A while back, I wrote an article naming ten solid creator-owned comic books you could read if you wanted to prove your interests lay outside mainstream superhero publishing. Some aspects of the situation have changed; Pigs and The Secret History of D.B. Cooper have ended, for example, and Garth Ennis is no longer writing the bloody, pulpy Shadow. But the rest of them are still solid investments, and the great thing about comics is, there are new solid investments to make every month. So in the interest of separating you from your hard-earned beer money, here are eight more comics that might have flown under your radar.
Are these the most obscure? No. But outside of the mainstream cape-and-cowl books, the done-to-death twists, turns, reveals, and retcons, these are the cream of the crop. These are comics that you can buy right now that will make you love comics—all comics—even more.
Punk Rock Jesus
by Sean Murphy (Vertigo)
Raise your hand if you agree with the following statement: Nothing makes controversy quite like religion. If you raised your hand, go on, put it back down. This is the Internet, no one can see you (and we’re all very grateful for that. You should be ashamed of yourself). But if you did raise your hand, then this is the comic for you: Sean Murphy’s broad, beautiful, and bloody satire. Written with a simple premise—“Jesus is cloned in the 21st century and made the star of a reality TV show— PRJ is a gorgeous black-and-white lance directed at the heart of the entertainment industry and organized religion. A book like this could easily descend into name-calling and heavy-handed righteousness, but props to Murphy for making an attempt to show the issues (creationism vs. evolution, the role of talk show pundits, faith vs. science) from both sides of the coin, even if it’s crystal clear who he’s rooting for.
Punk Rock Jesus is about redemption, rebellion, and righteousness, squealing guitars and throbbing motorcycle engines and old hymns. It’s often clever, occasionally funny, and always exciting, and it only has one question: “What would punk rock Jesus do?”
The Cowboy Wally Show
by Kyle Baker (Vertigo)
The Cowboy Wally Show is an oddity on this list, because it’s been out of print for about twenty years. But if you can track down a copy, do it—your comic collection will show an immediate 200% increase in quality. Kyle Baker has won 18 different industry awards, but if you’re the person who doesn’t care about awards, let me just say that Kyle Baker is the funniest cartoonist this side of Bill Watterson. The second—and final, I promise—black & white comic written and illustrated by the same person, Cowboy Wally tells the story of the eponymous Wally, an elephantine drunk who blackmails his way into becoming America’s most beloved television star.
Cowboy Wally follows a disastrous attempt to film a documentary about the mega-star, chronicling his achievements on the small screen and his catastrophic failures on the big screen. At 120 pages and change, you can knock it out on a lunch break, but Baker manages to squeeze in so many jokes, gags, and gorgeously-drawn slapstick that you’ll be coming back again and again. “Not bad,” says interviewer Oswald Stairs, “for someone who Dick Cavett once described as ‘the stupidest man on the face of this planet.’” Not bad indeed, Mr. Baker. Not bad indeed.
by Brian Wood & Various (Dark Horse)
If you keep up with comic news at all, I’m sorry. But if you are plugged into the hype machine, it’s impossible that you’ve missed the name Brian Wood at least a hundred times. Currently writing five titles across two companies, Wood can do no wrong right now. If you’re only a casual comic reader, you’ll know him as the guy currently writing comics with Star Wars and X-Men in the title; if you’ve followed his career for a while, you know he’s made a name for himself by writing nail-biting near-future social satire with DMZ and Channel Zero. Well, add The Massive to the list.
An exhaustively well-researched exploration of life in a post-global environmental meltdown world, The Massive tells the story of the Callum Israel and his ragtag band, Ninth Wave, a radical environmentalist group without a whole lot of work to do ever since The Crash sent the world spiraling into Waterworld territory. All Israel wants to do is find Ninth Wave’s sister ship, the Massive, and try to continue his mission of environmental activism, but in a world where governments have collapsed, landmarks aren’t where they used to be, and not even his own crew is trustworthy, Israel has his work cut out for him. Packed with real-world locations and vital statistics on global warming, overfishing, and pollution, The Massive is both a grim warning and an indispensable addition to the reading list of anyone who thinks comics can be a force for change.
by Steve Niles & Tony Harris (Image)
If there’s one universal truth about Tony Harris, it’s that he will probably definitely snap your neck if you make fun of him. If there are two, it’s that the man has basically re-invented superhero comics twice: once in the mid-90s with the extended Silver Age retrospective and tattoo-appreciation clinic Starman, and once in the mid oughts with “West Wing meets Watchmen” epic Ex Machina. If you haven’t read either of those, read any superhero comic published in the last fifteen years. If it was a mainstream comic, it would have still been ripping off Watchmen if Starman hadn’t come along. If it was an indie book, it would have been trying to write new Miracleman stories instead of trying to write new Ex Machina ones. And to say that Steve Niles is “the guy who made vampires scary again” is doing a disservice to all of the Dracula cosplayers on Tumblr, but seriously: the guy wrote 30 Days of Night a full three years before Stephanie Meyer decided that the subtle sexual metaphors of vampires were too subtle, dammit, and he did it better than anyone since Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot (which is, by itself, the best vampire story since Dracula).
Chin Music is thus something of a dream collaboration between two A-Listers at the top of their game, a supernatural thriller set in and around Prohibition, where demons can flay a man alive in the skies over Egypt and magic bullets can kill gangsters. It’s still early in this series’ life, but if what we’ve seen so far is any indication, Chin Music has all the makings of an instant classic. My recommendation? Start reading now, so when they make the inevitable TV show, you can say you were into it before it was cool.
by Eric Stephenson & Nate Bellegarde (Image)
No one can really explain what Nowhere Men is about. But everyone agrees that it’s awesome. It’s the story of four young scientists and inventors who wanted to change to the world. But it’s also the story of a science team abandoned in space. Or maybe it’s the story of a mysterious plague. There are a lot of plot threads, and the whole shirt isn’t quite visible yet, but every issue has been exciting enough and packed to the gutters with fun side notes and world building that it doesn’t matter, you’re just happy to be along for the ride.
If I had one complaint about NM, it would be that it’s hard to keep the characters straight, but I’m hardly going to make a big deal about a book trying to have too many distinct voices in an industry that hasn’t had more than one since Frank Miller starting writing Batman. Nowhere Men is a mystery wrapped in an enigma folded around a world where “science is the new rock and roll” and young entrepreneurs are given the GQ interview treatment. It’s got robots, teleportation, superpowers (maybe?), and a British scientist who doses up on acid, rides a bicycle indoors, and is never seen in the comic again. It’s a rare surprise in an industry that’s grown stale and predictable, and it’s only going to get better from here.
Hawkeye & Daredevil
by Matt Fraction & Various and Mark Waid & Various (Marvel Comics)
I put these two in one category, not because they’re interchangeable, but because they’re the best books Marvel is putting out right now, and I didn’t want to give one of the Big Two more than one slot on this otherwise less-mainstream list. Waid and Fraction are both heavyweights in the industry. They’ve written for some of the biggest characters in comics, from Superman to the Fantastic Four, but the best work of their careers has come from small, personal stories about C-List lightweights like Daredevil and Hawkeye. The titles have a few things in common: they’re both stupidly gorgeous, with a rotating cast of brilliant artists that includes names like Javier Pulido, Chris Samnee, David Aja, Paolo Rivera, and Francesco Francavilla. If you don’t know who those are, all I can say is that Francavilla can do more with shades of purple than most artists can do with the entire Adobe Professional Suite.
Both Hawkeye and Daredevil are small scale, which befits their title character’s status as a street-level vigilante. Hawkeye finds himself dealing with lady troubles, Russian thugs, and stray dogs; Daredevil is embroiled in cancer scares and a far-reaching plot to make him question his sanity before ultimately executing him (but, like, small scale). They’re both touching and funny and heartbreaking. They’re both exciting and kinetic. They both feature disabled heroes (it’s common knowledge that Daredevil is blind, less so that Hawkeye is partially deaf). And they’ve both gotten crazy amounts of critical acclaim. People are going to be talking about these two for a long, long time, and it’s not too late to get in near the ground floor.
by Paul Tobin & Colleen Coover (Monkeybrain Comics)
When Chris Roberson got kicked out of DC Comics for expressing some candid opinions, people were pretty excited to see what he’d do next. It’s fair to say that he blew everyone’s expectations out of the water with Monkeybrain Comics, an all-digital comic publisher with some of the top names in the business. All of the Monkeybrain books are good choices (and cheap, too), but the best of the bunch is Bandette, a throwback to the kind of European bandes-dessinees (see what they did there?) none of us in America have ever read. Inspired by the likes of Tintin and Diabolik, Bandette has been quietly putting on a clinic on how to write strong, funny female protagonists in an industry that has historically had a bit of trouble with that sort of thing.
Bandette tells the gleefully cheerful story of Bandette, a gentlewoman thief (who is a young, animated, bubbly French lady) and her misadventures in Paris. She’s a vigilante, but also a thief, an angel and a devil and a perpetual thorn in the side of Inspector Belgique, the Commissioner Gordon to this particularly peppy Batman. It’s charming as hell and gorgeous to boot. And on top of that it’s only a dollar. And you can read it on your phone. What more do you want?
The Private Eye
Brian K. Vaughan & Marcos Martin (Panel Syndicate)
Brian K. Vaughan makes his second appearance in this series (the first being for Saga, which is still worth reading) with The Private Eye, an exciting new digital venture with artist Marcos Martin. The comic industry is in something of a crisis over pricing, if you weren’t aware; people aren’t buying enough books to keep the companies afloat because the books are too expensive, so companies keep raising the price to try and stay afloat. In the midst of that confusion, Vaughan and Marcos released The Private Eye, an irregularly-published, pay-what-you-want, DRM-free, future noir story. You can pay $100 per issue; you can pay one penny. Whatever you pay, it isn’t enough to deserve an additional BKV book, even one that didn’t have so tantalizing a hook…
The idea is that, an indeterminate amount of time in the past, the Internet exploded, and everybody’s secrets got out. Every furry porn site you’ve ever visited, every annoying Europop video you’ve ever lip-synced to, all there for the world to see. Now, in a world where online privacy doesn’t exist, people are reduced to wearing masks, taking on the literal interpretations of the avatars they used to browse the web in the days before the collapse. Privacy is the ultimate luxury, taking a picture is a felony offense, and current hipster chic has become tasteful decorative antiques. In the middle of this is P.I., or Pi, or Patrick Immelmann, a paparazzi for hire. He gets caught up in all the trappings of a good Chandler detective story–there’s a dame, there’s a case, there’s a lot of money involved. But things go south fast. It’s…difficult to describe.
Gamble a buck. You won’t be sorry.
Ross once Jell-O wrestled a roller derby babe for science, got drunk at Dragon*Con, and interviewed the roughest, toughest, foot-stompingest duo south of the Mason Dixon line and lived to tell about it.