With the recent news that Disney purchased Marvel Comics, comics fans are a little worried about the consequences. Never fear! There’s a whole world of fantastic comic books that -gasp- aren’t published by Marvel. (Or DC, for that matter.) I got into the world of comics kind of late in the game, and by then I had lost hope of catching up with the various incarnations of the X-men, or following the continuity of the DC superhero universe. I did enjoy things like Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come and I’ve always been a fan of Batman, but for the most part I found myself gravitating toward other titles, particularly closed story arcs that I could enjoy in their entirety without any prior knowledge (or wallet-lightening continuations).
So, here are a few of my favorite non-Marvel, non-DC comics. Most of these are appropriate for older kids, and some would be a hit even with the elementary-age crowd.
1. Spiral-Bound by Aaron Renier
Talking animals! Inventions! A mysterious Pond Monster! Spiral Bound has it all: a bunch of intrepid (animal) kids decide to investigate the mystery of the pond monster during summer break. There’s a good bit of Maker flavor to it, as Stucky the dog builds his submarine, and the crafts teacher is a whale in a sort of giant modified hamster ball filed with water. Aaron Renier‘s artwork is fluid and whimsical, and despite the pond monster it’s never too scary. To top it off, the whole thing is done to look like a spiral-bound notebook. This would be a great title for kids who have outgrown Owly and are looking for something a little more adventurous.
2. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
A mixture of traditional tales of the Monkey King with a present-day story about growing up Chinese in America. Three story threads gradually converge in a surprising way. The artwork is slick and would be perfectly suited to a Cartoon Network show; the drawings range from a more stylized realism to outright caricature (in the case of Cousin Chin-Kee, an outright stereotype who comes with his own laugh track). A little more suited to high school and up, American Born Chinese is a fantastic look at how we define ourselves and respond to peer pressure. Plus, the Monkey King stories are a lot of fun, albeit with a bit of gory cartoon violence. Visit Humble Comics for more by Gene Luen Yang.
3. The Fog Mound trilogy by Susan Schade and Jon Buller
This three-parter is interesting because the chapters alternate between prose (with illustrations) and graphic novel. The story follows Thelonius the chipmunk as he traces the old legends about “human beings,” and of a time when animals couldn’t speak. It’s a fun story with plenty of adventure, inventions (again), secret maps and mysterious characters. I did find myself wishing the books were longer, because it didn’t take me much time to zip through them, but these are a good transition from traditional chapter books to graphic novels (and vice versa, depending on what your kids are into already). It does play a little fast-and-loose with evolutionary theory, but just make sure your kids don’t think it’s a science textbook and I think they’ll be fine. Check out Bullersooz.com for more.
4. Kaput and Zösky
by Lewis Trondheim with Eric Cartier
Kaput and Zösky are two inept space aliens who love nothing better than to invade and take over planets. The more destruction, the better. Of course, the fact that they’re not incredibly intelligent makes for a very fun, silly comic book. Teens might recognize them from the Nicktoons cartoon made from the books. The humor is scatological in places but probably nothing your kids haven’t already seen elsewhere. Also, interspersed between chapters is a one-page wordless comic called “The Cosmonaut,” featuring a fearless human traveling through space and shooting things. (Lewis Trondheim has some other great comics as well, some less suitable for little kids, but all pretty delightful in a twisted sort of way.)
5. Creature Tech
by Doug TenNapel
Doug TenNapel is the guy behind Earthworm Jim, and he’s got a great eye for monsters. His style reminds me a little of Calvin & Hobbes, particularly during Calvin’s jaunts into the imaginary: a lot of bold, messy brushwork and monsters that are half-scary, half-funny. The zombified Dr. Jameson (brought to life by the Shroud of Turin) is trying to destroy the world, and Dr. Ong of “Creature Tech” is out to stop him. Along the way we encounter monster cats, a kung-fu-fighting alien symbiote, and giant space eels. It also has a faith-and-reason, science-and-religion theme which I thought was in some spots a little heavy-handed but is also a pretty creative presentation. Plus, you know, aliens and monsters. (I’ve read a few of TenNapel’s other books, too, and they all have some sort of “moral” attached but manage to pull it off without coming out like a Sunday School lesson.)
6. The Arrival by Shaun Tan
Shaun Tan has become one of my favorite illustrators: he’s done a number of absolutely gorgeous picture books, with a combination of painting, drawing and collage. The Arrival is his first book that crosses into graphic novel territory, although the truth is it’s still somewhere in-between. It’s a wordless story, beautifully illustrated with sepia-toned drawings that recall old photographs, about an immigrant’s journeys to a foreign land. But in Tan’s mind, the unfamiliarity of a new home becomes literally alien: he uses the surreal to highlight the incomprehensibility of the new world. Aside from the main character, we also get glimpses of the stories of other immigrants as well. If you’ve never seen any of Tan’s artwork, this is as good a place as any to start.
by Jeff Smith
Bone, if you haven’t ever encountered it, is one of the earlier comics that everyone had a hard time categorizing. Is it for kids? Adults? It has both its moments of serious creepiness and outright silliness. And what’s with the Bones, the bald-headed, big-nosed guys? It’s like Everyman taken to the extreme. And yet … it’s an engrossing story, with action, excitement, love and romance, a talking bug named Ted and the Red Dragon. Originally a black-and-white comic, Bone is now getting a full-color treatment thanks to Scholastic, which is re-issuing the series with some more kid-friendly packaging. (But as you can see from his site Boneville.com, Jeff Smith doesn’t just write kids’ stuff, either.)
Of course, this list is far from comprehensive—chime in in the comics with your favorites—but it’s my short list, for now. Tune in next time for my list of non-Marvel, non-DC comics for adults.