With so many superhero movies on the horizon, it can be easy to forget that the stories actually originate from an artistic medium: comic books. While most people may think about costumed crime fighters when someone mentions comics, there are numerous genres and types of stories worth exploring.
Before 2019 dumps even more enjoyable comics onto your pull list, consider smoking a bowl and diving into some of these adventurous reads. The list is a mix of superhero classics and unique tales that don’t feature capes at all, so there’s something here for everyone’s storytelling tastes.
Watchmen may seem hyped due to its esteemed place in pop culture, but let’s be real– it’s hyped for a reason: the classic series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons really is that good.
A complete deconstruction of superheroes and the structural layout of comic books, Watchmen is one of those rare graphic novels that fires on every level. In the span of just 12 issues, Moore weaves an intricate narrative while thoroughly breaking down each character, giving readers a unique look into the psyches of various heroes as they face the biggest challenge of their careers. The book touches on the value of superheroes in an extremely dark way and incorporates the dreary, apocalyptic feeling of the Cold War in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s hard to boil the essence of Watchmen down to a paragraph without spoiling the intense plot. But just know the book doesn’t hold its punches when it comes to telling the readers exactly what’s wrong with hero worship during problematic times.
9. Batman: Year One
After being the star of continuous comic series for more than 70 years, it can be hard to pick out a definitive Batman story. If I had to choose just one that boiled the Caped Crusader down to his most essential components, Year One would be it.
Written by legendary author Frank Miller, who also gave audiences the mature classics the Dark Knight Returns and the Dark Knight Strikes Again, Year One is an exploration of Bruce’s first days in the bat suit. While Batman is clearly the star and readers are treated to a fantastic retelling of his origin that inspired Chris Nolan’s take on the character in Batman Begins, it’s actually Jim Gordon that serves as the primary protagonist and narrator. Through Gordon’s eyes, we see how Batman’s sudden appearance impacts how the police department functions and what happens to organized crime when there’s someone finally willing to stand up to their corruption.
8. Y: The Last Man
Long before Brian K. Vaughan started crafting Saga, a space opera that feels like an eclectic mix between Romeo and Juliet and Lord of the Rings, he struck gold with Y: The Last Man. After a mysterious disease wipes out every male creature on Earth except for Yorick Brown and his pet capuchin Ampersand, the survivors have to restructure their lives and move forward. The 60-issue series takes place over a number of years, giving readers a complete picture of how society and government adapt to the new reality and how people’s reactions to the world’s last male change as time moves on.
The series has almost landed on the screen numerous times over the years — at one point Shia LaBeouf was even attached to star in a film — but the project has since evolved into a series at FX. With Michael Green and Aida Mashaka Croal serving as co-showrunners, and Barry Keoghan playing Yorick, Y: The Last Man may finally be receiving the adaptation it deserves; so make sure to read the book before your friends do.
7. Spider-Man: Kraven’s Last Hunt
A Spider-Man arc with a clever twist, Kraven’s Last Hunt may be one of Marvel’s most powerful stories. While the popularity of TV shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad have made putting anti-heroes in lead roles more common, it was still a rare storytelling technique back in 1987 when Kraven’s Last Hunt first came out.
Instead of focusing on Spider-Man, the six-issue arc follows Kraven the Hunter, a.k.a. Sergei Kravinoff, after he has supposedly killed and buried Spider-Man. Rather than gloat and spread his success around the supervillain community, the egotistical hunter decides to don a makeshift Spider-Man costume and begin his own war on crime to prove that he is a superior hero. A deep-dive into the psyche of Spider-Man and his deadly foe, Kraven’s Last Hunt is an emotional juggernaut that exposes what makes both characters tick. Without spoiling the ending, the powerful themes and poignant inner-dialogue makes Kraven’s Last Hunt a must-read that outlives the story’s mostly self-contained status.
6. Bitch Planet
Exploitation films and B-movies like Superfly or The Big Bird Cage were zany, gratuitous staples of the pop culture landscape in the 1970s. Luckily, writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Valentine De Landro have taken that retro energy and adapted it to comic books perfectly with Bitch Planet.
Following the various inmates of the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, an off-world prison made specifically for “non-compliant women,” the series is violent, emotional and feminist to the core. With a non-linear structure that constantly flashes back so readers can see how the inmates acted and were arrested in their former lives, Bitch Planet is an attempt by the creators to subvert “the women in prison genre” in a way that makes the central inmates appear empowered instead of subjugated. A beautifully illustrated book that doesn’t shy away from showing some intense, bloody moments, Bitch Planet is a quick read but it packs one hell-of-a punch.
5. Sex Criminals
The title sounds akin to something prepubescent teenagers would drool over like Playboy mags, but Sex Criminals is a mature, hilarious take on relationships with a sci-fi twist. From the bonkers creative team of Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, the series focuses on Suzie and Jon, two individuals who end up going home together after meeting at a party. What should have been a normal hookup quickly goes off the rails when they realize they both have the ability to stop time when they orgasm. As their relationship develops, so does their thirst for danger as they begin robbing banks and venturing into the outside world as time remains frozen. Far from a perfect existence, the love bugs also have to deal with a secret society of individuals who can also freeze time and want to control Suzie and Jon’s behavior. Chock-full of dirty Easter eggs, the series is one of the most entertaining and funny comics released in recent years.
Just in case you think this comic sounds too immature for your advanced taste, Time Magazine even listed the series as their number one comic in 2013. So, stop judging books by their covers, put down the porn, and pick up Sex Criminals ASAP.
4. Astonishing X-Men
It’s easy for mainstream superhero comics to get bogged down with years worth of confusing continuity. More than almost any other franchise, X-Men, in particular, can be hard to follow due to so many universe-altering stories that constantly leave their timeline convoluted and complicated.
For people who just want a contained dose of what the X-Men are all about, they should look no further than Joss Whedon and John Cassady’s run on Astonishing X-Men. While the series is technically a continuation of Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men, the 25 issue run feels like a self-contained story emphasizing everything that makes the group such a familial, unique team in comics. Separate from the various crossovers that took place in the Marvel universe at the time, Astonishing X-Men has a lot of entertaining action, but the series really shines in the interpersonal moments between that highlights the diverse relationships between everyone on the team. Packed with classic concepts like Sentinels, mutant cures and the Hellfire Club, this classic run is considered essential reading for anyone trying to become more familiar with the X-Men.
A lot of comics like to play with their timelines in order to develop a dreamy, trippy tone, but Daytripper does it better than everyone.
Written and illustrated by brothers Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá, the graphic novel is an existential examination of death and the small moments that define all of our lives. Each of the series’ 10 issues follows a certain portion of Bras de Olivias Dominguez’s life, but they all end the same way: with Bras’ untimely death. An intimate look at existence in Brazil, the series explores the range of emotions and possible experiences that make up one’s life. By framing the whole series around Bras’ mortality, the creators paint a moving picture that explores everything from family to art in a way that pushes readers to ponder what they value in their own lives. A reminder to stay present and enjoy every day, Daytripper wants us to remain constantly aware that life may end at any moment, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t already lived a fulfilling existence full of joy and heartbreak.
2. East of West
Westerns are a hallmark of American fiction, but Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta’s East of West flips the whole genre on its head. Set in a United States that’s divided into multiple warring countries, this dystopian, revisionist story sees each nation compete for the top spot in the new international hierarchy as the world literally falls apart around them.
While the politicians squabble and fight for power, there’s something more important and sinister happening in the background. The four Horsemen of Apocalypse are back and slowly manipulating certain global leaders as they try to bring about the rapture. All of the major characters are interesting and have understandable motivations, but the most engaging character is likely Death himself. A cross between Dirty Harry and the Thin White Duke, Death and his posse are trying to stop the remaining horsemen from bringing about the end times. At the same time they’re looking for Death’s son, who has become a dangerous weapon that every side of the war is trying to manipulate into exacerbating the conflict.
1. All-Star Superman
Some people think that Superman is too powerful and nice to be interesting. While the big blue boy scout may be a bore under certain writers’ supervision, Grant Morrison crafted an epic, emotional story that taps into everything that makes the character so iconic and fun. The 12 issue limited series puts Clark Kent and Superman against some epic challenges, but it also includes enjoyable, small moments like forcing Superman to compete for Lois Lane’s affection with mythical figures. As if protecting the world isn’t stressful enough, Morrison makes things even harder for the Last Son of Krypton by diagnosing him with cancer in the first issue, giving the whole series a sense of urgency as Superman ponders his final days while dealing with the pressures of being a hero.
Frank Quitely’s beautiful pencils do a great job incorporating the cartoony, silver age style the series is paying homage to. The dialogue is sharp and the narration is entertaining, but Quitely’s expressive work is powerful enough to tell a full story on its own. There are a lot of good looking comics on the market, but All-Star Superman is simply gorgeous.