Good Comics – Part 1

I’ve been reading comics for so long, I sometimes forget how difficult it is, and how intimidating it can be, to walk into a comic shop, or browse in a book shop, or search online, and pick up a comic worth reading. Yes, it’s all subjective and what I think qualifies as a ‘good’ comic, other people might loathe and think is boring and dull. There are other opinions out there, but hey, it’s my website.

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Recommending the Wrong Thing
There are now so many comics out there, it can very hard to know where to start. Far too often when I hear that someone wants to get into comics people will point them towards classic superhero titles, the most well known stories which people may have heard about, such as Watchmen, or The Dark Knight Returns, which I think is a terrible idea. Because they’re complex stories, steeped in the genre and the mythology and history of comics, and in the case of DKR it’s steeped in decades of the character’s history. New readers can understand the stories, and they may enjoy them, but I think they will have far less of an emotional impact. Also, and most importantly, why always recommend superheroes?

Comics are a medium not a genre
Superheroes are just one genre. Comics are a medium. That’s worth repeating, because sometimes when I mention that I read comics people say, oh like The Beano and The Dandy (which are children’s comics) or comic strips (Garfield, Marmaduke, etc.), or they say like Spider-man. It’s the same as when someone says they read fantasy books and people say oh, you mean like Lord of the Rings, or now, the new touchstone is Game of Thrones. The attitude towards comics is changing, but every time I think we’re moving away from the stereotype of comics being one thing, a stranger comes out with the same old chestnut. Or they insist on saying graphic novel, as if comics are a dirty word and graphic novels are something completely different. Then I wince and realise we’re still decades away from more widespread understanding.

For every genre there is a comic book
If nothing else, please remember that there is a comic for every single genre you would find in a book shop. Every one, and many that blend genres together too. With all of that preamble out of the way, below is a short list of different comics from a range of genres. I’ve split them into Complete Series (which are finite stories available as several trade paperbacks or hardcover collections in some cases), and Ongoing Series. Also, this is only part one, as there are a lot of great comics available right now, so I will add to this list with other posts in the future.

Complete Series

Sleeper – An espionage story where a man named Holden Carver goes undercover in a dangerous international crime organisation, in an attempt to destroy it from the inside. Several people in the story have powers, but there are no capes and tights. These are dark, sometimes subtle and nasty powers, such as the ability to twist the mind, to confuse, or in Holden’s case, store up pain and then inflict it on others. To be clear, this is very much a crime and espionage comic, not a superhero comic. The main problem for Holden is that the only person who knows he was going deep under cover is now in a coma. All of his former friends and colleagues  think he has turned and is now a villain and terrorist. So the story is really about how far can he go, how much can he do, supposedly in the name of good, before he becomes evil? Is he just pretending that he doesn’t enjoy what he does and his new life? And is he just acting or does he really care about some of the people he now works beside every day? A brutal, adult story, full of twists and turns.

Y: The Last Man – One day Yorrick wakes up to find that every other male mammal and human male on the planet has died. This is an epic road trip and adventure story across a transformed modern day America where he, and a small group of friends, try to unravel the mystery, but also survive in this brave new world. All major industry has effectively ended and society has collapsed, and out of the ashes of the old world, new tribes are emerging. New ways of looking at the future and how to remake the world, but of course, everyone has different ideas. Also does it matter who you were in the old world when everything you knew is gone? Who is Yorrick  and why was he spared?

PreacherThis is the story about a man named Jesse Custer and his two friends, Tulip and Cassidy, an Irish vampire. Jesse has lost his faith in God and he wants answers. This is a very violent, very bloody, very wordy, road trip across modern day America. The writer is well known for over the top antics and this is full of extremes, but he doesn’t do it just to be naughty or to show off. Beneath the language and blood, there is a story about faith, friendship, honour, love, doing the right thing and family. During Jesse’s search they get into all sorts of trouble with serial killers, angels, demons, immortal killers and Jesse’s insane and very dangerous family. It’s over the top and wordy, a Tarantino film is probably the easiest shorthand description, but with a lot more substance and heart.

Ex-Machina – Mitchell Hundred is the newly elected Mayor of New York, but once he was a superhero known as The Great Machine. This is in our world, one without superheroes and this is not a superhero comic. It’s a political action story about modern society and trying to do the right thing in a world that is infinitely more complex than it used to be. Mitchell was an ordinary civil servant until something exploded when he was at work on the Hudson river. The device didn’t kill him, and was probably alien in origin, but it did change him. It made him able to speak to and control machines. As the Great Machine, he saved many people, but also realised his inadequacies and the limitations of being a superhero, as it was reactive and done one person at a time. This comic covers a whole host of hot topics from racism, to sexist, art, homophobia, the media, and it also looks at power and how it corrupts.

Sweet Tooth – Most of the world’s population has been wiped out by a terrible disease. No one knows the cause or why it happened. Since then, the only children being born are human animal hybrids, kids with tails, wings, feathers, or in the case of the story’s main character Gus, he has antlers. Gus is raised in seclusion by his very religious father, who has told him how evil and dangerous the world is outside. When Gus’s father succumbs to the disease Gus finds himself thrust into the new world. At the other extreme is Jepperd, a tough old man who seems born to survive in this post apocalyptic world. Jepperd and Gus make an unlikely pair, and what follows is a touching and sometimes harrowing story about living versus surviving. Beautifully drawn and written by Jeff Lemire, the last single issue has been published and the last trade paperback collection is out later this year. So technically it’s all a complete series.

Scalped – A gritty, crime and noir series set on a modern day Native American reservation. After years of living off the reservation, Dashiell Bad Horse comes home. The rez is awash with organised crime, drugs and gambling and Bad Horse has not come back to make friends. Minor spoiler, but it is very early on and critical to the story, he is actually an undercover FBI agent investigating a murder. While the very basic premise may sound slightly similar to Sleeper, this is a very very different comic. Sleeper is espionage and this is a straight crime comic. Bad Horse struggles to cope with the two sides of his life being together in one place, staying loyal to the Bureau, while also getting hip deep in rez politics. At times the rez feels like the wild west, as they have their own laws and operate in a bubble in some ways, and many of the characters and stories are tinged with despair. If you like gritty cop shows, shows like The Wire, where it’s full on but clearly going somewhere and not just for show, I’d recommend this.

Strangers in Paradise – This is one of my favourite comic book series ever, so I’m bias. However, I will try not to gush too much. This is best described as a slice of life story about an unorthodox love triangle, mixed with some crime aspects, but ultimately it’s a massive sprawling story about life and love. It’s a contemporary story set in the real world, with no magic or super powers, and the story focuses on two girls who meet in high school, one of who harbours a lot of secrets. As the story develops and with flashbacks to their time in school, we learn about Katina’s dark past, Francine’s daily struggles with her weight, finding a job she likes, and dealing with difficult men in her life. David is the third side of the triangle, and he loves Katina, but there again he is keeping secrets and he is far more than just an arty student type. It’s quite a complex story to describe without spoiling, but this is definitely an adult comic, exploring adult themes of sexuality, love, passion, crime, fear, family and pain. There are guns and the occasional murder, a crime syndicate, a plane crash, break-ups and tears, but mostly it is a story about three people. I say people rather than characters, because they are so well developed, both emotionally and physically. I don’t want this to sound like a bleak read, because it isn’t, and all of the dark is balanced with humour and comedy. As I say it is difficult to describe and this can be a bit of a marmite book for some people. Terry Moore wrote and drew the series and no one draws women like him. They look like real people. Fat, thin, tall and short, every character looks realistic. Overall, a remarkable book and it’s why I have a special print from the series on my study wall.

Bone – Back when self publishing comics was a radical and new idea, long before the internet opened up and digital, print on demand and web comics made it even easier to reach your audience, three men were creating comics. Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise), Dave Sim (Cerebus) and Jeff Smith, writer and artist of Bone. Like all of them, Bone was originally printed in single issues but is now available in giant collections. This is an all ages comic full of wild, wacky and very inventive ideas, wonderful characters, and adventure. It’s about the journey of three little bald headed, cartoony characters through a fantastical world. It’s light, silly, and a refreshing and fun story. It has won numerous comic book awards and is very highly regarded.

Ongoing Series

Saga – An epic space opera with unusual spaceships, magic, bounty hunters, sex planets, giants, sentient planets, dinosaurs, and animal headed aliens. Two lovers, from different sides of a conflict, are tired of war, and trying to get out with their new born baby, who is loathed by many for being a cross-breed. This comic is for adults only due to the language, violence and other adult sexual content. It’s a huge tale that is gradually unfolding, and it is told from a very unique perspective, as the narrator is the child being born at the start of the first issue. The main story follows the girl’s parents as they try to escape and start a new life. A quick touchstone is Lord of the Rings meets Romeo and Juliet, although to me, it’s more like Star Wars meets Romeo and Juliet. The story is clearly influenced by many comics, films and TV from the SFF world and it’s a thrilling, interesting and exciting adventure where you have no idea what is going to happen next and what is around the next corner. There are no limits, each issue ends on a cliffhanger and you care about the main characters. One trade paperback is out now, plus you can get single issues or digital copies.

Chew – This is a story set in the modern world where a bird flu epidemic killed millions of people and this has resulted in the ban on all chicken and chicken like meat. Speak Easy diners sell black market chicken and the enforcement of the ban has resulted in the Food and Drug Administration FDA branch of the Government becoming incredibly powerful. Tony Chu is a cop who has an unusual talent, he is a cibopath, which means he gets psychic impressions of whatever he eats and know their history. So if he eats a burger, he will see the cow being cooked, then ground up, then killed, and so on all the way back to it grazing happily in the field. Everything he eats gives him the same mental imagery, except beets, so he eats them a lot. This is, in the most loose terms, a detective comic, but it is incredibly dark and with lots of black humour. It has lots of weird and wacky characters, as Tony’s ability is not the only one, and all of the other abilities are related to food in some way. Overall this is an incredibly funny comic but it is very odd and I admit, not to everyone’s taste.

The Sixth Gun – This is a mix of several genres where the sum is far greater than its parts. It’s a spooky and creepy horror western with supernatural elements, where six guns bestow unnatural powers on the people who wield them. For the longest time they were in the hands of some terrible people, with some fairly unpleasant results (I’m being fairly vague on purpose so I don’t spoil the fun!), but now they’re after the 6th gun and they want to find their leader, General Hume. At the beginning of the story it focuses on several groups trying to track and then retrieve the 6th Gun, which has now fallen into the hands of the heroine Becky. She and Drake Sinclair, a man with an unpleasant past trying to make amends, are thrown together as they try to outsmart and outmanoeuvre the dangerous group of killers on their heels. This story has touches of magic, ghosts, unnatural dark powers, legendary weapons steeped in a dark and twisted history, and bags and bags of fun. It’s bright, colour, explosive and a really great and exciting read. I love westerns, and the supernatural, and this is the perfect blend of the two. It’s not really suitable for kids, despite the style of art, and so far there are four trade paperback collections available. With each chapter the story and the world expands, but there is a resolution, so the writer is not just stringing you along. It’s one of the most unique and interesting comics I’ve read in quite a while.

Spider-Man – Miles Morales – I’m being careful about the number of superhero comics I put on this list, because the market is dominated by them, also it’s hard to know where to start sometimes when a comic has been going for decades, and as I said, they’re just one genre in the medium. However, if you want to read a Spider-Man comic then I would suggest you start with this one because it is fairly new and you can read it without knowing much about what came before. It is also suitable for younger readers, probably anyone ten and over I would say. I’ve put Miles Morales because this is about a new Spider-man called Miles. He is a modern kid and the story is set today, so he has the internet and a mobile phone and a whole set of new issues to deal with as a child growing up in the 21st century. It’s about a boy who is given great powers and how he copes with the responsibility that comes with them and what he chooses to do. It’s very refreshing as well because there is very little you need to know before picking this up and a quick internet search would fill in any blanks. The story plays with familiar archetypes for those who have read Spider-Man before, so there are lots of nice Easter eggs for us older readers, but you don’t need to know any of that to enjoy the series. A really entertaining, fresh and fun comic about a new hero in the making and the decisions he makes. There are several trade paperback collections available already.

Manhattan Projects – This series is written by Jonathan Hickman, who I think is one of the most interesting writers to have come into the comics industry in the last ten years. He has big ideas. I mean epic. He did a long run on the Fantastic Four that wrapped up last year that was one big story with lots of interlocking pieces. He’s doing the same sort of grand story on The Avengers right now, and he’s talked about in interviews how the idea he pitched was pretty big, and will unfold over several years. He also has a vivid imagination and this comic, and all of his other creator owned comics, demonstrate that fact. The story revolves around the idea that the term ‘Manhattan Project’ was actually an umbrella under which several weird and wonderful scientific experiments were being developed by leading scientists from all over the world. This story includes nasty and dark scientific ideas, touches of sci-fi, aliens and creating portals to other worlds and parallel dimensions, historic figures re-imagined and twisted slightly through a lens. It mixes small touches of fact with a lot of fiction, so at one point we see Einstein working on something that is far beyond what most people would assume. It is one of the most unpredictable comics I read and jammed full of strange ideas. If you like shows like Eureka and Fringe, where lots of different things are jammed together and strange geniuses are walking to the beat of their own drum, then this is for you. I like alternate history stories, or stories that suggest a secret history of the world that most people don’t know about, and this is both of those really. It’s a lot fun and two trade paperback are available.

All Star Western – A self explanatory title. It’s focuses on different characters in a western setting, and although technically it is a DC comic, don’t expect any superheroes or people with super powers. There are amusing Easter eggs, such as famous names that will later come to mean something in 200 years time in DC comics continuity, like Arkham, but these are proper, down and dirty, six gun, stories of crime, passion, greed, lust, envy, hatred and bravery. Some of the characters don’t talk about their feelings, they shoot them in the street and move on. They have goals and objectives and the law can only do so much in a country so big, so people turn to those on the edges of the law, bounty hunters and men of action with a conscience. The story focus on Jonah Hex, a scarred and famous bounty hunter and man with iron principles, and the back up stories have other characters. A really solid western comic, and if you enjoy the Hex stories and want more of him, then you can dig out lots of Jonah Hex trade paperbacks.

Morning Glories – Six very different and exemplary students are chosen to attend the prestigious Morning Glories academy. They’re known for being excellent and all are delighted by this opportunity, until on the first day one of the teachers tries to drown everyone. This story is a giant mystery and a huge puzzle box that is slowly being unravelled. I’m delighted to say the writer knows how it ends and where the story is going. He is not doing a Lost, and has explicitly said this in interviews. None of the students remember how they arrived at the school as they were unconscious, so no one knows where it is. After several attempts on their lives, often at the hands of teachers but sometimes other students, they begin to realise they’re being tested and challenged for some greater purpose. The story involves ghostly apparitions, time travel (maybe), conspiracies, cults, and a whole host of other elements I won’t spoil. If you like mysteries, and complex intriguing stories, if you like TV shows like The Prisoner, with people trapped and having their strings pulled, then I would definitely recommend Morning Glories. Three trade paperbacks are currently available. Definitely an adult story for adult readers, despite having teen protagonists.

Elephantmen – In a distant future, a twisted and deranged scientist, working for a powerful corporation, created some human / animal hybrids using African animals. These bulky and incredibly dangerous children are trained from birth to be soldiers and brutal killers, denied freedom of thought and essentially brainwashed into believing they are unkillable machines. When the UN discovers what has been going on the programme is shut down, but not before the Elephantmen inflict heavily casualties. They are released, given independence and they try to live normal lives. Some of them are loathed, some become celebrities, some powerful businessmen, some just want to disappear and some can’t shake off their past and they become dangerous criminals and rulers of the underworld. This comic has a real Blade Runner vibe to it, as when you look at the art there is a lot of dark shadows, bright neon lights and signs, and a blending of many modern and historic elements to create a future that is a mix of many cultures. The story focuses on different characters, including Hip Flask, a hippo hybrid who is a private eye, Ebenezer Hide, who is an Elephantman, who works with Hip from time to time, and Obadiah Horn a rhino hybrid who is now a successful businessman. The artwork in this book is simply amazing, gorgeous painted covers by Ladronne, and the colours are so important. The stories are a mix of genres, but ultimately about these unusual and rather remarkable outsiders who are trying to find a place in the world. An incredible and unique comic book. Five big trades are currently available.

Well done if you’ve made it this far. This post turned out to be much longer than anticipated. I’m going to do this again at some point, but if you would like me to recommend comics from a particular genre, then let me know in the comments section.

3 thoughts on “Good Comics – Part 1

  1. I’m afraid of getting into comics, but that’s because I just don’t know much about them and where to start. I tried some of the New 52 when they were first released, but struggled. Not sure superheroes are my cup of tea. But you’ve definitely given me some good ideas here, I particularly like the sound of Saga and Manhattan Projects, so will try and pick up the collections and see how I fare with them!

    • Hi Mark, I think you’ll enjoy Saga, MP and also Elephantmen. Another one, not on this list, which I think you will like is Echo. It’s a self contained story about a woman in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it has some SF elements as well.

    • Cheers Steve, muchly appreciated. I’ve added them to my wish list, so at least it’ll be a reminder to order one in the near future!

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