What makes a comic or graphic novel smart? It is an age old question that has haunted writers for decades. Some have moments of sheer brilliance, while others are far less challenging to their readers.
Arguably, there is plenty of material out there deemed revolutionary or thought-provoking by critics and fans alike. The question is: how? Are fascinating characters enough? Are some stories written well enough that they manage to remain distinct? Do the stories include relatable commentary that is a reflection of the audience's own experiences?
There are many questions at play. Something that is considered "smart" to one person may be considered the opposite to another, so we must contemplate each of these questions when asked about recommendations for a smart comic.
To be clear, some of the comics and graphic novels listed below have moments that are quite worthy of the praise they receive. However, before we pick up a shiny copy and proclaim it a masterpiece, let us dissect why some fans consider it to be a thought-provoking comic and why it should, in fact, be given a second glance.
Here are the 15 'Smart' Comics That Are Dumber Than You Realized.
Highly regarded as one of the greatest graphic novels ever written, Watchmen was published by comic guru Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in 1986 and 1987. It follows an era where the Cold War’s tensions have carried over into the 1980s, Richard Nixon is still president, and superheroes are banned from their practice.
So, why is it smart? It has some great characters, including Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan, who should have their own comic book spin-offs. It is also a social and political commentary regarding war and hope — something still very relevant today.
Why may it be considered dumb? First off, it is not nearly as smart as the writer thinks it is. It follows a conventional detective narrative, and the overall theme that only violence and destruction can establish appeasement is a bit morbid. This has been done several times over, particularly in The Day the Earth Stood Still.
The new CW series has put iZombie in high demand. Published by DC Comics under Vertigo, the series follow Liv Moore, a medical student-turned-zombie, who takes a job at a mortuary in order to satisfy her craving for human brains.
The story itself is pretty interesting, and certainly unheard of, but if The Full Circle edition (involving a competing skeeball game) has taught us anything, it is that, while the story is pretty original, it is not enough to carry over for a series of comics.
Even the CW series knows this, and has taken several liberties regarding the story and new character additions, particularly in the third season. The comics are still humorous and entertaining, but there needs to be a bit more background story for the character that carries over from edition to edition, other than her infatuation with bloody brains and accessing memories.
13 Spider-Man (Sins Past)
Many fans fell in love with the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, and each of the episodic adventures he encountered. However, the Sins Past storyline was more than a bit baffling. There’s not really much of the storyline that's likable, and overall it seemed like a cheap way of raising the stakes of danger.
In the story, Peter Parker receives a letter from Gwen Stacy, before her death, claiming that she had an affair with the Green Goblin. The product of which introduced Gabriel and Sarah Stacy, the half-twin siblings of Harry Osborn.
The Night Gwen Stacy Died is a truly brilliant, as it introduced a sense of danger to the comics, but some could not feel anything but robbed as this new edition seemed to come out of nowhere. It's lack of context and background gave it no legs to stand on, and it came out looking a lot less "smart" than the writers intended.
12 A Small Killing
A Small Killing is a lesser-known graphic novel by Alan Moore. It follows an advertisement executive, and delves into the deepest recesses of his mind while he seeks influence and power in a society that is not inclined to provide either.
Like Watchmen, A Small Killing is a commentary of the society we live in. It is highly concerned with the character of Timothy Hole and how society has impacted him, as opposed to focusing on society itself.
Moore and the graphic novel should be commemorated for pursuing this direction. However, the dissection of imagination and influence is not anything new as seen with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber, which it borrows heavily from.
This does not make it a dumb graphic novel, per say, but its comparisons to other similar stories are far too recognizable and it has little original content of its own.
11 Jonah Hex (All-Star Western Vol. 2)
The character of Jonah Hex deserved far better than what he received with the Josh Brolin movie adaptation. He takes justice into his own hands, and managed to redefine the western genre.
Luckily, creators John Albano and Tony DeZuniga saw potential in the character and made an entire series of comics surrounding him, since his first introduction to the comic book universe was a questionable one.
Jonah Hex was introduced in a short-lived comic series called All-Star Western's second volume, and was brought to life with El Diablo and Bat Lash.
At the time, he became nothing more than an antihero with zero wit and character to surpass his talent in gunslinging. The tenth comic of the second volume provided a soon-to-be-beloved character with a rough start, but no charisma to back it up. Jonah Hex could have been a far more interesting series if only more was added to the character.
10 Animal Man
At the same time that comic books were thriving in the late 1960s, so were animal rights. While people were jumping on the both bandwagons, DC Comics saw an opportunity to capitalize on current events in their Strange Adventures series.
While it was viewed as revolutionary at the time, it has become quite a dated story, and now seems like it was more of a cash grab than anything else (at least at the beginning).
Created by Dave Wood, Animal Man follows Buddy Baker as he obtains the power to mimic the abilities of various animals. It was a hard sell for a while, as the character never gained any traction in the first twenty years of its inception, and was reserved for supporting roles in the Wonder Woman comics.
Grant Morrison redefined the character in the 1980s and made the story campy and bright while staying true to its animal rights origins. However, even then, Animal Man had a hard time lifting off the ground, as the stories were exaggerated.
Satanik was truly revolutionary for its time. The Italian comic series follows a young woman who takes a chemical drug that turns her into a murderess. Many fans remember it most for its liberal views on sexuality, as Marny Bannister often uses her sexuality to lure in prey.
Beyond this, the comic also dove into other taboo subjects, such as cults, vampires, and the overall supernatural. It even inspired an Italian movie adaptation, which didn't resemble the comics at all.
So, why is it dumb? Aside from it being revolutionary, the series is not all very good -- it was mainly panned by critics it upon release. Arguably, those panning it may have been conservative readers who didn’t want to applaud such a comic, but once you’ve actually taken the time to read the series, it’s not as inspiring or empowering as one might think.
8 Superboy and the Legion of Super-Pets (Adventure Comics #293)
Superboy and the Legion of Super-Pets was another comic story that attempted to cater to the ever-growing animal rights movement of the 1960s. While they appeared in a variety of comics beforehand, Comet the super horse, Streaky the super cat, Krypto the super dog, and Beppo the super monkey were able to ban together in the #293 edition of Adventure Comics.
Aside from the extremely long name, the Super-Pet story is was strongly lacking. It follows alien creatures, known as the Brain-Globes of Rambat, who have the ability to brainwash their enemies. The Rambat plan to transfer Earth to their own solar system.
After defeating Superboy, the Rambat decide to stop brainwashing the Legion of Super-Heroes, who miraculously realize that the Rambat cannot brainwash animals. They then employ the Legion of Super-Pets to take the Rambat down.
Beyond the story being another cash grab, there are many inconsistencies, such as why the Rambant stop brainwashing the Legion of Super-Heroes after they’ve subdued Superboy. Why not keep them under their spell to take over the world?
Alan Moore's comics and graphic novels are questionable when they're considered as classics.
For one, his Miracleman issues are famous for being very difficult to obtain. Since it is in such high demand, fans often consider the series a classic, as opposed to a run-of-the-mil limitedly printed series.
Moore takes the conventional superhero and makes him one of the most violent characters ever to grace the universe, throwing away all morals and principles in the process. The unflinching use of blood and rage has made the issues personal favorites amongst many of its readers.
However, that is all Miracleman is: blood and anger. At the end of the day, there is little more to the character besides his violent impulses, which leads to a boring story.
6 Peepo Choo
A recent comic/manga series follows a youthful boy from Chicago who travels to Japan and meets a young woman, who wishes to travel to America. Both are trying to escape their current circumstances of gang and social violence, but end up getting wrapped up into more than they bargained for.
The series is well known overseas for its brutal depiction of social violence and critical views of pop culture. For that, the series is brilliant in its approach to realism, but not all that impressive when it comes to its characters.
We never really know what drives or motivates these characters. Once you get past the incredible illustrations and dialogue, there is nothing to the characters. Both the boy and the young woman are lacking any real reasoning behind their actions, which makes them clunky and unrealistic.
5 NFL SuperPro
As a poor attempt to latch onto football fans and enthusiasts, NFL SuperPro was a short-lived comic book series that Marvel would rather forget about.
It follows Phil Grayfield, who is tied up and robbed. He accidentally knocks over some chemical waste, which is lying around a football fan’s house, and becomes an unstoppable superhero, as well as the greatest football player ever.
Why is the series considered smart? Well, NFL SuperPro has surprisingly gained a cult following since its initial release, with many choosing to believe that the series isn't dumb, it's merely “misunderstood.”
In actuality, it is very understood and is, in fact, quite simple. It is a poor attempt at a cash-in on football fans. The story itself is lacking any real depth, and even a guest-appearance from Spider-Man couldn’t save it.
4 Spider-Man (Chameleon #336-338)
Dmitri Smerdyakov (or Chameleon) is a one of Spider-Man's supervillian and has a super corny storyline to boot.
The storyline follows Peter Parker’s resurrected parents. Richard and Mary Parker are brought back to life-- not really though-- in the form of two androids created by Harry Osborn and Chameleon.
In the poorest of attempts to create some more in-depth characterization for Peter Parker, a feat that is certainly admirable, the story ends up being a half-handed plot. Peter is forced to deal with the trauma of losing his parents and wanting them back in his life, while stopping their robot counterparts from causing destruction.
In the end, the edition goes in the wrong direction. Rather than using the story to develop the character of Peter Parker further, it delves into further ridiculousness (which is saying a lot, since the series is based on a teenager bitten by a radioactive spider).
3 Gotham Central
Gotham Central gets points for its out-of-the-box approach to the Batman universe, as well as for inspiring the series Gotham. It is the story of Batman and the crime-ridden streets of Gotham City, but told through the perspective of the GPD units.
While this is an interesting approach to the story of the Dark Knight, it is missing one thing: the Dark Knight himself. He does make some appearances, but when we want to see crime fighting in Gotham City, we want it to be done by Batman.
The series does have its moments of sincere creativity, as well as kudos for delving into LBGTQ issues in the form of detective Renee Montoya, but it is missing a whole slew of other elements, which are needed to make it as interesting as other Batman comics.
2 Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth
Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth is a graphic novel serialization about a child from Michigan who goes to see his father. The story is juxtaposed with another story that takes place at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition.
There’s a lot of history and copious amounts of stark humor, which creator Chris Ware is effective at depicting. There are also many things going on in the story, as Jimmy’s imagination runs rampant.
As flashbacks and references to superheroes and robots ensue, you’re left wondering whether Jimmy Corrigan really is the smartest kid on earth, or if the title is supposed to mean something else.
While the story is well-known for it being relatable to many comic fans trying to understand the escalations of life, it does make many fans question the meaning of "smartest."
1 Judge Dredd (2000 AD)
Though it may seem like a tough pill to swallow, the character of Judge Dredd is not much of a fan-favorite. He is a futuristic cop who takes on the role of judge, jury, and executioner, since citizens can no longer wait for the long, due process of the justice system.
The character of Judge Dredd is monotonous; we never really get the chance to look beyond his brutal killings to his real, inner character. Though there have been rare occasions where we’ve received brief snippets of his childhood and background, he still remains a mysterious character, hiding behind his helmet.
If your series relies on your main character going on an execution sprees from issue to issue, then you have to understand that you can only go so far with a good story.
Can you think of any other comics which aren't as smart as many fans believe? Let us know in the comments!