A while back talented Scottish purveyor of all things gritty in comics Mark Millar launched his own narcissistically-titled comic universe, Millarworld, declaring that “the Big Two has just become the Big Three”. I was thinking that may actually be closer to reality than we think, but it’s got little to do with that particular creator striking out on his own. Image comics has been quietly putting out killer books for years now and it’s picking up steam fast.
Since its founding in 1992, Image has been the home of popular titles like Spawn, Witchblade, and The Darkness, all of whom successfully found their way to other forms of media, as well as highly-regarded cult series like Invincible and Chew. And they aren’t even on the list.
One thing sets the company apart from the big guys is that they are dedicated to complete creative control and ownership for the writers and artists they publish. Marvel and DC’s histories are littered with creators being screwed out of their rights to their own creations and left out in the cold as well as solid artists and writers being railroaded and having their works abandoned and/or dissected after they are booted from them. Jack Kirby practically created the Marvel Universe and he’s only just now getting his legal props twenty years after his death.
The Big Two’s corporate approach and deep pockets have allowed them to saturate our culture while riding on the backs of talented individuals, but Image is the company that works with the creators to make comics as art first and profit second. This talent-friendly approach may leave them a little short on making the Big Three a reality, but this reader’s comic subscription count currently reads Image: 4, Marvel + DC: 0, and I’m hoping to get caught up and adding the fifth soon.
There are two very different versions of the 1980’s out there. There’s the popular version where it was this wacky wonderland of crazy fashion, zany pop music, cheesy feel-good movies, and a general carefree attitude that comes with having a Hollywood actor in the White House and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” on every radio station. Then there’s the seedy underbelly we like to call reality; the one that gave birth to gangsta rap, hardcore punk, thrash metal, and the disaffected children who would be known as Generation X.
While the famous campaign declared it was “morning in America”, the less fortunate knew it was almost midnight. A decade in which our country literally believed Satanists were using Dungeons and Dragons to recruit people to kidnap and sacrifice babies in magic rituals, we needed a cowboy for a president to invade Grenada and save us from Communists, and economic deregulation was fine because businessmen always know when to stop gouging gave birth to some of the angriest forms of underground art and music as poverty and homelessness became accepted as a norm in this country and the media didn’t care. Not all of us are morning people, I guess.
Deadly Class feels like a culmination of this split between how the mainstream remembers the 80’s and how the rest of us do. In a cliché you’d think we’d all be over by now, the story is about a teenager recruited to a school for assassins. But setting this familiar trope in the 80’s and packing it with homages ranging from The Dark Knight Returns to the forgotten arcade classic 720° (with its unforgettable “SKATE OR DIE!” command ,which makes me wary of bee swarms to this day) and an axe to grind with the rose-tinted revisionist view people take of the decade infuses Deadly Class with a punk rock snark that I find irresistible. Add in a diverse cast of killers attending a high school with all of the shitty things you’d expect from a high school trying their darndest to curb the urge to slaughter one another in the hallways and in the streets, and you’ve got a killer comic.
Seems I’m starting off with a deadliness theme. Anyways, this one made a few headlines when a comic store owner publicly tore an issue of it in half to express his distaste for the female-created work. The man is an idiot. Maybe even more so if he didn’t do it just to express some kind of alpha male “go make me a sammich” gender statement. Pretty Deadly is a sterling example of the kind of work that could never be perfectly translated into another medium, and that is a very good thing.
Whether it’s the evocative visual of a little girl in a vulture-feather cloak, the concept of a story where each chapter begins with narration by a butterfly conversing with a long-dead jackrabbit, the unusual take on the classic Old West setting with a dash of mysticism, or the image of an undead cowgirl as the spirit of vengeance chillingly accompanied by the line “death rides on the wind”, this comic is a unique vision of familiar themes and a breath of fresh air.
The art is particularly exceptional. Most of the time, comic imagery is simply a visual depiction of what is happening in the story, similar to other visual mediums. But every now and then, a comic does more than that. It uses panels and splash pages that are works of art unto themselves with symmetry, contrast, abstract symbolism, and perspectives that set the mood as much or more so than they show the reader what is happening.
If nothing else, Pretty Deadly shows that there are talented women out there who can create female-centric stories on their own terms that are even more brutal than what the men are doing. Rip the comic up if it makes you feel better, but give it a chance first. I sincerely doubt you’ll feel that way after reading it.
It takes a lot of balls for a pair of men to title their comic Sex Criminals and then put themselves on the cover. But that’s the kind of audacious insanity you can expect from every issue of this much talked-about yet somehow underdiscussed gem. That and jokes about kegels. Why does that never get old? Forever 21? Try 15. Anyways, for anyone who’s ever wanted to fall in love with a woman as she belts out Fat Bottomed Girls in a karaoke bar, this one’s for you.
But it’s not all fun and games. Lots, but not all. The story is about a young couple, Suzie and Jon, who find they share an unusual ability: when they orgasm, time stops. It doesn’t seem like there’s a ton they could do with this -and with only a single digit number of issues so far it’s possible there won’t be- but given the mileage this title has gotten so far, I’m impressed.
Issues of gender-based views on sex (Suze calls her ability “the Quiet” whereas Jon goes with the less-poetic “Cumworld”), social prejudices and stigmas, and various relatable side stories and flashbacks such as Jon’s struggle with ADHD and Suzie’s adolescent experiences discovering her own sexuality in a society where it’s improper for a lady to acknowledge such things feel like breaking new ground. And when the characters “break bad” so to speak, and find out that they are being monitored, the combination of tension and humor is fantastic.
More than any other book out there, this is one you can’t truly experience by buying the trade paperbacks. You need the issues to see all there is to love about Sex Criminals. This is arguably the single funniest comic on the stands by itself and the letters column is filled with both hilarious stories and heartfelt confessionals plus the various notations and “sex tips” that accompany each issue offer up more laughs still. How else are you going to know that referring to your partner’s vagina “the Sarlacc Pit” is a bad idea? We’re nerds; crazy crap like that just flies out of our mouths from time to time, especially where Star Wars is concerned. Thanks for the good advice, Sex Crims. You make the rockin’ world go ‘round.
I love you, Lying Cat. Forget Groot and Hodor and Timmy and any other character who only communicates with their name. Nobody does it quite like this feline non-truth detector. The amount of emotion in the simple pair of panels above is a perfect example of how you make true art out of a sequential art narrative.
Brian K. Vaughn is arguably the finest writer in the biz and Fiona Staples is everything a comic artist should be. It wasn’t too long ago I got my final recommendation for Saga from this very site, so I should thank retired Unreality Hall of Famer Remy Carreiro for that. I wasn’t going to put it on this list for fear of repetition, but I decided one good turn deserves another. There’s no way to overexpose a title like this one.
Saga is a tale narrated by the child of two people belonging to two intergalactic races locked in an endless war. Cliché, yes? But it’s not the concept, it’s the execution. That beautiful, beautiful execution. Nobody seems to create original characters quite like Vaughn these days. It’s a true shame what Marvel did to Runaways, but thankfully we don’t have to worry about that with Image Comics.
With a supporting cast consisting partly of a smartass ghost babysitter who was blown apart by a land mine (and it shows), a badass bounty hunter with a heart known as the Will and his companions, the aforementioned Lying Cat and the innocent former child sex slave he rescued and natural-feeling dialogue that brings them all to life this is pretty much what any comic nerd with a taste for epic fantasy/sci-fi is looking for. And do you know any comic nerds without a taste for epic fantasy/sci-fi? Exactly.
The Walking Dead
I know, I know. The Walking Dead is too obvious and too overexposed to use in a list like this one that’s meant to turn interested parties on to smaller indie titles. We all know what this story is about and who the characters are; it’s a bonafide sensation. But after well over a hundred issues, I’d be remiss to say the series didn’t begin to show the same inevitable lag that the Big Two’s ongoing series frequently suffer from.
But the truth is The Walking Dead is responsible for inspiring this list, even if I originally only planned to use it as a header image. With most of my favorite titles canceled or kind of not very good anymore, no local comic shops for me to peruse, and the price of shipping going ever upward as my disposable income goes ever downward, I’ve been seriously considering quitting the comic book game. Then I received an issue from the last title standing of my inaugural comic subscriptions with the above woman on the cover staring at me, giving zero f***s.
Not to spoil too much for those not up to date, but it appears that Robert Kirkman became aware that his zombie apocalypse story had become a bit tepid and decided to reinvigorate the whole thing by jumping the timeline an as-yet unspecified amount of time forward into the future. And just like that I was hooked again. I was learning all about the characters I already knew all over again and seeing them through the eyes of a very intriguing woman and her crew.
I know DC in particular has done the time warp thing in the past, but this just felt different. It’s not some gimmick. It’s almost like a whole new comic. Wanting to keep my subscription and justify the shipping cost with more titles to ship along with it, I renewed my efforts to find more interesting new comics to read and this list is comprised of what I found. Then I realized that they were all from the same company and that’s when it hit me: Image Comics not only may be the future of the industry, it probably should be.
And if you don’t vibe with my taste, there’s still all of these guys to check out.
I’ll always have love for Spidey and the X-Men after any amount of clones, alternate dimensions, time travels, retcons, body swaps, and various combinations thereof. Nor will any amount of insanity ever put me off of Batman for good. But it feels nice to identify a possible long term replacement for Marvel and DC; one that welcomes any amount of controversial and adult content –both mature and immature- and makes it their business to make sure the creators own their own work.
So there’s five reasons I haven’t been missing the big companies in my monthly funny book readings. I’ll still see you in the movie theater, Marvel and DC, but here’s to me finding even more killer creator-owned titles for next year and beyond.