Great Non-Mainstream Reads

by: Guest

Great Non-Mainstream Reads by Nick Piers Jan 20, 2010

When the average reader thinks of comics, their first thought usually comes down to one of two things: Archie or superheroes. In the latter example, their thoughts come down to DC (Superman, Batman) and Marvel (Spider-Man, X-Men). Fortunately, thanks to Hollywood, more and more not-so-well-known properties are becoming more well known.

For me, I’ve been growing further and furthe away from the mainstream “Big Two”. I’ve grown tired with events, hype and promises of “things will be forever changed” or “nothing will ever be the same again” or my personal favourite, “everything you know is a lie”. After near twenty years of reading comics (I’ve been reading since the Death of Superman back in 1992), I’ve come to the realization that nothing will ever change. Superman will fight Lex Luthor. Magneto will threaten the X-Men again and again. The same stories are essentially being told over and over. That’s not to say that there aren’t good stories still being told. All Star Superman still blows my mind every time I read and re-read it. Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America is probably one of the best in-continuity comics (along with The Incredible Hercules) being published today.

Outside of the mainstream? Ah, now there’s where some of the best stuff out there is being published. Now, mind you, when I say “mainstream” as in outside of DC and Marvel, I consider Vertigo to be outside of the mainstream, as well. They have a different publishing policies that set them apart. And, with the exception of Fables, each of their series are self-contained and have a relatively planned ending in mind.

I’ve been very fortunate to be picking up some outstanding books in the past year. Let me tell you a little about some of them. This is in no particular order of preference, as each one of them is outstanding in their own way.

1) Elephantment: This book is like Ninja Turtles meets Blade Runner. It’s futuristic sci-fi pulp and I love it. The premise starts in Africa, with a big war going on. A company breeds mutant animals created from African animals, such as elephants (hence their name), crocodiles, hippos, etc, and turns them into war machines. The world finds out about this and the elephantment are emancipated. The comic is actually about the various mutants living in the world and how they fit in. It’s got some great stories about human rights and such, but also has a lot of fun, pulpy sci-fi.

2) Chew: This and The Unwritten were the two big standouts for me in 2009. Tony Chu is an FDA agent. He’s also a chibiopath, which means he gets psychic readings from anything he eats. If he eats an apple, he sees where it was grown, harvested, etc. If he eats beef, he sees the cow being raised and slaughtered. And if he happens to eat the flesh of a murderer? He finds out who they murdered. This is where the book shines, because it’s so ridiculously tongue-in-cheek and over the top that you can’t help but love it. Every time John tastes someone’s blood, we get a Pushing Daisies-like narrated sequence of the person. Come to think of it, if you liked Pushing Daisies, you’ll likely love Chew.

3) Incognito: Imagine you were a former supervillain. You were the baddest mothereffer on the planet. And then, because death was the only other option, you’re forced into a witness protection program and forced to live an ordinary life without superpowers. That’s Incognito and goddamn, is it good. If you’re familiar with other works by the same creative team – Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips – then you know you’re in for a good story. Their work on Sleeper and Criminal is, by far, some of the best stuff out there and Incognito is no different. If Sleeper was an homage to spy thrillers and Criminalan homage to film noir, then Incognito is an homage to the old Doc Savage pulp serials. I think my only complaint about the series – and it’s a small one – is some themes are starting to repeat themselves in Brubaker’s work. The guys are jackasses, the women are sultry and demure, and any time he gets a chance, there are flying cars. It hardly takes away from what’s a great book, but if you’re familiar with a lot of Brubaker’s other work, you’ll start to see some repetition.

4) Atomic Robo: This book is like Hellboy meets Iron Man meets The Incredibles. Seriously, this is the most fun you’ll have with a comic book outside of Calvin & Hobbes. It’s hilarious, action packed and (much like some of my other favourite books), very pulp-like. Atomic Robo fights everything from super-genius velociraptors to Egyptian pyramids with legs. It’s silly and Atomic Robo is a great character. He’s an indestructible robot with the attitude of a grandfather who has that “I’ll kick your ass” attitude.

5) Parker: The Hunter: Darwyn Cooke is a name in the business that basically boils down to one word: quality. Everything he does is head and shoulders above the rest. New Frontier should attest to that. But like Brubaker, Cooke’s strength lies in film noir, hard-boiled detective stories. And when he adapts Richard Stark’s “The Hunter”? You know you’re in for a treat. You might be familiar with the story, actually, if you’ve ever seen Mel Gibson’s Payback. Unlike that adaptation, Cooke is much more loyal. Parker is a total asshole. He was a con man who got screwed and is now looking for the money that was owed him. He’s not a likeable character in any way and because of that, he’s incredibly interesting.

6) Mouse Guard: Fantasy stories are tough to do because there’s the sense that it’s all been done before. You’ve got knights, kingdoms, dragons, yadda yadda yadda. Mouse Guard, on the other hand, is original. You have this order of mice that protect their kingdom from ruin. What makes Mouse Guard stand out is its use of other animals in nature. Giant monsters like dragons are replaced by snakes, crabs and bees. What to us are minor pests are great and dangerous beasts for the mice. The visuals in the book are beautifully painted. Ordinarily, I’m not a fan of big splash pages with a single image taking up an entire page or a two-page spread, but in this case, it works perfectly. When you turn the page and there’s this huge frigging snake towering over our heroes, you can’t help but go “Oh, crap!”

7) The Unwritten: Comics are rarely literary. I mean this in the sense that comics rarely refer to other great pieces of literature to heighten its stories. Oh, sure, you might get a quote here or a ripoff of a story here (like “Flowers for Rhino” in Spider-Man: Tangled Web). But rarely do you see a comic that feels like it’ll be great literature, itself. Welcome to The Unwritten, which I truly believe will one day stand shoulder to shoulder with Neil Gaimen’s Sandman. In the story, we’re introduced to Tom Taylor. His father wrote a series of Harry Potter-like adventure books, starring…Tommy Taylor. As a result, Tom Taylor has become something of a pseudo-celebrity, touring conventions, signing autographs, etc. He’s done that moreso since his father disappeared after finishing his last book. But someone’s discovered something about Tommy: he may actually be Tommy Taylor from the books. His father may have conjured him into this world. The power of words and all sorts of literary tricks are referred to in the book and as a literary buff, myself, I’m completely enamoured by it.
8) DMZ: Politics and world news tends to bore me. I think war is pointless and politics even moreso. So, imagine my surprize when I really, really enjoyed DMZ. It takes place in a world where the U.S. suffers a great civil war and Manhattan has turned into a demilitarized zone (hence, DMZ). Your main character is a freelance photographer who was supposed to be just an intern for a big-time war correspondent..that is, until their heliocopter is shot down and Matt is the only one left alive. On the surface, DMZ is very political, but deeper down, it’s also a tale of survival. It’s about the people who are left to survive in very dangerous Manhattan. You have a Chinese crimeboss that has control over all of Chinatown. You have a small group of marines who have left their post to defend Central Park. You’ve got a med student who is one of the few people in the DMZ with medical training. It’s extraordinarily compelling with a very strong human side behind it.

9) Northlanders: Also written by the same guy that writes DMZ, Northlanders is about one thing and one thing only: mothereffin’ vikings. Again, much like politics, history tends to bore me to death, but with Northlanders? Not so much. It’s just as compelling, as you have some really great characters. The first story is about a viking who went off into the world and left his home behind, only to come home to find his sworn enemy and murderer of his father in control. Or you have a father who is running from the enemy with his daughter in tow in a Viking version of Lone Wolf & Cub. My description isn’t giving this series any justice, to be honest. The great thing about Vertigo books like Northlanders, DMZ and The Unwritten is their trade paperbacks tend to be super cheap. You can pick up each of them for $10 a piece.

And that’s about it. 2009 was a great year for me to check out some fantastic new series. I’m only hoping 2010 will bring more of the same.

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  • Anonymous

    I liked your breakdown of the films–what was revolutionary, what was mediocre, and what was bad about them. My question is, though, what does the Academy care more about? It’s always bothered me that award shows like the Oscars don’t seem to have any accessible criteria for choosing their biggest winners. I think a lot of different films could win “best” film depending on what you think makes a film good (which is in turn tied to your subjective definition of what a film is and should be). So when nobody really says what the judges think makes a film good (or if they have very different ideas about it themselves), the winner is always unpredictable, and will always breed disagreement. But who knows, maybe that’s what they’re going for?