Jan 3, 2013

No Cape Required: Four Great Ongoing Comics That Aren't About Superheroes

By Paul Krueger 

Pigeonholing comic books to just superhero stories is as reductive a practice as confining one's definition of "music" to Billboard's Top 40.  While levels of media attention (and in the case of comics, nerd stigma) may explain such a shallow understanding, those who don't deign to look deeper leave a lot of excellent work neglected on the shelves.

Of course, the definition of "superhero" is a tricky one here.  All literary heroes possess some kind of extraordinary quality that makes their story worth telling, whether it's a kind heart, a power ring, or a stuffed tiger.  What set superheroes apart, however, are certain operatic elements: a secret identity, a rogues gallery, a certain sustained level of insanity.  The comics below may possess some of these elements.  They may even concern people with supernatural abilities.  But in addition to their lack of such surface trappings as masks and tights, these comics are about more than just saving the girl and beating the bad guy, and that's what sets them apart from any given title ending in "-man."

There are some great superhero comics being put out these days, and they'll get their spotlight in this space moving forward.  Today, though, Wine & Pop looks to shed light on the cape-less denizens of comics-dom.

As a final note, if you type the word "superheroes" enough and aren't careful, a finger will inevitably slip and you'll end up writing "superherpes."  Something to think about.


Chew (Image, John Layman/Rob Guillory)
Logline: An FDA agent with the power to psychically read whatever he eats solves crimes and gets caught up in an escalating government conspiracy.

Wild and weird, Chew operates on a plot made entirely of left turns, yet never becomes circular.  Though it starts out centered just on protagonist Tony Chu (see what they did there?) and his coworkers at the FDA, crazy characters and subplots have been effortlessly and organically woven into the overall story throughout the series' run.  Thirty issues into a planned run of sixty, Chew is bursting with inventive food-related superpowers, complex schemes and counter-schemes, and one particularly badass cyborg rooster.  The status quo is in constant flux, ensuring that the reader can never be comfortable or assured that things will turn out for the best.  In fact, it pretty much never has so far.

Though both have been in the comics industry for a while, Chew has been a breakthrough for writer John Layman and penciller Rob Guillory.  Layman, in particular, has done some mainstream superhero work and clearly revels in the freedom presented to him by not having to share his toys with other creators. A world with cannibalistic crime-fighting lends itself well to a dark sense of humor, and Layman hits his notes perfectly without edging too far into snark.  Guillory's work complements him perfectly, using distinctive shapes and lines to create people that are appropriately over-the-top, and yet somehow more human than they are cartoon.

What to tell your friends: "It's the only comic ever where the Asian guy doesn't do kung fu, so it's progressive."

The Massive (Dark Horse, Brian Wood/Various)
Logline: A group of environmentalists work to salvage what's left of Earth following an environmental disaster.

Brian Wood has long been an industry favorite for his ability to bring literary heft to high-concept projects.  His most recently completed project, Vertigo’s DMZ, takes place in a war-torn future Manhattan and yet manages to be a thoughtful series of meditations on the meaning of home, the power of journalism, and the ability of the individual versus that of the system. The setting and concept are pure comic book, but the execution provides far more than just the empty-calorie thrills that Wood could have easily fallen back on.

The Massive continues in that vein, following a shipful of environmentalists that are searching a ruined globe for their sister ship, the titular Massive.  Wood himself describes the series as an exploration of what happens to a group of people who devote their lives to a single cause  fail to live up to it, and though the series is less than a year old, the theme has already been potently explored.  The series is currently set to run only thirty issues, giving it a relatively short time frame in which to tell its story.  And yet month after month, Wood continues the fine balancing act of keeping up the right pace while still allowing the reader time to steep in all of his ideas.

What to tell your friends: “Reading this book will make you feel better about not giving money to those Greenpeace guys that stop you in the street.”

Saga (Image, Brian K. Vaughan/Fiona Staples)
Logline: Defectors from two sides of a galactic war must protect their newborn daughter from the many that are out for her blood.

The very first image of writer Brian K. Vaughan's long-awaited return to comics is deuteragonist Alana wide-eyed in childbirth, screaming at her husband Marko that it feels like she's shitting.  Mere pages later, readers are treated to the sight of a TV-headed robot prince doing his equally TV-headed robot wife in the butt.  Which is all to say that Saga makes clear very early on that even though it's a series full of magic, spaceships, incredible creatures, and romance, it's not going to shy away from the sex, blood, and dirt that make a universe like that run.  Vaughan claims to have been keeping the story's world in his head since his youth, and little flourishes in his work show that same sense of childlike imagination.  No sane adult mind, after all, would set his great work on a spaceship that's just a tree with a rocket attached to it.   But Vaughan triumphantly proves here, as he ever has in his long career, that he is far more than just a sane adult.

Fiona Staples, who performs Saga's art duties, is a superstar in her own right.  Her scratchy pencils and varied palette perfectly underscore Vaughan's grit-and-rainbows balancing act.  As the series has gone on, she's already simplified her designs some, sacrificing detail but somehow never expressiveness.  While it’s common practice in the comics industry for artists to rotate in and out while the writer remains constant, Vaughan has said in multiple interviews that he only wants Staples to draw Saga.  He’s chosen his artistic partner well; she hasn’t been acquainted with this crazy kitchen-sink universe as long as he has, but from her confident pencil work you would never be able to tell.

What to tell your friends: "Think Romeo and Juliet, if it took place in a mash-up of Game of Thrones and Star Wars. Also, there's a lie-detecting cat."

Adventure Time (Boom!, Ryan North/Various)
Logline: After the end of the world, best friends Jake the dog and Finn the human go on adventures in the magical land of Ooo.

Who says great comics have to be grim n' gritty? And who says licensed comics have to suck? Well actually, most of the internet says those things, but that's because they're busy trying to be too cool for Adventure Time.  In an age when everything is insulated with a double layer of irony, Adventure Time sets itself apart with the sheer depth of its sincerity.

Every fiber of its parent animated series, from its noodle-limbed character designs to its dialogue (the most idiosyncratic since Buffy), springs like Athena from the mind of creator Pendleton Ward, and the comic succeeds perfectly at replicating his brainchild in print form.  In fact, it does much more than that--North does an excellent job of telling stories that would only work in print form (see, for instance, the format-bending riff on Choose Your Own Adventure stories that makes up issue #10).  In addition to the compelling main stories, though, each issue also contains a backup story from a rotation of writers and artists, giving readers two stories for the price of one.  Also worthy of note is its recently completed spinoff miniseries, Marceline and the Scream Queens.

What to tell your friends: "You don't HAVE to be on drugs to like it..."

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