When people think of comic books, they tend to think of superheroes. It’s not surprising; the superhero genre originated in comic books. It was the dominant genre after censorship in the 1950s restricted the industry, and now the phrase “comic book movie” is used synonymously with “superhero movie.”
But comics are about more than this one-dimensional association. Like television and cinema, they’re a host to every genre, and as the independent comic market has grown and creators have become more prominent in recent years, writers and artists are bringing a greater diversity of comics to readers.
Here are some titles from the last decade from a number of different genres — free of superheroes.
For fans of suspense thrillers, film noir, Dracula, Indiana Jones:
Stories about religious conspiracy are a dime a dozen in the post-Da Vinci Code world, but this series debuted before Dan Brown’s bestselling — but lackluster —thriller set in 1930s Paris where the Protestant Reformation never happened. Rex Mundi is a murder mystery about the Holy Grail.
Masked inquisitors roam the Gothic streets while the hero gets caught up in chases through hidden temples, a treasure hunt and political intrigue threatening to launch a world war.
Forgoing story arcs in favor of one continuous narrative, writer Arvid Nelson gives his characters more development than thriller heroes usually receive. But Juan Ferreyra’s art — a mix of chiaroscuro fueled noir and art noveau characters — brings the pages to life, showing why Rex Mundi functions as a comic and not as a work of prose.
For fans of Black Hawk Down, Battlestar Galactica:
Insurgency. Disenfranchisement. Urban decay. Life during wartime. These are topics constantly in the news about places like Iraq or Afghanistan, but what if similar things were happening in the United States?
Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli’s comic, DMZ, envisions a second American Civil War, with the front line at New York City, where Manhattan has been turned into the de-militarized zone. For the inhabitants trapped there, it’s a game of survival.
On a broader level, DMZ is a compelling look at issues that have become buzzwords in the American media. By setting the conflict inside the United States, Wood forces readers to place themselves in the shoes of Manhattanites.
In terms of story, DMZ is an exciting mix of urban slice of life moments — such as a graffiti artist dodging militias to work on his masterpiece — and the battle-filled conflict for control, as journalist Matty Roth and his circle of friends get drawn into the war and Manhattan’s rise as a sovereign power. Throw in Burchielli’s street art-influenced panels and Wood’s deep knowledge of New York culture and DMZ is one of the best comics of the modern era.
For fans of video games, romance, kung-fu films:
Scott Pilgrim is a modern take on the classic boy meets girl plot. It’s just that this time, boy meets girl and has to fight her seven evil exes. Bryan Lee O’Malley’s six volumes are an incredibly inventive mix of video game displays, leveling up, sweet romance and music.
It’s hard to nail down Scott Pilgrim’s genre because it encompasses so many elements and switches between them as quickly as one panel. This is a comic where Scott’s best friend Wallace can defend the virtues of bacon while offering romantic advice, and another character can be described as “part-ninja.” Despite all of the action and shout-outs, the focus is on the relationship between Scott and his love interest Ramona Flowers.
The film adaptation came out Aug. 13, 2010 and captured the story and aesthetic perfectly. But there are more subplots, absurdity, crazy action scenes and hijinks in the comics.
For fans of noir, The Town, Reservoir Dogs, Point Blank:
With Criminal, Ed Brubaker proves he’s the king of crime comics. This isn’t the Ocean’s Eleven type of crime where charming, flashy characters pull off a caper. Instead, it’s a look into the criminal mindset and how emotions like greed or hate can derail even the perfect crime.
The protagonists range from brilliant but cowardly thieves to violent AWOL soldiers. Yet things never feel cliché. For every double cross, murder or heist, it’s dark, but that darkness is appropriate.
Criminal’s artist Sean Phillips is a genius of the genre. His covers take on a more painted feel that evoke the covers of pulp magazines from days past. With the interiors, there’s a stark realism in his linework. Like the characters scheming in the pages, Phillips’ art is there to do the job in an upfront, professional manner.
It’s been said that Martin Scorsese’s movies are a cornerstone of crime fiction. Criminal does for comics what Scorsese does for film.
Nicholas Slayton is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column “Panel to Panel” runs Thursdays.