Comics without tights
Superheroes, superheroes, superheroes! All you ever talk about is superheroes! Well, I have heard that on occasion but it is not actually true. There is obviously an industry bias toward super powered people with an underwear fetish but that is not all there is out there for comic readers to enjoy. Superheroes often scare away potential new readers looking for something intelligent to discover. While there are some current and past superhero books that are smarter than the standard fare, most still manage to push away potential new readers who are used to prose novels or regular genre fiction.
The great thing is that there are many great reads with nary a leotard or cape in sight! With that in mind, I have a few suggestions to get new readers in and give returning readers something they might be more interested in than the continuing adventures of Captain Adolescent Fantasy and the amazing Huge Boob Girl!
The Walking Dead
Starting off with the most obvious ‘gateway’ comic currently being published, The Walking Dead has managed to do something that Spider-Man, The X-Men and the Avengers films have utterly failed to do; bring in new readers to the comics medium. Mainstream comic book themed films have made almost no impact on potential new readers but somehow The Walking Dead TV series is actually bringing new readers into the shops. While this series and the comic that spawned it are obviously in a genre every bit as fantastical as superheroes, there seems to be a distinction in the mind of the audience that allows someone who would not otherwise be caught dead buying a comic book to pick up the trade collections of this hit series.
What has made this book popular with readers, weather they watch the TV show or not, has been an emphasis on characterization and plot over zombie action. Sure the zombies are the driving force of the initial situations, but it is the reactions of the characters and the depth they are written with that has set this book apart from standard zombie fare. Series creator Robert Krichman is not a quiet creator as he is regularly in the industry news as having done something odd, but this series is a rarity in creator owned comics, having topped 100 issues so far with no end in sight.
Mage by Matt Wagner is definitely a super-hero type book but the story is grounded in myth and legend rather than fantastical tights and goofy origin stories. The hero of this story is Kevin Matchstick, an everyman who suddenly finds himself imbued with strength and invulnerability, accompanied by a spritely, slightly punk wizard named Mirth. Along with his companions Edsel (a young girl with a classic car and a magic baseball bat) and Sean (a ghost), Kevin fights monsters and dragons sent to destroy the group by The Umbra Sprite and his ‘sons’ the Grackelflints. If this all sounds a bit hokey and silly, it is, but it is deliberately so. Fairy-tales often have to fight being silly but underneath them is some seriously dark stuff. Mage blends these silly but dark places perfectly through the vessel that is the character of Kevin. The catch is that Kevin does not really believe what is happening to him. He experiences it firsthand and lives through events all the while never quite accepting what is really going on. It is his point of view that makes the silly or odd aspects of the story believable. When the source of Kevin’s power is revealed (and how) it is simultaneously thrilling while being a gut-punch and a little silly but you accept it almost immediately because everything in the story feels real to the reader.
Mage was started in 1984 at now defunct Comico with the second of a planned three volumes eventually released by Image in 1997. The two volumes are still fairly easy to find and are filled with allegory and strong storytelling that brings the fantasy elements into a real context with very strong results. The first volume is called The Hero Discovered and the second is The Hero Defined. In theory, there will be a third volume that will be titled The Hero Denied, in what is heavily based in many ways on creator Matt Wagner’s life fitted into the fantasy context (there was only 11 years between volume one and two so I’m betting we will see volume three sometime in 2015 — maybe). Wagner has often commented on how the character is very much allegorical/autobiographical (Wagner has never fought a dragon) and even Kevin’s appearance is based on Wagner’s. A real treat in Mage is seeing Wagner the writer and the artist become a complete storyteller instead of someone who just writes and draws. True storytellers are increasingly rare in comics today and a quick look at all the ‘pretty’ superhero books that don’t read well shows just how rare they are. Mage has been out of the mainstream long enough that an entirely new generation can discover the series and claim it as their own.
Archie comics have been around for a LONG time. The character Archie first appeared in Pep Comics #22 in 1941 and was designed to appeal to fans of the popular Mickey Rooney character, Andy Hardy. Archie’s world was overly saccharin-sweet and very much a product of their times. Archie’s world remained quite rosy for almost 50 years but recently, things have changed quite a bit. The publisher of Archie’s adventures (called Archie Comics) had done a variety of books over the years. The Super hero comics the company published are gone (currently in licensing limbo over at DC and POW!) and Archie’s Christian comics are a faded memory. Archie and the gang from Riverdale have seen their world grow and become a smart reflection of the real world.
In 2010, two events brought Archie closer in step with the real world. The first was the revival of the series Life with Archie. In this series Archie is finally married, to BOTH Betty and Veronica! In stories set after Archie graduates from college, he marries Betty in one sequence of issues and then the concept flips to show him married to Veronica. The stories (one is ‘real’, the other the fantasy) blend and show a realistic story compared to earlier books set in this fictional universe and continue to keep that sharp view today. The other shake up was Kevin Keller, the first openly gay character for Archie Comics. Kevin is a soldier and gay. Archie comics is creating topical stories about a person with real life issues and only one of those issues is that he happens to also be gay. He is not a stereotype in any way. Archie again showed its relevance by having Kevin get married to his partner, Clay. Kevin’s story is on the front lines and in some ways represents the gay marriage debate.
The publisher of Archie’s adventures has been going through a tough time lately. Lawsuits and challenges to the leadership of the company notwithstanding, the future looks strong for a series of books that has something for just about everyone.
Another series well worth a look is Global Frequency by Warren Ellis and a variety of artists. While not about super heroes, Global Frequency is a very sci-fi oriented book. Dealing heavily with the fringes of science, including things like A.I. and zero point theory, Global Frequency is a dark and often darkly funny series that introduces the world of an organization that deals with the threats we have created but no longer can control. The mysterious Miranda Zero and tech/security agent Aleph lead a rotating cast of people recruited to be ‘on the Global Frequency’. These people are brought in to aid in critical missions to stop threats to our world. Each of them has a special talent or skill that makes them uniquely suited to assist Miranda in protecting the world. Very few of them have any particular spy training and a few of them give everything to help the cause.
The series’ rotating group of artist serve to help each story stand on its own and make for a very episodic feeling book. Reading the current collected editions is a lot like watching TV, which was Ellis’ intention from the start. Indeed, Global Frequency was developed as a TV series, but the pilot (leaked to the Internet) was never picked up. Another pilot is supposedly in development currently but will probably not result in anything. The artists Ellis works with are among the best talents in the industry today and include Gene Ha, Jon J Muth, Simon Bisley and Lee Bermejo. The writing by Ellis is tightly plotted and very smart, using much from the cutting edge of science theory and more than a little from the world of conspiracy theory. With clear thematic connections to another Ellis series Planetary (also a good tights-free read), Global Frequency is a strong read and a fun adventure book to boot.
Paul Chadwick’s creator owned series Concrete is a masterpiece of comic storytelling. The multiple Eisner and Harvey award winning series (actually a series of mini-series started in 1986–and one day I will write something more substantial about that remarkable year in comics history) is about Ron Lithgow, a former speech writer whose brain was implanted in a giant stone body by aliens. It is at this point the sci-fi premise ends as it is nothing more than a jumping off point to tell very gentle and special stories about the amazing life Ron lives.
Chadwick’s gentle storytelling style works perfectly here as the readers follows Ron, now called Concrete, as he tries to do remarkable things with his new found body. He helps a family farm and assists environmental causes and only some of the time do his altruistic efforts work as planned. As a minor celebrity in his world, Concrete is mocked at times as a freak and lives a fairly isolated life, trapped in a sexless body but with all the same emotions and feelings he had before his transformation. Ron was a flawed person in the flesh and those flaws are much of what he struggles with as a large rock-like monster. Ron fails as often as he succeeds and his struggle is interesting and emotional as Concrete deals with everything good and bad about his new existence. Funny, powerful and even exciting at times, Concrete is Chadwick’s platform for issues important to today’s world and as Concrete himself finds out, there are rarely easy answers.
Strangers in Paradise
Creator owned series that last more than a year have always been rare. Creator owned series that last more than a year from a small genuinely independent publisher are really, really rare. Terry Moore is on his third. Moore’s first was Strangers in Paradise (SiP to the book’s fans) and is an epic-action-adventure-soap-opera sort of thing.
The main thrust of SiP is the friendship and growing relationship between Francine and Katchoo, especially the complications thrown in their way. Spies, violence, marriages and potential love interests are all part of a complex and funny storyline. At one point later in the series, Moore give the ‘end of version one’ and then continues the story as version two so that both of the main potential endings are explored. Readers from all corners of the comics medium loved this series and while the ending had been well planned, the final issue of this series was met with cries of ‘more’ from the fans of Francine and Katchoo. Moore recently announce that an SiP novel will be released at some point so fear not fans, there may well be more coming!
Joe the Barbarian
Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy created something very special in Joe the Barbarian. Joe is a kid with Juvenile Diabetes and an active imagination. Coupled with the typical angst that all kids have in their daily lives, Joe is having a particularly rough day. Serious domestic problems are adding to his stress and he is having a low blood-sugar episode.
This is the jumping-off point for a fantasy adventure that is unlike most modern fantasy tales. It is dark, brooding but yet very funny at times. As Joe’s sugar gets too low, he begins to hallucinate about a fantasy world where he battles monsters and other metaphorical nasties. It is as hard for the reader to tell reality from hallucination as it is for Joe. In the fantasy he is searching and fighting; and in the ‘real’ world he is struggling to get to a soda to get his sugar back to normal. This is a surprising and gentle story that has all the Morrison hallmarks like strong characters in bizarre situations and at the same time is reflective and soft. Joe the Barbarian is a slower read than many of Morrison’s other works due largely to Murphy’s wonderful art and storytelling style. While Joe the Barbarian would qualify as an all-ages read, it is really a book for anyone with troubles internal and external that are just slightly out of their control. This book is a strong statement of Morrison’s gift for story.
The ‘elephants in the room’
No discussion of comics without tights could ever be complete without two of the most significant in the medium’s history. Since so much has been written about both, this will just be a quick reminder to check them out if you have not already. First, because it is the older and the lesser-known of the two is Cerebus by Dave Sim. The importance of Cerebus to the comics medium cannot be stressed enough. To read Cerebus is to watch a master cartoonist at work. From his slightly awkward beginnings to his eventual completion of the 300 issue, 26 year epic, Dave Sim created something very special. Cerberus is not for everyone and it is rare to find anyone who is a fan of all 300 issues the story moved wildly from topic to topic over its entire run, but no real admirer of the medium should miss it.
The second elephant in the room is Sandman by Neil Gaiman. No other modern comic has brought more new readers into the medium than Sandman sis and that alone gets it a mention here. Neil Gaiman and a hugely impressive cast of artists put together a run of issues that stands today as one of the most literate, well-drawn comics in the history of the medium. Gaiman’s epic fantasy has something for almost everyone in its 75 issues and is satisfying from beginning to end. Sandman is another absolute must for any comic fan.
If you have not read Sandman or Cerebus yet, there is no reason to wait. Don’t be ‘THAT’ fan. Go now (yes, I mean right now) find the books and jump in. All of the books on this list are special stories in their own right but the fact that there is not a spandex costume or cape in sight means that people who were pushed out or turned off of comics because of all the garish costumes have something worth coming back for.
What do you think? Leave a comment.