No Capes! An Introduction to Comics and Graphic Novels of the Non-Superhero Variety

If you’ve read my previous articles for The Spectatorial, you may have picked up on the fact that I like comic books. I think the graphic novel is a fantastic vehicle with which to tell or devour stories. But there is one thing that prevents a lot of people from being sucked into this great medium: capes. There is an idea that comic books are about superheroes, and superhero stories might not be for everyone. That’s okay! I’m here to tell you that there are entire worlds of books out there for you to explore! There are literary graphic novels! Independent, creator-owned comics! And they’re great.

The literary/alternative graphic novel is not exactly new, and whether you know it or not, has been seeping into the public conscious for years. If you haven’t come across the books themselves, then you have almost certainly come into contact with their small/big screen adaptions. If you have ever seen or referenced things like V for Vendetta, the Swamp Thing, The Walking Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, or even the new Kingsman: The Secret Service, then you have come into contact with stories that originated as graphic novels. But there are many more that have not jumped from the page to the screen that still absolutely deserve your attention. Both classic and contemporary teams of artists and writers have been working hard for decades to bring us an entire literary genre, one that is slowly but surely creeping into the public eye.

In a sense, it is almost surprising that that the graphic novel format is not more widely recognized as a mode of storytelling outside of the classic superhero genre. Words and pictures—what could be a better means of telling a story?

For my purposes here, I am going to draw your attention to some contemporary graphic novels. I want you to be able to walk down to your local shop and feel a spark of recognition when looking at the titles. For that, I am going to focus largely on Image Comics, which I believe regularly puts out some of the best independent books at this time.

the wicked and the divine art Jamie McKelvie
Art by Jamie McKelvie

I have always had a strange obsession with ancient mythologies, and especially how they are reinterpreted in a modern context. Nothing has scratched that itch better in recent years than The Wicked + The Divine, written by Kieron Gillen and drawn by Jamie McKelvie. Gillen and McKelvie effortlessly give voice to characters of a younger generation, and imagine that if the gods of the world walked the earth today, they would probably be celebrity pop stars. Wicked + The Divine offers a fascinating look into celebrity culture, wrapped in mystery, mythology, magic, and murder.

sex criminals chip zdarsky
Art by Chip Zdarsky

Next, I don’t think I could go without calling attention to Sex Criminals written by Matt Fraction (of Hawkeye fame) and illustrated by Chip Zdarsky. This book is about… exactly what you would expect it to be about, actually. A couple discovers that they have the power to stop time by… well, you get it. But under a riot of laughs and inappropriate shenanigans, this is a comic book that explores themes of relationships, lust, and depression.  Most importantly, Sex Criminals positively portrays female sexuality without objectification! What’s not to like? (Note: mature readers only.)

Art by Christian Ward
Art by Christian Ward

Matt Fraction is the only name to come up twice for me, as I also have to mention his series ODY-C, illustrated by Christian Ward. Diving back into a passion for mythology, this series is a beautiful retelling of Homer’s ancient epic, the Odyssey, but with two twists: 1) all the characters’ genders are reversed, allowing for amazingly strong developments; and 2) it’s in space. ODY-C takes this ancient story and twists it into an amazing, psychedelic science fiction space adventure extravaganza. This is a must-read for lovers of the classics and science fiction geeks alike.

Saga Fiona Staples

The next comic to be mentioned strays into the territory of space fantasy, and triumphantly seizes the title of space opera: Saga written by Brian K. Vaughan and beautifully illustrated by Fiona Staples. A cross between Star Wars and Game of Thrones, this wonderful series follows two parents from different planets as they try to keep their family intact while trying to brave an intergalactic war between their people. This book perfectly encapsulates how the graphic novel can render a creator’s imagination like no other medium.

Bitch Planet Valentine De Lando
Art by Valentine De Lando

Lastly, I feel obligated to mention Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Bitch Planet, illustrated by Valentine De Landro. The series is billed as “Margaret Atwood meets Inglourious Basterds”, and that’s a pretty accurate description. DeConnick pens a fantastic love letter to feminism with a big middle finger to the universe in a series that celebrates the female rebel, depicts a science fiction women’s prison, and lobs a powerful ball of hatred at everything unjust about these characters’ reality.

These five ongoing series are a great introduction to graphic fiction, but there’s even more excellent work out there waiting to be read.

 -contributed by Ben Ghan

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