Let me say it straight up – I fucking love comics. Superhero comics, horror comics, crime comics, art comics, autobio comics, indie comics, all of them. I’ve loved them ever since I discovered the racks of black and white The Brave and the Bold reprints cluttering up the local book exchange when I was like 8 years old, and barely a week has gone by since that I haven’t devoted some time to the Ninth Art of words, pictures and the link between.
Which is why it saddens me to read bad comics and to write about reading bad comics, as I did on the weekend with my massive LJ essay on the failure of the DC Comics reboot. It makes me especially sad to say bad things about bad Batman comics. It hurts me.
I would much rather read good comics and write about reading good comics, which I have decided to do tonight. Specifically I want to recommend five non-superhero comics, all available in collected form, that make me very happy and that everyone else should be reading too.
Atomic Robo (Red 5 Comics)
No other comic in Christendom contains as much joy and explosions per square inch as Atomic Robo. It’s the story of the eponymous hero, a wisecracking, two-fisted robot created by Nikolai Tesla in the 1920s who now heads a scientific thinktank and hits problems until they go away. Said problems include bigger robots, Lovecraftian monsters, evil scientists, Nazis, robot Nazis, Stephen Hawking (he’s such a douche) and Doctor Dinosaur, surely the greatest character find of 2009.
Comparisons to Hellboy – another series about a two-fisted weirdo using his two fists on monsters and Nazis – are inevitable, but completely wrong. The tone of Robo is something unique, a heady mix of subtle and obvious humour, absurdity, pulp action and the joy of science, with little of the darkness of Hellboy (a series I dig, don’t get me wrong); ditto the smart-mouthed and remarkably human character of Robo himself. Writer Brian Clevinger fills the series with inventive plots and crisp, hilarious dialogue, and the slightly disjointed animation style of artist Scott Wegener give the characters life and personality. This is the kind of comic for which the medium was invented.
Proof (Image Comics)
Another series that gets inappropriately compared to Hellboy is Proof, once again because it features a big, monstrous protagonist who pits himself against other monsters. In this case the monster is Bigfoot, also known as John ‘Proof’ Prufrock, a special agent of a secret Lodge that finds and protects cryptids – legendary creatures like the Loch Ness Monster, the Mothman and the Dodo. Some key differences is that Proof isn’t all that two-fisted, prefers talking over fighting, wears expensive suits and wants more than anything to find other sasquatches, fearing that he is the last of his kind.
Proof is a clever, well-crafted series that takes the core premise (‘what if Fox Mulder was Bigfoot?’) and runs with it in a direction that you wouldn’t expect. Rather than focusing on action (although there’s plenty of that), it’s very much a character-driven comic that uses the crazy world of the Lodge and cryptids as contrast for the internal lives and needs of Proof and his strong supporting cast. Writer Alex Grecian occasionally lets the story and cast get a bit confused, but not for too long, and the scratchy lines and heavy colours of Riley Rossmo’s art convey both horror and moments of humour. It’s terrific stuff, and the second trade includes paper dress-up-dolls!
Dungeons & Dragons (IDW)
It’s obvious that a comic based on the world’s best-known roleplaying game would be a Bible of nerd esoterica that could appeal only to the lowliest basement-dwelling geeks that sleep with a fistful of d20s under their pillow. But I guess no-one told writer John Rogers (Leverage and Blue Beetle) and artist Andrea de Vito this, and so they went and produced an awesome comic that mixes hilarious character comedy with rousing fantasy action that can appeal to anyone with a pulse.
This isn’t just a series about a group of heroic adventurers that fight evil in a fantasy world. It’s The Lord of the Rings as a a caper movie featuring talking skulls, zombie orphans and fights with orcs. It’s the A-Team, except BA is a dwarf with a hammer and Face is a kleptomaniac halfling that stabs bad people. Mostly bad people. It’s a wonderful comic that blends the truly fantastic with believable character motivations and voices, with both stirring action and laugh-out-loud humour that isn’t just tacked on. Plus zombie orphans. I know I mentioned them already, but they’re worth repeating.
Locke & Key (IDW)
From fantasy with a touch of humour to horror with a touch of fantasy. Locke & Key is the story of the three Locke children who move to the family estate of Keyhouse after their father is brutally murdered. While trying to stitch their lives back together, they stumble upon the ancient mysteries of Keyhouse – the well occupied by a dangerous spirit, the Ghost Doors that pull your soul from your body, the Anywhere Key hidden from a terrible evil and the secrets and needs of the family they love.
Locke & Key is the comics debut of author Joe Hill (Heart-Shaped Box, Horns) who writes like a past master of the medium. It’s a chilling, thrilling, often heart-wrenching series about wounded children thrust into a world of both beauty and horrors and forced to fight for their survival and for each other. Artist Gabriel Rodriguez is a surprising choice for this in some ways, but his exaggerated and slightly-cartoony art proves to be a perfect contrast to the darkness of the story, creating a crazed mix between Narnia and The Shining. Lovely stuff, and if there’s any justice on this bastard planet the recently-produced pilot will be turned into a full TV series.
Hamlet (Allen & Unwin)
Slightly cheating for the last recommendation, as it’s an original graphic novel rather than a series, but it’s breathtaking and brilliant and if you can’t break your own rules for that then what’s the point of having rules in the first place? The story of Hamlet is well-worn ground by now, but creator Nicki Greenberg reinvents it with the same genius she brought to her incredible retelling of The Great Gatsby as a story of monstrous dandelions and sea-horses.
This book depicts Hamlet and all his compatriots as inkblots, changing shape and size against a background of clock parts and torn tapestries, pulling on faces like porcelain masks and ripping themselves into sticky shreds with the force of their emotions. The violence and despair Greenberg pulls from the black blob of Hamlet is matched only by the deranged whimsy of every other character, and she explores every possible corner of the conceit to create a surreal, gripping world where the splatter of darkness creates urgent depth against gaudy backdrops. It’s so good.
I could mention many others, such as Scalped (which I’ve discussed before), Morning Glories, Chew, Umbrella Academy and a pile of interesting Vertigo titles. And maybe I will some other time. But these five are on my mind a lot, and they deserve to be read by everyone. Especially you. Because comics fucking rock.
(PS – if you’re a Melbournian, the only place to buy these is the fantastic All-Star Comics in Lonsdale Street. Tell them I sent you.)