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Graphic Fantasy: Catching up on Comics

Cheetos Hulk by Doug BloodworthStep into any forum, whether on Fantasy-Faction or another site, and conversation often turns to recommendations. “I liked X, but not Y. What should I pick up next?” Unless X and Y are really off the wall, the same handful of names pop up pretty much every time. And while I do try to suggest lesser known authors or works, today I want to go in a different direction all together: graphic novels. These never seem to get recommended, and that’s a shame because they contain some of the best genre fiction out there, combined with an incredible range of artwork. And if nothing else, from a pop culture point of view, isn’t it better to read the story before it becomes a movie or a TV show like The Walking Dead or Preacher?

So I’ve put together a little recommendation engine for comics. And for an added degree of difficulty, I’m going to avoid your typical superhero comics, and I’m going to stick to relatively new comics, not that you shouldn’t also pick up some classic fantasy comics like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series (the only comic to ever win a World Fantasy Award—you can find the winning issue, “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” in Volume 3 of the series) or Bill Willingham’s Fables series.

Saga - Chapter 1 (cover)I love science fantasy like Star Wars and Thundercats. What should I read?

Read Hugo-award winning Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. Two soldiers from opposite sides of a galactic war fall in love and run away to protect their child. There’s robotic royalty, sentient spaceships, magical weapons, and ghosts. It’s weird and beautiful and sad and sexy and violent. And it has some of the wildest and most original worldbuilding I’ve seen in a long time. Part Romeo and Juliet, part space opera, part WTF—if Saga doesn’t get you interested in comics, I don’t know what to tell you.

I like Star Wars, but I didn’t get enough Tatooine and Jakku. I like light sabers, but I prefer blasters.

Pick up Copperhead by Jay Faerber, Scott Godlewski, Ron Riley, and Thomas Mauer. Copperhead is the story of Clara Bronson, the new sheriff in a rough town on the edge of a backwater planet. Think of it as Justified on Tatooine/Jakku. There’s corruption, anger, outlaws, and several species all struggling to survive on the edge of nowhere.

I like weird westerns, alt history, and monsters.

Manifest Destiny (cover)Then you should pick up Manifest Destiny by Chris Dingess, Matthew Roberts, and Owen Gieni. This is the story—well, a story—of Lewis and Clark’s westward journey. President Lincoln has ostensibly sent them west from St. Louis to make their way to the Pacific coast. But in this world, Lewis and Clark also have a secret mission—to search out and destroy that monsters that they find along the way. It has many of the tropes of a weird western, even if the territory and time period is a little different from the typical weird western. This is a well-drawn comic that puts an interesting spin on the horrors (literal and fictional) of 19th century American attitudes without crossing the line into being didactic.

I also like weird westerns, but I want something really weird.

Grab a copy of East of West by Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta, and Frank Martin. This is more dystopian sci-fi than straight up fantasy, but let me try to sell you on this anyway. Imagine an alternate United States—one broken into seven parts: the Union, the Confederacy, the Kingdom of New Orleans, the Endless Nation, the Republic of Texas, the PRA of Mao, and Armistice (a no-man’s land in the middle of it all). The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse roam the earth, and their chosen elite are trying to bring about an end to that world. But War, Famine, and Conquest have to ride without Death, who is too busy seeking revenge on everyone who took away his human wife and their child. I know it sounds complicated, but think of it as Cowboys vs. the Book of Revelation. It’s a fascinating and layered story that draws you in deeper with every volume. And you did ask for something really weird, right?

I want something modern. Something more like X-Files.

Chew (cover)Then you should look at Chew by John Layman and Rob Guillory. Chew is the story of Tony Chu, a cibopathic detective—that is, he gets psychic impressions of the food he eats. He can tell you about the orchard an apple grew in and the cow that became his burger. And if he takes a bite of a corpse, he can solve the murder. He’s the newest member of the FDA’s Special Crimes Division, the most powerful law enforcement agency on the planet. Chew is shocking, funny, and bizarre, and it’s paired with a style of art all its own. The more you read, the more strange food-related powers (and puns) you’ll uncover as Chu goes from crime to crime and uncovers a larger conspiracy along the way.

Okay, how about a fantasy caper?

I’ve got you covered. Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky. I’ll admit, I felt weird walking around with a book with “Sex Criminals” on the cover. And I feel a little weird telling you that it’s about Suzie and Jon, two people who can freeze time when they orgasm. When they meet each other, they decide to use their ability to rob banks. I know, I know. It sounds crude and sophomoric. And it is. But it’s also very funny, heartfelt, and insightful when it comes to puberty, dating, relationships, love, and sexual hang-ups.

I want something dark. Give me a bit of horror and something grim.

Locke and Key 1 (cover)Okay, I’ll be honest. I’m going to cheat here. This comic—Locke & Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez—debuted in 2008. So it’s not, strictly speaking, recent. But it’s one of the most amazing, gorgeously drawn dark fantasy stories I’ve read in a long time. It’s the story of the Locke family’s move to Keyhouse after tragedy strikes. While they work to find a new normal, the Locke kids discover strange keys that unlock mysteries and special powers. And they come face to face with an ancient evil that is seeking a very special key to unlock the most terrible door of all. Normally, horror’s not really my thing. But I couldn’t put this series down. The words and images combine to form something gruesome, heartbreaking, and also hopeful, daring, and loving. Basically, I couldn’t write a post about comics and not include this one.

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So that’s it. And I’m sure there are many great comics that I overlooked. Please tell me about them in the comments below. I can’t claim to be an expert in comics. But I hope this gets a new conversation started and that comics start popping up in recommendation lists more often. It would be a shame for fantasy readers to miss out on the great stories comics contain.

Title image by Doug Bloodworth.

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One Comment

  1. Great list! I love comics and have not heard of any of these. I now have a list of comics to add to my huge list of books that are already piling up…

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