It’s easy to be cynical about comic books. One could argue that they’re oversaturated in pop culture these days, especially at the movie theater, and long-time readers may feel burned out by the constant reboots, retcons, and big summer crossover events that promise to shake up the universe and often change nothing. But there are some great books being made right now, if you dig a little deeper. Here are 10 of them.
10. Hawkeye, by Matt Fraction and David Aja (Marvel)
This series just recently came to a conclusion after long waits between issues, and it’s different than anything Marvel has put out lately. It’s a stripped-down look at the character, not as part of the Avengers team, but in his off-hours. And what’s he doing? Defending his building and neighbors from the Russian mob (a.k.a. the “tracksuit Draculas,” who punctuate their speech with “bro” and awful lot) who are trying to take over said building and evict said neighbors. The dialogue is smart and snappy and the art is minimalistic yet slick. In fact, as much as the writing is wonderful, it’s the visual storytelling that steals the show. Look at issue #11—it’s all told from the perspective of a dog, using pictograms in the word bubbles and Woodstock-style (i.e., from Peanuts) lines in place of speech. And bro is funny too, bro.
9. Atomic Robo, by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener (IDW; formerly published by Red 5)
Atomic Robo is the titular character; he’s a sentient robot designed and built by Nikola Tesla, and in the present day he’s the president of Tesladyne, an organization of “action scientists.” Each story arc is its own mini-series, such as “Atomic Robo and the Shadow from Beyond Time,” and the upcoming new series “Atomic Robo and the Ring of Fire.” In each series, Robo deals with a huge threat in some form or another, often while shaking his head in incredulity at the insanity he faces. The book also features guest appearances by Carl Sagan, H.P. Lovecraft, and Thomas Edison, to name a few, and the stories take place at various moments in history—Robo has lived a long time, after all. The best thing about this series, aside from the real science knowledge being dropped in it, is the humor. It’s really funny and a delight to read. And wait till you meet Dr. Dinosaur.
8. Afterlife with Archie, by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla (Archie)
Whoever thought that a story about the zombie apocalypse starting in Riverdale would ever be such a great read? It breaks down like this: Jughead’s dog, Hot Dog, is killed in a hit-and-run. Jughead goes to Sabrina to see if she can use her witch powers to resurrect him, but that’s necromancy, forbidden magic, and she’s not supposed to. But she does anyway, and, well… it all starts there. Archie comics have had a lot of gimmicks lately (e.g., Archie vs. Predator, Archie vs. Sharknado… seriously), but this one doesn’t come off as a gimmick. It’s a serious read and a chilling one at that. It takes a mature look at the characters many of us know and love so well, and it explores their relationships in the face of this horrible crisis. And there’s a moment where Archie has to make a brutally tough decision, and it will break your heart.
7. Deadly Class, by Rick Remender and Wes Craig (Image)
It’s 1987, and Marcus is a homeless teenager who, after a series of mishaps, becomes a student in a high school for assassins. It’s kind of like regular high school, except if you were to tell off a bully, there’s a good chance that that bully is an expert in combat and the son of a crime lord. Now on the surface, that might sound like every anime you’ve ever heard of, but there is, of course, more to the story. There’s depth here. Remender has stated that he’s drawing from some dark, personal places for this book, and it shows. For example, when he writes about Marcus’ struggle with depression, the writing is thoughtful and serious; there’s honesty here, and you don’t doubt its authenticity. But there is also great danger and explosions, so the book balances the serious and the fun.
6. Batgirl, by Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr (DC)
Many fans say that DC has made plenty of missteps lately, but one thing DC is getting right is Batgirl. The series took a dip in the Lazarus Pit (sorry) with issue #35, and when it emerged it shed the grim ’n’ gritty trappings of the Bat-universe. The book makes Barbara Gordon much more grounded, reminiscent of Spider-Man or Daredevil; that is, she’s a great hero with very human problems, like balancing grad school with battling villains. And if the traditional design of women’s costumes in comics have bothered you, then Batgirl’s redesigned suit is a breath of fresh air! It’s practical, for one (no silly heels; she’s in boots, and yellow Docs at that), it covers her up and protects her, and it looks as a leather suit with armor/padding should—that is, not skin-tight like spandex. The book is tons of fun and Babs Tarr’s artwork looks like nothing else on the stands.
5. Rat Queens, by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch (Image)
Writer Kurtis Wiebe has reportedly described this series as a “love letter to…D&D” or “Lord of the Rings meets Bridesmaids,” and that’s an apt description. Rat Queens is a fantasy comedy series revolving around the eponymous team, consisting of an elven mage, a human cleric, a dwarven warrior, and a halfling thief. Sounds like your basic D&D adventuring party, but it goes far beyond that simple premise. The Rat Queens are badass and raunchy, they drink as hard as they fight, and they don’t care what you think. But there are also quiet, personal moments of character development: why did the warrior abandon tradition and shave her beard? Why is the mage so mistrustful and guarded? How can you be a cleric if you’re an atheist? These are fleshed-out female characters, the likes of which have traditionally been sorely lacking in comics, and Wiebe makes you care about them. It’s awesome.
4. Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (Image)
Saga is a space opera about the war between a planet, Landfall, and its moon, Wreath. Alana and Marko are soldiers in this war on opposite sides, respectively, who fall in love and have a daughter. This is, of course, considered an abomination on both of their worlds, so now they’re on the run. Along the way we encounter several alien species, almost all of which have been pulled into the ancient conflict, including shapeshifting robots and bounty hunters of various stripes. But despite the epic scale of the story, at its heart it’s really just about a family trying to stay together—and that’s why it works. It’s relatable. Alana and Marko aren’t a perfect couple, and the writing is an honest reflection of that. They feel like real people. And the artwork is brilliant; Fiona Staples is at the top of her game here.
3. B–tch Planet, by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine Delandro (Image)
In a dystopian future in which the patriarchy has total and extreme control of humanity, women who are marked as “non-compliant” are sent to an orbiting prison, the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, nicknamed “B–tch Planet.” This is a feminist comic that is also an homage to ’70s exploitation films, specifically the “women in prison” subgenre. While the plot of the comic will likely lead to an inmate revolution against the system—and that will be great to see when it happens—what’s even better about the series is its community, i.e. the inspirational effect it’s having on its readers. For example, many of them are getting “NC” tattoos. It’s a show of solidarity and, to this writer’s knowledge, it hasn’t been seen in comics before. And to top it off are the wonderful essays on feminism in the back matter. Keep an eye on this book. It’s an important one.
2. Archie, by Mark Waid and Fiona Staples (Archie)
This is the newly launched Archie series (issue #1 came out in June 2015), and it’s got a superstar creative team on it. Waid has written some major books, including the landmark Kingdom Come, and you’ll know Staples as the artist on Saga. The first issue of Archie reboots the series entirely—the Lodges haven’t even arrived in Riverdale yet—and focuses on the breakup of Archie and Betty, long considered Riverdale’s “it” couple, and the emotional turmoil it sends all of Riverdale High into. All the major players are introduced here, e.g., an appropriately skinny Jughead and a greasy-looking Reggie, and some fun facts are revealed as well: did you know Archie’s father plays guitar and inspired Archie to do so? It has warmth and heart, and it makes for a great read. If Archie seems goofy to you, give the first issue a shot; it is absolutely worth your time.
1. Sex Criminals, by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky (Image)
Here’s the high-concept version for you: A young couple can freeze time when they orgasm, and they use said time to rob banks. This brings them to the attention of the sex police, who also have powers. But that’s just scratching the surface. A series like this could easily become 22 pages of cheap gags, and while there is some delightfully filthy humor (much of it provided by Chip Zdarsky’s detailed artwork; look at the scenes in the adult film store, for one), it’s tempered by the honesty of the writing. In dealing with the awkwardness or just plain weirdness of sex and relationships, the book embraces both the mature and the juvenile. The reader community is strong here as well, and one way the creative team engages with them is by publishing sex tips in the letter column of each issue. Ever hear of brimping? Bonus: it’s being made into a TV show!