The Big Two comic companies have been mostly a wash this year. Don’t get me wrong, I still loves me some old-school superhero slugfests, but everyone’s been so wrapped up in the mega-crossover storyline of the moment (as they have been for the past five or ten years, really) that it hasn’t been a good year for new fans to try to get to know the medium. That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of goodness out there, though—you just have to know where to look. Here are ten excellent starting points.
1. The Walking Dead. Whether you’re a fan of the AMC TV series or you just like a little brain-gobbling action in your literary life, Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead has a lot going for it. I’m not a great fan of the zombies myself, but this comic stopped me in my tracks with the power of its writing. Months after I first read the story, I would still catch myself thinking in my off moments about the doctor on the isolated farm who caught zombies and kept them in his barn as he worked to find a cure for zombieism … because his son was in the barn. You’ll believe a zombie can make you cry. Start with Volume 1, “Days Gone Bye.” Rated R for blood, gore, and ruthless yanking on the old heartstrings. Perfect for: horror fans, gorehounds, zombie aficionados, and anyone with a taste for a good story and a willingness to go beyond the usual.
2. The Unwritten. I’ve hyped this series before, but it still deserves it. A massive headrush of a comic about the secret goings-on behind our most enduring stories (and, consequently, our reality), The Unwritten has consistently delivered top-notch mystery, action, character, and big ideas. It begins when Tom Taylor, the namesake of a Harry Potter-esque boy wizard and the son of the missing author who created the character, discovers that his identity may be a forgery and that he may have more in common with the fictional Tommy Taylor than he thought. Guest appearances by Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Herman Melville, and other literary giants—but do watch out for Beatrix Potter, because she’s downright scary. Start with Volume 1, “Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity.” R for violence, language, and mind-blowing twists. Perfect for: voracious readers, pop-culture junkies, Harry Potter fans with a taste for the dark, and anyone who’s ever suspected their English teacher wasn’t telling the whole story.
3. The Saga of Rex. This is the all-ages offering this time around—a heartbreakingly beautiful, almost wordless comic about a little fox named Rex who gets kidnapped by a spaceship and befriends an alien shapeshifter named Aven. Neither Rex nor Aven speaks; there’s only a little narration to explain that Rex has found himself in the midst of some kind of enigmatic trial, and that Aven somehow needs him to win through. Rex’s boundless curiosity and indomitable spirit—and artist Michel Gagné’s breathtaking visuals—carry the story from there. (Gagné is perhaps best-known for his work in movies, including The Iron Giant and Ratatouille.) There are some scary moments when Rex is pitted against a giant bug-monster and some outright weird moments when he gets transformed into an alien unicorn-fox, but The Saga of Rex never runs out of wonders to share. Available in one volume. Rated G, but watch out for the bug-monster if the recipient is very young. Perfect for: kids who love fantasy and sci-fi, anyone who loves animal heroes, anyone who loves cute stuff, anyone who loves whimsical artwork.
4. PS238. Oh, PS238, how do I love thee! One of the best comics out there right now, and I’m not just saying that because creator Aaron Williams has commented on this blog. PS238 is a comic about a school for superpowered kids—who, unlike most children in fiction, act like real kids. In between figuring out their first team-ups and how to save the world from alien invasions and grade-school mad science, they struggle mightily with things like parental divorce and sibling rivalry—in this case, made all the more complicated because the sibling is a newly created clone who’s everything your parents always wanted in a son. And the thing that never fails to surprise me about PS238 is that a comic with this much heart and this much brain can also make me laugh until milk squirts out my nose. Just take poor Tyler Marlocke, the one un-super kid in the school, who’s forced to take hero lessons from a mere-mortal vigilante, the Revenant, who says things like, “Ah, you lucky kid. When I was your age, I could only dream of going a hundred and thirty-five miles per hour on city streets!” Start with Volume One, “With Liberty and Recess For All”, or jump right into the recently released Volume 8, “When Worlds Go Splat!” Rated PG for mild violence, a few grown-up concepts, and nerdy pop-culture references including Zork. Perfect for: superhero fans of all ages and anyone who enjoys a good laugh.
5. Buffy Season 8. I’m of two minds of this one, honestly, but decided to include it on points. Joss Whedon’s snarky opus remains a watershed in the history of fantasy and sci-fi television (to say nothing of its importance in the development of a certain snarky girl mask), and Dark Horse Comics’ continuation of the adventures of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has most of the old magic intact. Written mostly by Joss Whedon and Brian K. Vaughan, Buffy Season 8 updates some of the classic plotlines and addresses more recent twists like our culture’s growing fascination with sexy vampires (the Slayer and her friends are justifiably creeped out by this, even though Buffy’s romance with the vampire Angel set the standard in many ways). Throw in the interesting complexity of a villain named Twilight created before Stephenie Meyer’s book series hit it big, blend with plenty of Joss Whedon snark, and you’ve got a nice little ride. Start with Volume 1, “The Long Way Home.” Rated PG-13 for sex, violence, and classic Buffy angst. Perfect for: the superhero, vampire, and Joss Whedon fans in your life—you know you have them.
6. Nightschool. This manga series from Yen Press recently published its fourth and last (for a while, anyway) volume, and the story and art held up the whole way through. Although it started out being mostly about a teenage witch searching for her missing sister in a public school for supernatural creatures, it grew into more of a braided narrative with a rich cast of characters on all sides of the main conflict (the snarky, dangerous Hunters are particularly intriguing) and a whopping supernatural threat to fight for the grand finale. Writer-artist Svetlana Chmakova (best known for the romantic-comedy manga Dramacon) keeps up her characteristic raucous humor the whole way through, and her moody, elegant art is a real treat. Start with Volume 1. Rated PG-13 for violence and that bit with the mermaid. Perfect for: manga fans, urban-fantasy and YA fantasy junkies, and anyone who likes to laugh while they’re shrieking.
7. Green Hornet: Year One. Okay, I admit, this one made the list only because I really wanted to include The Green Hornet Strikes! and the first collection won’t be out in time for Christmas. But it’s a close second in the race for best Green Hornet title to come out of this year’s relaunch of the character, and it’s an amazing read all by itself. For those of you not up on the premise of the Green Hornet, he’s a newspaper publisher in a trenchcoat and mask who pretends to be a gangster so he can take out all the other local hoods, protecting his city under the guise of a turf war. He’s assisted in this by Kato, originally Asian Sidekick Type 2A (sometimes Korean, sometimes Filipino, sometimes Japanese, and memorably played on television by Bruce Lee) and now more of a mentor and confidante. Green Hornet: Year One follows Britt’s globetrotting odyssey as he starts to get the idea to become the Hornet, paralleling Kato’s training as a ninja and his opposition to the Japanese government’s expansionist policies in the 1930s (he takes on his fellow soldiers during the Nanking Massacre). What follows is an intriguing mix of period adventure, gangster movie, and character-driven epic as Britt and Kato, bound by mutual obligation and fascination, learn to work together and figure out just what their goals as heroes will be. Rated PG-13 for violence and some language. Start with Volume One, "The Sting of Justice." Perfect for: fans of 1930s adventure, pulp fanatics, and anyone who wants to see ninjas done right.
8. The Lone Ranger. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—Brett Matthews’ Lone Ranger series may have a spotty publishing schedule, but it’s worth the wait, every time. It offers a richly drawn period adventure, packed with heartstopping action and drama, without losing the key elements that made the original property great. The Lone Ranger, for those of you living under rocks, is the story of John Reid, a Texas Ranger mortally wounded in the ambush that kills his Ranger father and brother. He survives his wounds thanks to the timely intervention of Tonto, an exiled member of a local native tribe, and goes on to become a masked vigilante. As the best-known cowboy superhero, the Ranger is a tricky character to write—not least because of the frankly racist portrayals of Tonto in previous incarnations—but Matthews walks the tightrope beautifully, giving both characters powerful but complex inner lives and pitting them against a genuinely frightening psychopath of a villain. The most familiar moments—the first meeting with the horse Silver, the digging of the six graves, John’s awkward first contact with his brother’s son—have the power of myth. Rated PG-13 for gunplay and, in a later volume, an attempted sexual assault. Start with Volume One, “Now and Forever.” Perfect for: Western fans, pulp-adventure buffs, and anyone who listens for the hoofbeats of a fiery horse with the speed of light.
9. Mouse Guard. How to explain Mouse Guard? It’s a lavish historical adventure … that just happens to star a bunch of mice. David Petersen’s Eisner-Award-winning saga of a colony of intelligent medieval-era mice departs from the typical talking-animal story by taking its furry characters as seriously as any human. The mice don’t live thinly disguised parallels of human history, secreted in the baseboards of some palace—they have their own cities deep in the woods, and fight desperate battles with weasels, owls, and other creatures. As the title suggests, the series follows the adventures of the Mouse Guard, a combination military and expeditionary force, as they go about their duties—fighting dangerous beasts, escorting travelers, scouting, and acting as guides and guardians to common mice. The characters are richly complex, the art is breathtakingly beautiful, and the ongoing storyline about a fallen hero called the Black Axe will intrigue anyone who likes a good sword-swinging adventure. Rated PG-13 for violence. Perfect for: Tolkien buffs, anyone who enjoys historical fiction, fans of Brian Jacques’ Redwall, and anyone who looks at the cover and says “Ooh!”
10. Fables. A perennial favorite at the Eisner Awards, this series about fairytale characters living secretly in the modern world has become an unparalleled hit (around 100 issues, 15 volumes, and no signs of stopping). Reinterpreted characters such as Snow White (divorced from Prince Charming, effectively running the community in exile), the Big Bad Wolf (grudgingly turned human, acting as Fabletown’s sheriff and secretly in love with Snow White), and Little Boy Blue (jazz trumpeter, office assistant, and occasional sword-swinging hero) live out their adventures after fleeing their respective fairy-tale lands just ahead of the grim, world-conquering Adversary (another fabled character whose identity I won’t spoil here). Fables runs the gamut, genre-wise, from the murder mystery in its first volume to later detours through areas including romance stories, war epics, and a truly hair-raising take on George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The series has become writer-creator Bill Willingham’s calling card, and with good reason—no matter who’s providing its lush interior art, Fables delivers the surprising storytelling goods. Rated R for sex, violence, and occasional heartbreak. Start with Volume One, “Legends in Exile,” although I’m personally quite partial to Volume Four, “Storybook Love” and Volume Six, “Homelands.” Perfect for: fairytale fanatics, folklore and mythology buffs, and anyone who likes a little subversion in their bedtime stories.