It’s fair to say that comics are big right now. Joss Whedon’s The Avengers has made approximately all the money in the world, there’s a reboot of Spider-Man that actually doesn’t suck, and there’s a small, little-known film called The Dark Knight Rises that was released to slight acclaim recently. Movies and games like Batman: Arkham City have made comics cool, and that’s pretty uncomfortable for comic fans. When we go to the gym for our monthly dose of self-loathing, what are we to think when we see silverback-sized jocks in Red Lantern t-shirts? How can we feel superior to our elders when even our grandmothers know who Hawkeye is?
Fortunately, there’s always more to read, and most of the best comics aren’t published by Marvel or DC. These are ten of the best smaller-press books hitting the stands, the majority of which are creator-owned. By taking a look at these, you might be able to get the upper hand at the next book club meeting.
by Brian Clevinger & Scott Wegener (Red 5 Comics)
Atomic Robo is one of those stories that’s so deceptively simple, you wonder why no one thought of it first…and then you get to the robot throwing cars at giant ants, and you read it and realize that no one could have done what Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener have done. It’s the story of Robo, an “automatic man” created by Nikola Tesla during the 1920s, and beyond that, anything goes. Robo’s longevity means that he has 90-plus years of life experience, and Clevinger and Wegener take that license and run with it, churning out World War Two adventures for one story and Godzilla-style battles in modern-day Tokyo for the next.
Not enough can be said about Clevinger’s writing ability; his knowledge of science and history means that any given Atomic Robo comic will teach you as much as any given Michael Crichton novel, but with a lot more quotable one-liners. Famous men and women from history appear constantly, with Bruce Lee being the latest in a long line of guest stars that ranges from real-life World War Two supervillain Otto Skorzeny to Carl Sagan. Scott Wegener’s artistry brings a level of both personality and dynamism, communicating both the movement of the over-the-top action sequences and the emotion in the more intimate, science-y bits.
Read it if:
You thought Ghostbusters would be better if it had a robot and had a talking dinosaur.
by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples (Image Comics)
Brian K. Vaughan is pretty much a superstar already for his “What if every man in the world died except for one” post-apocalyptic Y: The Last Man and for his “What if the mayor of New York was a superhero” political drama Ex Machina. His latest series, Saga, can’t be summed up in one sentence quite as easily; it’s the story of a child born of parents from two warring alien species, and her struggles to survive to adulthood in a universe that’s actively seeking her death. Well, that wasn’t too hard.
So far (it’s only on its fourth issue), Saga is notable for having more great ideas per issue than most other titles get in their entire lifetimes. In a universe where robotic royals have television heads, spunky pre-teen ghosts give parenting advice, and cats can tell when you’re lying, a planet-sized red-light district is almost normal. That’s where the phenomenal Fiona Staples comes in, rendering every scene in mind-blowing detail, expressiveness, and color. Saga is occasionally brutal, often funny, and always imaginative, but most of all, it’s a story about a family, and that’s something we can all relate to. Except the family is in space. And the baby has wings and horns.
Read it if:
You thought the Star Wars prequels would be better if they were…well, better.
by Jonathan Hickman & Nick Pitarra (Image Comics)
Jonathan Hickman is something of a wunderkind right now; he’s busy over at Marvel writing Fantastic Four, S.H.I.E.L.D., and the awkwardly-named Ultimate Comics: Ultimates. But he’s methodically knocking off socks with his creator-owned books, the best of which is Manhattan Projects. Like Atomic Robo, the premise is simple: what if the atomic bomb was the least crazy thing going on in Los Alamos during World War Two?
With a cast that includes such real-world figures as Robert Oppenheimer, Wernher Von Braun, and Franklin Roosevelt, you’d expect this to be a title that gets bogged down in historical intricacies. But when it’s revealed that Oppenheimer is a serial killer with multiple personalities, Von Braun has a robot arm, and Roosevelt is an artificial intelligence, you realize that historical accuracy might not be Hickman’s priority. What is his priority is sheer, unbridled, Red Bull-mixed-with-MSG-and-Vodka crazy. In addition to the aforementioned gleeful edits to history, Hickman is happy to write a comic that sees the Japanese try to win the war with Zen-powered death monks. You never know what’s on the next page, and when those pages are illustrated with such enthusiasm by Nick Pitarra, that’s always a treat.
Read it if:
You wanted to know what was in those boxes at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
by Adam Warren (Dark Horse Comics)
Most of the time, when your comic starts its life as a series of fetish drawings, you shouldn’t expect a whole lot of mass appeal. But when your comic is Empowered, the story of a superheroine with crippling self-esteem issues, you’re probably Adam Warren, and the rules don’t apply to you. Warren, who writes and draws this bitingly satirical T&A, has such an incredible grasp of the mainstream superhero dynamic, it’s almost a shame he isn’t writing any of the popular cape comics. Then again, just about every superhero in Empowered got their abilities from extraterrestrial STD’s, so maybe he isn’t the best fit for the normally conservative publishers.
Empowered is the story of a superheroine named Empowered (easy enough). Her powers come from an absolutely skintight bodysuit; as long as the suit is intact, she’s a powerhouse. But if it gets ripped at all, she loses all her powers and gets tied up. The suit gets ripped very easily, and, well, maybe you can see why this started as a fetish commission. But instead of getting bogged down in the curves, Warren takes time to explore the role of sexuality in modern comics, lampoon the traditional superhero conventions, and write heartfelt, hilarious stories, all at the same time.
Read it if:
You want some romantic comedy with your titillation.
by Michael Moreci, Steve Seeley & JM Ringuet (Image Comics)
You know those cheesy ghost hunter shows on the Discovery Channel? What if those shows are cheesy to distract you from the truth—that the unexplainable is out there, and it means us harm? That’s what Michael Moreci thinks, anyway. Hoax Hunters is a comic that sees a team of paranormal investigators travel the globe in the guise of television skeptics, containing and researching strange phenomena while pretending to debunk them.
Still in its early issue, Hoax Hunters has already impressed with its dark world-building, its creepy visual style, and its promise of more weirdness to come. It’s rounded off by a compelling cast, one of whom is apparently a psychic zombie. Another is a space suit full crows (he’s their cameraman. Because what else is a spacesuit full of crows going to do?). It’s still young, but Hoax Hunters promises to be a modern classic.
Read it if:
You like Ghost Hunters, but wish one of the hosts was actually a wizard.
by James Turner (Slave Labor Graphics)
Rex Libris, the story of a dimension-hopping, ass-kicking librarian, has so much text it’s almost difficult to read. But settle in, grab a magnifying glass, and start a chat session with your buddy with the English degree so he can explain the jokes to you. It takes a very special comic to try and insert the entirety of The Iliad into a speech bubble, but Turner pulls it off.
Rex Libris is another one of those simple concepts. Middleton Public Library has the largest collection of occult and alien books on the planet, so the clientele is a little unique. Like, “alien warlords” and “samurai ghosts” unique. And when those guests don’t return their books, Rex Libris has to hunt them down. It’s every horror story your big brother told you about that one creepy librarian, except this librarian is over a thousand years old and has a gun. So, exactly like those stories your brother told you.
Read it if:
You’d have stayed awake in World Literature if it had more guns and sexy witches.
by Nate Cosby & Ben McCool (Image Comics)
The Cold War is one of the most fascinating periods in America’s history, and perhaps no nation represents that fascination more than Cuba. So close to our borders, yet so full of mystique; from the Bay of Pigs, to the Cuban Missile Crisis, to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba has remained in the American psychic digestive system like a bad burrito. That’s what Nate Cosby (who also deserves mention for the Calvin & Hobbes-esque Cow Boy) has tapped with Pigs, the story of a Soviet military cell in Cuba that has finally been activated.
From the gory cliffhanger in the first issue to the current storyline (which sees the team assassinating a Nazi inside San Quentin prison), Cosby and McCool are building on this black ops unit that hasn’t had a country since 1991, and more specifically, Felix, the Soviet sleeper agent with an American family. Effortlessly combining a top-notch military espionage tale with the intimate reflections of a man forced back into a life he’d thought he’d left behind, Pigs deserves to be on every Cold War enthusiast’s reading list.
Read it if:
You think James Bond movies haven’t been as good since the Soviet Union collapsed.
The Secret History of DB Cooper
by Brian Churilla (Oni Press)
Many of you will recognize the name DB Cooper. For the four of you who don’t, DB Cooper might be the most famous hijacker in history. On November 24, 1971, he got on a plane and told the flight attendant (who at that time was most certainly called a stewardess, and most certainly wearing a sexy miniskirt) that he had a bomb. He demanded, and received, $200,000 dollars, and then he parachuted out into stormy weather. His body was never recovered.
Brian Churilla, who writes and illustrates, thinks that story is cool and all, but it could use more psychic assassins. His version of the story sees DB Cooper as a special CIA operative who uses his psychic powers to enter the minds of high-ranking Soviet officials and stab their brain-selves with a mind-katana. And there’s a teddy bear, but that’s not really explained. Churilla provides mind-bending visual landscapes that perfectly convey the alien nature of Cooper’s “work,” and continues to move toward the fateful day of the hijacking. Presumably Churilla’s version will have less “parachuted into a storm and probably died” and more “psychic kung fu against Russians.”
Read it if:
You think James Bond movies haven’t been as good since the Soviet Union collapsed, and they always needed psychic katanas anyway.
by Garth Ennis & Aaron Campbell (Dynamite Entertainment)
The Shadow might be the most famous character on this list; he’s been around in various forms since the 1930s, and survived Alec Baldwin’s best attempts to keep him from getting any screen time in an ill-fated 1994 movie. The Shadow is one of the best example of the “pulp hero:” he’s lethal, he’s mysterious, and he has unexplainable powers “from the Orient.” Or, if you want it in simpler terms, he shoots people while wearing a long cloak. And he has a Jedi mind trick.
Garth Ennis, famous for comics like Preacher (in which a disgraced minister tries to kill God) is the perfect fit for this brutal take on the character, which sees the Shadow pursuing Japanese gangsters and war criminals prior to World War II. It’s a great period piece, with Aaron Campbell filling the pages with just the right amount of nostalgic style and panache. It’s incredibly violent, as befitting the source material, but it’s also packed with international mid-century intrigue. Also of note is The Spider, by David Liss & Colton Worley, which sees a similar pulp hero in the modern day.
Read it if:
You think that The Dark Knight would have been better if Batman just shot a bunch of dudes while laughing hysterically.
by Eric Powell (Dark Horse Comics)
No book on this list has quite the range of Eric Powell’s The Goon. Early issues are stuffed to the gutters with over-the-top slapstick violence, with zombies violently reduced to pieces by the hundreds. Nothing’s quite as funny as watching brutish mobster Goon extort money from talking spiders, or watching his pint-sized, foul-mouthed pal Franky try to kill a prognosticating seal.
But ever so slowly, the series moves into more serious fare, culminating with a massive storyline that sees the Goon lose everyone and everything he loves. We watch as Powell brings the Goon to the breaking point and back, but he lets us see that the experience has left deep, deep scars. Even more fascinating is Powell’s art, which shifts from a garish, cartoony look in the early issues to fully painted, muted tones in the later stories. The Goon is in turns hilarious and heartbreaking, and every moment feels consistent to the character, and that’s a feat.
Read it if:
You want to see a Depression-era gangster murder zombies with a wrench, then collapse into existential despair.
Ross C. Hardy is a freelance writer and not-so-freelance barista operating out of middle Georgia. He has a Bachelor’s of Arts in Creative Writing from Mercer University, where he worked as a teaching assistant, writing instructor, and press house editor. He currently divides his time between throwing empty whiskey bottles at his English degree and writing Wu-Tang Clan fanfiction. If you want to read more of Ross’s writing, you can check out his blog, Later I Will Destroy This Earth!, or Planet Ivy, where he pretends to be British. If you want to follow someone on Twitter who doesn’t have a lot to say, check him out on Twitter @AtomicSleepwalk. He knows more about the Atomic Knights than anyone else on the internet.
Read more of Ross’s comic recommendations with Comics to Read Now that You’ve Watched “The Dark Knight Rises”.