Ten Non-Superhero Comics You Should Probably Have Read By Now
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When most people think of comic books, they think of buxom beauties, men with improbable musculature and a vast array of superhuman abilities. They think of Superman and of Spider-Man. They think of Wonder Woman and Star Sapphire. If they know Funk (and know what’s good for them) they think of Batman. And only Batman.
But there’s more to the world of comic books, and their mature cousin the graphic novel, than spandex and secret identities. If one looks beyond the mountainous repertoire of the two major houses and wanders the shelves a bit, there’s a whole other world of sequential storytelling out there.
The world of the independent, the creator-owned and the one shot; and so, with the depth and breadth of the comic book universe in mind, please allow me to present to you, in no particular order: Ten Non-Superhero Comics You Should Probably Have Read By Now.
The Walking Dead
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Artists Tony Moore (initially, then) Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn
Many of you will be familiar with the TV series, but if you aren’t already reading The Walking Dead graphic novels then you’re seriously missing out.
Running since 2003, Robert Kirkman’s work of post apocalyptic excellence is one of the best on-going zombie series the comic world has ever seen, largely due to it’s eschewing of the traditional weak story filling the gaps between the gore and instead choosing to focus on the people and their story.
That’s not to say there isn’t violence; the panels are full of greyscaled decapitations, disembowelment and devastation. However, the violence never seems to take centre stage – even during more unpleasant scenes, such as one character’s gut wrenching and prolonged torture at the hands of a very human enemy.
The Walking Dead looks instead at how we, as a society, would continue after the end of the world; with no government, no law and no civilization to speak of. How we treat one another and treat our dead (and our undead) are the centrepiece of this series and it never disappoints.
We’re fifteen issues deep on the trade paperbacks and if you’re into mature character studies with a backdrop of the post-apocalyptic, it’s definitely worth a look.
Y – The Last Man
Writer: Brian K. Vaughn
Artists: Pia Guerra and José Marzán Jr
Another work of post-apocalyptic fiction, this moves away from the horrific and into the world of science fiction. Set in a contemporary United States, Y – The Last Man tells the story of Yorick Brown, the sole man in a world now populated entirely by women.
When an unknown plague destroys single living creatures with a Y chromosome, Yorick and his pet monkey Ampersand find them selves the last two males on the surface of our world.
This series takes a long hard look at a world without men, and unlike other pseudo-feminist literature this world is not the peaceful utopia many assume would come about by an all female government as Yorick and his bodyguard, the enigmatic Agent 355, encounter all sorts of peril on their journey to discover the truth behind the so-called “gendercide.
I loved Y – The Last Man from the first page. The writing snaps and the artwork by Pia Guerra (incidentally the only female comic artists on the list) is outstanding. And as this is a completed series you can rest easy knowing that a resolution (of sorts) is on the way.
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artists: Too many to name
Neil Gaiman is a popular guy. His novels are amazing, his episode of Doctor Who (The Doctors Wife) was sheer brilliance, and my pick for best episode last year, and he recently played himself on The Simpsons with the usual wit and charm we all assume he has simply because he’s British.
So it’s probably no surprise to see his chronologically vague, vastly entangled and mind-bendingly convoluted graphic novel series The Sandman on this list.
The series follows, for the most part, Morpheus (amongst other names), the personification of the dream state as he does… stuff. It’s hard to pin this series down on any particular direction or theme but it suffers not by its schizoid tendencies. At the centre of this sprawling narrative is the idea of duty and purpose and the free will to choose both for one’s self.
Dream is both our hero and our guide, joined occasionally by historical and literary figures and his siblings, the Endless, who each personifiy a different aspect of the human condition: Despair, Delirium, Death, Destiny and so on.
Also a completed series.
Writer and artist: David Petersen
David Petersen is, in my mind, one of the comic world’s most engaging members. He’s active with his fans on Twitter, posts regular blogs and videos on his craft, along with other artist friends of his like Jeremy Bastion and did I mention he plans, writes, draws, inks and colours Mouseguard all by him self? Because guess what. David Petersen plans, writes, draws, inks and colours Mouseguard all by him self.
And what a world he has woven for us.
Mouseguard is the story of a group of mice, from a kingdom of mice that existed, in the past, right below our very feet. It’s a medieval fantasy tale with political drama and high action pieces. The two books currently available – Fall 1152 and Winter 1152 – are gorgeous, hardcover tomes that offer an insight into a rich and detailed world of Petersen’s own creation.
The level of detail is staggering; Petersen goes so far as to create models of the story’s locations, to afford him the chance to create dynamic and fully realised panels and the kingdom of mice feels, very early on, as though it were something which could, and does, legitimately exist on the shores of the Great Lakes.
I Kill Giants
Writer: Joe Kelly
Artist: Jim Ken Nimura
I stumbled across this quite by accident and purchased it sight unseen. Having seen it on the shelf at Comic Zone (the comic book store of choice for at least a few of here at the House of Geekery) I did my customary five seconds of Wikipedia research and then bought it because what the hell, why not?
I Kill Giants is the story of a young girl, Barbara; an outcast at school, bullied by some, ignored by most. She is the child of a family with a dark secret, a secret that scares her and which she cannot face.
But Barbara has her own problems and her own goals because in secret she is a special kid. She is a warrior. A hunter. She kills giants.
This story is both heart breaking and heart warming. You really feel for Barbara, and as the truth of her own reality is gradually revealed to both the character and the audience there is a real sense of honesty in the pages. Whilst refraining from spoilers, I will say that this graphic novel really gets to the heart of dealing with loss as a child and the cruel world in which teenagers must live out their days.
Calvin And Hobbes
Writer and artist: Bill Watterson
An oldie, but still an important addition to the list. I’m often surprised to hear that people exist who have never read Calvin and Hobbes. Although not a series with a distinct beginning, middle or end (despite having ended its run almost seventeen years ago) there are some real gems of storytelling in these books, of which there are a total of eighteen.
Calvin and his stuffed tiger Hobbes feel like real friends and Calvin feels like a real child, despite his precocious demeanour and obvious wisdom beyond his young age. There is social commentary, political discourse and genuine humour.
If you’re one of the few who haven’t given the series more than a cursory glance in the weekend newspaper, do yourself a favour.
Writer and artist: Katsuhiro Otomo
The city of Neo-Tokyo in the year 2030. A teenaged boy, disenfranchised, a member of an outlaw biker gang at odds with other gangs, his government and even his friends. He begins taking experimental drugs, drugs which increase the latent psychic abilities of those naturally predisposed and which grant him extraordinary powers – ones he cannot entirely control. Events spiral out of control. He loses friends. He gains new ones. In the background, a low rumbling in the distance he hears the name: Akira.
Katsuhiro Otomo’s masterpiece, AKIRA, is one of my all time favourite graphic novel series. Following a similar basic premise to the 1988 film version – also helmed by Otomo – it is a six volume serial of mind bending events, political turmoil, science fiction, high drama and social commentary. It’s at all times a treatise on the disenfranchisement of society at the hands of our government and a story of friend versus friend; neither a hero, both just trying to do the best the can with what they have and try not to let the world end in the process.
The protagonist, Kaneda, is leader of the outlaw biker gang and best friend of the presumed antagonist, Tetsuo who develops the amazing, and terrifying powers which eventually drive him mad and force a wedge between the two boys. Although Tetsuo is dangerous, and the one behind many a vicious atrocity as his sanity wanes and his grip on reality crumbles, the true villains of this story are the unscrupulous politicians and the heavy handed military, who seek to use Tetsuo for their own ends or destroy him to retain their own power.
If you’ve seen the anime and fear a retread of old ground, don’t fret; the manga series is powerfully different, and serves to expand the story told on screen in almost unfathomably detailed ways. The artwork by Otomo is breathtaking and excruciatingly detailed. His world feels real, and feels like a place we could slowly be headed and the themes which applied back in the 1980s feel just as relevant today.
All six volumes are readily available and once you pick them up, you won’t be able to put them down.
Writer and artist: Craig Thompson
Blankets is the only non-fiction graphic novel on the list, and one of my favourite autobiographies. Told in first person perspective this Eisner Award winning book was chose by Time Magazine as one of the hundred best English language graphic novels ever written, and with due cause.
Through the graphic novel format the reader really gets to know Thompson, more so than I’ve found with any purely textual autobiography.
The artwork, simple and charmingly rough-spun, really brings the story off the page and gives you a much grander impression of Thompson’s experiences as he experienced them.
Blankets details the highs and lows of Thompson’s life through childhood, adolescence and his first love, as well as his relationship with his brother and his struggle with faith. I couldn’t put it down.
Writer and Artist: Cameron Stewart
Stewart, at one time, described his work Sin Titulo as an experiment in storytelling, and it is one of my personal favourites from this list. The only webcomic presented here, Sin Titulo is a slow burn mystery with simple but gorgeous panels and a real Twilight Zone feel about it.
I’m not even going to tell you what it’s about; I’m just going to encourage you to go back to the beginning, and read through the story so far. It’s a little bit LOST, a little bit House of Leaves and a whole lotta awesome. If this sounds like something you’d enjoy, check it out. You won’t be disappointed.
Writers: Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka
Artist: Michael Lark (initially, then others)
I know I said no superhero comics, but hear me out. Gotham Central, as mentioned above, is the best police procedural and also Batman graphic novel series ever, and here’s why: there’s very little Batman.
The cast here are the unsung heroes of Gotham, the hard working members of the GCPD who live in the shadow of the Bat and have a long list of cases both bizarre and mundane. The cops of Gotham exist in a world with The Joker, Catwoman and Mr Freeze and provide a unique view of the city we’re all so familiar with whilst retaining the typical flavour of the DC Universe.
Cases involve he death of an officer at the hand of Freeze, the murder of a teenage girl, the death of a Robin lookalike in which Batman is a suspect and corruption within the police department itself. Never do the cast of outlandish villains and caped crusaders get in the way, or even at the front of these tales. Cameos from Two-Face, Penguin and Poison Ivy remain just that, cameos and the major arc of the series concerns very human, very ordinary crime at the hands of a corrupt detective and those attempting to bring him down.
If you like Batman, then go ahead and check this out but even if you aren’t, then this is still a really outstanding piece of crime fiction.
You can harass the author of this post on Twitter: @CAricHanley
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