Many people who read science fiction also read comic books, but not all and that’s a shame. There are a lot of really good comics out there that are worth the time to read. To find out which ones, we asked our panelists this question:
Comics and sf have an odd relationship. There’s no shortage of sfnal tropes in mainstream superhero comics: radioactive spiders, gamma rays, aliens, laser guns, ad nauseum. But you’ll note that most of these tropes are firmly grounded in the pulp sci-fi of the Amazing Stories variety. Mainstream comics have for the most part refused to venture beyond these humble beginnings. Certainly there are exceptions; John Byrne tried gamely to provide a sciencey underpinning to Superman’s powers, and terms like “nanotechnology” get tossed around from time to time. But because these are primarily action stories, there isn’t much science to the science fiction. To find sf that will appeal to the current fan of the genre, you have to look around the edges of the mainstream. Even there, the emphasis is heavily weighted toward fantasy and horror, and pulp-inflected gems like Hellboy. Still, there are a few things out there that modern sf readers should find to their liking. To wit:
Warren Elliis’s Transmetropolitan, for instance, is solid post-cyberpunk, replete with creepy science, and the kind of wild-eyed futurism you might expect from Charles Stross. Also of note is Ellis’s Global Frequency, which would stand proudly on your shelf next to any Cory Doctorow novel.
If social sf is your bag, you could do a lot worse than Y: The Last Man, which has become so widely known that it’s practically mainstream sf itself at this point. For those few of you not familiar with it, Y explores the implications of a plague that kills every male human on earth save the protagonist.
Grant Morrisson’s Invisibles is a sort of bizarre hybrid of superhero and late Philip K. Dick, with a bit of Burroughs and random insanity thrown in. Morrisson’s other forays into sf include the charming We3 and the alarming The Filth, which falls more in the New Weird camp: unclassifiable, genre melting, gloriously disturbing. Mieville fans will find a lot to like here.
Still though, I think sf in comics hasn’t yet come into its own; there are a number of reasons for this (which could take pages to go into, but the upshot is that comics hasn’t quite figured out how to do sf in a way that’s as compelling as prose sf). I’m still waiting for the comic book equivalent of Ted Chiang or Dan Simmons or Ian M. Banks, someone who will blow the lid off of the medium and show us how it’s done. With any luck, he or she is plotting away as we speak, just waiting for the publisher bold enough to print it.nm
Although many people may be familiar with Mike Mignola as the creator of Hellboy, Jim Starlin is a lesser known name – even amongst comic book aficionados – despite being an industry veteran and a skilled writer of the spacebound superhero tale. The two of them lent their considerable talents to Cosmic Odyssey, a galaxy-spanning tale starring DC Comics’
two biggest hitters, Batman and Superman, with a supporting cast made up of solid B-listers (Martian Manhunter) all the way down to the also-rans of the DCU (Forager). When a threat is uncovered that could potentially destroy all life in the universe, an uneasy alliance is formed between Darkseid of Apokolips and Highfather of New Genesis and some of Earth’s mightiest heroes venture to the four corners of the galaxy to defeat the new menace. With strong characterization of all the major players and some nice nods not only to the history of the comic book medium but also SF in general, Cosmic Odyssey is an engaging thrill-ride and its effects are still felt in the DC Universe more than 20 years later.
Although at times it skirts perilously close to reading like one man’s extended bad mood,
Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson charts the latter stages of the career of gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem and his one man war on political corruption in The City, a thinly veiled 23rd Century version of New York City. Although superficially, Transmetropolitan uses its SF setting to turn the lens on the late 20th Century, its greatest strengths are its portrayal of the impact of technology on society and the dangers associated with the growth of Big Media and unchecked government. And the bowel disruptor still makes me giggle to this day.
Finally, one series that everybody should be reading, not just SF fans, and that’s The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard. Like most modern Zombie works of fiction, TWD isn’t afraid to consume its own sub-genre and most of the clichés will be familiar to anybody with even a passing familiarity with Dawn of the Dead or 28 Days Later. Although its genre chops aren’t in question, the post-Zombie Apocalypse setting is at times incidental as TWD is at its core a character study and one of the finest in graphic form. In a genre and medium both well known for not being afraid to kill off high profile characters, TWD raises the stakes even higher and features some of the darkest scenes ever seen on the page of a ‘mainstream’ comic book. With the Frank Darabont helmed series on the horizon, now is the perfect time to get on board.
Honorable mentions: Y The Last Man, The Authority.
I think many SF fans would love Watchmen and Top 10 by Alan Moore. Watchmen, of course, imagines a world in which street vigilantism (in costume) becomes an American fad that ultimately threatens civil liberties and promises war; Top 10 presents the bizarre city of Neopolis in which everyone wears a costume and has a superpower, and the police at Top 10 enforce the law while shuffling through their own personal crises. While the first is a highly serious work and the second is gonzo, each one presents first-rate world-building in which characters and readers alike completely believe the authenticity of their dazzling (and frightening) environments replete with histories, personalities and technology. Each one inspires awe while delivering excellent characterization.
The world of science fiction is not that far removed from the world of comic books, thus I think you stand a better chance of getting an SF fan to pick up a graphic novel than you would, say, Maeve Binchy’s Heart and Soul or the latest Nicholas Sparks novel. Of course that isn’t to say Binchy and Sparks don’t appeal to SF fans of eclectic tastes, only that graphic novels are likely to offer more in the way of familiar (or at the very least, comfortable) territory for the discerning scifi follower. Aliens, mutation, super-powered conspiracy-laden defenestrations – science fiction and comic books share a common language so it should come as no surprise that, more often than not, they share the same fanbase as well. Still, there are quite a few fans of literary, television, and film SF who haven’t dabbled in the universes created by the likes of Moore or Miller. Given the opportunity to broaden their cosmic horizons, these are the graphic novels I’d recommend them:
Watchmen – No doubt this one will be on most everyone’s list – and with good reason. Alan Moore’s cold war era deconstruction of long-standing superhero conceits stands as one of the greatest achievements in comicdom.
The Dark Knight Returns – Frank Miller questions the establishment in this groundbreaking near future tale that finds Batman coming out of retirement to battle evil of a different kind.
Astro City: Life in the Big City – Solid characterization is what drives this brilliant Kurt Busiek anthology, exploring the lives of Astro City’s denizens, caped crusaders and average citizen alike.
Kingdom Come – The heroes were grew up with come of age in a big way in Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s apocalyptic re-imagining of a future in which traditional and progressive forces within the superpowered community clash.
Powers: Who Killed Retro Girl? – An ultra-cool super-themed procedural at turns hilarious and touching, fueled by Brian Michael Bendis’s trademark dialogue.
Ultra: Seven Days – Speaking of “super” terrific character studies, one of my favorites comes courtesy of the Luna Brothers – the tale of one woman’s struggle to balance her professional life as crime fighting “Best Heroine of the Year” nominee Ultra, with her personal life as the perennially single Pearl Penalosa.
Top 10 (vol 1 – for starters): Another awesome entry from Alan Moore, this series focuses on the personal and professional trials and tribulations of the of the Neopolis police force, charged with protecting a city in which its every citizen is superpowered. Wild.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – Alan Moore gets the hat trick. Minna Murray, Allan Quartermain, Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyl, and the Invisible Man join forces at the turn of the 19th century to save London (in all its steampunk glory) from a mysterious evil mastermind. Movie? What movie? You must be mistaken.
And, to round out my list, two less obvious recommendations for not just SF fans, but readers who enjoy well-plotted, tightly written drama –
The Walking Dead, by Robert Kirkman: Probably the greatest work of zombie fiction ever written.
Scalped, by Jason Aaron: Dark, gritty, harrowing, and altogether memorable.
Well, there have been a lot of great comics over the course of the last five or six decades, so this is by no means an exhaustive list. But if a science fiction fan is looking for good science fiction comics, here are a few good places to start.
The Ballad of Halo Jones – Alan Moore & Ian Gibson
Anyone looking for a “new space opera” comic that rivals the best of prose science fiction, look no further. Originally serialized in the pages of 2000AD and now available
in a handy collected edition, The Ballad of Halo Jones is an all-but-forgotten classic by the mind behind such perennial favorites as Watchmen and V for Vendetta. The titular hero, Halo Jones, is a working class girl on a far future Earth, just trying to get by. We first meet her as she and her roommates make their way through an overcrowded “conurbation” floating in the North Atlantic called the “Hoop,” where just going shopping for groceries is a life-threatening adventure. She ends up working as a stewardess on a luxury starship, getting mixed up in interstellar political intrigue along the way, and finally signs up with the military, donning a suit of power armor that would make Heinlein’s starship troopers green with envy. The level of invention is staggering, but what really makes the series work is Moore’s ability to imagine what it would be like to be one of the “little people” in this galaxy-spanning future civilization. Seriously, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Grease Monkey – Tim Eldred
For another take on space opera that’s decidedly more “old school,” check out Tim
Eldred’s Grease Monkey. It has appeared in a variety of formats, but the whole thing is now available in two chunks, the first half collected in a hardcover edition by Tor a few years ago, and the second half available for free online at Eldred’s site. Grease Monkey follows a young recruit to the Earth’s space forces as he joins the crew of the battleship, Fist of Earth. Years before the story’s opening, an alien armada attacked Earth and wiped out more than half of the human population. As humanity was still reeling, another alien species arrived, offering to help Earth recover and take its place in an interstellar community of worlds. To make up for the loss in population, the aliens uplifted one of humanity’s closest terrestrial relatives, the gorillas. Now, sentient gorillas and humans serve together in the Earth’s space fleet, preparing their defenses should the alien armada ever return. Our young recruit is assigned as an assistant mechanic to the gorilla who keeps one of the fleets of fighter craft operational, a “grease monkey.” The series has a fairly light tone, and much of the action is devoted to the gorilla and his human assistant palling around, looking for love among the ship’s crew, and getting up to hijinks. But there are more serious moments, and the second volume in particular gets into some pretty knuckle-biting action. Lots of fun, and worth seeking out.
Freakangels – Warren Ellis & Paul Duffield
But there is more to science fiction than space opera. And fans of “soft” science
fiction might want to check out the ongoing Freakangels serial by Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield. The series is being serialized online for free in weekly chunks, and then collected in trade paperback and hard cover every so often. But readers can still read the whole series from the beginning online at the Freakangels site. The story is a twist on one of the classics of the genre, John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos. In Wyndham’s novel, strange lights in the sky one night cause all of the women in an isolated English village to give birth to children with unusual coloration and telepathic powers. In Wyndham’s story, the children are an alien threat, and the plot centers around the attempt by the normal humans to deal with them. Ellis twists the idea by imagining a group of “cuckoos” in the modern world (here called “Freakangels” ) who are allowed to grow up to their teenage years, and who grow strong enough in their various psionic abilities to push back when the normal humans try to dispose of them. The story opens in the aftermath, years later, in a world devastated by environmental collapse–a collapse caused by the Freakangels. London is mostly flooded, but the Freakangels have created a refuge in the Whitechapel neighborhood, and are doing their best to look after as many of the human survivors as they can. But there are tensions within the group, and already one
of their number has been exiled for refusing to go along with the consensus. Much of the
intrigue of the story comes from slowly working out just what happened to get the world
into this state, what has gone on between the Freakangels in the years since, and what
will happen next. Highly recommended, and considering that it can be read in its entirety
for free, what do you have to lose?
Finder – Carla Speed McNeil
Finder is not one story, but a series of stories set in the same world with an interconnected group of characters. What is Finder? It’s “Aboriginal SF.” What’s that? I think maybe McNeil explains it best in a post on her site:
“What is Aboriginal SF? Picture yourself as an alien anthropologist on a new planet
writing a field guide on the natives’ behavior. That’s where you are in Finder. But you’re not on some dull backwater among credulous goinks who will elevate you to godhood because you pretend to control the local volcano with your iPod, no no. Nor are you one of those starched-shirt types who sticks to your steel gas mask and pith helmet no matter how hot it gets. “No, you’ll be one of the cool scientists who goes native, straps on a penis gourd over your corsetry and performs the African Anteater Ritual to the amazement of all. You’ll be the flavor of the minute in this culture, but it moves fast. “Wear your big boots.” Finder was self-published for years, but it was recently announced that Dark Horse
Comics will be reissuing Finder in color. In the meantime, you can hunt down the collections of previous stories online, or check out the free stuff that McNeil has posted to her website.
The Invisibles – Grant Morrison & collaborators
And finally, there is the “mind-bending” tradition in science fiction, the kinds of stories
penned by writers like Philip K. Dick that force the reader to question what they know
about reality. The true inheritor to PKD in comics would have to be Grant Morrison’s
Invisibles. To say much about the plot of Invisibles would run the risk of giving away too much, so I’ll have to be vague here. The series involves secret societies warring for the fate of humanity, time travel, mind control, shamanism, invaders from other realities, spies, sexuality, conspiracy theories, and more. It is the high watermark from a writer whose career is FULL of high watermarks, and it is a series that begs to be reread from the beginning as soon as you reach the final page.
I’m actually answering the question “what are the best science fiction comics?”, because SF fans appreciate quality. One of the all-time best is the Finder series by Carla Speed McNeil. It’s anthropological SF, extrapolating trends to explore the human effect. Various volumes have explored a future Disneyland-style amusement park (King of the Cats), alternate realities and multi-player art (Dream Sequence), sex work as an area of study (Mystery Date), a future-history take on kidnapping (The Rescuers), dating and mating patterns (Five Crazy Women), and a world without print books (Talisman).
Some of my very favorite science fiction comics were first published in Japan. Manga is the term for such translated works, and these series tell very different stories that can all be considered science fiction:
Pluto – A gripping murder mystery that’s also a mature retelling of a classic Astro Boy story. The world’s seven greatest robots are being murdered. Within this suspense-packed framework, Naoki Urasawa explores what it means to be human and how powerful and painful memory can be. If you only read one title on this list, it should be this one. Gorgeous art and theatrical pacing, too.
Planetes – Ostensibly the story of garbage collectors in space, it’s really about following your dreams into rockets to other worlds.
Saturn Apartments – Similar in tone to Planetes, this series is about a boy who winds up as a satellite window washer in order to find out what happened to his departed father.
Twin Spica – A young girl dreams of becoming an astronaut by attending a school focused on those activities in the wake of a shuttle disaster. Charming and heart-warming.
Of course, fans of classic SF shows like Star Trek, Star Wars, or Firefly may also enjoy licensed comics providing new stories with those characters. Most are easily findable in trade paperback reprint or back issue bins.
I mainly came up with those because I think the Hugo ‘Graphic Story’ category is one that needs some long term guidance to let voters know what’s out there, and maybe some changes to the rules of the category itself (in that the need for the story to have been completed in the voting year makes things hellishly complex). But this isn’t the place to go into that. It’s recently got a lot easier for SF fans to try out some of the comics I’m recommending, often for free. You can, for instance, go to: Comixology and get a free app for your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch, allowing you to buy from their digital comics store, where all the major companies can be found. Various other digital providers, such as Graphic.ly or Comics +, or those of individual companies, support various other formats (I’m concentrating here on one that’s become the brand leader). There are a lot of books being given away gratis. In my latest list of Comics For SF Fans, following, I’ll indicate what’s available online, and whether or not it’s free. I’m only going to talk about titles that are still going (you guys don’t need me to tell you about Sandman, and my interest lies in getting SF readers into the
pop music of current comics). And I’ll purposely stay away from superheroes, love them as I do, because I want to show that there are a lot of mainstream SF and fantasy comics out there, with the familiar qualities Hugo voters should recognize and feel able to honor.
The first title I should mention is Bill Willingham’s Fables, twice Hugo-nominated. It’ll be a crime if this book does not one day win that category. It’s the story of Prince Charming, Snow White, Cinderella and all the other heroes of fairytale, exiled from their homeland by an invader and driven to live in modern New York. It makes its own definition of urban fantasy, with political intrigue, schemes and plots, loads of memorable characters and some of the strongest female leads in comics. And of course, you know all the characters already. (First 17 issues currently available online, for £1.19 each.) The Unwritten is Mike Carey and Peter Gross’ meditation on the nature of stories, as Tommy Taylor, a modern cross between Harry Potter and Christopher Robin, is forced to confront the idea that he may be not be a famous author’s son, but actually one of his characters. It’s a quest across genres which so far takes in Nazi propaganda, Kipling and sweary nursery tale rabbits. (First 4 issues, same price.) DMZ by Brian Wood is the story of a new Civil War in a near future America, as seen through the eyes of a raw photojournalist: very much dystopian SF with a huge dose of politics. (First 15 issues, same price.) Those three titles are all from Vertigo, DC’s mature readers imprint, and it’s only fitting, because their target market is the mature SF and fantasy fan, that they should be represented en masse here and hopefully one day in the Hugos. A skim through their website (Vertigo) will yield much more of interest.
From the independent companies come titles like Ex Machina by Lost’s Brian K. Vaughan (first 2 issues at £1.19, first one free), about a former super hero who retires to become Mayor of New York. It’s daring, far more The West Wing than Iron Man. Elephantmen (15 issues at 59p, several free) by Richard Starkings is a near future tale of massive genetically engineered soldier animals who are trying to fit back into civilian life. It’s surprisingly moving. The Walking Dead
(71 issues at £1.19, first issue free) is *the* zombie comic book, calm and real and bleak, with not a hint of pastiche to it, soon to be a TV series. Proof (you’ll need the Comics + app, 16 issues at 59p, first free) is the story of a Bigfoot who works with a government unit who track down other ‘cryptids’ like himself, and is both good fun and so obviously a movie one day. Chew (7 issues at £1.19, first free) is the story of Tony Chu, a cop who gets psychic impressions from what he eats, and is a tour of the culture of food. Hack/Slash (30 issues at £0.59) takes place in the world of horror movies, where Cassie Hack is the lone girl survivor… who starts pursuing and killing off movie-style villains. Locke and Key (by Joe Hill, Comics + app, 9 issues at £1.19), is a very Hill-esque serious American gothic about buried secrets.
Not available online, as far as I can find, is Phonogram, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s stories of magic fueled by pop music. It drags you back to your teenage years, when music is as important as magic, and should be on the reading list of every urban fantasy enthusiast.
Scott Pilgrim is, of course, about to become a movie phenomenon. The simple, emotional, storytelling of these volumes says everything about teenage life, and the conceit of Scott’s life being played out like a video game, plus his love Ramona’s habit of offhandedly skating off through ‘subspace’, make this part of our genre. Oni Press, who publish it, are another for the SF fan to look out for.
As are BOOM! Studios, for whom I freelance, but about whom it must honestly be said that they’re moving comics out of one particular genre. Check out BOOM Studios! where you’ll find such exciting fantasy/mystery books as The Unknown, and Chris Roberson’s
adaptation of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep.
There is, of course, a whole mountain of manga out there, of which my personal favourite is the recently-completed Fruits Basket, a powerful emotional fantasy about magic, curses, and love, and one of, I think, the greatest stories ever written in visual form, but I’ll leave it to more informed heads to give you a better selection of SF and fantasy titles in that field.
And I haven’t even mentioned translated European comics, such as those published by Cinebook. French comics are a world of their own, with a particular penchant for Hard SF.
David Petersen’s Eisner-award winning Mouse Guard is a beautiful piece of work that goes beyond talking animals.
2000AD has for decades now been the premier anthology of British SF, and now has a digital subscription offer. And Warren Ellis’s FreakAngels is widely regarded as *the* free online SF comic. I’ve tried to steer clear of free online comics in all my pimping for the medium, because I think they have an advantage in terms of SF fans being able to immediately see them, but as the above hopefully makes clear, those barriers are coming down, and FreakAngels is widely regarded as the leading example.
The above is just the tip of the iceberg. Please check out the original blogs for page samples and descriptions. And if you *do* fancy a bit of superheroics, then I have a lot more titles to recommend you. If you’d like to hear more about what’s out there, feel free to drop me a line at the blog with specific questions. And if you find you love a particular comic, then for goodness’ sake, tell other SF fans about it. There’s a whole world of quality waiting out there, and it’s never been easier to get to it.
A science fiction fan-specifically-should read Alan Moore’s Watchman, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, and Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. There are others, but five is a good number to start. There are, of course, plenty of examples of brilliant works of comic fiction that everyone should read (The Dark Knight Returns, Moonshadow, Elektra Assassin) but I tried to stick to comics that has strong SF themes. Moore’s comic is a brilliant piece of alternate history (among other things), Ghost in the Shell is an incredibly imagined near-future world (that directly inspired Joel Shepherd’s Cassandra Kresnov series, for one), Akira and Ghost both have been a heavy influence on American filmic SF, and Transmetropolitan is just brilliant SF. And The Invisibles combines Philip K Dick and Robert Anton Wilson in a way that will surprise fans of either.
For someone who had never read any SF, a fan could run up a short list of acknowledged masterpieces ‘they should read before they die’ (Dune, Ringworld, Foundation, Martian Chronicles etc). SF 101. You could easily do the same thing with comics (Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Stan and Jack on the FF, Sandman etc). The problem is the medium itself. The fact that SF (and F) and comics have a great deal in common (in terms of themes and subject matter) does not necessarily mean that if you like the former you’ll like the latter. You have to learn how comics work, how to enjoy them, how to read them. It sounds poncy, I know, but you’ve got to get the hang of them. There’s no point diving in at the deep end until you appreciate what comics do, because the chances are you’ll hate it (and you’ll spoil your experience of the deep end). Joyce’s Ulysses and Stern’s Tristram Shandy are both masterpieces of world literature, but I would not recommend either one to someone who has never read a book before. They’re classics that rely on you understanding their relationship to the medium. You’ve got to work your way towards them so you can delight in what they’re doing.
Any decent comic retailer knows his stuff and his stock, and can recommend things. Tell him (or her) what you like in SF, or reading in general. Start small, without making a huge investment in expensive trades: follow a few things every month, get into some good ongoing series and follow them monthly (you know, the way God intended), work out what you like and what you don’t like. Get the hang of comics as a reading experience. Don’t let the stuff you don’t like put you off the medium as a whole. Use the stuff you enjoy to guide you towards further reading (in terms of genres, characters, styles or creators you like). Branch out into trade paperback collections and a few of those acknowledged ‘must reads’.
Now you’re in the deep end and the water’s lovely.