinely shocking plot development in a Thor run that’s been very good for a while now.

The Ultimates #2: “... I Know All Is Well.”

Galactus eats planets. Everyone knows that. But the Ultimates went and changed the galaxy’s most foreboding force-of-nature into the complete opposite of what he used to be. The series by Al Ewing and Kenneth Rocafort has become the best team book in Marvel’s All-New, All-Different initiative by delivering a cosmic sense of scope along with strong character work. More surprises are sure to come but the thematic foundation already feels rock solid.

Killing and Dying: “Weren’t They Just Here Last Week?”

Adrian Tomine’s always been good at crafting darkly entertaining tales spun out of the weirdest, most discomfiting quirks of human behavior. As the acclaimed cartoonist gets older, his toolset has gotten deeper, giving him new ways to captivate readers with glimpses of incredibly maladroit lives. This newest graphic novel collects stories that are almost all universally painful to read but that unfold in beautiful fashion.

Batman #43: “It’s a New Brain”

It looked like Bruce Wayne died in the Batman comics a few months back, and he was replaced by Jim Gordon in a imposing Bat-mech suit. The fact that Bruce soon came back wasn’t that big a surprise. It was the nature of the former Dark Knight’s resurrection that proved to be uniquely compelling, as Alfred Pennyworth revealed that the training and memories that allowed Bruce to be Batman were no longer part of his psyche. We already know that Bruce will be back on rooftops next year, but that hasn’t stopped the current Batman run from being a striking addition of the character’s long, tangled mythos.

The Vision #1: “Pleasure to Meet You.”

Writer Tom King has been one of the best breakthrough talents in 2015, and his new series featuring the Avengers’ AI powerhouse is a great showcase of his talents, Casting the Vision as patriarch of a seemingly perfect automaton family, King explores how the churning emotions of humanity play out in beings that were made and not born. In just two issues, King and the other creators have cooked up a level of simmering psychodrama that rivals just about everything else in mainstream comics.

Archie #1: “I Don’t Even Know What We’d Say

Archie Comics had already been taking big risks with its safe-for-all-ages high-schoolers for a little while, but the publisher’s biggest gamble was hitting the reset button on its flagship character. The new stories by Mark Waid, Fiona Staples and others have had a surprising emotional heft that makes these familiar faces feel grounded and fresh in an entirely different way.

Fury: S.H.I.E.L.D. 50th Anniversary #1: “No! This Is For America!”

This issue surprised me with how it wove commentary on racial tensions in present-day America into a super-spy story that inverted a hoary time-travel gimmick.

The Eltingville Club #2: “Shh! She’s Coming This Way!”

If you feel like nerd culture has curdled on its way to dominating the pop culture landscape, you’re not alone. Longtime cartoonist Evan Dorkin feels that way, too, and put four of his most irascible characters in the center of an implosion that illustrates many of the worst woes plaguing the geek hivemind. You’re supposed to laugh at these guys but might wind up puking instead.

Darth Vader #6: “He Will Be Mine. It Will All Be Mine”

Whenever people ask me if Marvel’s new Star Wars comics are any good, this is the issue I describe to them. It nails just about all of the things that a good tie-in comic needs to do: Darth Vader #6 expounds on canon, shows an important event from a previously unseen point-of-view and deepens readers’ understanding of an already well-known character.

Second Quest: “I Still Dream of Places I Have Never Been”

Tevis Thompson and David Hellman’s graphic novel is—and isn’t—about The Legend of Zelda. The story focuses on a young girl trying to suss out a destiny that seems to be cosmically appointed while she also comes to grips with a world that’s built on tropes she can’t bring herself to believe in anymore. Second Quest is the work of true video game fans, ones who want their beloved medium to grow in ways that surprise them.

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen: “What Are You Looking At, Otaku?”

Fandoms centered on comics, anime, movies and games can grow in goofy, creepy or unintended ways. But, icky as they can be, the off-brand appreciations are part and parcel of the feedback loops that makes these fictional works matter. Dylan Horrocks’ brilliant graphic novel explores how fan engagement and creative intent can support and undermine each other, creating a broad canvas where enthusiasts and authors can switch places to get what they want.

Midnighter #1: “I Fight for Normal People.”

The Midnighter character began life as a sort of Batman-alike, a lethal killing machine who knew what enemies would do before they made a move. But the new series by Steve Orlando, ACO and others finds its own well-crafted space by making its lead less like the Dark Knight. Midnighter throbs with a sensual connection to the world the main character protects. The title character becomes emotionally entangled in ways that Bruce Wayne tries to avoid. It’s odd to have hyper-violence and emotional vulnerability co-exist in a series about a guy who uses a computer brain implant to inflict pain, but that tension give Midnighter much of its charm.

The Sculptor: “Everything Will Be All Right.”

Scott McCloud is someone who’s best known for showing how the comics form works. In his long-awaited graphic novel, The Sculptor, he showed his genius-level understanding in top form, delivering a melodramatic meditation about what it means to grapple with the creative urge and the desire to leave a legacy behind you.

The Wicked & Divine #13: “No. Not Me. That Was the Problem.”

Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s rockstars-as-supergods opus gave us a lot of sturm-und-drang coming into 2015 but the bulk of the past year in The Wicked & Divine has been more intimate. Single-issue spotlights on the various members of the pop pantheon have shown us the demons they struggled against as just plain folks and musical deities. The most heartbreaking issue might have been the one focused on Tara, the sexpot performer who’s spent a lifetime trying to get people to see past her body.


Contact the author at evan@kotaku.com.