At Image Comics, Superheroes Are Just The Tip Of The Iceberg

2973726-tumblr_static_image_i_logo_blackWhile superheroes tend to dominate the conversation when it comes to the comics world — to the point where “superhero movie” and “comic book movie” are somewhat interchangeable in cinephile circles — there has been a real expansion of the medium over the course of my lifetime. And the result of that is the current independent comics boom, which has seen an enormous number of original, boundary-breaking stories that really embrace and demonstrate the true potential of the comics medium. Leading that independent boom has been Image Comics, arguably the mecca of creative freedom and artistic ambition for comic book creators, and looking at both their present and future I think it’s safe to say that they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

One thing that is absolutely worth noting is that none of these books are actually superhero stories, which is representative of the independent publishers overall. There are still plenty of original superhero stories to be had but with the major publishers embracing diversity and boundary-breaking more than ever, it’s better to put the best superhero ideas into the Big Two and take even bigger chances in the independent world. And here are some of those bigger gambles right now:

Screen Shot 2015-07-09 at 10.47.04 PMSaga (Brian K Vaughan/Fiona Staples): I already gave an in-depth analysis of Saga earlier this year, and with a new story arc having come and gone since then I felt it was time to step in and remind you all how awesome this series is. At this point it’s safe to say that BKV and Fiona Staples have really hit their stride; they are fully on the same page, know exactly what their story is and have yet to lose sight of where they’re going. The themes are both maturely handled and emotionally resonant, the action is brutal and the plot twists and time jumps continue to shock. If you want one single poster child for what comics are capable of in 2015, Saga is it. Go read it. Really.

Screen Shot 2015-07-09 at 10.49.04 PMLazarus (Greg Rucka/Michael Lark): I’ve read less of Lazarus than I would like, but when what I have read is as strong as this series is I know I have to catch up soon. Even in the incomplete portion I’ve read so far, I can see that longtime collaborators Greg Rucka and Michael Lark are right in their comfort zone, and the resulting story is unsurprisingly comfortable about itself. The story takes place in the future, where governments have collapsed and been replaced by one-percenter families and their attendant corporations; our protagonist Forever is an operative of one such family who gets caught up in various machinations and revelations about her family and herself. It’s a combination of gritty techno-espionage thriller and broad-stroke dystopian science-fiction, all built around a classic Rucka femme fatale hero, and it’s as potent a brew as you can find in comics.

Screen Shot 2015-07-09 at 10.52.27 PMSex Criminals (Matt Fraction/Chip Zdarsky): While some of my favorite comics (indeed, my favorite stories in general) usually contain some level of humor, I’ve never really thought of comic books as being a medium for comedy. Leave it to creators as weird and brash as Fraction and Zdarsky to enlighten me on that score, while sending me on a trip that’s as sexy and mind-bending as it is funny. Sex Criminals follows a standard meet-cute couple who also happen to be able to stop time with their orgasms. The two bond over this unique talent, and plot to use it in a Robin Hood-esque capacity, until they draw the attention of other talented individuals like themselves. The series walks a very fine line between being unreservedly weird but also approachably likeable, and even amongst the eclectic mix of series here it can’t help but stand out.

GDedThe Goddamned (Jason Aaron/RM Guera): Just last week Image held their yearly Image Expo, where they announced a slew of new books scheduled for release starting this fall. The most immediately compelling of these is The Goddamned, coming from the same brilliant creative team behind the Native American crime saga Scalped. Jason Aaron has said it is the Bible as directed by Quentin Tarantino, and a literalist fantasy version of creationism, which makes me think it could end up being a lot like Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (which is probably better news for me than a lot of other people, I’ll admit). I fully expect this series to be a blend of brutal and absurd, but I also expect Aaron, one of the best writers working in comics right now, to keep a strong sense of character and theme running through the proceedings to tie everything together. This might be a book to piss some people off, but for others like me it should be endlessly entertaining and maybe even a little enlightening too.

tokyo_ghost_01_02scolTokyo Ghost (Rick Remender/Sean Murphy): The fact that Sean Murphy, one of my favorite artists in comics, is drawing this series is enough to demand my attention. The fact that Rick Remender, writer of other great series like Black Science, Low, and Deadly Class, is on script duty makes it even better. The fact that the script in question involves bounty hunters in a post-apocalyptic future hoping to make their way to the surviving oasis of Tokyo while being bombarded with Internet stimuli and ultraviolence almost feels like a too-good-to-be-true addendum. This series seems handcrafted just for me on several levels, and will hopefully be the Rick Remender series I will actually keep current with (his previously-mentioned other Image series all haunt me to one level or another). And the idea of Sean Murphy drawing a monthly comic is just a dream come true for me as well. This one feels like a real winner, and I already can’t wait for it.

Crosswind_ImageExpoTease-640x365Crosswind (Gail Simone/Cat Staggs): After years spent behind such quality efforts as Deadpool, Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman, Secret Six, and Batgirl, Gail Simone is starting to break out into creator-owned independent comics in a big way, and this series Crosswind feels like the most compelling of the bunch so far. Simone is using a classic body-swap premise here (a suave hitman and bored Midwest housewife are the victims in this case) but ostensibly using it as the launching pad for a more serious, adult narrative than you might expect. And knowing Simone’s work, you can bet that there will be some real examinations of sexuality and identity that should come with such a loaded and emotionally complex premise. Oh, and there is a promise of tons of violence and bloodshed as well. This one could wind up being a real sleeper, and hopefully be the standout in this next chapter of Simone’s career.

It’s also worth noting that while Image might be the biggest player in comics outside the Big Two, they are far from the only game in town. Veteran publishers like Dark Horse and Archie (yes, THAT Archie) and newcomers like Boom! Studios and Dynamite Entertainment are also contributing great, original series to the medium as well. Furthermore, DC’s adult publishing arm Vertigo, the predecessor to Image and many of these other great companies, is still going strong and turning out great, compelling material.

The last few days I’ve sung the praises of Marvel and DC and how they’ve embraced diversity and shared universe storytelling, taking advantage of their pop culture cache and corporate circumstances to tell stories of immediate cultural impact. But as important as that is, it’s also incredibly important to recognize the necessity of original art, of unbridled creativity fully explored. That is what Image and its indie publisher brethren have accomplished, and that is the essential perspective they bring to the comics industry. And with so many more series beyond the six I profiled here, it’s safe to say that there is something out there for each and every one of you. So do yourself a favor and take a look. You just might find your next favorite story where you never thought to look before.


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