My Favorite Comics, sans Superheroes
I spend a lot of time ranting about superhero comics, especially the ones from Marvel and DC. That’s because those comics are usually the most intriguing to me – not only are they a rare example of serial fiction that has lasted for decades on end, but superheroes are one of the most iconic aspects of American society. Characters like Captain America and Wonder Woman are as ingrained in our popular consciousness as folklore legends like Paul Bunyan.
When it comes to sheer quality of storytelling in comics, though, superhero comics usually aren’t the way to go. Not that they are inherently inferior or anything, but they are so continuity-laden, riddled with conflicting interpretations, and driven by corporate agendas that the very best storytelling in comics tends to be divorced from that genre. Luckily, comics are a versatile medium with lots to offer beyond flights and tights. Here’s a look at some of my favorite non-superhero comics. I don’t mention them a lot in rants, but that’s largely because they’re so good that I don’t often have anything to say but, “This is awesome.”
I love film noir, but what really drew me into Blacksad was the art. The comic is drawn by Juanjo Guarnido, and even if you don’t read the actual words it’s a pretty comic to look at. Of course, paired with the excellent dialogue and strong plotting of Juan Díaz Canales, it’s even better.
Blacksad is pretty much a straight film noir series that features anthropomorphic animals. There’s not a lot of attention drawn to this fact, but it does get touched upon here and there. For example, an issue regarding racism has somebody commenting on the main character’s black fur coupled with the white patch on his snout. The animals also serve as an immediate identifier of the characters’ roles in a story – there’s a gorilla boxer, a small fox who serves as the wily sidekick, and so on.
This is a European book, but the first three issues are collected for American audiences in the Blacksad hardcover. Two other books, A Silent Hell and Amarillo, are also available for more Blacksad goodness.
The concept of Fables isn’t a terribly new one, but the execution is top notch. This series began with Fables; Legends in Exile and has grown quite large over the years as new aspects of the world and its characters got explored. To sum up the story’s main conceit, the idea is that the characters we know from our fairy tales live in hiding among us. Although they aren’t running around killing giants and dealing with wicked witches every day, they still have a lot of action and intrigue going on in their lives.
The first volume of Fables is a murder mystery, and future volumes change in theme and style slightly depending on which characters they follow. All of them are excellently plotted and feature solid art that fits very well with the stories being told.
I’ve done some ranting in the past about women in comics and the fact that superhero comics tend to be pretty exclusionary toward female readers. As it turns out, Fables is extremely popular among women who read comics. I don’t know why exactly that is, other than the fact that it’s a very good series that should attract readers of both genders.
A British comic magazine that has been running for several decades now, this series focuses mostly on “Future Shocks,” which are short stand-alone comics of one to five pages with a twist at the end. If you want excellent but brief storytelling with a strong sense of irony, this is the place to go. If you remember the short-lived Awesome Adventures webcomic that I and my friend Andy (the guy who introduced me to 2000 AD) produced, it’s similar in concept albeit focused almost entirely on far-future science fiction rather than the smattering of different genres we did.
2000 AD has a long tradition of excellent writers, with names like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison attached to the earlier stories. It’s also produced some long-running characters, such as Alan Moore’s Halo Jones or Judge Dredd. If you want something in a similar vein but which has the long serial storytelling style that American audiences are more used to, Judge Dredd is the place to go.
Y: The Last Man
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the best complete comic book stories I’ve ever seen. Y: The Last Man served as my introduction to Brian K. Vaughn, and reading it makes me want to punch him in the throat in the nicest possible way. The comic tells the tale of an apocalypse that wipes out all the men on the planet except for two: our protagonist Yorick and his pet monkey.
A lot of authors talk about how much work they’ve put in behind the scenes to make sure they know all the details of the story, but I very rarely get the feeling that such planning makes a difference in the tale itself. Y: The Last Man is an example of how this can work really well. You don’t find out all the answers you want, but you always get the feeling that they’re there somewhere, forcing you to read and re-read the comics to see what you might have missed the first time.
The story also deals with surprise and tragedy quite often. I’m not a big fan of A Game of Thrones for a variety of reasons, but one of the big reasons I don’t get the franchise’s appeal is that so many people insist that all the gruesome deaths makes for a better story because they’re surprising. You can kill a main character a few times and get some shock value, but after doing it every few chapters/episodes it stops being suspenseful and just becomes depressing. Y: The Last Man does have a “nobody is safe” feeling to an extent, but the tragedy is handled in a much more satisfying way. When somebody dies or something seriously changes in the story, you have time to decompress, see how things have developed, and really feel the lingering effects of what just happened. The tragedies in Y: The Last Man are precision strikes as opposed to the napalm that so many audiences seem satisfied with.
In short, Y: The Last Man is a comic that tells a deeply satisfying story, even if you desperately want things to turn out differently from time to time. It’s one of the most complete comics out there, has obvious vision and foresight, and really makes you grow attached to these characters and their eventual fates.
The purpose of this ramble isn’t really to plug these specific comics (although they are awesome) but rather to demonstrate that comics are quite a great form of entertainment even when you step away from the superhero genre. In fact, you can make a very good argument that superheroes are taking attention away from stories that are often much better than what you’ll find in the mainstream Marvel and DC Universes.