Like all entertainment genres, comic books can develop a cult following among readers. This is especially true of underground comic books—the ones that are put out by smaller publishers and more difficult to get your hands on. Cult comic books also tend to be ones focused on darker subject matter and that deal with difficult, sometimes taboo subjects. Despite the fact that some comic books are not mass produced or mass marketed, they can still develop a loyal following of ardent fans. And we at Goliath feel it worthwhile to draw your attention to 10 of the top cult comic books that you should consider reading.
10. Judge Dredd
Originally developed in Britain by publisher IPC Media, later Rebellion Developments, Judge Dredd is a comic book about a futuristic law enforcement officer who is a “street judge” and has the authority to arrest, convict, sentence and execute criminals. Dark, violent and brooding, the Judge Dredd comic books have long been a cult favorite. First appearing in the 1977 science fiction anthology called 2000 AD, Judge Dredd is a hardened character who regularly deals with rapists, murderers and drug pushers. And while Judge Dredd has gained a wider audience through his appearances in movies and video games, it is as a cult comic book character that the one man law enforcement agency first gained attention and a loyal fan base.
9. Swamp Thing
Not a character that appeals to everyone, Swamp Thing has been a cult favorite in the DC Comics universe since first appearing in a 1971 issue of House of Secrets. Part of the horror comics renaissance of the 1970s, Swamp Thing is a grotesque humanoid, plant, vegetable monster that terrifies people as it protects its swamp home and the environment. Originally appearing in anthologies and serials, Swamp Thing proved popular enough to eventually get his own comic book series at DC, and was one of the bestselling titles at the publisher in the early 1980s. Since then, Swamp Thing has been featured in two movies, a live action television show and an animated series. Swamp Thing has even done public service announcements against littering.
8. Tank Girl
First appearing in the 1988 British magazine Deadline, the character of Tank Girl was created by fledgling musicians Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin. Set in post-apocalyptic Australia, Tank Girl follows the adventures of Rebecca Buck, who drives and lives in a tank. Declared an outlaw by a government organization for her sexual escapades and drug use, Tank Girl must flee the long arm of the law while taking on missions to help people along the way. Co-starring her mutant kangaroo boyfriend Booga, Tank Girl has been described as punk visual art, as well as anarchic and psychedelic art. The comic is also distinguished by its lack of conventional plot and weird narratives. Nevertheless, Tank Girl proved to be an underground comic book sensation and ran in Deadline magazine until 1995, when the magazine folded. A new version of Tank Girl, called 21st Century Tank Girl, was released on June 10, 2015, after successful fundraising on Kickstarter. The new series reunites original creators Hewlett and Martin after a 20 year hiatus.
Published by Dark Horse Comics, the 1998 limited series 300 was written by Frank Miller with colors by Lynn Varley—the same team behind 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns. The comic 300 is a retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae and the events leading up to it from the perspective of Leonidas of Sparta. The comic is loosely based on the 1962 film The 300 Spartans. This cult comic sensation was distinguished by the fact that every page of the comic is illustrated as a double-page spread. Bleak, violent and bloody, 300 won numerous awards when published, including three Eisner Awards given for creative achievement in American comic books. The comic was then made into a successful film in 2006. And although the five issue comic series was criticized for being historically inaccurate, it nevertheless has attracted a sizable cult following of people who love writer Frank Miller’s narrative style.
6. Howard The Duck
Difficult to categorize or fit into the broader Marvel universe, the comic book series Howard The Duck is a bit of a curiosity. Originally developed in the 1970s as an attempt at an underground comic book for adults, Howard The Duck is about the exploits of its title character, a foulmouthed, over-sexed and bad-tempered duck. The comic book series took aim at contemporary society and politics and attracted a small but loyal following among disaffected Americans. Howard The Duck even received thousands of write-in votes during the 1976 presidential election after the character announced in his comic book that he would run for president under the slogan “Get Down, America!” and as part of the fictional “All-Night Party.” However, finding a wider audience was difficult for Howard The Duck and the original comic book series ended after only 27 issues. Various attempts at reviving the cult character were met with mixed reviews, and a disastrous 1986 movie didn’t help the character go beyond his cult following.
Developed by acclaimed British writer Neil Gaiman, whose other works include the books Coraline and The Graveyard Book, Sandman was a comic book series that ran under DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint from 1989 to 1996. Spanning 75 issues, Sandman follows the character named “Dream,” who escapes an occult prison after being held captive for 70 years, and then sets about rebuilding his kingdom which has fallen into disrepair in his absence and righting past wrongs. One of the first modern horror comic books, Sandman has gained a cult following among people who don’t normally read comic books. Author Norman Mailer called the series “a comic strip for intellectuals.” Sandman has also won numerous awards, including the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction, 26 Eisner Awards, the Bram Stoker Award for Best Illustrated Narrative, and a Hugo Award nomination. Sandman’s collected editions, including a five-volume hardcover edition, was one of the first graphic novels to appear on The New York Times Best Seller list. Interestingly, the majority of Sandman readers over the years have been women in their 20s and 30s.
4. American Splendor
An autobiographical series by author Harvey Pekar, American Splendor has been an underground and cult comic book hit since it first appeared in 1976. Following the everyday trials and tribulations of its author, American Splendor covers such mundane issues as car troubles, relations with colleagues at work, and visits to the doctor. Yet these situations have proven to be extremely relatable to a segment of adult comic book readers and Harvey Peakar has become somewhat of a folk hero over the years. The illustrations by fellow cult comic book legend, and Pekar’s good friend, Robert Crumb helped draw people to this series. And while praised for its ability to move comic books into new areas, American Splendor has had a sporadic publication history. As many as four years have lapsed between issues being published, and the last edition of American Splendor appeared in 2008.
3. The Walking Dead
Before it was a kickass television show, The Walking Dead was a cult comic book series published by Image Comics. Produced in black and white, The Walking Dead focuses on Sherriff Rick Grimes and his efforts to survive a zombie apocalypse. First published in 2003, The Walking Dead is credited with reviving interest in the zombie horror genre and taking horror comics to a new stratosphere. The series has received much critical acclaim and won the Eisner Award for Best Continuing Comic Book Series in 2007 and 2010. Issues of The Walking Dead have since been collected in 24 volumes spanning 144 issues, and there is also now a series of Walking Dead novels. But The Walking Dead all started with a small black and white series of comic books that was a fan favorite among horror comic aficionados.
Maus is a truly unique comic book series that ran from 1980 to 1991 and has since been collected in a graphic novel. Produced by American cartoonist Art Spiegelman, Maus is Spiegelman interviewing his own father about his experiences as a Nazi Holocaust survivor. The comic book series depicts Jews as mice, Nazis as cats and non-Jewish Polish people as pigs. The technique works surprisingly well and Maus is an effective mash-up of genres such as memoir, history, fiction and biography. First published in Raw, an avant-garde comics and graphics magazine that Spiegelman himself published, Maus started out as a cult publication but steadily grew in acclaim. In 1992, Maus became the first graphic novel to win a prestigious Pulitzer Prize. The comic book series is now studied in universities and colleges.
1. Fritz the Cat
Probably the most influential underground comic book of all time, Fritz the Cat by Robert Crumb follows the exploits of the title character who is a con artist and lives in the fictional Supercity. Groundbreaking for its use of sex, violence and bad language, Fritz the Cat inspired a generation of cartoonists and helped subversive underground comic books flourish in the 1960s and early 1970s. Originally published in magazines such as Help! and Cavalier, Fritz the Cat gained national attention when a 1972 animated film about the character was released. It was the first ever animated movie to receive an X rating due to its gratuitous depiction of sex. Disappointed with the film adaptation, Robert Crumb ended the comic strip featuring Fritz the Cat in 1972—having the character murdered by a jilted ex-girlfriend. However, the influence of Fritz the Cat lives on, as does the legend of Robert Crumb, who went on to create other popular cult comics such as Mr. Natural and Keep On Truckin’.