Maybe you’re like me. Maybe the idea of comic books has always seemed interesting but you mostly think of them as roided out superheroes for kids or weird black and white stuff that’s boring or makes you feel weird. Maybe you read Maus or Persepolis and thought “Yeah, this is neat—but what now?” Maybe the idea of walking into a comic book store full of aggressively knowledgeable nerds is frightening. Maybe you don’t even know what a comic book store is or where to find one.
I was like you. Then one day not that long ago this guy I knew loaned me a comic book. And then some other comics. And then I found out about the fact that the public library has tons of comics. Now I’m on a first-name basis with pretty much all of the guys who work at my local comic book store.
Here’s the first thing you should know about comics: you have no idea how many different types of comic books are out there and I guarantee that there’s one that you will love. Comics are this huge world of art and literature working together in all kinds of different ways that are not bound or limited by anything. Some stories are one comic book long. Some are twenty years long. They cover all genres of storytelling and appeal to all age groups.
I’m not going to give you the standard list of mainstream award-winning graphic novels that they talk about on NPR once a year. What I’m going to tell you about are my favorite monthly comic books coming out right now. These are the things that get me excited about Wednesdays and going to the comic book store to chat with guys who have never once made me feel weird about being a girl or dumb for not knowing every arcane fact about Superman. These are the things that I keep in the special boxes in my bedroom and if you’re at my apartment for any reason I will probably drag them out and try to force you to read right there because I swear, dude, it’s that good.
The Walking Dead
I can’t start with anything else. This is generally referred to as “the most important comic book right now,” largely because of the monster hit TV show it spawned for AMC about a ragtag group of zombie apocalypse survivors and those kids they just can’t keep track of. Don’t expect the leisurely pace of the TV show in the comic, though. The predecessor to the TV show is a ceaseless battery of one jaw-dropping catastrophe after another. Sales of the recently published 100th issue were monumental and all along the way the series has been turning people who know nothing and care nothing about comics into true believers. This is the comic that I talk out loud to the most, generally yelling things like “Oh God! No! Please no!” I’m hard pressed to think of fictional characters that I’m more emotionally invested in. Just trust me: it’s like Girls for people who like violence and the end of civilization.
This is a very new book by Brian K. Vaughn, a guy who has written almost nothing but universally praised comics that aren’t just about the fantastic but the intellectual and the realistic. Saga is a sci-fi epic taking place in a gigantic, fully realized, amazingly drawn universe heavily occupied by a war that’s been going on so long that it barely makes sense anymore. Enter the star-crossed lovers, a soldier from each side who run away together and have a baby in the first issue. This is no run-of-the-mill space saga, though—that birth starts on the first page with the line “Am I shitting? It feels like I’m shitting!” I have been trying for three years to get a huge nerd friend into comics. I finally got him to read just the first issue and now he’s buying it every month. Then his non-nerd, non-comic reading partner read it and he loves it too. They both text me immediately after reading the new issues. Also, robot sex. I know what you deviants are into. You’ll like it.
This is even newer than Saga. Only two issues are out but I knew after the first it was one of my new favorites. A section of rural Wisconsin is quarantined after people begin to rise from the dead. Not like zombies, but something else—it’s not always clear who has risen from the dead. Small-town cop Dana Cypress has to deal with the living dead, religious crazies who have their own theories about what’s going on, the national media which is watching closely and something else completely crazy that happens in the first issue. This is a good time to mention that if you don’t read comics, reading this will give you an inkling of how violent, creepy, surprising and instantly engaging they can be. I don’t want to say anything else about this because I want you do be as weirded out and impressed as I was when I read it.
The cover of every issue of this comic declares it to be “The Best Superhero Comic Book in the Universe!” If it’s not true, it’s damn close. To be fair, I don’t read a lot of the big superhero titles. I find them in general to be fairly repetitive, the art to be fairly homogeneous and I find a lack of moral ambiguity kind of boring. Invincible is none of those things. It starts out as a bright, fun, but fairly familiar story of a kid with a superhero dad who discovers that he too has powers. He starts to learn to use them, goes out pummeling bad guys with dad, and then around issue #12 everything goes horribly wrong and the book plows through bombastic bad guys, intergalactic wars and, oh yeah, almost every real-life social issue that’s been debated in the media for the last five years. It’s an outrageously fun superhero book for people who have no patience for whitewashing. It also features the most legendary facial hair in the industry. You’ll see what I mean.
Are you sick of vampires that aren’t scary? Me too. The first time I read this I was sitting in a coffee shop and when I turned the page that showed the titular vamp in all his murderous glory I yelped “Holy shit!” putting a stop to more than one conversation near me. The American Vampire is a new species, born out of pure swagger in the Old West and it’s here to do whatever the hell it wants to do. That is until conspiracies run by old world species of vampires and the fear of all those humans hanging around gets in the way. Each arc of the story takes place in a different era of American history, following some characters and killing others as it goes along. The art in this book is the most free-wheeling and expressive of any on this list. It’s all blood and shadows and streaks and fun. The strangest thing about it is how literary the writer, Scott Snyder, manages to make it feel. It’s a book heavy on text and the text is heavy on mature, well-plotted stories and dialogue.
Lil’ Depressed Boy
LDB, as he’s called by his friends, is a 20-something rag doll boy who lives in Texas and maybe doesn’t quite know what to do with his life. He’s got a cool, alternative friend, he hangs out with a mysterious, hot woman who dress like a cross between Carrie Bradshaw and a roller derby team and he loves music. Music is so much a part of the story that unlike any other comic I’ve ever seen it includes notes about what songs LDB is listening to when you see him wearing headphones or at a show. Real bands make cameos in the book, including Childish Gambino on the cover of #10. This is by far one of the more low-key books that I read. No one hacks anyone to death with a scythe and no one has superpowers. There’s much less dialogue and intense plotting than the other books on the list which gives the art room to breathe and the pages without any words are some of my favorites. Artist Sina Grace (whose forthcoming “Not My Bag” is the only must-buy graphic novel on my list this fall) has a chunky, broad style that feels far more alive and emotive than so much of the overly detailed, generic art that fills action oriented books. Anyone who doesn’t directly identify with LDB knows someone like him and there’s something really sweet, kind and earnest about the book in general.
Locke and Key
Welcome to the only comic book that’s every really and truly scared the crap out of me. After a gruesome tragedy a family moves to their ancestral home, a huge house in Lovecraft, Massachusetts. The three kids begin to discover keys that open a variety of doors in the house that do things like switch your gender, turn you into a ghost, an animal or a giant. Mayhem ensues. This was recommended to me over and over and each time I was like “Magic keys and doors? No thanks.” But I was so wrong. I read the first story arc very late one night and almost had to throw the book across the room when it completely creeped me the hell out. I’ve been hooked ever since and now as the story winds down the mystery behind the keys is being explained. Unlike, say, Lost, where the resolution made you feel like you’d wasted years of your life trying to figure out the polar bears, the answers in Locke and Key are solid. It also features one of the most gorgeous and heartbreaking single issues from last year which will change the way that you look at the moon.
So what if you’re one of those people like I was who has no idea where a person even gets any of this stuff? This handy website will tell you where there’s a comic book store near you, freecomicbookday.com or you can check out digital versions of comic books at graphicly.com/comics or comixology.com.
Go forth and read comics!