Where do we start with comics? In virtually every big town and city there is at least one store devoted to comic books. They line the shelves en masse, and there are literally thousands of titles available if you’re counting back issues and graphic novels. It is easy when trying to find something to stick to what we know– to go after a DC or Marvel book that has been or will be turned into a show or movie. But what is there after that?
If you really do your homework, you’ll maybe pick up Eisner or Harvey Award-winning books (the two most prestigious comic book awards). We recommend that you do! Great idea! If you’re looking for something a little more off-the-beaten-path, however, and you’re afraid to ask your local comic shop workers (don’t worry, they’re not all like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons) then we are happy to help with a few suggestions. Outside of one book (which won for Best Colorist), none of these titles won a Harvey or an Eisner. All the books are relatively recent (last 20 years) or are still current, and all of them should be easily available physically or digitally.
15. Moon Knight (Warren Ellis run)
Yes, the writers of Screen Rant definitely have a soft spot for the Fist of Khonshu. There is, however, good reason for that. Moon Knight is a fascinating case of a character who has transcended his origins to become more fascinating, arguably, than his influences. It is widely seen that Moon Knight is a derivative version of DC’s Batman. Unlike Batman, Moon Knight grapples with mental illness and split personalities (or does he?). And unlike Batman, Moon Knight operates as the avatar of the Egyptian god of the moon and travellers.
Perhaps no superhero was better suited for a revival at the hands of Warren Ellis (most famous for his gonzo journalist sci-fi dystopia comic Transmetropolitan). With the help of stark and gorgeous art from Declan Shalvey, Ellis explores multiple facets of the hero and his personas in his six-issue run. There are supernatural issues, there are gritty street-level issues, and we are treated to probably the greatest nearly-wordless comic of all-time. Issue 5 sees Mr. Knight (the dapper MK persona that wears the best costume in comics) rescue a kidnapped girl from an abandoned hotel where she’s held hostage by mobsters (think a comic version of The Raid).
If you want super-heroes but have done The Avengers or Justice League to death, Moon Knight is a great direction to go in. It should also be noted that Jeff Lemire’s current Moon Knight book is also pretty freaking great (and involves pyramids in New York City and space werewolves).
14. Rat Queens
Rat Queens is a book currently on hiatus (until the new issue/arc comes out in March 2017) because it has been embroiled in seemingly unending controversy. The original artist accompanying creator/writer Kurtis Wiebe, was involved in a domestic abuse issue – and that’s just the start of it.
What gets lost in all the admittedly serious issues of crime and abuse and personality is that Rat Queens is a seriously kickass book. The book is a fantasy title (with elves and swords and magic and whatnot), but with stunningly modern sensibilities. The titular group are an all-woman band of mercenary adventurers: the leader is a rockabilly necromancer named Hannah, Dee is a cleric whose former religion worships an evil Elder One squid-god, Violet is a dwarven warrior, and Betty is a halfling thief with a penchant for being adorable and off her mind on drugs. This is fantasy as you’ve never seen it, and there are some amazing original ideas inside the framework of the traditional setting. The characters have an undeniable chemistry with one another and the writing is stellar. The book is simultaneously funny, heartfelt, and adrenaline-pumping.
If you’ve had it with the typical super-hero fare, but aren’t quite ready to completely abandon the concept of super-heroes, look no further than the brilliant X-Force/X-Statix books by Peter Milligan and the powerhouse art couple of Mike and Laura Allred. In the ‘00s Marvel decided to ditch the whole Cable-and-company X-Force team for the book and, starting with issue 116, the new creative team introduced us to an all-new team with all-new heroes. It is also worth noting that X-Force #116 was the first main Earth-616 Marvel book to not have the Comics Code Authority stamp of approval on it.
In the book, super-heroes are big money and are huge celebrities (as would likely be the case if they were real). With celebrity comes clashing egos, double-crossing, and ulterior motives the likes of which reality show producers could only dream of. But with fame also comes danger, and no hero on the team is safe. Milligan and the Allreds (whose unique pop art style has to be seen to be believed) introduce us to a number of amazing characters: Gin Genie creates seismic waves based on the level of alcohol in her blood, Dead Girl is an actual undead girl who communicates with other dead people, Zeitgeist vomits acid, Mister Sensitive has senses so highly attuned that just existing causes him pain (until Professor X creates a dampening suit), and Doop is… Doop. Including a Dead Girl mini, there are just 44 issues of this brilliance to digest.
12. God Hates Astronauts
We have absolutely no idea where to begin with God Hates Astronauts. The book is about as bonkers as a comic can be while still making (a tiny bit of) sense. Written and drawn by Ryan Browne, God Hates Astronauts is a brilliant satire of the usual comic book weirdness that happens in superhero books– going so over-the-top with its bizarre-ness that it’s impossible not to laugh at it all.
What other book features Montel Williams as a superhero couples counselor? What other book recruits a parody of Carl Winslow from Family Matters (named Gnarled Winslow) into its super team? We really don’t want to give too much away, but the best way to describe the book is to describe the transformation of the main character, Star Fighter, into Star Grass. Star Fighter is your typical Superman-ish hero. In a fight with arch villain John L. Sullivan (the historical figure boxer), Star Fighter’s head gets so badly damaged that it becomes a gigantic deformed balloon… which disgusts his wife/teammate Starrior to the point of needing counseling. While there she falls for a cowboy named Texas Tom, who’s haunted by a deathly jealous disembodied ghost head of his former cow. Tom shoots Star Fighter’s balloon head, popping it, after he and Starrior are found out. Star Fighter then puts the cow’s head on his own to become Star Grass.
Eric Powell, famous for his long-running (and recently ended) comic book The Goon, has very recently re-launched his own comic book company called Albatross Funnybooks. Alongside a retro horror anthology called Spook House Albatross is releasing Powell’s newest ongoing, Hillbilly. Like The Goon before it, Hillbilly is big on the funny but is not afraid to get very grim and tragic.
Hillbilly follows an Appalachian mountain man named Rondel, who was born without eyes. As a child Rondel was manipulated by a witch (who also cut holes in his face where eyes ought to be, causing his face to be permanently stained by black tears). Following the witch’s deception Rondel took up The Devil’s Cleaver, a giant meat cleaver once belonging to the devil himself, intent on hunting down all the witches of the world with it.
The book plays out in the form of a series of stories that feel as though they are all old Appalachian folktales and legends… and they may well be. Characters have an innate understanding that not all is what it seems up in the mountains, and that a talking animal or a curse is just as likely as water running down a stream. Powell’s iconic art and flair for antiquated dialog make this book a true standout. Whether you’re familiar or not with The Goon or Powell’s other fine work (we also recommend Billy the Kid’s Old-Timey Oddities and his run of Big Trouble in Little China), be sure to check out Hillbilly.
Want more zombies in your life but don’t know where to go after The Walking Dead? While the Night of the Living Dead books from Avatar are horrific and the Afterlife With Archie books earn every ounce of their praise, we will happily recommend Mark Kidwell’s long-running ‘68. The series features some pretty striking art from several artists including Jeff Zornow and Jay Fotos– and it’s certainly not shy about heaping on the gore.
The concept behind the book is that in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, zombies begin appearing in the middle of the conflict. It seems to have started with the Vietcong coming back to life… but brain-eating takes no sides and soon the Americans and the NVA have to cooperate to hold back the undead. To make matters worse the zombies are still capable of firing their weapons. If this all weren’t bad enough, zombies have also appeared on American soil to affect the American way of life and disrupt the protests over the war.
The horrors of war are never more horrific than when your fallen enemy gets right back up to try to finish their job. This book is heavy on action and heavy on bloodshed in all the right ways. To make the book even better, Kidwell supplements the stories with actual factual documents about the Vietnam War and its ins-and-outs.
9. Jersey Gods
Jersey Gods was an unfairly short-lived series published by Image Comics. The book ran for a total of 12 issues from 2009 to 2010. Written by Glen Brunswick and featuring art from the talented Dan McDaid (cover art was done by the Allreds as well as John Romita, Jr., Darwyn Cooke, and others), the book followed the burgeoning romance between an Earth girl from Jersey and a space god in the vein of a Jack Kirby creation.
Zoe is a Jersey girl through and through, with aspirations of living the high life in New York. When she comes under attack in a shopping mall by a renegade space god from an opposing faction, Barock and his friend Helius fly down to the rescue. Zoe and Barock quickly fall for each other, and Barock relocates from outer space and his home planet of Neboron to New Jersey. The fight between Barock’s Walkers and the opposing Orbiters does not let him live in peace, and soon Zoe is dragged into this ongoing cosmic struggle. An adorable fish-out-of-water romantic comedy featuring interestingly-designed super beings from another world was a breath of fresh air both then and now in the comic world. Be sure to pick it up for some lighter reading fare.
8. Relish: My Life In The Kitchen
Relish is an all-ages book that requires no knowledge or specific interests to enjoy. All you need is a heart and a stomach. The book is part autobiography, part food encyclopedia, and part cookbook. Writer/artist Lucy Knisley explores her life and her relationship with her family through the miracle of good food. Knisley’s mother is a caterer/chef/farmer’s market seller, and virtually everyone Knisley grew up around had a passion for food in one way or another.
Relish is about as twee as a comic can get, and it is refreshing to see something so genuine and light-hearted and balanced. Whenever she mentions a dish that meant something in her life, Knisley makes a fully illustrated recipe page for it– allowing you to experience firsthand what marked an important moment or emotion for her. She also fills the book with tips on cooking (like how to properly saute mushrooms) and explanations about food (like explaining cheese as only a cheesemonger can). Relish is an enjoyable read and makes for a tremendous all-purpose gift for anyone in your life. Just be sure to bring your appetite!
7. Sweet Tooth
Our only entry from Vertigo, the mature publishing imprint of DC Comics (be sure to check out other Vertigo titles, as there are far more hits than misses there), is a recently ended series from rising comics superstar Jeff Lemire. Lemire both wrote and drew the series, which ran for 40 issues.
The comic is a post-apocalyptic story of redemption and desperation and retaining your humanity when the world attempts to snuff it out. Jeppard is a grizzled wanderer in the decimation that stumbles upon a boy named Gus in the woods. Gus is like the other children of the world, in that he was born part-animal/part-human and a little lacking in the smarts department (Gus is part-deer and has antlers). Jeppard takes Gus with him as they fend off roaming gangs, cultists, and shady military people. Sweet Tooth is beautifully drawn and written, and is guaranteed to make you smile as well as make you cry. The sadness that the book can evoke can feel like a literal punch to your stomach, but it is tempered by hope and an all-too-human story of bonding in an all-too-inhuman future.
6. American Barbarian
Tom Scioli has carved out one hell of a career for himself given his unique aesthetic. The best way to describe Scioli’s work is to imagine locking a teenage boy in a room with nothing but Jack Kirby comics, ‘80s cartoons, a mismatched crayon set, and a blotter sheet of acid. And we mean that as a compliment. Scioli is best known for his series Transformers vs G.I. Joe which is every bit as enjoyable as it sounds.
American Barbarian began as a free webcomic (it is no longer available for free, but has been collected by IDW). In a post-apocalyptic world, a barbarian (with red, white, and blue hair) does battle with everything from cyborg dinosaurs to mutants in order to wreak revenge for the death of his family. The big bad behind it all is an immortal pharaoh named Two-Tank Omen (he is gigantic and yellow and has two actual tanks for feet). The comic is bananas, but it is gorgeous, and brings with it a warped sense of the madness that comics could have been had they grown out and not grown up.
If you’re not familiar with any Filipino comics, you’re not alone. Truth be told, there haven’t been that many to come stateside with any real publicity. Luckily for all of us, though, Elmer (written and drawn by Gerry Alanguilan who, to be fair, was already an established presence in American comics by the time this book came out) is an exception. Elmer is a touching, funny, and depressing examination of the life of Jake Gallo. His life seems to be in shambles: he can’t get a job, can’t get along in society, and has problems with his love life.
Jake Gallo is also a chicken. In the world of Elmer chickens gained human intelligence and the ability to talk in the late ‘70s, and have since been granted status as humans and equals to man by the United Nations. Jake’s father, Elmer, dies and leaves his diary to Jake. The diary chronicles the early days of chicken intelligence and the struggles that came with it and trying to raise a family in that kind of a situation. The book goes back and forth between Jake coping with life and his father’s death and with the events of the diary. Needless to say, there are several parallels between the fight for chicken acceptance and other civil rights battles. The absurdity of the premise is washed away by Alanguilan’s deft writing and his stirring black-and-white images. Elmer is a graphic novel that will stick with you for years after you’ve read it.
4. The Manhattan Projects
By now, Jonathan Hickman is a household name in the comics world. Hickman guided the Fantastic Four and the Avengers through the lead-up and aftermath of the Marvel Universe-affecting ‘Secret Wars’ event. He is also the mind behind Image’s hit sci-fi western East of West and Avatar’s cult phenomenon God Is Dead. Our favorite of Hickman’s work, however, is the recently wrapped-up series for Image called The Manhattan Projects. In fact, we like it so much that we made an exception to our “no Harvey/Eisner” rule and included this, even though it won an Eisner for Best Colorist for Jordie Bellaire.
The Manhattan Projects explores the famous group of scientists responsible for creating the atomic bomb… only the atomic bomb is the least crazy thing that they are involved with. The scientists are heavily fictionalized (we hope): Joseph Oppenheimer has a cannibalistic evil twin brother, Fermi is an alien, Wernher von Braun is more machine than man, and we don’t even want to mention the deal with Einstein and the U.S presidents!
The art by Nick Pitarra is cartoonish and unlike anything you’ve seen; and it contributes just as greatly as the writing to the sense of the amazing and unexpected that the book conveys (especially the genius Oppenheimer War issues). The book began to lose momentum and fall apart a bit after a hiatus in its publication (we assume because of Hickman’s Marvel responsibilities), but the bulk of the 29 issues in the series are solid gold.
3. Bottomless Belly Button
Any lover of intelligent arthouse comedies from the likes of Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, and Whit Stillman will be sure to fall head over heels for Bottomless Belly Button by the precocious Dash Shaw (the writer and artist was just 25 when the book came out). Even if that sort of introspective everyday life approach isn’t your bag, it is more than worth your time to pore over the 720 page graphic novel (we know the page count sounds nuts, but trust us, it goes just as quickly as you’d want it to).
The book follows the Loony Family during a beach house vacation, during which the grandparents of the family announce their divorce. Most of the book follows the children of the couple as they come to terms with the problems in their own lives and reconcile their parents’ divorce. Shaw holds a complete mastery over creating meditative spaces and realistic settings for the story to unfold. Every moment, no matter how artfully it is portrayed, holds a humanity that most writers would only dare to dream of.
Despite a fixation with what they considered unnecessary and distracting nudity, the New York Times called the book “very compelling” in a largely positive review. In our expert opinion, graphic novels do not come better than Bottomless Belly Button. This book ought to be required reading in school.
2. The Humans
The Humans is a rollicking and riotous comic that takes place in Bakersfield, California during the 1970s, and follows a biker gang called The Humans. The big difference between our ‘70s and the book’s ‘70s is that the world we’re reading about is a world run by humanoid apes. Actual humans do exist in their world, but are treated like animals and slaves and seem to have animal-like intelligence. The reason behind this is never explained and probably never will be in subsequent issues (and we hope it never is).
The Humans are involved in a drug-running operation run by a shady orangutan named Abe Simian, when the leader of the gang’s brother, Johnny, unexpectedly comes back from Vietnam (after being presumed dead). The writing of Keenan Marshall Keller doesn’t pull any punches and is full of great action and absurd, but fitting, situations for an over-the-top biker gang. The art from Tom Neely (famous in indie circles for Henry And Glenn Forever, which is a fictionalized account of punk legends Henry Rollins and Glenn Danzig in a relationship with each other) is sharp and wild at the same time; bursting with psychedelia and violence. The book features some of the most gorgeous two-page splashes in comic history, and Neely is able to make us feel guilty for finding his ape women so sexy. If that’s not enough to convert you, they also curate a soundtrack for the book of garage punk bands, and sell club patches for the gang.
1. The Sixth Gun
As epic a book as you’ll ever find, The Sixth Gun is deserving of far more attention than it’s ever garnered. Written by Cullen Bunn (who’s currently helming the Marvel mega-event Monsters Unleashed, and regularly writes all the Deadpool minis that have come out recently and been highly entertaining) and drawn by Brian Hurtt and Tyler Crook, the series falls into what is known as the ‘Weird West’ genre. That is, to say, that it takes place in a version of the Wild West where the supernatural or the fantastic exists. The book ran for 50 issues of the main series and spun off 4 different mini-series that fleshed out the stories of some of the characters. It has been turned into a tabletop roleplaying game, and was ordered to a pilot that NBC eventually passed on.
The story revolves (no pun intended) six magical revolver pistols that each have their own magical properties. The powers range from inflicting a flesh-eating plague to calling up clay versions of all the people the gun has killed to seeing the future. A farmer’s daughter accidentally bonds to the sixth gun (the seeing-the-future gun) and she becomes the target for sinister forces, most notably a gang led by an undead Confederate general and his immortal wife. The book artfully weaves folktales, Native American myths, and voodoo lore into a terrifying version of what the world could be. We love everything about this book, and can’t recommend it enough!
There is an overabundance of great and imaginative comics out there that aren’t getting turned into movies or shows. Which ones would you like to see us highlight next?