by Dave Maier
Once upon a time there were comic books about superheroes, which only juvenile delinquents read. Then there were graphic novels, which were respectable (and mostly not about superheroes). Comic books were still around, though, and it eventually became respectable to read them as well, if at first only under cover of irony. But just as TV viewers binge-watch whole seasons on DVD or stream, so now many comix readers spurn single monthly issues in favor of collected story arcs in books. However, although this does blur the line, they’re still comic books rather than graphic novels. Again, though, just as good TV is better than a lot of cinema, good comix are still well worth your time.
In any case, here are several such things I’ve enjoyed over the last couple of years. There's nothing really obscure here, but I’ve omitted some rather better-known and/or justly famous titles like Hellboy, Sandman, Lucifer, Preacher, and Fables. Some I discovered from an article I saw a while back recommending such series as potential TV shows, so if we’re lucky we may eventually see those as well.
1. Fatale (Ed Brubaker, writer; Sean Phillips, artist)
Brubaker and Phillips have been around for a while, it seems, producing several series of mostly hard-boiled and noir-type stories (e.g. Criminal and The Fade Out, both excellent). Fatale, as the name suggests, is in this line as well, but with an important difference. The main character is indeed a femme fatale, with an unnatural power over men; but here “unnatural” is quite the operative word, as Fatale is an ingenious merger of two distinct genres, as if Raymond Chandler were channeling H. P. Lovecraft. I won’t go into the details – lest the mind-melting horror beyond time and space itself cause you to become hopelessly insane – but just think “tentacle noir” and you’ve got the general idea. This might simply strike you as a novelty, but this experienced team brings the same tight plotting and darkly effective art to this one as they do to their other works, achieving some truly creepy effects, even for hardened horror fans, and Fatale would indeed make an excellent TV show.
2. Locke & Key (Joe Hill, writer; Gabriel Rodriguez, artist)
Like Fatale, but in a rather different way, this series is horror-oriented in general, with a nod to Lovecraft in particular. The tone is generally lighter than that of Fatale, but even here the screaming insanity of dark forces pokes through every now and then, and the plotting is just as tight. Again I won’t go into the plot, but one effective hook is the variety of magic keys our characters discover and learn how to use, as well as the clever ways the story finds to exploit them tactically.
At first I wasn’t taken by the art, but after I got sucked into the story I started to appreciate its virtues, including the subtle and effective pacing it provides, and the suspense builds inexorably to its bang-up conclusion in book six. There have apparently already been a few attempts at making this into a movie and/or TV show, and at least one pilot has actually been produced, but that’s it so far. I hope they keep at it, as this would be a fantastic show if done right.
3. The Manhattan Projects (Jonathan Hickman, writer; Nick Pitarra, artist)
Of all the comix on this list, The Manhattan Projects is by far the most bizarre. I won’t even attempt to describe it (not least to avoid spoilers, as there are some wild twists and turns here), but as the title suggests, the Manhattan Project is a good place to start. Just add (among other things) aliens of various sorts, Wernher von Braun with a robot arm, an AI FDR, a bitter and unscrupulous Albrecht [sic] Einstein, an amusingly vain Richard Feynman, and Robert Oppenheimer’s evil twin. If this ever got made into a TV show, it would be the most messed up TV show ever made. You’ve been warned.
4. Pretty Deadly (Kelly Sue DeConnick, script; Emma Ríos, art)
When Pretty Deadly starts out, it looks like it’s going to be a fairly conventional, if enigmatic, hard-boiled western, with bloody revenge eventually meted out in a climactic showdown. And that isn’t actually that bad a description of the first volume, except for the mythical/supernatural elements (Death and his daughter are characters) and an extra helping of enigma, both emphasized by the riotous explosion of macabre images accompanying the text.
Things get even weirder in the second volume, which has somehow transported some of the surviving characters to the trenches of World War I, allowing an even more riotous explosion of macabre images than before (along with the color green, which we didn’t see a whole lot of in the first one). We also see the return of our Chorus, in the form of a dialogue between Bunny (a rabbit skeleton) and Butterfly:
Does the pruning hurt the rose, Bunny?
For a moment, Butterfly … Yes. But it is best for the bramble in the long run.
She is tired and the work is endless. Why won’t she rest?
Because she is the gardener.
Gardener or no, if she isn’t careful that bee is going to sting her.
If that bee stings her, then it will die.
Because she is the gardener?
No, Butterfly … because it is a bee.
A third volume is promised.
5. Ex Machina (Brian K. Vaughan, writer; Tony Harris, art)
This is not to be confused with the movie of the same name, which was about an android who may or may not be able to pass the Turing test and/or pass for human in other ways. (Good movie, if rather implausible.) Machines are, however, not surprisingly, involved. Our hero, Mitchell Hundred, has had a (Green Lantern-like, now that I think about it) random encounter with (apparently) alien technology and is now able to speak to and control machines with his mind. Naturally he has tried to wangle that ability into a career as a superhero, complete with flying ability (courtesy of an ordinary human jetpack), and in each episode we flash back to one or another (often mis-) adventure of The Great Machine.
But that is not the main story line. On 9/11, it seems, The Great Machine was able to use his powers to stop the second airplane from hitting its tower, thus finally becoming the hero he had so far failed to be; but instead of continuing as The Great Machine, Hundred quits that gig and (here’s the amusing twist) runs for mayor of New York City and wins, promising never to use his powers again. Much of the interest of Ex Machina’s five volumes comes from the surprisingly sophisticated hashing out of various political and social issues as they come up, (not for a superhero, but) for the mayor of NYC. But of course, this being comix, Mayor Hundred can’t fully escape the burden of his abilities, which keep coming up in one way or another, whether used in emergencies after all or as being the target of other less scrupulous characters (some of whom may or may not be aliens and/or from the future). And of course there’s the mystery about what happened to him in the first place.
The art of Ex Machina is unusual, in that most frames start as a photo, acted out by real human actors, only then sketched over into comix form. (I’m simplifying here, but that’s the general idea.) This lends the book its distinctive look, and while this method makes impossible the sort of images found in some of our other books, after a while one doesn’t miss them. (Vaughan and Harris themselves make an amusing appearance in one story.)
6. Low (Rick Remender, writer; Greg Tocchini, artist)
Much of the interest of some contemporary comix comes from the sophisticated and indeed spectacular art as well as the stories themselves. Even when measured against the best of these, Low is exceptional, with its stunning underwater vistas spreading over two pages. Our story concerns a far-future Earth, in which the surface of the planet has become uninhabitable, trapping all of humanity at the bottom of the ocean, waiting desperately for deep-space probes to return with hope for a new home. Most citizens have lost hope, and lose themselves in fatalistic luxury and debauchery while waiting for the air to run out; but our heroine Stel is an eternal optimist and will clutch onto the last shred of hope to her dying breath. Apparently our author takes this theme very personally, as he shares with us in his introduction, and that’s fine; however, even we who are rooting for Stel, I have come to feel, don’t need to hear that same more-optimistic-than-thou lecture more than, say, six times. This is a minor gripe though, especially when there’s all that gorgeous art to look at.
7. Toil and Trouble (Mairghread Scott, writer; Kelly and Nichole Matthews, illustrators)
Toil and Trouble looks at first like just another YA adaptation of Macbeth, albeit with hotter witches than usual, but it turns out to be much more than that. Author Mairghread Scott explains:
In Macbeth, three witches decide to tempt a man to murder and launch a kingdom into war, but we never learn why they do it. Why expend all this effort just to yank some random mortal’s chain? It bugged me for years … Toil and Trouble has Macbeth in it, but it’s not Macbeth’s story. It is about the witch Smertae and her sisters. More than anything our theme is not ambition, but loss, specifically the failure to adapt and move on from it. … We end up with a lot of characters who are trying to fix the unfixable. … Toil and Trouble is a story about letting go: who can do it, who can’t, and the pain inherent when we try to force pieces back together that just don’t fit anymore.
The art isn’t as elaborate and detailed as, say, Low or Pretty Deadly, but it’s very effective, especially in showing the witches manipulating mortals and otherwise interfering in their affairs (as for example when Lady Macbeth is depicted with the witch Riata's characteristic facial markings).
8. Giant Days (John Allison, writer; Lissa Treiman et. al., artists)
Except for The Manhattan Projects, which is in a class of its own, most of the comix on my list are mostly devoid of humor, going instead for grimly intense, even horrific; but here we have an exception. Giant Days is essentially an episodic sit-com about three British university students, dealing, as you might expect, with various crises of the academic, social, and romantic varieties. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s quite charming, with exceptional artwork. The exquisite line drawings capture perfectly our characters’ priceless facial expressions, especially on Esther the goth chick. (As a TV show, though, I think it might just be another sit-com.)
9. The Vision (Tom King, writer; Gabriel Hernandez Walta, artist)
In general I’m not a big fan of superhero comix. Many of them have fifty or more years of backstory weighing them down, so by now we see a lot of gimmicks like time travel (e.g. All-New X-Men) and alternate realities (many), and of course endless reboots. However, some of these can be worthy of note for one reason or another, so I’ve put two on my list.
The Vision is a character in the Marvel universe, who has actually been around, albeit only intermittently, since the 70s, but most of us non-superhero-comix-reading types will only have heard of him from the recent Avengers movie subtitled The Age of Ultron, in which Tony Stark’s artificially intelligent assistant Jarvis somehow merges with the alien intelligence in Loki’s scepter to form a single humanoid, looking very much like actor Paul Bettany stained the color of beets (don’t ask, and I don’t remember anyway), and blessed with some fairly impressive powers, on display also in a subsequent Marvel movie Captain America: Civil War.
In this comix series, Vision has decided to try to fit in to human society, with a wife and children much like himself (I was a bit unclear on how this happened — apparently his wife used to be Wanda Maximoff a.k.a. Scarlet Witch — but that part, although not entirely irrelevant, doesn’t seem to matter that much, at least in the first volume). Things do not go well.
The blurb at the top of the cover of the first volume (from Brad Meltzer) tells us that The Vision is “fully realized and beautifully ominous.” That description fits the deadpan, often chilling third-person narration just as much as the Vision family’s characteristically overly-precise dialogue. As issue 6 begins, for example, we see in pictures an unexpected, but not inherently dramatic, mostly wordless event which turns out to be pivotal to our story, while the overlying narration carefully unpacks what it presents throughout the issue as a key metaphor for Vision’s thought processes:
Perhaps at this point we should consider P vs. NP.
It’s a math problem. Or maybe a computer science problem.
Or perhaps it is a reality problem. But, then again, aren’t they all?
Regardless, as our story progresses, it is important for you to understand what we are facing, to see the world as he does.
For in that moment, when his hand is locked around your throat, and the jewel above his eyes begins to glow yellow … when the pain begins and you smell the unfamiliar smoke of your own burning skin …
… then you at least may say, “Of course, of course.” “I understand this. I understand why I must now die.”
P vs. NP.
The narration continues for the next two pages, explaining (reasonably accurately) this (actual) computer science problem, while the action unfolds, action which is not at all clearly related to our story until the last frame of the third page, and goes on for another page after that (as our narrator goes on to explain, if somewhat less convincingly, the metaphorical sense of the P vs. NP problem). The cumulative effect of the unflappably remote narration combined with the increasingly chaotic sequence of events is unlike anything I’ve run into before. I haven’t read the second volume yet, but it should be intense.
10. Thor, God of Thunder (Jason Aaron, writer; Esad Ribic, artist)
Here’s the other superhero, another Avenger in fact. (Interestingly, fellow Avenger Iron Man makes a brief appearance in both this and The Vision.) I wouldn’t have thought such a seemingly straightforward superhero like Thor would make this list, but over the four volumes of Thor, God of Thunder Aaron and Ribic make an excellent case. The art is spectacular, even if our hero’s outrageous musculature can be a bit eye-rolling at times. The story is equally ambitious, spanning time and space to bring together three different Thors: joining present-day Thor are the young brawler (and prodigious ale-quaffer) not yet worthy of Mjölnir, and the future lord of Asgard, grayer and wiser (if still outrageously muscular). It will take all they have to defeat the greatest threat to godhead the universe has ever seen! (Sorry, got a bit carried away there.)
Honorable mention: Paper Girls, Monstress, Outcast, The Umbrella Academy, Ody-C