We are living in a golden age of comics. No, not because Superman is being a dick or Batman is fending off the Joker’s boners; the sheer variety and quality of comics on the shelves right now is staggering. For example, right now I am reading a take on Apocalypse Now starring a lesbian werewolf; my wife is reading a zany comedy about three young women starting college in England; and my stepdaughter is reading the story of a princess who gets sick of waiting for princes and decides to save herself. There’s truly something for everybody, but there are so many options out there it can be tricky to keep up with which are the best. With that in mind, here are a few of my favorite comics right now. I’m sorting them by category, so you can find what interests you the most, and also because a lot of the books I read fit into these certain types. Please list a few of your own favorites in the comments–I’m always looking for great new things to read!
Best Superhero Comic: Ms. Marvel
Let’s start with the capes–or in her case, the ridiculously awesome scarf. How could I pick anyone else but Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel? Discounting Marvel’s change in numbering, Ms. Marvel has been running for 24 issues so far, and every single one of them has been excellent. Whether coming to terms with her identity as a Pakistani-American superhero (although she is so much more than that), teaming up with Wolverine (about whom she also writes fanfiction), or finding her place as a New Avenger, Kamala’s adventures are an equal mixture of exciting, funny, and heartfelt. I need to give writer G. Willow Wilson enormous credit for bringing in real-world issues like discrimination and gentrification in thoughtful and subtle ways that never feel forced or preachy. Relatable but inspiring, Ms. Marvel is the apex of what superheroes–and superhero comics–should be.
Honorable Mentions: I have always been a sucker for Batman, and Snyder and Capullo’s run on the series has been excellent. They are not afraid to go some very strange places (motorcycle Batman wrestling a lion? Jim Gordon in robot armor as the new Batman?), but they stay true to their vision of what Batman and Gotham City stand for, throughout. Another of my favorite superhero comics is…
Best Humor Comic: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl
Okay, so I may be cheating here–this is another superhero comic, and another Marvel one, to boot. But seriously–if you are not reading this comic, I feel sorry for you. Squirrel Girl‘s irrepressible optimism and enthusiasm are a joy to behold (“What, you think I won’t fight a dinosaur? Are you crazy? All I want to do is fight dinosaurs“). And almost every issue has me laughing out loud–the “Deadpool’s Guide to Supervillains” collectible trading cards and Ryan North’s wry observations at the bottom of each page are particular highlights. Squirrel Girl truly is Unbeatable–she has already taken on Galactus and Doctor Doom, and will be beating up the whole Marvel Universe later this year–but finding out what creative and hilarious ways she will find to triumph makes this comic endlessly entertaining. Unless you hate joy and fun, you need to read Squirrel Girl.
Honorable Mentions: It’s only getting started, but the cute and colorful Patsy Walker, AKA Hellcat! comic rounds out this trifecta of funny Marvel heroines nicely. Giant Days is very different from my usual fare, but the great interplay between its funny characters always makes me smile.
Best Horror Comic: Harrow County
There are a lot of great horror comics out now, but Harrow County gets my vote because it has heart as well as horror, and writing and art working brilliantly together. Tyler Crook’s watercolors have a softness and beauty that contrasts with the dark subject matter, but also captures its horror and grotesquerie. Cullen Bunn perfectly captures the mood of backwoods horror, of “countless haints” lying in wait within every hollow. But unlike some horror comics, Harrow County isn’t simply a parade of terrors: the protagonist, Emmy, is a complex and sympathetic character who truly wants to be a good person, despite her evil ancestry. You can read the first issue of Harrow Country for free online, and if you are at all interested in horror, I could not recommend it more highly.
Honorable Mentions: The October Faction, about a family of monster-hunters, is worth the price of admission for the art alone: it’s like walking into a lost Tim Burton film. Survivors’ Club, about a killer video game, reads like someone put six different horror movies into a blender, and the results are enormous fun. I would have a hard time recommending Alan Moore’s Providence to anyone who is not a Lovecraft buff–but I am, and I eat it up.
Best Science Fiction Comic: Bitch Planet
I would argue that Ms. Marvel, Squirrel Girl, and Harrow County are all feminist comics, to varying degrees. But Bitch Planet slaps you in the face with its feminism, and that is what makes it so great. Set in the not-to-distant-future on a prison world for “Noncompliant” women, Bitch Planet is a true dystopia, and that dystopia is patriarchy. Audre Lord wrote that “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” but in this comic Kelly Sue Deonnick brilliantly subverts the language and style of the grindhouse “Women in Prison” films of the 1970s. While these films typically objectified and dehumanized women, Bitch Planet flips the script to show us the prisoners’ inherent humanity and nobility. I also need to praise the Bitch Planet‘s back matter, some of the best I have ever seen. Each issue is jam-packed with thoughtful commentary, feminist editorials, in-depth conversation, pictures, tweets–even a Noncompliant crafting guide in the most recent issue!
Honorable Mentions: It would be criminal not to mention Saga, which is still as beautiful, heartbreaking , and creative as ever four years in. Everyone should read this comic. I am also enjoying Descender, Jeff Lemire’s science fiction epic about a robot boy. Think Stanley Kubrick’s A.I., if it was much better.
Best Fantasy Comic: Monstress
Oh my god, the art. Sana Takeda’s art for Monstress is simply gorgeous: beautiful, intricate, detailed–I feel like I could get lost in it for days. This art fleshes out the already fascinating and creative world created by Marjorie Liu, which takes more cues from steampunk and anime than Tolkien (I love Tolkien as much as the next guy, but every once in a while, it’s nice to see something different). Although we are only 4 issues into Monstress, the massive 66-page first issue immediately plunged us into this world with a riveting jailbreak executed by Maika and the mysterious monster inside her. The pace has not slackened yet, and with its superior art and worldbuilding, I am excited to see where Monstress takes us next.
Honorable Mentions: Speaking of epic fantasies with great art, Mike del Mundo’s work on Weirdworld is a sight to behold. The characters are fun and the world amusingly strange, but I want to hang the art on my walls. The Spire has some of the most fascinating and creative worldbuilding I have seen, creating a massive city of strange characters and creatures; highly recommended for fans of China Mieville.
Best Apocalypse Now, But With Lesbian Werewolves Comic: Cry Havoc
You had me at Apocalypse Now, but with lesbian werewolves. In all seriousness, despite the strange premise, this comic is exploring some extremely interesting ideas. Relocating the search for a renegade general with dreams of godhood to war-torn Afghanistan changes the meaning and relevance of the story. And the most recent issue suggests that this comic is interested in even deeper questions of narrative and mythology, how they shape us and are shaped by us. Besides, any comic that comes with endnotes needs to be taken seriously, right?
Honorable Mentions: Frankly, this pretty much sweeps the category; although Wolf is closer than you might think.
My intention with this list was just to share some of my favorite comics currently on the stands; looking over my picks, I’m surprised to see I could just as easily have called my list “6 Comics with Awesome Female Heroes.” My first response is that this is just an odd, interesting coincidence. But as I think about it more, it’s actually pretty awesome. After spending so long as a boys’ club, comics have started to embrace different characters, authors, artists, and audiences. The women in these comics are heroic, funny, scary, challenging, and refreshingly human–even when they are part monster. There will always be a space for Batman, but I ‘m thankful to be reading comics at a time when there are such diverse characters and stories available.
When I heard about a new comics miniseries connecting the Star Wars Original Trilogy to The Force Awakens, I got excited. Seeing all my favorite characters again in a new story? Building up to the new Star Wars film, and maybe dropping a few secrets and clues in the process? Sign me up! I rushed to the comics shop to pick up Shattered Empire the day it hit the stands. Alas, it did not live up to my expectations.
Shattered Empire #1 begins not after Return of the Jedi, but right at the climax of the story. After an introduction in the classic trapezoidal scrawl, we are dropped right into the battle around the second Death Star, and we immediately see the comic’s greatest strength (the art) and its greatest weakness (the story). Marco Checcheto’s dynamic art captures the breathless excitement of the space battles, and his character work is recognizable but stylized. The comic is almost worth picking up for the art alone. However, the script lets him down. The comic’s first line is “Green Six, two coming in three-mark-seven!” This dialogue is true to the space battles in the films, but it’s also a terrible way to introduce us to the story and characters. When Luke attacks the Death Star at the climax of A New Hope, we have some sense of who he and his team are and what motivates them. Here, we’re introduced to new characters with a confusing jumble of names and callsigns.
Emphasis on new characters. After the battle, the story focuses in on two of the pilots for the Rebel Alliance, Shara Bey and her husband Kes Dameron. I’d been hoping for a story about Luke and Leia, Han and Chewie, and their adventures after the Battle of Endor–and the comic’s cover, which shows these characters reunited and smiling, certainly capitalizes on that nostalgia. But although they all make cameo appearances in the comic, this is clearly not their story. This wouldn’t be such an issue if Shara and Kes were interesting characters in their own right, but they are not. Shara receives little development outside of “good pilot, loves her husband;” and Kes, who bizarrely tells his wife “I was thinking we need to find a nice planet and build a house” before rushing into battle, couldn’t have a target printed on him more clearly if he was one day away from retirement.
More than anything, Shattered Empire reminds me of The Truce at Bakura–that bizarre Expanded Universe story where the heroes of Star Wars rushed off to fight space-velociraptors before Darth Vader’s ashes had a chance to cool (it, um, wasn’t the best of the Expanded Universe). Alas, Shattered Empire has no Jedi-on-dinosaur action, but what the stories have in common is a need to tell the next story instead of a good story. They’re filling in gaps that aren’t really all that important or all that interesting–something the Star Wars franchise has certainly been guilty of before. After Shara and Kes help destroy the Death Star and return to Endor, they rush to the far side of the moon to finish off another Imperial base. They already saved the galaxy: now they’re just cleaning up leftovers. With weak characters and a weak story, it’s difficult to recommend Shattered Empire, even with the terrific art. I’m just hoping that The Force Awakens offers higher stakes and more compelling characters when it arrives this December.
In fairness, Shattered Empire #1 has a lot working against it. As a first issue, it has to introduce us to the characters and story, and make us want to read more. As a licensed Star Wars product, you know it must have faced severe restrictions on what it could reveal and what it could depict. A lot of talented people worked on it, and honestly, we’re probably lucky it ended up as good as it did. I just wish it has something to add to the Star Wars mythos, instead of riding its coattails. The force is not strong with Shattered Empire, and this particular Star Wars fan will be waiting for The Force Awakens to see what happens next.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.
Plutona #1 won me over when the fat kid told the bully to fuck off.
At first glance, this new comic by Jeff Lemire and Emi Lennox looked like an all-ages, super-powered take on Stand By Me, where a diverse group of kids stumble across the body of a famous superhero (the titular Plutona). The art by Emi Lennox is cartoony and welcoming, with plenty of soft pastels and autumnal colors. The main characters are all in middle school, and at first they seem like a collection of teenage archetypes straight out of The Breakfast Club: the nerd (Teddy), the bully (Ray), the fat kid (Diane), the weirdo (Mie), the annoying kid brother (Mike). A few pages in, I thought I had a good idea what to expect.
But that started to change the moment Diane told Ray to fuck off. Suddenly, I wasn’t reading a book for kids–I was reading a book about kids. They were talking like real teenagers, not what adult writers think teenagers talk like. Each of the kids has his or her own unique voice, and while they may start out as stereotypes, they are already beginning to seem more real and developed: Diane is trying to find an identity for herself. Mie is kind of a shitty friend. Beneath the bright and accessible art there is an underlying darkness, visible in the flies crawling over Plutona’s body and the beer cans stacked by Ray’s unconscious father. Plutona isn’t quite what I expected, and I am looking forward to seeing more.
Also worth noting is Lemire’s work with panel layouts, so innovative and brilliant in Trillium. Although it is never distracting, Lemire’s play with the comics form helps develop the characters and story. For example, Lemire and Lennox introduce each of the four main characters in four consecutive pages with nearly identical layouts (the first, our introduction to Teddy, is above). Seeing their different lives presented in such a similar way highlights the differences and similarities between them, and effectively dumps readers into the middle of their often complicated lives.
Rating; 4 out of 5 stars