10 Comic Book Series For People Who Don't Read Comic Books
Comic books started as just kid stuff but after World War 2 they gained an adult audience for the first time. Soldiers read comics while overseas as a form of cheap entertainment. As a result, comics catering to adult readers became more common. Violent horror comics and crime comics became a staple, until parents groups and congress stepped in to shut them down. In the 60s comic books re-embraced superheroes and have never looked back. While “underground” comics began to pop up around the same time, the mainstream didn’t make comic books for adults a priority until the late 80s and early 90s. Still, if it isn’t about superheroes most series get cancelled. While there have been many graphic novels that have gained mainstream recognition this is a list of ten comic book series that even people who wouldn’t normally read comic books could love.
AMERICAN SPLENDOR (1976-2008)
Made more famous by the 2003 film starring Paul Giamatti, Cleveland native Harvey Pekar came up with a novel idea for a comic book after he became friends with underground artist Robert Crumb. Being influenced by the writing of Henry Miller and other autobiographical novelists, he decided to put together a comic book of his life. Since mainstream comics were all about superheroes and underground comics were surreal and outrageous, a realistic comic seemed absolutely nuts. Crumb drew the early issues but over the years Pekar worked with a number of talented artists. After the movie increased his popularity, DC comics put Pekar under contract and he produced new issues of American Splendor for them, as well as graphic novels like The Quitter.
THE SANDMAN (1989-1996)
Before he was an award winning fantasy novelist, Neil Gaiman made his breakthrough with comics. Sandman was the first series of DC comics Vertigo imprint and it became an instant hit. The story follows the king of dreams, who had been imprisoned or years by a man who wanted to capture his sister death, and his return to freedom and reclaiming of his place in the Universe. What it is really about is this immortal beings slow development of an understanding of human feelings. While he continues to write comics, Gaiman has never returned to writing a full ongoing series again. Sandman has been slated to become a film for years but no writer has yet to be able to recreate Gaiman’s universe in a screenplay.
STRANGERS IN PARADISE (1994-2007)
Starting as a miniseries of only three issues, Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise may be the least likely comic book success ever. Moore wrote and drew the story of Katina “Katchoo” Choovanski, Francine Peters and David Quin, beginning as an offbeat love triangle but as the series progressed over 106 issues it went to some truly strange places, mixing tones from melodrama, farce, thriller and cerebral metafiction. At the beginning of the series Katchoo and Francine are best friends and roommates. Katchoo has always been in love with Francine since high school but Francine is stuck on her sleazy boyfriend Freddie. What Francine doesn’t know is that when Katchoo ran away from home after high school she had a secret and dangerous life that she is now running away from. Enter David, a seemingly nice guy who falls for Katchoo, even though she loves Francine, and also has a dark secret of his own. Got it! That is just how the series begins. Strangers in Paradise, takes the entire idea of romance comics (once a popular genre) and turns it completely on its head and then keeps spinning. The series has won many awards for its realistic portrayal of gay and bi-sexual relationships and may be the only comic book series in contemporary history to be able to boast a larger female than male readership.
When Sandman was coming to an end, Vertigo needed another flagship title to take its place. The result was Preacher, a violent and blasphemous mix of Western, Horror and Religious tropes that followed Jessie Custer, a young man raised by his abusive grandmother to be a Preacher but who discovers that he shares his body with a supernatural being. Add in his gun totting girlfriend Tulip, and a vampire sidekick, Cassidy and you have one of the most popular and acclaimed comic books of all time. Co-creator Garth Ennis has previously written graphic novels about religion in his native Ireland and also written for the violent UK series Judge Dredd. Here he combines the two, aided by artist Steve Dillon who was asked to draw some of the most outrageous visuals in modern comics, while grounding his characters in the real world of modern Texas.
100 BULLETS (1999-2009)
Vertigo’s 100 Bullets has the kind of premise that sounds like a twilight zone episode. A mysterious stranger shows up and offers a wronged person weapons and 100 bullets. They are assured that they can do whatever they want with these weapons, legal and illegal and nothing will happen to them, including no authorities come looking for them. This high concept premise is good enough to sustain one hell of a movie, but as a premise for a series writer Brian Azzarello and Artist Eduardo Risso were able to explore it using seemingly endless variations of the story. Over 100 issues, the series began to explore the origins of the mysterious agent and why he gives people their 100 bullets to play with. With as many mysteries as popular television shows like Lost, I can assure you that 100 Bullets has a satisfying ending.
Y THE LAST MAN (2002-2008)
This Vertigo series from writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Pia Guerra has one hell of a premise as well. A virus suddenly kills every man or male mammal on the planet, except for Yorick Brown and his pet monkey, Ampersand. Since he is the key to saving the human race the new president sends him and Agent 355, his bodyguard, to find Dr. Alison Mann, the one scientist who may be able to figure out how he was able to survive. Vaughan has said that the series was meant to subvert the fantasy of being the one man in a world of only women. He has also called it a coming of age story, or how the last boy on earth becomes the last man. The series has far more going for it than that. Through this brilliant sci-fi idea Vaughan and Guerra are able to explore how much gender roles define who we are and modern society.
Probably the closest that Vertigo has come to recreating the kind of fantasy series that the Sandman perfected, Fables is also the brainchild of a fantasy writer, this time Bill Willingham. The premise is that fairy tale characters have been forced out of their world and into ours. As such, they set up shop in New York City where they form their own community, called Fabletown. Each storyline in the series is self-contained but with characters coming in and out. One story might be comedic, while another a mystery. What the series offers is a clever juxtaposition of folklore with reality. The series has also spawned a number of spin offs in its short life, starring some of its more popular fable characters.
THE WALKING DEAD (2003-present)
Already adapted as a television series on AMC, this series from writer Robert Kirkman and artists Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard is head and shoulders above its television equivalent. Designed to be “a zombie movie that doesn’t end” Kirkman has said that he wants to make a series that takes the idea of a zombie apocalypse as far as it can go, as realistically as it can go. While the first storyline starts off as a pretty routine zombie movie, though also a really good one, as the series progresses it offers us something else. Each storyline gets us more involved in the characters lives and makes the horror of the world they must survive in that much more powerful. Kirkman is not afraid to kill off a popular character for the sake of keeping readers on their toes. “If the audience starts liking a character too much, then that’s the best time to kill them off,” Kirkman has said. Published by the third biggest comic book company, Image, it is probably the best series that publisher has ever done.
EX MACHINA (2004-2010)
As a follow up to his wildly successful Y the Last Man, Brian K. Vaughan came up with this series with Artist Tony Harris for Wild Storm comics. The protagonist, Mitchell Hundred, is a man who gains superpowers, the ability to communicate with machines, in an accident. This makes him the world’s first superhero and he becomes a vigilante but after he stops the second plane from hitting the twin towers on 9/11, he takes his unbelievable new popularity and runs for mayor of New York City. The title comes from the Greek term “Dues Ex Machina” (God from the Machine) and like most of the series it is meant to contrast the simplistic morality and problem solving of superhero comics with the complex problems of the real world. The series follows Hundred’s four years in office, with each storyline dealing with a different political issue. Vaughan described the series himself, “It is like The West Wing meets Unbreakable, unless you don’t like that stuff, in which case it is nothing like that.”
THE BOYS (2006-present)
The Boys may be the only comic book ever made specifically for people who hate superheroes. Preacher co-creator Garth Ennis is one of the few writers who work almost exclusively in comics, who has almost never written superheroes. (His most prominent superhero work was the first six issues of Midnighter, the first gay superhero to get his own ongoing comic book.) The reason is because he has said he hates superheroes and recruited artist Derrick Robertson, to work on this series. The Boys is about a man named Huey, who after his girlfriend is killed accidentally by a reckless superhero, is recruited by Butcher, the leader of a group of former black ops soldiers who want to keep superheroes in line. Like Preacher, The Boys is ultra-violent and blackly funny, with superheroes as stand ins for spoiled celebrities and corrupt politicians who think they are above the law. The series is currently published by Dynamite, after Wildstorm dropped the series despite strong sales and critical acclaim, and a movie version is in the works with Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Other Guys) planning to co-write and direct.