The Best Comics and Graphic Novels of 2015 for Women
2015 has been a banner year for inclusion and representation of women in comics. But it can still be difficult to know where to start for newcomers, and with so much awesome material on the shelf, even seasoned comics pros might have missed something great.
So — in alphabetical order — here are our picks for the best comics for adult women for 2015.
Kelly Sue DeConnick made a name for herself by taking Carol Danvers, the former Ms. Marvel, and using the bones of the character to create the modern Captain Marvel; a tough, no nonsense heroine that became the template for the subsequent explosion of female-led titles at Marvel.
But after paying her dues at Marvel, DeConnick decided to strike out on her own, putting her love into creator-owned titles, including the horror-tinged western Pretty Deadly, and the deliciously subversive Bitch Planet.
Bitch Planet is an unabashedly feminist deconstruction of “women-in-prison” sexploitation films. In a dystopian future run by men, women who rebel against the patriarchy are deemed “non-compliant” and sent to a brutal prison planet.
The comic manages the difficult job of both paying homage to the exploitation films it parodies while completely subverting them as well. There is nudity — but it’s non exploitative. There are giant prison bull-dykes — but they are heroes. And Bitch Planet itself has all the trappings of the exploitation of women for the pleasure of men — but it is the most overtly feminist book on the shelf.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Archie Comics has been increasingly willing to take risks in the past few years, culminating in their complete revamp of their flagship title. But an earlier success was the moody and atmospheric Afterlife with Archie, which depicted a the Riverdale gang as they attempt desperately to escape an every-growing horde of the undead. One of the more interesting characters in the series was the teenage witch who unwittingly started the zombie outbreak: Sabrina.
So the second title in the Archie Horror line-up was The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, with art by Robert Hack, Sabrina utilizes the same creepy atmosphere and dark style as Aguirre-Sacasa’s other book Afterlife with Archie.
A period book set in the 1960s, the comic follows Sabrina life with her aunts Hildy and Zelda. As her 16th birthday approaches, she must decide whether to remain a witch or become mortal forever. To complicate matters, Madam Satan — a former lover of her deceased father — has returned from hell, seeking vengeance on the entire Spellman family.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a great title for anyone who likes horror, it will have special meaning for fans of the old Archie series who can see the old Riverdale characters radically reinterpreted in a horror context.
DC Comics Bombshells
If you had asked me at the beginning of the year what the odds were that a comic book based on a series of cheesecake pinup statuettes would be on my “best of” list, I would have replied, “slim to none.” I am delighted to have been proven wrong.
As mentioned, The DC Comics Bombshells started out as a collectible statuette series that reimagined DC’s greatest heroines as World War II pinups. The statues were incredibly popular, which led to DC commissioning a surprisingly great comic.
Writer Marguerite Bennett and artist Marguerite Sauvage took the paper-thin concept and brilliantly imagined an alternate history of World War II, where DC’s modern female superheroes are recast as World War II heroines. The series was originally released as weekly digital shorts, which were later collected in comic book form. So each issue is comprised of three or four stories. This gives the series a somewhat choppy, episodic, feel, but it also allows them to introduce a tremendous number of reimagined characters in a very short period of time.
The series works as an anthology of sorts, and whether you are reading it as an introduction to DC’s female heroes or as a longtime fan who wants to see how the characters are reinterpreted in a different era, DC Comics Bombshells is a lot a female-powered superhero fun.
Fresh Romance is a Kickstarter-fueled rebooting of a long-dormant genre of comics: romance. Romance comics were actually big business from the Golden Age of comics through the 1950s, when girls read comics in equal number to boys. But with the advent of the Silver Age and the resurgence of superhero comics, romance comics were increasingly marginalized and eventually disappeared — until now.
Editor Janelle Asselin is breathing new life into the moribund genre of romance comics. The series anthology format serves the book in two ways. It allows each issue to showcase a variety of stories and art styles, and the serialized format gives the storytellers more room to tell complex and interesting stories.
And Asselin has assembled a murderers row of talented female writers and artists to tell these stories. Kate Leth, Marguerite Bennett and Sara Vaughn all contribute — and that’s just the first issue!
The book also includes a romance advice column, tips on fashion and more. It is a rare book that was built from the ground up to appeal to women — and not just women who happen to like superheroes.
Melody: Story of a Nude Dancer
Sylvie Rancourt wrote and illustrated Melody while she was working as a stripper in Montreal in the late ’80s. I’d call it a “thinly veiled autobiography,” but honestly, it’s not veiled at all.
Low on money, Melody’s scumbag boyfriend, Nick, pushes her to try exotic dancing — and despite having zero experience, Melody proves to be a fast study.
What follows is a bizarre study in contrasts. The seedy life of a stripper is portrayed full of narcotics, orgies, exploitation, police arrests and outright theft. But Melody’s Pollyannaish optimism remains completely undiminished by all the ugliness around her.
What emerges is a wart-and-all portrait of the world of stripping that neither glamorizes nor condemns the world of stripping — it just tells what happens from Melody’s point of view.
Customers, managers and fellow dancers are all portrayed as complex individuals, some good, some bad — defying easy stereotyping. Rancourt’s simple drawing style sometimes works to the detriment of the story. People are sometimes hard to tell apart, and reading emotion can be difficult. But the power of the story speaks for itself, and easily carries you through to the end of the book
Rancourt originally sold issues of the comic to patrons of the strip clubs that she worked at, but indie publisher Drawn & Quarterly discovered the book and released a collected edition for the first time to a wide audience in 2015
2015 saw the end to one of the great independent comics of the past few years, Matt Kindt’s Mind MGMT.
Mind MGMT begins when Flight 815 (a subtle nod to Lost) lands with all of its passengers safe, but with total amnesia. They can’t remember what happened on the flight, what happened last week or even who they are.
True crime novelist Meru Marlow starts pulling at the threads of the case, unraveling the mystery and uncovering the secret history of an elite spy agency comprised of agents with bizarre and superhuman mental powers, and a conspiracy that involves her own murky past.
Before it is over, Meru will be faced with psychic dolphins, immortal assassins, and a man who can kill people just by pointing his finger. Meru makes a compelling protagonist, and her development from curious outsider to major player in this war of shadows among psychic spies is full of false starts and resets.
Unlike Lost, Kindt planned the entire story — down to the last issue — before he ever started. So the ending of the complex mind-bender of a tale is every bit as engaging and satisfying as its brilliant and trippy beginning.
We’re big fans of stories with with endings, and Kindt ended Mind MGMT exceptionally well We can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
There are few things more challenging than creating an entirely new world and sharing that world with readers without the use of heavy-handed exposition. Writer Marjorie Liu and artist Sana Takeda have proved that they are up to the task with the first few issues of the dark and richly textured Monstress.
Avoiding that momentum killing exposition comes at a price, though. Readers will have to be fully engaged to piece together the backstory through context — bits of visual storytelling, snippets of overheard dialog, and strange flashbacks that will have you scrambling to piece together the world they have created.
But for engaged readers this is most certainly worth it. The opulent horror and fantasy world of Monstress is one of the greatest creations in comics this year. Liu’s writing is superb and Takeda’s art is simply gorgeous — switching between simple manga-inspired characters and fantastic hyper-detailed backgrounds that blend a plethora of influences from steampunk to art deco and beyond.
Liu and Takeda have created a world where nearly all of the major power players are women with complex motivations, which allows for a broad spectrum of representation. Men are barely present at all so far, and they are not needed. They would likely only serve as a distraction.
With two issues under our belt. we have only started to discover the motivations that drive one-armed, haunted protagonist Maika Halfwolf on her quest for vengeance. Mosntress has just begun, and you can likely get the first few issues at the comics shop now, if you ask.
While not for everyone, readers who love unraveling mysteries and discovering the rules and history of fantasy worlds will find lots to love in the dark but beautiful Monstress.
On a brief hiatus from writing the modern epic Saga, Brian K. Vaughn teamed up with award-winning artist Cliff Chiang to create Paper Girls. Before the book launched, Image Comics solicited Paper Girls as Stand By Me meets War of the Worlds.” That comparison is as good as any.
The story is anchored by Vaughn’s rock-solid characterization of a group of teen girls who deliver the morning newspaper to their suburban community. He efficiently introduces us to the girls — Erin, Mac, Tiffany and K.J. — transmitting information on attitude, class and relationships with an incredible economy of words.
We need that solid foundation as the story quickly veers from a typical coming of age story directly into the Twilight Zone. The girls encounter visitors from beyond — aliens? time-travelers? Something else? We’re not quite sure. But the mysteries start piling up as shortly afterwards, the girls discover a strange machine, flying monsters appear and nearly all the other people in the world start disappearing.
Chiang manages to wring an amazing amount detail out of a few heavy lines, creating distinct and recognizable characters through brilliant design. The early parts of the story are nearly wordless, relying completely on his ability to tell a story visually, and he effortlessly captures both the eerie, early-morning silence in the early pages and the action and fantasy elements as the story progresses.
Planned as a six-issue miniseries, Paper Girls moves at a much brisker pace than Vaughn’s other works. With his unwavering focus on characterization, we would read this book even if nothing fantastical ever happened. The fact that it does get really weird is just a bonus.
It was a tough year for Kurtis J. Wiebe’s Rat Queens. After a stellar launch, the bawdy sword-and-sorcery title was riding high, winning both critical acclaim, and high sales — until series artist Roc Upchurch was arrested for domestic abuse after physically assaulting his ex-wife on October 31st, 2014.
For a book that built its brand on “strong female characters,” this was completely unacceptable — but Upchurch provided all the art — pencils, inks and coloring — that gave the series its distinctive look. Some questioned whether the series would survive.
2015 saw Rat Queens return with a vengeance. After a brief hiatus, Wiebe found a suitable replacement for Upchurch in Death Sigil‘s Stjepan Sejic, and returned to shelves after a hiatus as profanely funny as ever.
The Rat Queens are an all-female “adventuring party” that drinks, fights, swears, does copious amounts of psychedelics and occasionally saves the world. It is profanely funny.
But underneath the humor, Wiebe manages to also tell stories about betrayal, broken family relationships and the value of friendship — giving the book a solid foundation of drama and plot to make the humor mean something.
Sejic’s art is quite different from Upchurch’s. His darker palette choices gives the book a quite different feel, but it suits the material equally as well.
So if you like fantasy and you’re not easily offended, Rat Queens should be on your shelf.
What is left to say about Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples’s creation Saga? We are so used to its consistent excellence that it almost felt lazy to single it out yet again for an award. On the other hand, penalizing it because it is always fantastic is ridiculous — so here we are again.
For those not in the know, Saga is an epic story of two members of opposite sides in an intergalactic war who fall in love, marry and attempt to escape the ravages of war with their young child. The story ranges all over he galaxy, and it filled with subplots as the family deals with external threats and internal conflicts.
Saga is the book we recommend first and most often for adults who are looking to start reading comics. The story is complex and “adult” in the non-exploitative sense of the word. Staples art is beautiful, taking full advantage of digital techniques that were simply not available to previous generations of artists, giving the book an ethereal, painterly look.
Saying Saga is a great comic at this point is like saying chocolate chip is a good cookie. It’s so obvious, that it almost goes without saying, but that does not alter the fundamental truth: Saga is one of the best comics to come out in decades, and everyone should be reading it.
27 years ago, writer Neil Gaiman and artist Sam Keith launched one of the most influential comics of all time, The Sandman. A dark, horror-tinged masterpiece, was met with immediate critical acclaim. Novelist and playwright Norman Mailer called it “a comic strip for intellectuals.”
The first issue of the series opened with Morpheus, Lord of Dreams, weakened from a battle of cosmic proportions, being captured by an Aleister Crowley-style occultist who imprisons him for decades — setting up the major conflicts that would drive the rest of the series.
Gaiman revisits Morpheus in this year’s Sandman: Overture, a prequel that finally explains what the cosmic battle was that weakened Dream to the point he could be captured in the first issue of the original series.
As a prequel, this is a story with a predetermined outcome, so the enjoyment comes from the journey itself. Even though the series is a prequel, Gaiman manages to work in references to many characters he introduced in The Sandman decades ago, meaning that the book works best if you have read the original series — although that certainly isn’t a requirement.
Throughout his run on The Sandman, Gaiman managed to attract some of the best artists in the business. That has not changed here. Artist J.H. Williams’s work on the new series is simply sublime, capturing the cosmic strangeness of multiple realities and impossible dreamscapes with a gaudy color palette that somehow works perfectly and surreal Dali-esque sensibility that suits the material perfectly.
Sandman: Overture is a welcome addition to the Sandman mythos that will delight fans of the series and add a late addendum to one of the most celebrated series in comics history.
Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky continue to entertain grown ups with Sex Criminals. The book is founded on the premise that sex is fun. It’s a natural part of the human condition. And it is OK to talk about sex and the fact that you enjoy sex. Oh, and some people can freeze time when they have sex, and they use that ability to rob banks and destroy mortgage documents to help average people get out of debt.
The book never takes itself too seriously, and it has the best (and funniest) sex and relationship advice column in the business (sorry Fresh Romance.) The second year introduced new characters, new plot developments and new sex positions. Fraction and Zdarsky have created a world that is absurd on the surface, but that has rules that make sense. Each new character, each new complication increases the complexity and believability of their strange creation.
Fraction and his wife, Kelly Sue DeConnick recently inked a television and film production deal for their work, and Sex Criminals would make an excellent series on pay cable. Cross your fingers.
Step Aside, Pops
Kate Beacon’s literate and foul mouthed comic Hark! A Vagrant is one of the best things on the Internet, and this second collection of strips selected from her site is another home run for humor.
Hark! A Vagrant is a completely unique creation. Beacon deftly mixes classic literary characters, obscure historical figures, humor, feminism and Canadian pride into a strange but brilliant comic. The strip-a-day format allows Beacon to jump from Wuthering Heights, to Nancy Drew to a bitter, chain-smoking Wonder Woman.
Beacon’s appeal is that she trusts that her audience is smart enough to understand jokes about the Bronte sisters, yet grounded enough to enjoy mild drug and sex references — and that they have the intellectual curiosity to follow her on a humorous exploration of real historical figure Tom Longboat, an Onondaga distance runner who broke records and fought for Canada during WWI.
Beacon’s minimalist, sketchy style is extremely expressive and suits her odd sense of humor perfectly. Step Aside, Pops might even be better than the first Hark! A Vagrant collection, and that is mighty praise, indeed.
The Story of My Tits
Jennifer Hayden’s powerful autobiographical graphic novel, The Story of My Tits, recounts her relationship with her breasts: from her self-consciousness about having AA-cup breasts in junior high, to a different type of self consciousness when — after some weight gain — she balloons up to a rather large 38 C in college. Eventually, she makes peace with her body, the way that most women do. And after cancer strikes, she is forced to re-establish her relationship with her body yet again after a double mastectomy.
Hayden’s life was also full of strong women role models that she lost to cancer, and this book could have easily ended up being little more than thoughts on death. Instead, Hayden captures all the everyday moments along her journey, giving us glimpses not only of her rejection of death, but of the life that was worth saving.
Hayden absolutely refuses to succumb to sappy sentimentality, keeping the section on her breast cancer tightly written, but also unafraid to show the hard realities that dealing with cancer brought. But she punctures the grimness with humor, insight and joy — the same qualities that no doubt allowed her to endure in real life.
The Story of My Tits is a powerful memoir of survival and how our reaction to life’s challenges shape us into the people we are today.
The Wicked + the Divine
Putting Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie together on a book is almost a guarantee of a good time. Their work on The Young Avengers captured the essence of teen life and relationships and gave them a fun superhero twist. Their early work on Phonogram demonstrated how well a purely visual medium such as comics can transmit the love and passion of music — and the cult of fame and personality that surrounds rock stars.
The Wicked + The Divine expands their exploration of fame by postulating that there is a world where they gods are real and where they manifest themselves every 90 years in an event called the Recurrence. The last Recurrence happened in the 1920s, and the book opens as 12 of the gods have returned, merged with ordinary mortals, and formed a group called “the Pantheon.”
Gillen and McKelvie play the “gods as rock stars” metaphor like a Stradivarius (or perhaps more appropriately, a Fender Stratocaster.) The gods of the Pantheon are worshiped by fans and sycophants. It’s “idolatry” in a very literal sense of the word. From “Luci” the white-suited, androgynous reincarnation of Lucifer, to Woden and his harem of impossibly beautiful Asian “Valkerie,” we are introduced to members of the Pantheon and their complicated intertwined backstories.
McKelvie’s art and storytelling are nearly flawless, and Gillen knows precisely what his longtime collaborator’s strengths are and how to play to them. The book is gorgeous and quite unlike anything on else the shelves today.