Comic books have long been given a bad name by the general public, as they’re often considered to be kids’ stuff. Their bright colors, vibrant illustrations, and seemingly simplistic dialogue make an easy target for those who don’t understand them.
Adding to this already poor reputation, there are some comic books that don’t quite make it to “graphic novel” status and are considered just plain dumb, sometimes even by comic book fans.
Sadly, critics will often wrongfully call some of the world’s greatest— and smartest— comics stupid or childish, perhaps choosing to overlook the subtle connotations and symbolic choices made by the creators, which make the comics far more profound than first appears to the naked eye.
In these critics’ defence, perhaps they’ve never delved deeply enough into these comic series to learn that what might first seem “dumb” may actually be, for example, a psychological analysis into the brain of a lonely child, or a social commentary on office culture.
Whatever the comic and whomever the critic, there are some series that just plain don’t deserve to be on the “dumb” list. Here’s why.
Read on for the 15 Comics That You Thought Were Dumb But Are Actually Smart.
15. Calvin and Hobbes
The classic comic series by Bill Watterson based around a simple story about a boy and his imaginary tiger is, of course, entertaining, but unfortunately the comics are often likened to just that. Calvin and Hobbes remains of primary interest to children.
In truth, Calvin and Hobbes has become the focus of some academic analysis, as the character of six-year-old precocious Calvin is actually wise beyond his years, pondering on issues such as the environment, current events, education, and greater existentialist issues that humans have been faced with since time immemorial. Those who read more carefully will know that Calvin is actually named after a famous theologian, and Hobbes after a respected philosopher.
Sometimes, the simplest premises can provide the most intelligent discourse, and in the case of Calvin and Hobbes, this is definitely the case. If nothing else, the comic inspires children to get outside, adventure, and use their imagination, rather than sit in front of the television or a computer all day.
14. Archie Comics
Archie Comics are often considered trashy teen reads— if you even want to call them a “read.” And sure, for many readers, that’s all they will get out of the comics.
Yet read a little more in depth and you’ll find that these comic books are actually subtly clever in the best sort of ways.
For instance, in the original Archie Comics, the artists’ choice to create Betty as the ultimate dumb blonde and Veronica as the most one-dimensional mean girl was hilarious. In the later comics, while the girls become far less offensive, their vocabulary improves and we are taken on a whirlwind of female empowerment mixed with relatable teen angst.
Meanwhile, throughout the series’ existence, Hiram Lodge remains the funniest and smartest character, bringing readers insight into the flaky, fabulous, contradictory world of the uber-rich.
Sure, Archie Comics might be shallow to some. But if you read them enough, you’ll find yourself laughing at the subtle jokes and obvious references to everything under the sun, realizing that Archie and The Gang can be far cleverer than you think.
13. Scott Pilgrim
From an outsider’s perspective,Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim would surely be written off as pure teenage trash, if not entirely childish.
Yet the Scott Pilgrim series remains a satirical and intellectual masterpiece, capable of making fun of the culture it represents while still creating a relatable world for those who live just outside the box.
With regards to the illustrations themselves, while seemingly simplistic initially, subtle references hidden amongst the panels bring an unexpected angle, and the comic’s unique graphic style of neither Japanese nor American tradition brings something to the table that is entirely new.
Those who have looked down on Scott Pilgrim in the past have merely to develop a more scrupulous analysis, and will surely find a graphic novel bringing a whole new perspective on love, sex, relationships, and the self-absorbed mind of youth.
12. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Since transforming into a multi-million dollar franchise aimed at a younger audience, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has been given not necessarily a bad reputation, but definitely has been branded as a children’s comic.
In the beginning, though, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic was never meant for youngsters. Indeed, the Turtles would beat up the bad guys, swear, and even commit murder. The comics highlighted the experiences of disenfranchised parts of society, they hinted at futuristic dystopian possibilities, and brought up themes such as good vs. evil.
In fact, the creators, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, were not overly pleased with the “softened” Turtles that came about as the comics grew in popularity and found their audience with a younger demographic. Even at this new level, though, the comics are still smart— where else will you find four anthropomorphic turtles who are trained in “ninjutsu” while also being named after four of the most famous Renaissance artists in history?
11. The Boxcar Children
Based on the classic children’s novels The Boxcar Children, which were first published in 1924, this new take in the form of a graphic novel brings about a more simplistic version of this book series.
The storyline is about four children whose parents die, and although they are adopted by their grandfather, are fearful that he will try and separate the kids. So, they run away and find an abandoned boxcar which they turn into a home.
Sure, the graphic novel version of the story is a simplified version of the storybooks. But the panels provide a window into the wonderfully well-written world of these classic children’s novels. Touching on youth’s ability to imagine and create, as well as the intense history of the post-war 1920s and 1930s, the graphic novel version of these stories is a perfect method for garnering an interest in Gertrude Chandler Warner’s timeless novels.
10. The Vision
When the Marvel instalment of the Avenger Vision, titled The Vision, was published in 2015, readers were rolling their eyes, thinking to themselves, “another one?!”
Once readers learn to separate this Vision from the cheery android we met in Age of Ultron, they’ll discover the 12-book series, from Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta, is a masterpiece. Indeed, in this comic series, the Vision has had his memories erased, and is finding it extremely difficult to fit in with a society that is so clearly different from himself.
In the past, critics have accused The Avengers as being somewhat two-dimensional with predictable super hero plots wherein the mighty save the day. But The Vision brings us to a deeper— albeit darker— level, raising questions about artificial intelligence, and asking us to look inside ourselves for how we might treat AI in the future. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind superhero comic.
9. Cerebus the Aardvark
You might liken an aardvark to TV shows like Arthur— which, whatever you want to call it, it will probably not be called “smart.
Cerebus the Aardvark, on the other hand, can be certainly considered so! Despite coming off as a ridiculous kind of anthropomorphic aardvark— and the beginning of the series does indeed depict this— it soon takes a turn for the better.
More than just a comic about a barbarian aardvark, Dave Sim’s Cerebus the Aardvark is a comic series that brings up concepts like imperialism, matriarchal blood lines, the prisoner’s dilemma of politics, religious wars, and binaries like heaven and hell and good and evil.
8. The Flintstones Comics
Everyone knows the classic children’s television animated series The Flintstones. In this 2016 comic rendition of the original TV show from Mark Russell and Steve Pugh, the series takes a more adult twist, where monogamous marriage is frowned upon, racism is a thing even in the Stone Age, and concepts like animal rights and animal abuse are addressed.
The comic retains the world’s beloved characters, storylines, and settings, yet provides something that readers can connect with: relevant topics facing our societies today.
For undying fans of The Flintstones TV animated series, the unexpectedly profound comic rendition of this is arguably better than the show. The comics give more than just a taste of Fred Flintstone’s undying love for his wife, and Wilma is more than the one-dimensional character that we see in the TV show.
7. Kraven’s Last Hunt
With the release of several movie franchises and the commercialization of the Spider-Man brand to mostly children, readers are quick to forget one of the greatest, yet most underrated Spider-Man storyline, Kraven’s Last Hunt, from J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck.
Sure, you might not have recognized the comic book series as “dumb”, but rather barely recognized, forgetting that it existed at all.
No other Spider-Man series ever addressed Spidey’s character with such depth, delving into what makes Peter Parker truly Spider-Man, as opposed to the poser Kraven. Readers find themselves questioning reality vs. perception, and whether the two can ever be differentiated.
Lumberjanes could easily be lumped in with other shallow graphic novels aimed at tween girls. But read beyond the cover and you’ll find a profound look into the life of a teenage girl— which, as most of us know, is far more complex than depicted in most pop culture.
Noelle Stevenson’s Lumberjanes is an inclusive comic that features a transgender girl, a punk girl, and several physically strong girls, all of whom are extremely analytical, caring, and intelligent.
As a graphic novel, the Lumberjane Scouts are great role-models for any young girl looking for an alternative to the strict societal expectations put forth by our traditional society. On top of that, the comic series makes fun of several of these societal expectations, providing exceptional satirical relief and making for a relatable read.
If you visit Japan, you’ll be hard pressed to not see an image of the adorable Anpanman, a superhero who has a Japanese pastry called an anpan for a head, and is constantly busy saving the world from Baikinman the evil germ.
Despite being one of the most recognizable animated figures for children in Japan, Anmanpan also comes from an interesting historical background.
According to creator Takashi Yanase, he faced starvation several times during the period of World War II, and would, as a result, dream of eating anpan. This later served as his inspiration for the creation of the comics.
In each story, Anpanman must save the world from evil, representing justice in the face of corruption and darkness. Despite being focused on a basic story, the number and complexity of characters that the series has created is impressive, and a classic story of good vs. evil never gets old.
How many times have you flipped through the Sunday comic section and passed Dilbert because you just had to see what Garfield was doing on the other side of the paper.
Well, it turns out Scott Adams’ timeless masterpiece Dilbert is far more clever than you first thought, as a far-too-apt depiction of life in an office.
As a satire on office culture, Dilbert comments on the often ridiculous and pretentious nature of the corporate world, where egos get in the way of productivity, and flashy inventions blind bureaucrats from making smart decisions.
So, next time you pick up your Sunday paper, make sure not to skip past Dilbert. Give it another look, and you’ll find the comic is so much more than just simplistic drawings of people with their computers.
3. Swamp Thing
So maybe the title draws ridicule, and perhaps the site of a giant monster-type character with plants growing out of its head is hard to take seriously. But read beyond the cover and you’ll find Swamp Thing to be one of the most underrated DC Comics series of all time.
In fact, the 1980s saw high praise of this comic series, and creators Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, and John Totleben won awards for what they created: one of the original environmentalists.
Given that the character of Swamp Thing was first introduced in 1971, the fact that his mission was to protect his swamp and the environment more generally was a pretty progressive goal for back in the day.
In recent years, the comics have failed to achieve sufficient sales, and the possibility of a revival or a new series remains unlikely. Still, giving the emotional and intelligent Swamp Thing a chance is a great decision.
2. Scooby-Doo Team Up
If there is an animated series that you should rightfully be sick of by this point, then it’s probably Scooby-Doo. From Shaggy’s overly obvious stoner disposition to pretty much every other character’s annoying self-righteousness, your frustration is fully justified.
But Scooby-Doo Team Up remains the exception. In DC Comics’ most recent Scooby-Doo adaptation, readers will be delighted to find actual profound, three-dimensional characters, as Scooby and the gang interact with characters from other DC Comics series, including Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Superman—among others.
As the gang interact with more interesting characters, their own character development improves, and Shaggy presents himself as more than just a stoner, while Velma shows us that she is far more than just a know-it-all Brainiac.
1. Uncle Scrooge
A play on Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge character, Carl Bark’s Uncle Scrooge is the ultimate comic satire of the filthy rich.
Filled with puns about the avian species, these comics are chock-full of dry humor, with panels showing Uncle Scrooge diving gracefully into his swimming pool filled with money, going on long tirades about nickel-and-diming, and counting his money at every possible chance.
Look at the world today, and it’s not hard to draw links between the caricature of Uncle Scrooge and some of the crooks in the world today that will do anything to save money, usually at the expense of those less fortunate.
So you thought the Uncle Scrooge comic series was just another Disney creation, made for kids, and only for kids? Look again, and you might just find yourself turning the pages into a surprisingly introspective, and unsurprisingly hilarious take on one of the world’s richest ducks.
Did we miss a comic book that gets a bad rap when it’s actually pretty smart? Let us know in the comments!