Last week I shared a few of my favorite comics for kids that don’t feature your typical superheroes and supervillains. But there are plenty of great comic book characters for adults outside of the Justice League and the Marvel Universe. Some of them are superheroes, but a lot of them are something a little different, a little harder to define. Here, a very small sampling of some that I’ve come across.
1. Concrete by Paul Chadwick
Concrete is sort of a super-non-hero, since he has some amazing abilities but crime-fighting isn’t really his shtick. In fact, for guy with such an otherworldly origin tale, the stories about Concrete are decidedly down-to-earth. Concrete is actually Ronald Lithgow, a former speechwriter for a senator whose mind was transplanted into an alien body. Now he is nearly invulnerable and has incredible vision … but he’s still, at the core, Ronald Lithgow. Concrete strives to make the most of his new abilities, helping those in need or attempting amazing feats (like swimming the Atlantic or climbing Everest). But he also deals with the inconveniences of this body: he can’t even dial a phone without crushing it.
Chadwick’s black-and-white artwork is gorgeous and detailed, and it’s some of the best pen-and-ink work I’ve seen in a comic book. It has the feel of portraiture and illustration rather than what comes to mind when you say “comics.” The subject matter is also mature, definitely intended for adults. Chadwick addresses a wide range of issues: environmentalism is a recurring subject, but he also tackles celebrity, politics, romance. While there is humor in it, there is also much more serious depth than you’d expect from, well, a guy’s brain in an alien body. For more, visit the Paul Chadwick Web Comicography.
2. Mister Blank by Christopher Hicks
I don’t even remember where I came across Mister Blank, but it’s a one-volume collection published in 2000 by Slave Labor Graphics. (What’s especially fascinating is that neither the publisher nor the author appear on the cover anywhere; I had to look at the copyright page to find Hicks’s name.) I bought it on a whim and was quickly sucked in.
The story follows Sam Smith, a bald, no-nosed Everyman with a cubicle and a crush on his co-worker, Julie. Within the first few pages, though, he encounters some mysterious saboteurs, advanced technology, a mad scientist, and a mime with some odd abilities. Seriously. Oh, and for good measure, time travel, doppelgangers, and an interesting take on creation mythology.
The artwork looks to be vector art, and has a slick look to it. It was one of the first comics I’d read with this sort of artwork, and Hicks pulls it off pretty well. Sam makes for an interesting character because he’s somebody who wants to be the cool hero, but is clearly in over his head. Mister Blank is a bit obscure, but if you manage to find a copy somewhere you should snag it—you won’t be sorry.
3. Flaming Carrot by Bob Burden
Remember the movie Mystery Men with Ben Stiller as the aptly-named-but-apparently-powerless Mr. Furious? You may already have known that it was based on a comic book by Bob Burden. What you might not have known is that the Mystery Men first made their appearance in Flaming Carrot Comics, whose surreal star is “America’s second-string, blue-collar superhero.”
Flaming Carrot’s origin story, often blurbed throughout the books, goes something like this: after reading 5,000 comic books in one sitting to win a bet, his brain turned to mush and he took on the identity of the Flaming Carrot. He wears a carrot mask and swim flippers (“in case he has to swim”) and has a utility belt with things like a yo-yo and Silly Putty.
FC is a crime-fighter, but it’s a little bit like watching Zippy the Pinhead take on villains from Scooby-Doo. You never know what you’re going to get, or when the story will suddenly transition to a complete non-sequitur: it’s not just FC himself that’s surreal, but the whole world that he lives in. The artwork is a little on the crude side. Burden is better at drawing the bodies of the scantily-clad women than he is at their faces, and a lot of the men have these weird, rectangular heads. But if you’re looking for something off the beaten path, you can’t get much stranger than Flaming Carrot.
4. Hellboy by Mike Mignola
I suppose with the movies, Hellboy is probably the most mainstream of the bunch here, but the comic book still qualifies. The movies do a decent job of capturing Mignola’s juxtaposition of dry humor, undead Nazis, and occult paranormal bogeymen, but it’s hard to capture the graphic quality on the screen.
In case you didn’t know already, Hellboy is a red demon-thing with a giant right hand, sawn-off horns, and a jaw so square he makes Dick Tracy look soft. Rescued from the Nazis by Allied forces during World War II, he now works for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) fighting the baddies.
Two great things about the comic: Mignola’s artwork is superb, with a muted color palette and a whole lot of black. He throws in flourishes and ornamental details that add to the tone and mood. Everything has a graphic, two-dimensional quality to it, but at the same time Hellboy looks solid. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t seen it, but there’s a sort of poster-art feel to it all.
And the stories are great. Hellboy has a similar attitude to, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: sure, you’re fighting all sorts of paranormal and supernatural creepy things, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a job, with all the politics and I-hate-my-job grumblings. It’s a mish-mash of folk tales and legends and historical references, and makes for a great read.
5. Jack Staff by Paul Grist
I came across Jack Staff at the library a few years back and found the first two volumes. Jack Staff is “Britain’s Greatest Hero” … or at least he used to be. Years ago he disappeared, and nobody remembers him anymore. Somehow now he’s returned, fighting vampires and other odd villainy. His powers (never really explained) are used to charge up the staff he carries, and he wears a big Union Flag as a costume.
There’s a huge cast of supporting characters: Becky Burdock, girl reporter; the enigmatic Q, a trio of paranormally-powered investigators of the unexplainable; Tom Tom the Robot Man; Charlie Raven, the greatest escapologist of the Victorian Age! The artwork is cartoony and stylized, definitely not from your How-to-draw-Marvel-superheroes school of art; sometimes some of the people look a little too much like each other, but otherwise it works.
It’s a funny, episodic comic book, with some tongue-in-cheek humor and British wit. Apparently a lot of characters who show up in the books are referencing British comics, but for those of us on this side of the pond, I imagine they’ll be less familiar. Unfortunately, the books also riddled with misspellings and poor punctuation, a personal pet peeve of mine. Just because it’s comics doesn’t mean you can throw in extra apostrophes, folks. Worth checking out, and as a bonus, the first two issues are also available online at Image Comics: Issue One, Issue Two.
6. Astro City by Kurt Busiek
Astro City sort of squeaks in as a non-mainstream comic, because it was originally from Image Comics before it was picked up by Wildstorm (which is now a DC imprint). Still, it’s a spin on the superhero genre which I really enjoyed.
The premise: Astro City is a booming metropolis that tends to attract both supervillains and superheroes. So unlike, say, Gotham City where you’d know about Batman but probably rarely actually encounter him, in Astro City they’ve reached a critical mass: traffic reports mention the slowdown caused by Samaritan’s battle with Tentacus. Everyone knows that Astro City is the place to go to see costumes.
But what makes the stories special is that, for the most part, they aren’t just about the heroes. In fact, though there’s a sense of history and untold back-story, a lot of characters are introduced without much fanfare, as if everyone just knows who they are already. Instead, most of the volumes I’ve read are collections of unrelated (or loosely-related) stories about the regular folk who live and work in Astro City. Or, about other aspects of life with powers. It’s not meant to paint a logical picture of a world with superheroes, but really paints a picture of the emotional and social landscapes in such a world.
The artwork here is the closest to your traditional Marvel or DC superhero comics, which works because it’s really playing off them as a foundation. And, of course, it never hurts to have cover art by Alex Ross.