We don’t write many articles about comics here at SF Signal. That’s not to say that we dismiss comics as literature, though. Many of the contributors to this blog are huge fans of the medium, but sites devoted the field abound, and whether superheroes are actually science fiction or a form of fantasy that simply employs sci-fi conventions as convenient MacGuffins is debatable. The one notable exception to our comic freeze out is our annual list of the top science fiction comics of the year… which number exactly one, because last year’s list was our first.
To my surprise, though, last year’s list of the Top 14 Sci-Fi Comics of 2014 turned out to be one of our top ten most popular articles of 2015. So, back by popular demand, here’s a rundown of the best on-going science fiction comics to hit stands in 2015. It’s not exhaustive, because there were a LOT of great sci-fi series this year, but it’s what we consider these to be the cream of the crop. Feel free to debate or contribute your own suggestions in the comments below.
Written by Brian K. Vaughan (Image Comics)
Illustrated by Fiona Staples
io9’s Rob Bricken once described Saga as “Star Wars for perverts,” and he wasn’t wrong.
Saga is an epic space drama that follows Alana and Marko, two soldiers from opposite sides of an unending war between two space-faring species, one of which wields magic. The pair fall in love and are forced to flee for their lives when both of their governments decide that the forbidden romance could disrupt the status quo. When a baby comes into the picture, though, their struggle to survive takes on a whole new dimension. Careening from one alien world to the next, the little family finds itself fleeing one danger after another, each more bizarre than the last. The series is explores family bonds and the sacrifices required of parents.
Last year, Saga made the number one slot in our list of the Top 14 Sci-Fi Comics of 2014 and for damn good reason. Saga is among the most original, most heartfelt stories ever seen in comics, and the fourth volume of the adventures of the series’ star-crossed lovers are just as entertaining, if not more so than previous years.
2015 saw the Eisner Award-winning space opera continue to garner commercial and critical success as Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples continue to uphold their well-deserved reputation as the best creative team currently working in comics. Staples is setting new standards for beauty and originality in worldbuilding, while Vaughan continues to pluck at our heartstrings with a skill and authenticity few writer ever achieve, interweaving sex and violence into a moving epic about the ties that bind.
Written by Jeff Lemire (Image)
Illustrated by Dustin Nguyen
Jeff Lemire made last year’s list of the Top 14 Sci-Fi Comics of 2014 with the fast-paced time-travel romance Trillium. This year, he moves up the list with the high-concept space epic Descender.
The first sign Descender was going to be something special was that Sony Pictures snapped up the rights before the first issue even hit stands. Descender is what Spielberg’s A.I. might have been if George Lucas had written it into the Star Wars franchise. In it, a robot boy named Tim-21 “wakes” up alone on an abandoned mining colony ten years after a race of giant, sentient machines murdered most of the known universe. Now, Tim-21 and his robot dog struggle to survive in a galaxy where artificial intelligence is anathema and robots are hunted fanatically.
The series features all the sweeping vistas and action sequences one could hope for from a sci-fi epic, but the heart of the story remains that of an innocent boy caught up in events far larger than himself.
The rough texture and riotous shading of Nguyen‘s hand colored artwork perfectly captures the both the chaos and tenderness of Lemire’s story. It comes as a breath of fresh air amid the sea of digitally-colored comics currently on the market.
Written by Greg Rucka (Image)
Illustrated by Michael Lark, Tyler Boss, Owen Freeman, Eric Trautmann
Lazarus is set in a dystopian future without nations or governments. The world is controlled by the world’s wealthiest families who maintain elaborate serfdoms. Each family is protected by a Lazarus, a guardian capable of surviving almost any amount of damage, genetically engineered for the express purpose of protecting the family by any means necessary. The story follows Forever, the Carlyle family’s Lazarus, as she slowly awakens from her chemically induced servitude and begins to experience guilt over her role in killing the family’s enemies.
Lazarus came in third on our list of the Top 14 Sci-Fi Comics of 2014, and it held its ground in this year’s rankings. Lazarus is still one of the best books on the shelves. 2015 saw the storyline grow to even greater proportion as war erupted between opposing families, and 2015’s “Poison” story arc has set the stage for an incredible run in 2016. Not only does the series’ writing continue to be consistently excellent, its subject matter of a moral awakening amid a collapsing plutocracy has never been more relevant. Rucka and Lark’s battle scenes are incredible, their plots are well-paced, and the interplay between their characters ooze with depth and authenticity.
Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick (Image Comics)
Illustrated by Valentine De Landro
Too new to make our 2014 list of Top Sci-Fi Comics, Bitch Planet was easily the most talked about comic of 2015. The comic is set in a technologically advanced, socially regressive Stepford Wives dystopia in which women are forced to conform to social ideals or face exile to an auxiliary compliance (space) outpost for “non-compliant” women nicknamed “Bitch Planet.” Funny, thought-provoking, and unapologetically feminist, this story of women in prison is a brutal exploration of oppression, misogyny, and gender stereotypes that confronts gender stereotypes head on with biting satire and righteous wit in equal measures. That alone would earn the title critical acclaim, but pairing the comic’s high-browed themes with a gritty action-packed storylines chocked full of grind house gore is a masterstroke that has earned the comic a place in the pantheon of comic masterworks.
Even if feminism isn’t your cup of tea, Bitch Planet is still an action-packed space comic populated with solidly written characters well worth your time.
Written by Becky Cloonan (Image)
Illustrated by Andy Belanger
Southern Cross is a first-rate murder mystery set against the backdrop of a convincingly dark, gritty future that will saturate readers with the same creeping sense of dread found in the pages of Lovecraft. The story follows Alex Braith as she travels aboard the Southern Cross to Titan to recover the remains of a sister who has died in an alleged mining accident. But nothing is as it appears to be, and the interplanetary tanker is populated with a whole host of flawed characters hiding secrets of their own. The story is a slow burning masterpiece that will satisfy the most demanding of mystery fans while still appealing to horror mavens. Cloonan seamlessly blends a claustrophobic atmosphere reminiscent of Alien with the dark paranoia of Scandinavian crime fiction and the surreal otherworldly horror of Lovecraft tributes into a deeply satisfying comic experience.
Written by Jay Faerber (Image)
Illustrated by Scott Godlewski
I’ll admit right up front, that as a long time Firefly fan boy, I have a strong bias in favor of space westerns, but I feel more than justified in including Copperhead in the top half of this list. Even Saga writer Brian K. Vaughan dubbed the comic the best debut of the year.
Copperhead is a fascinating series that blend the best conventions of Westerns and sci-fi without kitsch and without imitating its other successes of the genre. It’s hard to imagine a setup riper for sci-fi flavored action sequences, but where Faerber really shines is in his character development. Unlike Firefly, which follows outlaws, Copperhead focuses on breathing new life into the “arrival of a new Sheriff in town” trope with a protagonist who also happens to be a single mom. She’s a fierce female lead of the kind all too rare in comics with a big heart and an over-protective streak where her son in concerned. Rarely have I seen a science fiction title lavish such care on character development. Each and every one of Faerber’s character, no matter how small, feels fully fleshed out. Finally, let me add that there are “alien hillbillies.”
Written by Corinna Bechko & Gabriel Hardman (Image)
Illustrated by Gabriel Hardman
Described as “Breaking Bad meets Blade Runner,” Invisible Republic is part science fiction, part political thriller. The story is set on a moon called Avalon in the year 2843 in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Mallory regime, whose collapse has precipitated the moon’s economic collapse. When a reporter begins investigating the deposed head of the regime, he uncovers dark secrets in a journal of the dictator’s cousin that may hold the key to exposing past atrocities. The story is told from the point of view of the reporter as he reads the journal, which lends itself to a rich, multi-layered story. Husband and wife team Hardman and Bechko describe their series as dealing with themes of “revolution, the nature of power, who gets to record history and what that implies.” Though it may not sound like your typical run of the mill science fiction, Invisible Republic is an extremely cinematic comic with the trappings of science fiction saturating every page.
It’s undeniably science fiction, but it’s a bleak, bitter strain rarely seen in comics.
Written by Jonathan Hickman (Image)
Illustrated by Nick Dragotta
Last year, Jonathan Hickman made our annual list of the best science fiction comics with the madcap alternate history series The Manhattan Projects. This year, he returns with a yet another off-the-wall alternate history set in the wild west of a future American divided into seven nations by a civil war. East of West is a dystopia sci-fi western in which the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have been reborn as children. The series follows the Horsemen, first as three children seeking their fourth member in order to bring about the end of the world, then as adults, seeking revenge on the one who wronged them. The story blends together Biblical, sci-fi, and western story tropes into a vast, sweeping narrative, then strikes out in unexpected directions, tossing aliens, magic, politics, and vendettas into the mix just when you least expect.
Hickman is one of the undisputed modern day masters of his craft, and East of West is the perfect embodiment of all of the reasons why. The world he’s created for his story is dizzyingly vast and utterly foreign. His dialog is naturally spoken and deftly written. His story premise is as unique as it is exciting. Yesm East of West is Hickman’s darkest work yet, but it’s also his most compelling.
Written by Ivan Brandon (Image)
Illustrated by Nic Klein
2015 was a huge year for space westerns, with Copperhead, East of West, and Drifter. Drifter approaches the genre through the “new stranger arrives in town” trope, carefully avoiding the western’s most predictable clichés.
In Drifter, our anti-hero, Abram Pollux, finds himself in unfamiliar territory with a gunshot to the stomach after crashing on an unknown planet. He wakes three days later to find himself strapped to a table with his wounds treated in a derelict town built of gutted spacecraft. As soon as he gets back on his feet, he sets out to find his would-be killer only to be drawn into a larger mystery.
Ivan Brandon’s writing is sharp and tense, with very sparse dialog, leaving Nic Klein to fill in gaps with art that is second only to Saga’s Fiona Staples for beauty.
Written by Rick Remender (Image)
Illustrated by Sean Gordon Murphy & Matt Hollingsworth
Black Science’s Rick Remender is back on our list this year with Tokyo Ghost, an adrenaline-fueled cautionary tale about the social costs of living in a media-saturated culture. Set in a dystopian future Los Angeles, Tokyo Ghost is the story of constables (think Judge Dredd) Debbie Decay and her hulking tech-addict boyfriend, Led Dent, who set out on a job that takes them to The Garden Nation of Tokyo, the last country on Earth still free of the worldwide network of video feeds and artificial self-enhancements.
In Remender’s future dystopia, the world’s population is hopelessly addicted to all the vices the internet has to offer, including gambling, porn, and technological enhancements. Tokyo Ghost is an allegorical tale about our codependent relationship with technology. Remender’s story is darkly satirical and shot through with a filthy humor, nudity, and violence – all of which is delivered with a matter-of-fact air that lends the story a hard edge fans of Mark Miller, Robocop, and Sin City will appreciate.
Finally, the art of Tokyo Ghost would be reason enough to pick up a copy of this title. Murphy and Hollingsworth jam-packed each and every panel with layers of detail, including visual gags and Easter Eggs that will send you paging back through these issues long after you’ve read them.
Written by Gilbert Hernandez (Vertigo)
Illustrated by Darwyn Cooke and Dave Stewart
Vertigo comics launched a whole lot of new titles in 2015, but for my money, the best of them was The Twilight Children, an eerie science fiction mystery set in a small town. In a story reminiscent of vintage science fiction, this series centers around a small costal town where strange events have begun to unfold in the aftermath of mysterious orbs washing ashore. After three children are struck blind by one of the orbs, a stranger comes to town, and soon after a pair of slightly off-beat federal agents arrive on the scene to investigate the situation. The narrative remains tightly focused on the conflicts and interpersonal politics of the townspeople like a Stephen King novel, but the McGuffin lends the series an element of magical realism that grows with every passing issue.
This is a fast-paced series that never linger over long on a scene or subplot. It’s full of unexpected twists and turns as comic superstars Hernandez and Cooke reach new heights in their first collaboration. Twilight Children features tightly focused writing with an effortlessly eerie premise. Meanwhile, Cooke’s art is a cartoon-ish and innocent style that perfectly complements the spirit of the story.
Written by Rick Remender (Image)
Illustrated by Greg Tocchini
Rick Remender takes a second spot on our list this year following Tokyo Ghost with Low. Low is set in a future in which the last remnants of humanity live deep beneath the ocean in radiation-shielded cities, sheltering from the expanding Sun while probes search for other habitable worlds. The population of these last cities have fallen into nihilistic lifestyles, and poverty, disease, and corruption run rampant, but after thousands of years of searching, one of the probes finally returns to the now alien surface of Earth. What follows is an epic tale of hope and despair in turn that is unlike any other comic we’ve ever read.
Greg Tocchini’s art looks less like the panels of a comic than a sketchbook of concept art. It’s chaotic and often surreal but consistently gorgeous.
Written by Matt Kindt (Valiant)
Illustrated by Trevor Hairsine & Ryan Winn
In a year in which Valiant Comics was absolutely killing it in the superhero market, the publisher’s best title ironically turned out to be the four-part period drama Divinity. (Which, incidentally, is also a great starting point for readers curious about the Valiant universe.)
In this new series from MIND MGMT creator Matt Kindt, a Russian orphan named Abram Adams is enlisted by the Soviet Union for a deep space exploration mission at the height of the Cold War. When the cosmonaut crash-lands in Australia decades later, he’s more than a man. Time has become tangible, the laws of physics have become mutable, and the world holds its breath, waiting to discover whether Adams will be Earth’s savior or its damnation.
Kindt’s strong, character-centric writing makes Divinity one of the most re-readable series on this list. Meanwhile, fans of vintage sci-fi such as that of Asimov and Bradbury will find Divinity’s sweeping social commentary and Cold War roots to be a welcome homecoming.
Written by Warren Ellis (Image Comics)
Illustrated by Declan Shalvey
Warren Ellis’ excellent space invasion saga Trees only missed being included in our list of the best sci-fi comics of 2014 by a hair’s breadth, and this year, we face the hard choice of whether to make amends by including Tree or Ellis’ newer series, Injection. After a long month of careful consideration (and delighted re-readings), we’re coming down firmly in favor of Ellis’ dark techno-thriller Injection, once again bumping (the truly worthwhile series) Trees off the bottom of the our list.
Injection is by far the more difficult of the pair to get into. The first few issues jump around and the series is seriously short on both exposition and backstory, and more than a few entries in the series require a re-reading. However, in our opinion, the long-term payoff makes Injection the more rewarding read of the two series.
The series is set in a wild near future in which the mysterious global corporation Force Projection International (FPI) has ruined the planet with what they call the “Injection.” In it, the corporation assembles a team of five eccentric former university researchers in a last-ditch attempt to reverse the damage they’re done before the planet is unable to support life. It’s definitely one of the weirder titles to hit shelves in 2015, but Injection is well worth your attention.
Ellis is a masterful storyteller, weaving a moody tale with poetic narration, richly atmospheric settings, and a pervasive, ever-growing sense of unease. However, much like J.J. Abrams’ Lost, it isn’t the looming mystery that keeps readers turning the page, it’s the characters. Ellis populates his story by with gritty, complex characters that walk the line between dark humor and desperation, not unlike the cast of Ellis’ Planetary, and always seem to be concealing one more secret. The end effect is that Injection is a highly compelling read.
Written by Mark Millar (Image)
Illustrated by Sean Murphy & Matt Hollingsworth
When we decided to only include fifteen titles in this year’s list of the past year’s best, we knew there would be some hard choices, because 2015 was a spectacular year for sci-fi in comics, but one thing was certain. There was no way we were letting another year pass without Mark Millar making the list.
Chrononauts is far from Millar’s best work. We’re not even sure it would crack his top ten, but it may be his finest work outside of the superhero genre.
Chrononauts is a classic old school time-travel tale with a hard twist. You see, it’s also an off-the-wall bromance. The story follows the adventures of Corbin Quinn and Danny Reilly, two certifiably scientific geniuses who share an up-beat a buddy-cop dynamic. When Corbin perfects time travel technology, he sends a satellite back to observe the Civil War, and then broadcasts the feed across the globe like reality T.V. What follows is a lively romp through time in the name of fame and fortune, and it’s the character’s unabashedly mercenary motives that make this series work. These aren’t your classic Campbellian paladins out to sacrifice themselves to save humanity. These are Malcolm Reynolds-style rogues out to get paid, and that makes for a refreshing change of pace in the world of comics.
Illustrator Sean Gordon Murphy returns to this year’s list following our choice of The Wake as one of the best sci-fi comics of 2014 and with just cause. The level of detail Murphy pours into every panel is just incredible. From his depiction of the Civil War battle to the detailed clutter on Quinn, Murphy’s art just screams out for a live-action adaptation.
A lot of series made the first draft of this list, but we were forced to refine our choices, lest this list morph into a small novella. As such, a lot of great series got cut. We started making those cuts by excluding all of the titles that already made our Top 14 Sci-Fi Comics of 2014 with the exceptions of Saga and Lazarus, both of which were on fire in 2015 for reasons above and beyond the reasons they made the 2014 list.
Grant Morrison’s Nameless, Roche Limit: Clandestiny, and UFOlogy each only just fell short of making it onto the list. Had this been a twenty title list, they would have all been included. Charles Soule’s genuinely excellent political thriller Letter 44 was excluded only because the majority of its run hit shelves prior to 2015. And a whole host of comics, including Tom King’s The Omega Men, Grant Morrison’s Multiversity and Dan Slott’s Silver Surfer were left out for being better categorized as superhero comics than sci-fi.
However, the single biggest omission from our list is Star Wars. I’m a big believer in the argument that Star Wars is fantasy, not science fiction, but Marvel’s relaunch of the Star Wars series was a tour de force. Featuring a roster of A-list artists and offering a series of intriguing reveals, this series was a pitch-perfect love letter to Star Wars fans. I was never a fan of Marvel’s earlier Star Wars titles, but I simply cannot recommend this latest iteration enough. Vader Down, in particular, was a thunderous reminder why the Sith are our all-time favorite villains!