Comics for Those Who Hate Comics

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So, you’re not a fan of Batman. You thought the Avengers movie was charming but really not your style. To you, the idea of men dressing up in tights to fight crime is preposterous and best left to children. Because of this, the realm of comic books has nothing to offer you, right? Wrong. Like books, movies, and television, comics are another outlet for telling stories. With the right hook, even you can find one that lasts in your mind long after it’s been read.


Since Watchmen upended the comic book paradigm in 1986, the medium has been telling smart, adult stories that can easily stand next to some of the greatest literature in history. But don’t just take my word for it, Watchmen itself was named one of the top 100 novels written since 1923. (It was also one of the two comics that inspired the creation of Comic Sans, but we can’t really fault it too badly, right?) For a long time, comics have been telling stories that are smart and riveting, but there are so many series that lean heavily on the old archetype of super heroes and villains. How could you ever sift through them all to find the true gems of the medium? Well, that’s what I’m here for. Let’s look at some stories that are currently ongoing (meaning they have a new issue on shelves every month) that are definitely worth your time.

Fatale

What it’s about:

Ed Brubaker (Criminal, Deadenders, Incognito) writes this series, which can be best described as a cross between hard crime noir and Lovecraftian horror. In it, a reporter in present-day San Francisco discovers a secret left by his godfather that sends him down a dark and dangerous path filled with mobsters, supernatural horrors, the occult, and a beautiful young woman who’s been on the run since 1935. Brubaker and Sean Phillips, who does the artwork, have been critically lauded time and time again in the comics industry for their team’s sharp crime stories and beautiful artwork. The series was originally planned for a twelve-issue run but was recently upgraded to a full ongoing series, meaning Brubaker and Phillips will continue working on it for the forseeable future.

Why I like it:

This comic is gripping in the best way possible and serves up fascinating mysteries, engaging characters, and just enough supernatural elements to keep you guessing. The tale that Brubaker and Phillips tell is truly unique in the comics industry thanks to its seamless weave of both noir and Lovecraftian horror. These two genres work together so well that you almost wonder why more writers haven’t traveled these roads before. On top of the beautiful artwork and stunning storytelling, each issue contains an essay about a subject that the comic is built on, whether it be a brief history on HP Lovecraft or Philip Marlowe, a fictional detective featured in a series of classic crime novels. These essays give you further insight into the history behind the creation of Fatale and do a fantastic job of drawing the reader into the writer’s world.

Saga

What it’s about:

Saga is a tale set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Okay, maybe that’s not entirely accurate, but the story that Brian K. Vaughan tells in this sci-fi epic wouldn’t be out of place in the Star Wars universe. That is, if the Star Wars universe had not humans, but an increasingly imaginative set of characters, races, locations, and story events, all drawn by the amazing Fiona Staples. The story is one of family, war, and being hunted, and if you’re asking me to stop because you’ve heard this one before, you really haven’t. Set in a distant galaxy where two races are running a proxy war that’s embroiling entire star systems in conflict, the first issue begins with the birth of our narrator. She’s born under difficult conditions, and her parents are soldiers on either side of the fighting who’ve decided to defect and build a family together. What follows is a wild, heartfelt story filled with bounty hunters, magic, spaceships that grow on trees, and numerous occasions where you’ll turn the page and just stare slack-jawed and dumbfounded at what’s happening in front of you.

Why I like it:

Brian K. Vaughan has a spectacular track record, having written such critically acclaimed comics as Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, and Runaways (all books that you should check out, if you’re so inclined). He’s also done stints in the writer’s room for Lost, penning episodes from the third, fourth, and fifth seasons. What he crafts in Saga is, well, a true saga. His storytelling tackles the rigors of having a newly-formed family in the oddest of places, and he makes writing it look all too easy. His characters have a unique voice and personality, which he is able to establish within moments of their introduction. When coupling his outstanding storytelling with Fiona Staples’ illustration — art that is able to bring the most outrageous and dynamic concepts to life — you get a dream team of sequential storytelling. On top of all this, the comic is devoid of any advertising, and Vaughan runs a letters column that only accepts hand-mailed letters, which I think is pretty darn cool.

The Massive

What it’s about:

If Vaughan’s Saga is about universe building, then this series from Brian Wood (DMZ, Northlanders) is about world building… and destroying. Out of all the books on this list, this is the one that grabs me most as a comic that tells a cinematic story. Taking place in a post-apocalyptic world (no, not that kind of apocalyptic), this series follows the crew of the Kapital, a ship belonging to a radical environmentalist group looking for its sister ship The Massive. The event that caused the collapse of society is known only as The Crash: a year-long, global environmental disaster that affected climates, magnetic poles, wildlife populations, and much more. With this hook, the story explores how to survive in a post-everything world and what being an environmentalist means when everything you know about the world changes in the span of a year.

Why I like it:

Brian Wood is best known for his recently-ended Vertigo series, DMZ. In DMZ, Wood chronicles what it could be like to be a reporter in the midst of a new American civil war taking place in the middle of New York City. Within the series, Wood brings to light many of the problems plaguing our nation today, presenting them through the looking glass of this conflict. Wood has a nearly-unparalleled aptitude for building worlds and presenting them to the reader in a documentary-like fashion that makes them feel like reality. Throughout the story of The Massive, Wood fills in the blanks with essays about climate change, in-depth timelines, and more. This information is presented in such a thoroughly researched manner that the reader can’t help but to be drawn into the narrative, growing to care about the characters who are tossed into these horrible situations. In addition, the structure of The Massive so far has been to separate the story into chapters, with each chapter lasting exactly three issues. The first three issues are illustrated by Kristian Donaldson, and the second three are drawn by Garry Brown. Both of these artists have managed to bring their own style into the series while remaining true to Wood’s original vision. It’s a beautiful thing when a writer and artist can work so well in concert.

Manhattan Projects

What it’s about:

Jonathan Hickman (The Nightly News, Pax Romana, Red Wing) is at his best when writing hard science fiction and alternate history, so it should come as no surprise that Manhattan Projects may be one of his best series to date. Set during World War II — right around when the actual Manhattan Project was taking place — this series asks, “What if the bomb wasn’t the true purpose of the Manhattan Project, but just a facade to hide the true scientific pursuits that were taking place behind the scenes?” Manhattan Projects features a cast of characters including Richard Feynman, Robert Oppenheimer, and Albert Einstein. Story highlights so far include aliens, Russians, alternate universes, and Zen-Powered Death Buddhists. And that’s just the first seven issues.

Why I like it:

Before he was a writer, Hickman was a designer, and you can tell by the smart design oozing out of every page of this book. In addition to the design, Nick Pitarra has a refreshing artistic style that’s very different from just about anything else you’ll see in modern comics. Despite all of that, the best part of this book is the story. Hickman is easily one of the hottest, fastest-rising writers in the comics industry. He burst onto the scene in 2007 with his first book, The Nightly News. Since then, he’s skyrocketed to a gig writing The Avengers, Marvel’s flagship book, just after finishing a critically-acclaimed run on the Fantastic Four. His tale of an alternate history surrounding a military-run mad scientist organization employing some of the greatest (and in this case, demented) minds in history is fascinating and fun, and it’s only going to get better.

Locke & Key

What it’s about:

After a terrible accident, the Locke family is forced to move back to the Keyhouse family estate located in Lovecraft, Massachusetts. There, the family’s children — Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode — discover various keys that, when used on different doors of the house, can perform all kinds of magical feats. Little do they know, in this discovery lies a dark, hidden danger from their family’s past. I’d give a more in-depth plot, but one of the joys of this book is discovering all the keys along with the Locke kids and unraveling the Keyhouse’s past. The series is structured in three acts, each act consisting of two volumes, each volume spanning six comics. The final volume titled Omega is currently coming out in issue form.

Why I like it:

This series is written by Joe Hill (Horns, Heart-Shaped Box) who is actually Stephen King’s son. Much like King, Hill has a talent for telling smart horror stories filled with just enough childlike wonder and heartfelt moments to appeal to your desire to see your favorite characters make it out okay. The story that Hill weaves throughout Locke & Key is one of magic, history, and familial ties. The light moments between characters really shine through and provide a stark contrast to the dark lows that the story explores. Artist Gabriel Rodriguez was classically trained as an architect, which helps bring to life his representation of Keyhouse, a place that is just as much a character as any of the book’s main cast. On top of that, Rodriguez is also a skilled illustrator, providing the perfect outlet for all of Hill’s twists and turns, able to surprise even the most experienced of readers with his ability to draw anything from light schoolyard conversations to dark, grisly deaths. Much like Brubaker and Phillips, the team of Hill and Rogriguez is a storytelling tour de force.

About Tyler Anderson

Tyler is a software developer with strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Whenever he gets passionate about something he tends to geek out over it, especially when it comes to comics, video games, television, or the Minnesota Twins.
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