When a group of disgruntled artists founded Image Comics in the 1990’s, their main reason for doing so was allowing themselves to create characters without the executive meddling that had driven Marvel and DC into a rut. Whether this actually resulted in better superhero stories is up for discussion, though, and Image’s modus operandi soon turned out to lend itself far better to more ambitious projects, similar to the Vertigo imprint DC had implemented in Image’s wake. Nowadays, Image’s focus lies more with more mature-oriented and complex books than with the dubiously iconic superheroes that defined its early days, like Spawn or Savage Dragon. Ironically, many of these books are written by none other than Marvel and DC’s current superstars, who usually do a couple of creator-owned projects on the side while working on the likes of Batman or the X-Men. This would be a bit of a problem for Image if it weren’t for the fact that their very author-friendly policies usually mean that authors tend to stick with them even after they’ve turned their backs on Marvel and DC, with ex-superhero scribes like Brian K. Vaughan (who previously created Runaways for Marvel) or Rick Remender (formerly a writer on Captain America and X-Force) currently providing the publishers with a strong lineup of comics that may not be able to compete with Marvel’s or DC’s in terms of iconicity, but certainly in terms of quality.
Furthermore, the digitalization of the comic book industry has seen the rise of several other publishers featuring creator-owned properties, each occupying their own niche. Archie Comics is a monument in its own right, IDW and Dark Horse mostly issue comic spin offs of popular TV and film franchises like Star Trek or Doctor Who, Zenescope loves its cheesecakey adaptations of beloved fairytales, Boom! Studios’ rising imprint Boom! Box specializes in experimental and ‘gleeful’ comics for all ages, Dynamite is best known for its use of classic pulp heroes and other public domain characters, and Avatar Press… Well, let’s not talk about Avatar Press. Point is, the world of comic publishing is nowadays a lot bigger than just dudes in capes. Indulging in superheroics and the associated clichés, crossovers and continuity car crashes is no longer a prerequisite for enjoying the art of sequential storytelling*. Detectives, thrillers, comedies, dramas or even romances, the boundaries of contemporary comics are ever expanding far beyond the usual nerd sphere of interests, with the border between newsstand comic magazines and upmarket graphic novels being all but eviscerated. The talent independent comic book publishers currently have on the payroll is arguably bigger and more diverse than ever, and here are the best of their best ongoings.
(*) Unless you are European, of course, in which case it was never a prerequisite to begin with.
Archie by Mark Waid, Fiona Staples, Annie Wu and Veronica Fish (Archie Comics)
Archie, you say? The first thing that pops up when googling “status quo”**? That proud monument of safe American values that couldn’t be cool if it meant saving its own life? Yes, that Archie. After the success of its grim horror spin-off, Afterlife with Archie, the stalwart publisher decided it was time to truly let the 21st century in and rebooted its entire universe under the capable supervision of comics superstars Mark Waid (Kingdom Come, Daredevil) and Fiona Staples (Saga). What could have been a recipe for disaster – especially given the publisher’s track record for trying to be relevant – quickly turned out to be a supremely lovable romp that retained the plucky all-ages appeal of Archie and his friends while planting itself firmly and realistically in the New Tens. Waid allows drama, character development and actual, decompressed plot progression to find its way into Riverdale without ever betraying the dorky charm that Archie stands for, while the consistently excellent art will make you forget DanDeCarlo’s house style in no time. Way to turn a comic that used to be a punchline for many a geek into something that is nigh-impossible to hate.
(**) That is a lie. The first thing that pops up when googling “status quo” is a picture of the band of the same name. Who? Ask your dad.
Deadly Class by Rick Remender and Wes Craig (Image)
Many stories send their protagonists off to a prestigious high school for god-knows-what, but only Deadly Class will make you happy the school you attend(ed) is a just a regular old school. Rescued off the streets by a Yakuza boss’s daughter, Marcus Lopez enrolls at King’s Dominion High School for the Deadly Arts, where he soon loses himself in a spiral of self-loathing, bad drugs and even worse mistakes. It sounds like an easily digestible premise tailor-made for a third-rate ‘dark and mature’ teenage edge-fest, yet Rick Remender’s writing is often so wry and disturbingly absurd, the line between tragedy and comedy becomes virtually non-existent. In stead of ruining Deadly Class‘s many violent twists and turns, however, the humour humanizes its sympathetic cast of characters, provoking readers into a cynical sense of endearment that needs to be experienced in order to be truly understood. Wes Craig’s stylized artwork perfectly encapsulates the Gen X aesthetic of the 1980s, while Lee Loughridge’s bold, fitting use of colour invokes John Higgins’ psychedelic haze of The Killing Joke or Watchmen‘s most cerebral moments. That is some dangerously high praise, yet this comic deserves it. Through its willingness to embrace its own macabre campiness, rather than rejecting it in favour of dishonest grit and angst, Deadly Class achieves a genuineness and synchronicity between its themes, its writing and its looks that make it the best mature comic on today’s stands.
Giant Days by John Allison, Lissa Treiman and Max Sarin (Boom! Box)
Sometimes, comics don’t have to be particularly original to be great. Giant Days is little more than a sitcom about three college roommates, but like any good comedy, its strengths lie in the quality of its humour, ranging from absurd satire over relatable awkwardness to razor-sharp sarcasm. John Allison, known for his webcomic Scary-Go-Round, crafts his dialogue like a cineast paints his frames, carefully fine-tuned for maximum cohesion and pseudo-philosophical wit, constantly dragging his overdramatic characters through everyday situations they are too self-avowedly intellectual to handle. Virtually everything Esther, Susan and Daisy indulge in, be it relationships or exams, very quickly devolves into a farcical disaster both hilariously outlandish and painfully relatable. That is, if you’re a highly principled, overdramatic, deluded, social nightmare such as myself, at least.
Lumberjanes by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, Noelle Stevenson and Brooke Allen (Boom! Box)
I often wish I could be as shamelessly saccharine as Lumberjanes is, kicking about with reckless abandon and wide-eyed curiosity in a world where conflicts hardly ever last longer than a single issues and bad guys are mostly just misunderstood oafs trying to make a friend. While the sheer volume of its brightness might net accusations of ‘trying too hard’ here and there, I think Lumberjanes‘ wholesome dedication to its cause is admirable. It’s never preachy, overly self-congratulating or wish-fulfilling despite being the red cloth on the reactionary nerd’s bull, staying at all times fully devoted to being what it is, rather than what it should be. Lumberjanes refuses to let its diversity be its main attraction, in stead regarding it as it should be regarded: not as an obligation for amassing goodwill, but as an undeniable fact of life. This allows for the book’s continuously rotating writers and artists to espouse the various other draws that are distinctly its own – its splendid dialogue, its joyous absurdity or its often adorable reinterpretations of folklore, for instance. While not all its issues are quite up to snuff, the fact that Lumberjanes hasn’t lost any of its creativity even well into its late twenties (issues, not years) is a testament to its quality. It’s unapologetically girly in al its facets, but only a joyless jerkwad would hold that against it.
Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang (Image)
Ah, the eighties. That glorious era of groundbreaking adventure comedies, horror fads, bomber jackets, kids in movies swearing like sailors and scaremongering think pieces about the end of print media. Paper Girls has all of these, and more. While Brian K. Vaughan (Runaways, Y: The Last Man) is nowadays mostly known for his still-ongoing, grandiose space opera Saga, also published by Image, his latest project with artist Cliff Chiang (Wonder Woman) is way more up my alley, a tongue-in-cheek homage to the blockbusters of yore, starring four teen girls with attitude in the midst of an alien invasion. People familiar with Vaughan’s work will know what to expect – cliffhangers at every turn, wild mood swings and general creative wackiness – though as usual, the dialogue is where Paper Girls truly shines. With their hilariously outdated pop culture references and dorky snark, Vaughan’s characters act both their age and their era, talking smack and waving guns around one page and awkwardly suggesting their friends stop swearing so much the next, because they’re “trying too hard to sound cool”. Whether Paper Girls will end up as epic and sprawling as Vaughn’s better-known stories remains to be seen, but its most recent developments seem to indicate that the writer’s signature sudden shifts of setting are back in full swing already. So rather than emulating a single 80’s adventure movie, it seems hell-bent on emulating them all.
The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie (Image)
Most of the comics featured here have simple, easily understandable premises; pitches you can explain to potential new readers in a single phrase. Not The Wicked + The Divine. Kieron Gillen (Young Avengers) channels his love of 60 years of pop music and penchant for symbolic, intellectual prose, into a comic that is equal parts satire and conspiracy thriller, a dazzling look into both the shameless excess and the importance of idol culture, by turning pop stars into literal gods of pantheons from all over the world. The result is a story as meaningful as it is conventionally entertaining, with spectacular battles between super-powered expies of Kanye West (unsurprisingly, after all, he is a god), Kate Bush (apparently a big fan of Ōkami), and that guy from Daft Punk (no, no, not that guy, that other one) and reflections on fame, sexuality, divinity or death in equal measure. Contrary to most modern portrayals of the deities of yore, let alone of pop stars, Gillen doesn’t hesitate to expose his characters for the often vengeful, manipulative hedonists they are. Yet even these gods used to be human, and hidden underneath their escapades lie a cast of interesting personalities with hopes and fears that puts them back with their feet on the ground***. With its frequent shout-outs and meta-commentary, The Wicked + The Divine is a comic with one foot in its own world, and one in ours. People may joke about how eerily precognitive it has proven at times, but that is only an unfortunate side effect of how well aware Gillen is of today’s society. Despite harkening back to the era of ‘grands’ like Bowie and Prince, who seem to be leaving this world behind one by one, The Wicked + The Divine couldn’t have been written in any other era than the now.
(***) Except Woden, he’s just a dick.
Tomboy by Mia Goodwin (Action Lab/Danger Zone)
Tomboy is the magical girl deconstruction that makes Puella Magi Madoka Magica look like Winx Club. Mia Goodwin splendidly juxtaposes her adorable artwork to Addison Brody’s descent into madness after the murder of her best-friend-slash-boyfriend Nick, while her medical examiner dad’s obsessive attempts to solve the case through legal means leaves her in the care of her ex-vigilante grandfather and a particularly bloodthirsty delusion of her favourite anime character, Princess Cheery Cherry. What starts off as a Veronica Mars-esque teen thriller quickly develops into a violent, deranged nightmare that is as heartbreaking as it is horrifying. Goodwin manages to cram a lot of content in very little space, focusing not only on Addy’s crusade, but on the exploits of her father and the crooked detectives chasing after her as well, without ever feeling like it’s moving too fast. Though plagued by an erratic release schedule and the obscurity of its publisher, Tomboy deserves to be its creator’s gateway to mainstream successes one of the most talented rising stars on the comic book filament. Oh, and have I mentioned that the first issue is free?
As usual, these magnificent books are just the tip of the iceberg. I haven’t even gotten to mentioning Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s gorgeous Monstress, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s outrageous Sex Criminals or the excellent continuation of Avatar: The Last Airbender by Gene Yuen Lang and Guruhiro. But hey, we need to draw the line somewhere, and these comics, along with the ones I discussed in parts one and two of this feature, should give you enough to read until DC decides its time to reboot its continuity yet again. Excelsior!
Wait, that’s not DC, isn’t it?