I love visiting my local comic shops. Full of passionate fans, it’s geek heaven. The shops, however, are always bursting at the seams with the typical stuff – X-Men, Spiderman, Batman, etc. But I want something off the beaten path, something not so typical, you know? With that in mind, I asked our panelists the following question:
Here’s what they said:
When I see the words “off the beaten path” and “graphic novels” in the same sentence, my mind goes to one place: Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan. I’ll warn you now: this one really does put the “graphic” in “graphic novels” with some pretty intense sexual content. That it’s for mature audiences only should go without saying. But while it might be easy to dismiss Saga as an exercise in “how much mature content can we fit in before we get our series canceled,” it’s actually so much more than that. It’s the story of two lovers from different sides of a brutal war. Her society fights with technology, while his fights with magic, making the setting a wonderfully weird combination of sci-fi/fantasy.
When they conceive a child together, they’re forced to go on the run as the only thing their peoples hate more than each other is the idea of this half-breed. Along the way, they’ll be pursued by strange robot people, bounty hunters of various motivations and biological configurations, and their own peoples. They’ll flee in space ships and meet ghosts. Anything can happen and anyone can die.
I love this story because of its characters; they are flawed and deep and thoughtful and interesting. Even the side characters and antagonists are compelling and interesting; no one is simplistic or easily defined here. It’s a powerful story that will stay in your heart and mind long after you’ve put it down and it’s a story filled with amazing visuals and beautiful art. And some of that art is graphic robot sex.
Changing gears completely, I’m also going to recommend the Dresden Files graphic novels by Jim Butcher. You might be familiar with the Dresden Files already; they’re a series of urban fantasy novels about a wizard private investigator in Chicago who investigates all the weird things that happen when the supernaturals start preying on the naturals. I love the graphic novel series because it manages to capture the spirit of pulpy noir mysteries while combining them with the larger-than-life characters, quips, and awesome magical powers. Basically, when someone says they want to expand their reading beyond the superhero genre, this is where I direct them; there’s action, adventure, and excitement, but nary a cape to be seen. Even if you’ve already read the Dresden novels, the graphic novels are worth a look, because many of the stories are original adventures that don’t appear in the full novels.
Although it’s something of a guilty pleasure, I love graphic novels based on video games. When I get really immersed in a great game, I want to spend as much time in that world as possible. I want to continue the stories and see more of my favorite characters. While there are many, many video-game graphic novels, there are three that I’m going to recommend: the Halo series, the Mass Effect series, and the Dragon Age series. The Halo series is particularly noteworthy because there’s a huge amount of world building and story that isn’t really communicated in the games; the graphic novels are a great way to explore that sprawling universe. For someone as interested in characters as I am, it should come as no surprise that I love Bioware’s games and that extends to their graphic novels as well. Of the two universes, I think Dragon Age has the better novels, but if you’re a fan of either series, you owe it to yourself to see what your favorite party members are doing when they’re not fighting evil at your side.
Finally, although this one might be a little more “out there”, I recommend Habibi, by Craig Thompson. It’s a sprawling, epic graphic novel (emphasis on sprawling as it’s about 600 pages in hardback). It’s a story told across a landscape of deserts, time, and human hopes and failures. It’s the story of two slaves and the love between them. It’s a beautiful book with amazing art. It’s a story about stories, both modern and ancient. It’s a book that will make you uncomfortable at times. But I guarantee it will be unlike anything you’ve ever read before.
What does non-mainstream mean in comics and graphic novels? To me, it means those that are written by women or feature women as their main characters. As a kid growing up in Singapore, there were some comics around, as my Dad and uncles used to read them, but I couldn’t relate to these male superheroes. So it is exciting to see all these female comic creators and female comic characters today.
Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, Robert Wilson IV, and Cris Peter is set in a dystopian future where non-compliant women are sent to prison. Being non-compliant could mean murdering someone but it could also mean disobeying one’s husband. Another great thing about this comic is its characters are so diverse – different races, different body types, different classes and walks of life.
If you’re looking for a different kind of superhero, there is Faith, a plus-sized heroine who first appeared in the Harbinger series that Valiant rebooted in 2012. Plus she’s a comic book geek herself! Then there’s Ms Marvel, the Kamala Khan version, written by G. Willow Wilson and drawn by Adrian Alphona. I’m not sure how non-mainstream she is these days, as there have been rumours of a TV series, but Kamala Khan is a teenaged Pakistani-American from New Jersey who finds herself a polymorph, with the ability to stretch her limbs and change her shape.
Nimona have may started out as a webcomic but Noelle Stevenson’s creation is as fun and charming as any straight-to-publication graphic novel. Nimona is a shapeshifter, and villain’s sidekick, there’s magic, there’s even science! It’s a win-win!
The many worlds of Brian K Vaughan’s Saga (illustrated by the talented Fiona Staples) would please any SF reader. There are battles between different worlds, there’s magic but also technology, there are strange creatures of all imaginations possible, and at the centre of it all, a family, one that no one in that galaxy could have thought possible. Also, it has Lying Cat.
Rat Queens is rambunctious fun. Kurtis Wiebe has created a band of misfit maiden-warriors-for-hire – an elven mage, a dwarven warrior, an atheist human cleric and a hippy halfling thief. These women are funny, tough and just kick a**.
Beyond: The Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy Comics Anthology by Beyond Press, O Human Star by Blue Delliquanti, Witchlight by Czap Books, Cucumber Quest by Gigi D.G., Ava’s Demon by Michelle Czajkowski, Hemlock by Josceline Fenton and Fantasy Sports by Sam Bosma.
I came to comics later in life than many readers do, so for me, superheroes were never really the sort of characters that I wanted to read in a graphic novel. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Marvel Cinematic Universe fan, and I’ve read some of the “important” superhero comics; Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, etc. But the graphic novels that have drawn me in are usually more than super folks in tights and vigilante justice. They’re grayer around the edges. Not so easy to discern “right” from “wrong.”
Probably my favorite graphic novels are Fables by Bill Willingham and Lan Medina from Vertigo. The books follow a large group of characters from fairy tales and folklore who’ve been forced to leave their homeland and take refuge in our world. They take characters that we think we know and fill them out with pasts and future desires, hopes and dreams beyond the happily-ever-after that we expect them to want. I’ve fallen in love with the characters that I’ve thought I’ve known since childhood and the way that Fables has made them real. Grayer, grittier, and 100% more amazing than they ever were before. I’d highly recommend the exploits of Bigby and Snow, Flycatcher, Rose Red, Jack of Fables, Boy Blue and the rest of the gang to just about anyone. If you’ve ever read a fairy tale, these characters will mean something to you.
Another highly enjoyable read, for me, was Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Tess Fowler, from Image Comics. Rat Queens follows the exploits of a fowl-mouthed, hard hitting foursome of D & D style adventuring women. It is funny, low-brow, and super nerdy, while feminist and fun. In the issues I’ve read, it wasn’t super deep, but a really great romp through a world I love to live in.
Other books I’ve enjoyed include: The Unwritten by Mike Carey and Peter Gross from Vertigo, which follows the real life of a young man who was the inspiration for a Harry Potter-like book series; Runaways created by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona for Marvel, which follows a group of kids who discover that their parents are supervillains; and Locke and Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez for IDW, which is a wild and weird horror-esque tale that defies summary but plays with images and storytelling in a way that left me wanting more.
My highest recommendation for finding a great graphic novel is to ask the folks at your local comic shop. These fortunate souls are steeped in the stories. Tell them what you like. Tell them what you don’t. We are fortunate enough to be living in a golden age for comic writing. The people who are telling the stories are more skilled than ever before, and comics aren’t being looked down upon as they were in the past, shunned by the “real” writers. Today, you can find stories that rival any traditional novel for characterization, plot, and twists. So ask your local comic shop folks . . . You’ll be surprised how much awesome they can point you toward.
I get asked this question a lot, and often have to bite my tongue and calm myself before delivering a civilized response. My issue is that it’s often said in a manner which implies that outside of the Big Two we’re scraping the barrel. Obviously this couldn’t be further from the truth, but comic book readers are seemingly influenced by publishers more than patrons of any other storytelling form.
I must also confess that I have no idea what “non-mainstream” includes or excludes. So let’s get this out of the way: if you’ve been weaned on Marvel and/or DC, and want creator-owned stories that have all the sheen of those titles, then Image should be your starting point. Saga, The Wicked + The Divine, and Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen’s epic Descender are all worth your time and support.
But you already knew that, didn’t you? The fact is that the medium is currently enjoying a phase more innovative and unpredictable than ever before, and that’s mostly down to the work of self-publishers, digital cartoonists and the small press, who are willing to take risks on concepts that most established publishers would pass on. These guys answer to no one.
Take, for example, Jeremy Whitley’s affectionate fantasy romp Princeless, with its great female cast and light-hearted commentary on gender roles in fairy tales and genre fiction. It’s a truly all-ages series that will thrill children and charm adults.
Stephan Franck’s Silver, a vampire noir that borrows elements from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, recently left me feeling that sense of excitement and discovery that no mainstream comic will ever deliver. I’m usually not a fan of updates to the classics, but Franck’s impeccable pacing and colorful characters evoke a bygone era of pulp comics. Oddly, this makes Silver feel like a breath of fresh air when compared to the glut of mainstream output that mindlessly regurgitates the 1990s.
Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga seems to have reached a state of unanimous reverence within the comics community, but I must admit that I preferred his self-published digital series The Private Eye, recently compiled. It’s set in a bizarre dystopian future shaped by a mass personal information leak; a future where privacy is the most valuable of commodities and everyone keeps theirs hidden behind inhuman masks and aliases. I’m surprised The Private Eye didn’t receive the same level of acclaim as Vaughan’s other recent work, but that’s likely due to its limited marketing and the fact that the hardback physical edition, presented in a neat “widescreen” format, is extortionately priced.
As much as I love genre fiction, I’ve always been more of a fan of works that skirt around those conventions, the sort that are often (and awkwardly) categorized as existential fiction or magical realism. Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor has stuck with me since I read it. A fine blend of underground comic sensibilities and a Faustian parable, this tragic tale reveals much about the art world and the catch-22 nature of the artist.
If you can still find it, be sure to check out Ben Jelter’s The Tumor, a Lynchian love story between a man and his sentient growth that’s as heartfelt and idiosyncratic as sequential art gets. A book I enjoy more every time I read it.
I couldn’t possibly finish without mentioning Gary Spencer Millidge’s Strangehaven, which after a lengthy hiatus has resumed in the pages of Soaring Penguin’s fantastic anthology Meanwhile… Best described as a very English Twin Peaks, Strangehaven was a seminal self-published series that sadly remains unfinished. That looks to be remedied soon with an eventual fourth trade, so there’s no better time to check out the first three volumes.
I’m currently reading Saga by Brian K. Vaughn, which might not be too off the beaten path but is a great graphic novel with sci-fi themes. I’ve also been reading The Wicked + The Divine (more fantasy than sci-fi), and starhammercomic.com, which is a great (ongoing) online webcomic that blends superhero, sci-fi, and the magical girl genre.
If you were a fan of Babylon 5 you might try J. Michael Straczynski’s comic series Rising Stars, which is a very thoughtful take on the superhero genre in which a mysterious energy cloud endows a small group of children with super powers. Years later, the small group tries to effect change in the world, only to encounter resistance at every turn. The series is less about the fact of its characters’ powers and more about the ways politics make it difficult to tackle the global issues confronting the real world.
If you’re a fan of AMC’s The Walking Dead or the comic it’s adapted from, try Eric Powell’s The Goon. It’s an ultra-violent, gross-out horror series that isn’t strictly sci-fi, but your inner thirteen year-old self will find it endlessly entertaining.
If you enjoyed Watchmen, you need to pick up Astro City. Where Alan Moore deconstructed the superhero genre, Kurt Busiek tenderly eulogizes its golden age. This is one of my all-time favorite comic series, and I am consistently shocked by how obscure it remains. The art is gorgeously retro-futuristic, and the story is surprisingly nuanced. Bussiek explores the city through the eyes of its residents going about their daily lives. Each narrative pulls back the curtain on some aspect of life in a city populated by heroes and villains. The result is a literary quality reminiscent of Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.
For fans of the movie Children of Men, I would recommend Y: The Last Man. It’s a very thought-provoking meditation on the role women play in the world that asks how much of our behavior we owe to gender versus simple human nature. In it, every man on Earth is wiped out, except for the titular character. In the aftermath, women strive to rebuild society, and discover that there are a lot of difficult choices ahead of them. It’s fast-paced, funny, and frequently heart-warming.
For fans of space opera, I would recommend Jim Starlin’s DreadStar. It’s a dark, action-packed series that adults who were sci-fi nerds in the eighties will adore. The series, which ran from 1979 to 1982, follows the adventures of Vanth Dreadstar, the last survivor of the Milky Way. Transported to the Empirical Galaxy by a super-gnarly sci-fi sorcerer, Dreadstar struggles to end a centuries-old war between the corrupt Monarchy and the fanatical Instrumentality. In short, Star Wars without the optimism or the PG rating.
Finally, for younger audiences, Little White Mouse by Paul Sizer, which is the coming of age story of Loo, a 16-year-old girl stranded on an automated satellite in deep space. At a time when comics are increasingly about pleasing adult audiences, this plucky little series boasts all of the virtues of the YA dystopian series burning up the best-seller’s list with none of the pessimism.
I’ve been reading comics for some time now. I’ve been reading science fiction and fantasy for even longer. But it’s only been a year or so since I delved into the deep pool of french comics (or bande dessinée). And while more and more from across the ocean (and from my own backyard in Quebec) are being translated into English, I still don’t think they’re getting the attention they deserve.
Case and point – The Chimpanzee Complex by Richard Marazano (Cinebook). This dark and gritty comic takes place in the year 2035, and NASA has just intercepted a mysterious capsule that has crashed in the Indian Ocean. They send their top astronaut – Helen Friedman – to interrogate the two survivors, who are claiming to be Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. Which is impossible since they returned to Earth in 1969 . . . didn’t they? Next thing Helen knows she’s leaving her daughter behind for one last mission to find out exactly what happened up there so many years ago. The mystery, combined with the photorealistic art, and dark colours, set an almost horror like tone throughout, making it the perfect comic for those who like their space stories more like Alien than The Martian.
If you are looking for something a little more humorous, however, I can’t recommend Vampire Cousins by Alexandre Fontaine Rousseau and Cathon (Pow Pow Press) highly enough. This comic also follows a young woman on a journey but that’s about where the similarities end. Camille has been invited to visit her cousin Frédérique, who lives in an old manor on the outskirts of a small village. The townspeople are all afraid to go anywhere near the manor, and stock their grocery stores with every garlic product imaginable, but the bright and cheery, S Club 7 loving Camille doesn’t see what the problem is. Everyone knows vampires aren’t real. The artwork is simple but expressive and perfectly matches the B-movie style humour on every page.
The Sculptor by Scout McCloud – A graphic novel from last year, but incredibly important. I read it in two nights and finished it weeping. The story of a young artist, middling in the industry but who believes he contains hidden depths, is yearning for the chance to prove his artistic genius. On his 26th birthday, he meets Death in the form of his uncle, who offers a deal: he’ll gain powers beyond imagining to prove his art, but he’ll only have 200 days until he dies. Our sculptor accepts, and what follows is a heart-wrenching, beautiful journey about art, what defines it, why we make it, and what life is really worth. Though McCloud falls prey to several tropes I’m not a huge fan of (there’s a dash of manic-pixie-dream-girl-itis, as well as a moment that rang far too closely to Fridging that I can’t almost help but wonder if it’s intentional), this gorgeous graphic novel interrogates the reasoning behind what drives us to create, what we hope will outlast us, and the true purpose at the very end of it all: why make work to outlast us if we never bother truly living in the first place?
The Private Eye by Brian K. Vaughn and Marcos Martin – Compiled as a pay-what-you-will webcomic last year, this webcomic by Brian K Vaughn and his stalwart artistic companion, Marcos Martin, asks what if the future suddenly looked a lot like our past. In a future where the Cloud has burst, flinging secrets, information, identities out into the world, the internet has been destroyed and banned from the world; without it, technology has improved in many ways, though citizens now have the option to walk around in costumes, to hide their identities, precious in the wake of the cloud bursting. Our main character is Patrick Immelman, a P.I. you can hire to trace someone’s true identity, and when one of his clients ends up dead, he reluctantly gets involved, only to find a plot to bring back the technology of the past at any cost necessary. Vaughn portrays a cast of deeply flawed people, so terrified of exposing themselves that half the work of the series is to dig past the masks and find the person within. Interrogating our current obsession with technology, connectivity, and culture, Vaughn and Marcos have created a beautiful and deeply sad look at our modern society, but give us enough answers and ideas on how to save ourselves within that you can’t help but find hope in the pages as well. Currently collected as a gorgeous hardcover, I highly recommend this.
Clean Room by Gail Simone and Jonathon Davis-Hunt – Holy crap, this book you guys. Simone takes us on a terrifying look at the world around us, and five issues in, we have some answers but not nearly enough, and I’m still all in. Clean Room starts with journalist Chloe Pierce still in shock after the suicide of her husband, who was involved a cult-like self-help organization led by the enigmatic Astrid Mueller. Chloe goes on a journey to figure out who Astrid is, and what the Clean Room is, a place where your deepest fears are brought to light. What follows is a look at demons, both figurative and literal, as Astrid and Chloe circle one another and despite their dislike of the other, they begin to realize each of them needs the other, as forces beyond either of them begin to enter their world and with them, blood, horror, and nightmares. A terrifying and deeply intriguing work of fiction, this is horror at it’s finest, and I’m hooked.
Injection by Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey – Warren Ellis is the master of the uncanny, and eight issues into his newest series, Injection, he doesn’t disappoint. What starts as a mystery soon starts to turn into a horror show as we begin to realize the true extent of what five different operatives accomplished: they’ve created an artificial intelligence imbued with magic, and unleashed it on the world. Brought together to push the horizon of humanity, these five deeply flawed people have unwittingly produced the Injection, which is smarter than them, grows smarter every day, and is faster than them. Now they have to contain and clean it up. But if it were only so simple, Injection wouldn’t be the powerhouse of story it is. Despite the massive threat of the monster they’ve created, Ellis is more obsessed with his characterization and tragedies than with the big bad at the moment, and that serves just fine. Each character is unique, destructive, and utterly broken in their own ways. Ellis is on his way to producing another masterpiece, and I’m looking forward to seeing where he goes.
Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda – Holy crap, this series. Where do I even begin? A war between humanity and a race of magical beings, where humanity won, and enslaves the magical beings for fuel. A young girl with only one arm, on a path of revenge for her mother, who may somehow be bonded to some nightmare monstrosity from out of the beginning of time. An all women cast, all kicking ass and all deeply human, even the villains. A fantasy world that we’re only just beginning to uncover, broken by war and hate. Monstress is a beautiful story, and a heartbreaking one, full of wonder, magic, and terror, as Maika works to understand what happened to her mother, and more importantly, what’s happening to her. Loving it, and you need to check it out ASAP!
Thieves and Kings by Mark Oakley is a fantasy story that comes alive within the pages of each volume. It is a gorgeously drawn and beautifully told story of a young thief and his love for his city, and his friends. It is a story peopled by fascinating characters, imps, wizards, sorceresses, princesses, forgotten memories, and the city itself is brought to life in the hearts and minds of the characters and readers alike.
Mark Oakley writes and illustrates the tale he created and varies the style between sequential art and pages full of writing with connected art surrounding it. I think book lovers who have had a difficult time crossing over into the comic book realm would find his style appealing, while comic book lovers would also be drawn to the creator’s vision and execution of that vision.
It is a grand story that grows with each volume and yet at the heart of it our lovable thief continues to care for his city and friends. It is a very human tale that will draw you in and stay with you for years after.
Each comic book issue has been collected into graphic novels that are available for sell on the creator’s website: http://iboxpublishing.com/