We live, perhaps improbably, in a golden age of science fiction comics, in which there are so many wonderful and strange ideas about the universe promulgated by so many different writers and artists that it becomes gloriously difficult to keep up.
I don’t write about comics as much as I wish I did anymore; I did an interview with Dan Clowes a few months ago and have a forthcoming interview with Kate Beaton that were both wonderful career highlights for someone who admires both artists tremendously, but I remain (as a reader) as deep in the scrum as ever and sometimes my cup runneth over and I have to at least briefly run down what’s good at the moment, so here are a few of my favorites for your perusal, disagreement and (one hopes) pleasure.
1. DESCENDER Jeff Lemire is a name I’ve known for years, since his Essex County series was anthologized by Top Shelf and turned into a graphic novel the size of a doorstop that I never quite got around to reading. I wish I had, now, and I’ll probably go find it at some point; after years writing and drawing a number of well-regarded series (Sweet Tooth and Trillium are the other two he’s best known for), Lemire has settled into his gifts as a writer and, here, is leaving the art chores to the wonderful Dustin Nguyen, an artist I’ve liked since he was drawing WildC.A.T.S. for Joe Kelly lo these many years ago. Descender follows a little boy who is also a robot and the vestiges of humanity whose lives have been forever altered by another robot, a great big one, who seems to be at least partly the responsibility of the little boy. Along the way the child robot has a kind of near-death experience that shunts him into the robo-afterlife, a totally weird and unexpected twist of the kind I’d never seen before. It’s brilliant. Nguyen is better here than he’s ever been; the whole series is done in watercolor, a medium I’d have said was an odd, emotionalist choice for a science fiction comic this serious about its mechanics, but it’s actual a perfect counterpoint to the Arthur C. Clarke-ish mix of mysticism and brass tacks.
2. SAGA I’m afraid I’ve always found Bryan K. Vaughn mildly annoying – his work is 90% fanservice and 10% planning, and his series tend to go on long enough that the inattention to detail for the sake of big, splashy one-liners (”I’m going to find the man who ripped my family away from me. And I’m going to cut his fucking head off.”) becomes less an irritating tic than his writing’s primary mode. He was a writer for Lost, if that gives you any indication of his narrative priorities. Here, for some reason, it works better than it ought to (his best book is still the Aaron Sorkin-does-Batman series Ex Machina), thanks in no small part to collaborator Fiona Staples, whose artwork is completely stunning and wonderful. And credit where credit is due: Vaughn does come up with some odd and uncanny images in this series, in which his fantasy world deliberately makes no sense whatsoever, and Staples’ rendering thereof is gorgeous. I almost always crack open a new volume of this series under mild duress, spurred on by an interesting cover, and I always close it wishing I had the next one in front of me already.
3. CROSSED +100 Alan Moore has a new horror comic set in Tennessee, ranging across the state from Chattanooga to Memphis and back again and ending up, briefly, in the Appalachian mountains where I grew up. It’s a very strange, disturbing, inventive book and it’s from a little publisher called Avatar, which flies so far under the radar I know literally no one else who regularly picks up their books, so it strikes me as something most people won’t have heard of.
Crossed +100 is strange in a lot of ways. For one thing the Crossed series has become a creator-owned franchise, something few publishers in the industry would tolerate (most companies that traffic in franchise series – Superman, Batman, The Fantastic Four – want the IP rights for themselves and most creators-owned projects are one-writer affairs), and for another Moore is simply stopping by to cast his usual weird spell on it, taking the series to its logical conclusion and suggesting new permutations for the future. He said in an interview that he wanted to approach it not as a horror comic but as “a science fiction comic with a very high horror quotient,” and so that’s exactly what he’s done here, ostentatiously worldbuilding and inventing a mildly exasperating patois for his characters to speak in 2108, 100 years after “The Surprise,” in which (during the events of the original Crossed series) a zombie plagued turned most of the human race not into mindless cannibals but into giggling sadists who try to outdo each other for grossest violation of the Geneva convention. The zombies are all marked physically by a rash in the shape of a red cross on their faces (subtle!).
The original series, by outspoken atheist Garth Ennis, who tends to wallow in violence but is a first-rate writer of complex men (women, not so much), was gross but effective: his zombies went around raping and looting and torturing and speaking in jagged red letters where everyone else spoke in black and white, but Ennis still managed to fit in some interesting human drama, mostly between overrealized cowboy types. Moore has jumped forward ten decades and worked out how people might adapt to a world filled with would-be spree killers, and vice versa, and it’s very clever and quite sad, ultimately. True to his word, it’s also very smart SF and Moore has told the story entirely from a woman’s perspective. One funny thing here: Moore gets dinged pretty regularly (oftentimes by people with a score to settle) for featuring rape in his comics too often and it finally got back to him (he’s an awful Luddite). I’m not totally sure but I think this is a story about horrible violence and bloodshed and warfare in which nobody actually gets raped; there’s a lot of horrific stuff and the zombies themselves have utterly disgusting sex but it’s interesting that Moore has apparently A) taken to heart a criticism that he viciously lashed back at when it was put to him in an interview a few years ago and B) left rape out of what is by far the rapiest mainstream comic on the market and gently rebuked its creator by telling the story from the perspective of a bookish woman in a healthy relationship with a Muslim.
4. INJECTION Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey wrote and drew respectively one of my favorite comics of the last four or five years, a six-issue run on Moon Knight in which each story is done in 22 pages and each one is told in a totally different visual style. It’s a truly gorgeous book and Shalvey is a wonderful, inventive artist with a style I’ve never quite seen before. Usually I can pick out an artist’s influences pretty quickly, but not here. The story is fun; an Ellis-y band of surly scientists have to reckon with an experiment gone wrong, and he’s good at writing interesting women, as distinct from Vaughn, whose main female character should just be called Main Female Character (she’s spunky, sexually aggressive, and has sexy hair boys! But watch out, because this firecracker has a self-destructive streak!). The twist – similarly to Wytches, further down – is that the sci-fi twist gives the story the feel of a fantasy book and incorporates a bunch of folklore in really interesting and unusual ways.
5. SEX CRIMINALS I know and I’m sorry, but it’s really, really, really funny. A couple discover that they both have the same superpower: when either of them has an orgasm, time literally stands still for that person. They discover this by having really great sex and coming simultaneously. Then they decide to team up to rob banks. It should be, like, five movies. It’s by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, the latter of whom has made Howard the Duck the best book at Marvel Comics (and it’s on hiatus until November! damn you, intracompany crossovers!), and the art by Zdarksy is excellent.
6. WYTCHES YES IT IS A SCI FI COMIC YOU SHUT UP. Scott Snyder is the hottest superhero writer on the docket at DC right now and the twist to this crazy, crazy, CRAZY horror book he’s put together with Jock makes it SF and not pure supernatural horror. It’s extremely clever, but much more importantly it’s an astoundingly well-put-together tale of human greed and frailty and the way it all comes together at the end of the first volume is worthy of Stephen King.
7. STRANGE FRUIT This book just started, but it is already one of the coolest things I’ve ever read. It’s basically a black Superman book set in the Jim Crow South with painted art by J.G. Jones and a script by Mark Waid, one of the best writers in the business. I have no idea what made these two middle-aged white boys decide to launch a book about a superpowered black man fighting the Klan in 1927 but it’s terrific. It’s from another very small press, Dynamite, which mostly puts out comics based on old-fashioned IP like The Shadow and The Green Hornet and Zorro. It’s just great.