Last week, we discussed Alan Moore’s impression that there hadn’t been any really good ideas in mainstream comics since Watchmen, countering it with a list of ten ideas published by DC that we felt rivaled Watchmen, or at least put lie to the notion that there was nothing creative going on in comics today. This week, we wanted to take a similar look at the creator-owned side of the market.
While all of these books exist very much in the mainstream of the American comics industry (you can, or could when they were published, find them in almost any comic shop), they aren’t DC or Marvel. Still, who can claim the an industry that generates Bone is intellectually bankrupt?
And which ones did we miss? We went for the big, obvious ones, but it’s likely that in the rush of things we managed to ignore some of your favorites.
A cheat, you say? Not that original idea, just a great take on existing one, you claim? I laugh at you.
The Walking Dead is to zombie fiction what Watchmen was to superheroes. It has changed not only the way zombie comics are done but the way stories in that genre are told altogether, and it stands head and shoulders above some distinguished competition like 28 Days Later and World War Z as the best, most enduring and influential work in that wildly popular genre in the last 20 years.
With 100 issues just around the corner and no end in sight, The Walking Dead is already in contention to be one of the most wildly successful creator-owned comics in history, even before you consider its influence and success in other media, with a popular television show that’s helping creator Robert Kirkman to build a small empire at AMC. He’s one of the most hands-on creators in the history of comics-to-other-media, having crafted one of the truest and most fan-friendly versions of his comic book onscreen, and adjusting to the medium as he did so; Alan Moore always says that there’s really no need for a comic book to be turned into a movie or a TV show in order to prove it’s “successful.” After all, a comic book is a comic book and that’s the way it’s meant to be read. The Walking Dead embraces that and doesn’t try to make a TV show that just superimposes the comics onto the screen without alteration, and that’s what has driven traffic back to the comics (it’s consistently Diamond’s top seller in collected editions).
Here’s the other side of that coin; while The Walking Dead‘s TV adaptation embraces the differences between the two media, Frank Miller’s Sin City managed to do what Watchmen’s film adaptation tried and failed to do: it took a comic book page and tried to convert it directly to the screen, losing as little as possible in the translation.
The reason Sin City worked and so many similar attempts have failed, though, is twofold: first of all, it wasn’t afraid to be stylized. An R-rated movie about killers and hookers based on a comic most people never heard of was never likely to make $200 million at the domestic box office, which gave it freedom to be itself; and second, Robert Rodriguez is a fantastic director who clearly loves the source material.
And (Millers’ decpictions of women aside), what’s not to love? It’s an adrenaline-infused joyride through some of the worst parts of humanity that also, as an added bonus, is arguably the last truly great work of one of comics’ most respected and prolific talents. Sin City may not be for everyone, but it’s a great work that’s tailor-made for its audience and takes both them and itself with exactly the right amount of seriousness.
Scott McCloud launched himself from indie comics darling to one of the foremost representatives of the art form when he wrote this brilliant book, timed perfectly to look back on things like Watchmen, Maus and The Dark Knight Returns with just the right amount of detachment.
A textbook about comics, written as a comic, McCloud’s book has not only found a home on syllabuses all over the world but also remains, twenty years on, an indispensible work not just for readers interested in the medium and its history, but for convincing your mother-in-law that reading (or making) comics in your thirties isn’t your life’s biggest mistake.
With a conversational tone that endeared McCloud to the readers and makes the book understanding to almost anyone, Understanding Comics arguably has done more good for comics than Watchmen has, as it gave readers and scholars a definitive work on the art form for the first time since Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art.
Like Alan Moore, Batman Year One artist David Mazzucchelli hasn’t always been happy with the way DC has treated his work, and he’s not shy about it. Having worked with Frank Miller on hist most famous project, he moved on to more personal and scholarly works, forsaking superheroes for most of the rest of his career (very much like Alan Moore himself).
Mazzuchelli made some terrific work over the years, but Asterios Polyp was in a league by itself. Besides winning four Eisner Awards, it managed to nab “best graphic novel of the year” accolades from a number of non-comics media outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, and its structure–somewhat reminiscent of Watchmen in that there are multiple stories, all flashing back and forth–certainly owes something to Moore’s work, but feels more polished, having had years working with the devices.
That’s not an attack on Watchmen anymore that saying “Rorschach did The Question better than Charlton ever did” is an attack on the creators who worked on Charlton before Moore reinterpreted it. Every work of art is the sum of its parts, and one of those parts is the history of the medium to that point.
I’ve called Terry Moore’s romance-espionage-horror-drama epic, for my money, the best single work in the history of American sequential art.
Your mileage may vary there, as the serpentine plot and the nature of its themes don’t appeal to everyone as much as they do to this critic, but the fact remains that Strangers in Paradise was something comic book fans hadn’t seen in decades; an ongoing romance series.
It was also something new, in that Moore experimented with cinematic elements of storytelling in his little black-and-white indie book, using music, static art, poetry and various other devices as effectively as Moore did in Watchmen.
And it was an incredibly well-thought-out series, laying seeds for later stories to pick up far earlier than Moore had any right to know he’d be around to reap the benefits. He has also managed to successfully craft for himself a small universe that now runs through not only SiP, but his newer books (Echo and Rachel Rising), making him one of the only indie creators to create for himself that which Marvel and DC have so excelled at that it’s beginning to make it out of the comics and onto film (see The Avengers).
A zany and profound mash-up of popular art, cinema, magic, science, mythology, history and some of the greatest storytelling you’ll find inside or outside of comics, Mike Allred’s Madman is arguably as clever as just about anything in comics.
And, like Strangers in Paradise, continued as an ongoing story for so long that it makes the consistent excellence all the more impressive.
Aside from playing with both the storytelling and visual tropes of the comics medium and trying to bring in elements from other art forms, Allred is another artist who believe in comics for comics’ sake and never hurried to sell the rights to his character.
Twenty years in, Allred’s Madman is loved by fans and respected by fellow creators to the extent that there was a line of top-tier talent wrapping around the block to contribute to the recent 20th Anniversary Hardcover.
Any claim that Marvel and DC have to being the best-selling graphic novels of such-and-such a year probably goes out the window as soon as you consider that, in schools, at bookfairs and in the bookstore market, Bone is a legitimate phenomenon.
The mythology-driven fairy tale that saw the cousins Bone wend their way through dangerous woods filled with stupid rat creatures to find love and their way home was such a massive success with fans of all ages that it’s managed to become a mainstream hit in the bookstore and educational markets in spite of the fact that many young readers were first introduced to the series in black and white.
The sweeping, epic narrative of the series is thought through from the beginning and, like Strangers in Paradise, falls into the same category as Watchmen in terms of being a full story–beginning, middle and end–which was conceived before the series even began (even if in the cases of the non-Watchmen works it seems harder to believe that the actual number of issues was always known up front).
Mike Mignola’s Hellboy is one of the great creator-owned success stories in comics, right up there with The Walking Dead. retaining the rights to the character but taking it to a publisher who could help him break into the mainstream, the character went from being a sales success in comics to a multimedia success with films and DVDs made, all to benefit Mignola.
It’s also interesting because Hellboy fits nicely into Mignola’s vast oeuvre in much the same way Watchmen does for Moore. Many of the names on this list are totally defined by their great works, and so don’t so much have “a style” as they have a book that set the standard for what they do. Hellboy has to stand shoulder to shoulder with Mignola’s work for Marvel, DC and even Disney Animation.
It does so, and all of it feels like a larger body of work, of which Hellboy is the perfect representation.
Written and drawn by onetime Moore collaborator Eddie Campbell (From Hell), the Alec series of graphic novels is an autobiographical work of wonder, done in Campbell’s trademark Impressionist-inspired style, which took nearly ten years to complete.
It’s clever, honest, fun and beautiful and what it lacks in big concepts like Armageddon or lesbian child sex, it makes up for in its ability to never underestimate its audience. The Alec series is something that easily could have been done as a handful of novels, and probably sold better, but it wouldn’t have given Campbell the same sense of artistic expression–and isn’t that what a good comic should do?
It’s debatable whether any one of the founding Image members created a title so amazing that it deserves to be on this list; Savage Dragon often breaks the rules of superhero storytelling and is an exciting, engaging read year in and year out–but it’s very based in the tropes of the superhero genre and its frequent homages to Kirby and other existing works make it difficult to argue that it’s an idea so brilliant that it deserves a spot unto itself.
Spawn is uneven and McFarlane proved early on that even creator-owned books can fall into disrepair if you go the Big Two, “assembly line” route to writing them. The Top Cow books are at their best when creators other than Silvestri are working on them, as are Liefeld’s concepts.
Still, the idea of Image is in and of itself one of the greatest ideas to come out of the comics industry since its birth, let alone since Watchmen. They’ve completely revolutionized the industry artistically, economically and technologically, pioneering new art styles, new distribution opportunities and developing talent like Brian Michael Bendis and Jonathan Hickman who would not only make big hits for Image, but go on to be major commercial successes in the rest of the industry.
A creator-owned and -operated publishing operation that rewards quality work, doesn’t try to take anyone’s intellectual property away and consistently creates three or four of the ten best comics in any given year deserves recognition. In five or ten years, we could easily rewrite this list and plausibly include something like Fatale or (even though it’s derivative of another work in title) Brandon Graham’s Prophet. One never knows what’s next, and that’s part of the joy of Image.