While accepting the Oscar for this year’s Best Animated Feature, Pinocchio director Guillermo del Toro said the following: “Animation is cinema, animation is not a genre, and animation is ready to be taken to the next step.” One could make a similar argument for the humble comic book, which is not just a flashy form of entertainment for easily-distracted children. Comics go far beyond the bright imagery and whiz-bang onomatopoeias we often associate with them.
Like literature or music or painting, it is an adaptable, ever-changing art-form unto itself—one worthy of our respect and admiration. So, without any further ado, here are 10 genre-bending comics that never fail to spark my imagination.
Watchmen, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (1986)
There’s nothing new I can add to the discourse surrounding Watchmen. It’s perfect, a masterpiece, the apex of what can be achieved in the comic book medium. Moore’s repurposing of established Charlton characters combined with Gibbons’ upending of longstanding illustrative tradition makes for something that only comes around once in a generation. A winding murder investigation through a seedy and depraved alternate version of 1985 where superheroes are real and Nixon is still in the White House is… *chef’s kiss*
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2002)
Imagine the Avengers, but instead of being set in the modern day, it’s set in Victorian England and instead of Marvel’s usual roster of superheroes, the team is made up of characters from classic works of literature. That is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in a nutshell. And while the later volumes in the series can get a little too in-the-weeds with their obscure references (looking at you, Black Dossier), the first two adventures with the OG League are nothing short of transcendent. The re-contextualization of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, for example (the Martians didn’t die of the common cold, that was just a cover story; it was actually biologically-engineered weapon created by Dr. Moreau!) never fails to inspire me as a writer.
Lobster Johnson Vol. 1: The Iron Prometheus, Mike Mignola & Dave Stewart
I’d be lying if I said the pulpy Hellboy universe created by writer/artist Mike Mignola wasn’t an influence on the world of my personal protagonist, Detective Morris Baker. I also think it’s safe to say that The Lobster (sometimes referred to as “Lobster Johnson”) is my favorite comic book character of all time. He’s a mysterious vigilante running around pre-World War II Manhattan, battling operatives of Nazi Germany and branding his trademark lobster claw emblem into their foreheads—Inglorious Basterds-style. What’s not to love?
Original Sin, Jason Aaron & Mike Deodato (2014)
Who shot J.R.? Nah, the real ones ask: “Who killed The Watcher?” The eight-part crossover event begins when the Avengers discover Uatu’s body on the moon. His all-seeing eyes have been plucked right out of his oversized head! It’s a nifty murder mystery wrapped up inside an epic superhero story that makes you wonder…if the immortal beings aren’t safe, then who is?
A Study in Emerald, Neil Gaiman, Rafael Albuquerque, Rafael Scavone & Dave Stewart (2018)
And speaking of the slaying of immortals, we now come one of my favorite pieces of fiction…well, ever. Based on Neil Gaiman’s 2003 short story of the same name, Dark Horse’s adaptation of A Study in Emerald takes place in an alternate version of the Sherlock Holmes universe ruled over by Lovecraftian horrors from beyond the veil of human comprehension. When a madness-inducing member of the royal family turns up dead, a renowned London detective and his new associate take on the case. I often find myself returning to the sheer inventiveness of this mashup when my creative muse needs a good kick in the rear.
Simon Says, Andre R. Frattino & Jesse Lee (2019)
I absolutely adore Simon Says, and I’m not just saying that because Image Comics prominently quoted me on the back cover of the trade paperback edition. Partly inspired by the life and times of Simon Wiesenthal, the comic tells the story of a jaded Holocaust survivor hunting down Nazi war criminals in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Once forced to paint swastikas on the cattle cars that carried Jews and other undesirables to factories of extermination, Simon now works hand-in-hand with the Americans to clean Berlin of its goose-stepping filth. But with the Nuremberg trials concluded, enthusiasm for persecuting Nazis has begun to wane on the part of the Allies. They’re going to shut Simon down, but not before he uncovers a growing Nazi conspiracy to return the Reich to its former glory.
Strange Skies Over East Berlin, Jeff Loveness & Lisandro Estherren (2019)
Bridge of Spies meets The Thing! If you enjoyed Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, then you’ll love this comic, written several years before Mr. Loveness became a key writer of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When an unexplained object lands in the Soviet-controlled East Berlin, the Americans send their top spy, Herring, to investigate. The disillusioned infiltrator (think Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca if Rick betrayed Ilsa) gets way more than he bargained for when he’s locked inside a Russian bunker with a seemingly unstoppable entity preying on guilt and regret.
Meyer, Jonathan Lang & Andrea Mutti (2019)
Meyer Lansky didn’t really die of lung cancer in the early 1980s. He faked his own demise and hid out in a Miami retirement home under the pseudonym of “Morris Gluck.” That’s the story put forth by Meyer — a gripping Florida noir packed to the teeth with quippy Yiddishisms and murderous drug runners. Wanting to recover priceless documents from a downed cocaine-smuggling airplane, the mob’s retired accountant sets off on a whirlwind adventure through the swamps of organized crime, aided by a Cuban Jew struggling to find his place in the world.
The Department of Truth, James Tynion IV & Martin Simmonds (2021)
Lee Harvey Oswald was a patsy. Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing. The Earth is flat. Every conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard is 100 percent true…if the psychological climate is right, of course. Our reality is one big Schrödinger experiment, capable of sliding into one extreme or another if enough people believe. It’s up to the Department of Truth (run by an elderly Oswald) to make sure that dangerous conspiracies remain an outlandish minority.
Channeling the creative beauty of Original Sin and A Study in Emerald, Cosmic Detective begins with the death of a literal god, whose design by artist David Rubín recalls the blue-tinged omnipotence of Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan (we’ve now come full circle!). A private eye is brought in to get to the bottom of the murder, and he’s probably the only one who can prevent the world from falling apart at the seams. For years, he’s been in cahoots with an organization dedicated to keeping the peace between mortals and terrible forces beyond their comprehension.
Discover the Book
December, 1959: The Korean War rages on.
Protesting the bloody conflict, a Korean-American man by the name of William Yang suddenly blows himself up in the middle of a Los Angeles department store just before Christmas, which leads the U.S. government to reopen the internment camps used during World War II. President Joseph McCarthy's America has never been more on edge, paranoid, and above all, dangerous.
Several weeks later, a woman hires Morris Baker, now working as a private investigator, to track down her missing husband—Henry Kissinger—who may have a shadowy connection to Yang's purported terrorist attack. The ensuing investigation for the missing State Department consultant working for Vice President Richard Nixon sends Baker on another thrilling adventure of deceit, intrigue, sex, murder, and conspiracy where the safety of the entire world may hang in the balance.
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