The last fifteen years have seen an enormous resurgence in the popularity of comics. So much so, in fact, that some are arguing that we are living in the second golden age of comics. Everywhere you look, our culture is inundated with comics; their imagery pervades our toy shelves, our theaters, our televisions, our tablets, and our game systems. Yet, even amid skyrocketing sales and increasing cultural ubiquity, there is still an ever-present mainstream majority that looks upon comics with contempt, as though somehow, the very medium were somehow inferior to other storytelling traditions.
Sadly, the latest round of comic-shaming was recently launched by industry giant Alan Moore himself, who claims that our ongoing obsession with superheroes could prove to be “culturally catastrophic.” But I’m here to tell you, that comics aren’t always about superheroes. In fact, some the best comics ever published are completely superhero-free. And, far from “having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in,” many young adults are turning to comics not to escape, but to better understand the world that they are living in through allegory, metaphor, and satire.
Where better? Comics have been pondering the moral and philosophical dilemmas we face in today’s news headlines for decades. Climate catastrophe? Try Wood’s The Massive. Gender inequality? Y: The Last Man may not present any answers, but it certainly serves as an ice breaker. Government surveillance? Mr. Moore himself warned us of those dangers in V for Vendetta.
So, in honor of the recent release of the English translation of the excellent dystopian comic Snowpiercer, we present here, in alphabetical order (lest their relative ranking become the focus of discussion), a list of the top ten superhero-free dystopian sci-fi comics on shelves today. Feel free to throw your own nominations into the ring in the comments section below!
Let’s call this title zero, because the inclusion of the groundbreaking manga Akira in any list of noteworthy comics goes without saying. It needs only to be mentioned for the purpose of avoiding the twenty comments that would instantly spring up denouncing the validity of the list otherwise.
Akira is a cyberpunk manga set in a new metropolis called Neo-Tokyo that has been built on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay after a nuclear explosion destroyed Tokyo and started World War III. The story follows a pair of teens in the dystopian post-nuclear city amid a rising tide of anti-government terrorism and gang violence as one of them develops paranormal abilities, becoming the target of a shadowy agency. Akira has been hugely influenced throughout the industry, paving the way for the explosion of anime’s popularity in the U.S. Anyone who loves comics but hasn’t read this needs to stop whatever they’re doing and pick it up immediately.
East of West is a blend of alternate history, biblical fantasy, sci-fi, steampunk, and western set in a dystopian America divided into seven city-states by a never-ending civil war. In the series, three of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have been reborn on Earth while the fourth, Death, stalks the Earth seeking his lost child in the aftermath of a betrayal. It would all be a bit overwhelming, if not for Hickman’s skillful use of wit and metaphor to tie it all together into an absurd black comedy. If the prospect of mixing cowboys and magic doesn’t hook you, I don’t know what will.
Ghost in the Shell is probably the best known title on this list, due to the popularity of its film and television adaptations. The series follows the adventures of a counter-terrorist police organization in a near-future cyberpunk Japan, where sophisticated cyber terrorist attacks call into question the very nature of humanity. The series’ storylines are intellectually challenging, and the philosophical questions they raise are potent. This is not light reading material, though the manga is distinctly more humorous than either the movies or television series. The emotionally poignancy and thought-provoking existentialism of its stories make the original Ghost in the Shell series one of the all-time best cyberpunk titles of any medium.
Hard Boiled is the Philip K. Dick-inspired story of a man’s identity crisis set in a near-future Los Angeles. In many ways, the story parallels Total Recall. In it, an insurance investigator begins to remember a life spent as a tax collector in the wake of a life-saving surgery, only to be confronted by a robot who reveals that he is neither an insurance investigator nor a tax collector, but actually a robotic corporate assassin bent on freeing robots everywhere from slavery. The storyline is intense, tumultuous, and extraordinarily violent. The art is a veritable “Where’s Waldo?” of gruesomely intricate details. If you’re offended by nudity and violence, this is a title to avoid.
The Incal is a satirical space opera, closer to Douglas Adams than Star Wars in tone. It follows the misadventures of John Difool, a sub-par private investigator who stumbles upon an immensely powerful artifact that allows him to travel the galaxy. Together with his talking concrete seagull, the hard-boiled detective wades into the middle of a conflict between the galaxy’s greatest warrior, the Metabaron, and the leader of an interstellar cult, the Technopope. The story is often compared to The Fifth Element, which was alleged to have stolen most of its plot from this comic. Although The Incal was first published over thirty years ago, it still stands as one of the most inventive and exciting reads of the sci-fi genre today.
Set in a post-apocalyptic world, this comic follows the crew of the environmental action trawler Kapital as it scours the desolate oceans for its missing sister ship, The Massive. The oceans are rising, economies are collapsing, wildlife is dying off, and pirates roam freely across the oceans. As the crew of the Kapital are confronted with each new disaster, they are forced to re-consider the question of what it means to be environmentalists in a world that has already been destroyed. The Massive is a bold, politically thought-provoking series, but be warned. These comics are meant to be read as a series, and few, if any of the individual story arcs are self-contained.
Sheltered turns the whole post-apocalyptic genre on its head. The comic is set amid an isolated society of doomsday preppers who have spent their lives preparing for the end times, only to face danger from within when their own children decide to massacre all of the adults. Far from being the shoot-em up action adventure you might expect from an American comic, Sheltered is a subtle psychological thriller in the vein of Lord of the Flies.
A French trilogy that may very well be the best series you’ve never heard of. Snowpiercer is a post-apocalyptic allegory in which the last remnants of humanity live on a thousand-car train that travels endlessly through a new ice age precipitated by man. The story follows the journey of a refugee of the “tail section” as he travel forward through the train, witnessing the discontent and corruption of its passengers. Snowpiercer’s tension-laden storyline and claustrophobic environs make this page turner a must-read for lovers such literary classics as Animal Farm and Brave New World.
Set in an overcrowded futuristic, dystopian, post-cyberpunk city merely known as “The City,” Transmetropolitan follows the exploits of outlaw journalist “Spider Jerusalem” as he exposes political corruption. The City is a tumult of sci-fi tropes: sci-fi weaponry, high technology, genetic engineering, and dystopian government. Transmetropolitan is a great comic, but not for everyone. An orgy of cynicism, political satire, and raunchy comedy, this series would be hard pressed to earn an R rating, rather than an X, if it were faithfully adapted into a film. If you’re looking for a title just as good, only slightly less jarring, Ellis’ Doktor Sleepless, Global Frequency, Ministry of Space, and Planetary fit the bill. It would have been quite plausible to populate this entire list with his work.
In the near future, mankind has destroyed the Earth, and the only refuge from radioactive pollution is in the skies. Unfortunately, rapidly dwindling resources and bloodthirsty air-pirates make life difficult. Aircraft and jetpacks wage battle for control of those skies, and none mightier than the Executioner and the Dawn, aircraft carriers controlled by opposing forces. The series’ frenetic pacing and steampunk sensibilities make this one of the most lively titles on the list… Also, it bears mentioning twice: air-pirates. This title is certain to be a favorite among fans of Star Wars and Buck Rogers, both of which are frequently and unabashedly paid homage by the authors.
Y The Last Man follows Yorick Brown and his pet monkey Ampersand, the last surviving males in a world where every other male mammal instantaneously died as the result of a virus… or magic. Over the course of the series, Yorrick treks across a contemporary America completely free of men, only to discover that it’s no Utopia. This high concept mystery combines a bold concept with some deeply thought-provoking social commentary to create one of the most engrossing dramas ever to grace the a comic page. For reference, it’s worth noting that Vaughan went on to produce several episodes of ABC’s Lost.
There are of course, dozens of titles which arguably belong on this list. Some of the most obvious titles have been excluded from this list for blurring genres. The Walking Dead, for example, falls a little closer to the “horror” end of the genre spectrum than to the “science fiction” end, and last year’s break-out hit, Saga, really falls under the heading of fantasy. Meanwhile, choosing to focus on superhero-free titles has excluded dozens of excellent series from the list. Our hope is that comics without superheroes may prove to be a better transition to the medium for those who aren’t already fans, but if you’re looking for a protagonist with super powers, you may also want to also check out these titles: V for Vendetta, Warren Ellis’ superhero trilogy (Black Summer, No Hero, and SuperGod), Top Ten, Ronin, Fear Agent, Atomic Robo, and Aphrodite IX.