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Find more Collecting Superhero Graphic Novels
Because of the critical and commercial success of films like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and television shows like Watchmen and The Boys, superhero stories are currently an integral part of pop culture and, accordingly, something that patrons of all ages are interested in seeking out. However, even though they feature iconic characters like Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and the X-Men, the DC and Marvel universes can be impenetrable to new readers thanks to decades of continuity and constant reboots, retcons, and renumberings.
One solution to this problem is acquiring superhero graphic novels that aren’t published by Marvel and DC for your library collection. These stories feature some of the familiar superhero tropes, like colorful costumes, secret identities, cool powers, and fight scenes, but the barrier to entry is much lower. You can pick up, say, Invincible, v.1 and read the full story to volume 25 without worrying if you need to read another series to understand what’s going on or to get the context for a character’s actions. Also, nonmainstream superhero graphic novels usually represent the creative vision of a few creators instead of the mandates of a corporate boardroom.
Here are six superhero graphic novel series (not from Marvel or DC!) that you should add to your collection that are perfect for a summer binge read. Depending on your library’s collection development policy, they might go in the teen or adult graphic novel section because they feature violence, some profanity, and some sexual content.
The Umbrella Academy (Dark Horse)
Many of your patrons may be familiar with the hit Netflix series The Umbrella Academy, which is like X-Men filtered through the aesthetic of Wes Anderson, steampunk enthusiasts, and—in its second season—1960s counterculture. The series follows members of a dysfunctional, adoptive family, who have incredible superpowers, such as primate-like strength, channeling the dead, and having complete control over people’s actions with one word.
The original comics, by writer Gerard Way (My Chemical Romance), artist Gabriel Bá (Daytripper), and colorist Dave Stewart (Hellboy) are even more bonkers than the TV show. For example, the series’ first volume, Apocalypse Suite, opens with a panel of a man wrestling a squid in outer space before showing the titular Umbrella Academy fighting a sentient Eiffel Tower that turns out to be a zombie Gustave Eiffel.
This fight sequence and others like it show one of the strengths of the comics medium. As lines and words on a page, a comic has a “special effects budget’’ only limited by the imagination of its creators. Way and Bá are big in both the imagination and energy departments and put their protagonists in stranger and stranger situations as the series progresses, such as making them responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy (sorry, Lee Harvey Oswald!) or saving the world by channeling a Rite of Spring–era Igor Stravinsky from beyond the grave.
Despite its embrace of the weird and uncanny, The Umbrella Academy is a family drama about siblings dealing with the legacy of a father, eccentric billionaire Sir Reginald Hargreeves, who saw them as literal numbers, not people. The Hargreeveses aren’t a well-oiled superhero team machine as they have deep-seated issues that Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá address in an operatic fashion. Who doesn’t like their funeral or dinner table squabbles with a side of evil orchestras, time traveling, Girl-Scout-cookie-obsessed assassins, and a “mother” that turns out to be a robot wearing hoop skirts?
Invincible is yet another superhero property that has found a home on a streaming service, this time in an animated adaptation airing on Amazon Prime Video. This graphic novel series by writer Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead), artists Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley (Amazing Spider-Man), and colorist Bill Crabtree (BPRD) is about a teenager named Mark Grayson, aka Invincible, who finds out that he has superstrength and flight abilities and is the son of Omni-Man, a Viltrumite alien that has made it his mission to protect Earth. There are elements of Superboy, Spider-Man, and even the Teen Titans and Justice League in Invincible, but Mark Grayson has one thing those mainstreams heroes don’t: an ending to his story.
Unlike characters like Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman, who are often rebooted and refreshed to sell comics, cartoons, TV shows, films, and (let’s face it) toys and merchandise to fans, Invincible’s story gets to end after 14 years and 144 chapters of trials and tribulations that show him grow from an awkward teen to a slightly more self-assured college student and, finally, a father and leader. Like his work on The Walking Dead, Kirkman throws in many surprise deaths and reversals of fortune and fleshes out Mark’s supporting cast throughout the run of Invincible.
Walker, Ottley, and Crabtree bring a hyperpop visual flair to the book and juxtapose bloody fight scenes against a Saturday morning cartoon color palette. If you’re tired of Spider-Man’s perpetual arrested development, Batman losing and regaining his fortune (and Robin’s), and want an actual satisfying conclusion to a superhero saga, then Invincible is the graphic novel series for you. It also gets primo shelf placement thanks to its proximity to The Walking Dead.
The Valiant Universe has technically only been around since 2012, but it is almost as complex a shared superhero universe as the Marvel or DC Universes. However, there are several Valiant comics series that have slick visuals, interesting characters, socially relevant themes, and also don’t require an in-depth knowledge of Bloodshot or X-O Manowar. The best of the bunch is the 2018–2019 graphic novel series Livewire from writer Vita Ayala (New Mutants) and artists Raúl Allén (Wonder Woman), Patricia Martín (Bloodshot), Kano (Action Comics), and Tana Ford (Silk). This comic follows the escapades of Amanda McKee aka Livewire, a Black female superhero who can manipulate technology and uses this vast power to protect her fellow psiots, or superhumans, from external forces that would exploit or kill them. Ayala is one of the most prominent nonbinary writers in the comics industry, and they explore themes like discrimination, the ethics of privacy, and in the final story line of Livewire, the corruption of political parties across the ideological spectrum. This is in addition to the punching, hacking, chase sequences, and other trappings of both the superhero and cyberpunk genres. They and the artists also give Livewire herself a tense yet rewarding character arc as she goes from a fugitive who pushes away her fellow psiot friends to working with political candidates and even making media appearances to clear her name and make sure that psiots aren’t discriminated against.
Do you like the idea of B- and C-list antiheroes and villains teaming up to fight evil forces à la Suicide Squad and Thunderbolts but hate that some characters aren’t actually expendable because they’re either played by an A-list actor or are very popular (*cough* Deadshot and Harley Quinn)? Then, Copra by Cuban American cartoonist Michel Fiffe (Zegas) may be the graphic novel series for you. Copra is written, drawn, colored, lettered, produced, and sometimes even personally mailed out by Fiffe, who brings an indie, DIY attitude and aesthetic to the superhero genre with his crayon color palette, zine-like paper stock, and delightfully old-school approach to character design.
Copra is about a ragtag team of mercenaries and criminals assembled by government official Sonia Stone to clear her name when she is framed for the deaths of 31,824 people and the destruction of the town on the U.S. border. She has a personal connection to the incident because her field leader, Benicio, was from the town and had a wife and child there. Over the course of the series, Michel Fiffe’s story gets more apocalyptic and epic in scale with the team progressing from fighting assassins, warlords, and government mooks to geometrical, extra-dimensional beings. However, he doesn’t neglect his kooky cast of ne’er-do-wells and occasionally takes breaks from the main narrative to flesh out characters like Gracie, a former actress who was recruited to Copra because of her martial arts skills in various B-movies, and Wir, a kid that just wants to play video games and spend time with his family but inherited a suit of armor from his criminal uncle. Copra’s mayhem-filled story line and idiosyncratic, four-color art style make it a great indie graphic novel to recommend to superhero fans and vice versa as well as to any patrons who enjoy action movies, old or new.
Black Hammer (Dark Horse)
Jeff Lemire (Sweet Tooth), Dean Ormston (Lucifer), and Dave Stewart’s Black Hammer combines superhero archetypes with an eerie, rural setting à la Twin Peaks or WandaVision where nothing is as it seems. The graphic novel’s basic premise is that five superheroes from Spiral City are trapped in the small town of Rockwood after an epic battle with the Anti-God. (Think the love child of Darkseid and Thanos.) Their attempts to leave or try to fit in with the town create both the conflict and mystery hook of Black Hammer because if they cross over the town’s boundary, they will die like the titular hero, Black Hammer.
Along with Ormston’s unique, horror-tinged art style, Lemire’s characterization is the chief draw of Black Hammer and its spin-offs. A good example is Barbalien, who is a shape-shifting Martian and faces persecution on both his home world and Earth for being gay. Jeff Lemire, cowriter Tate Brombal, and artist Gabriel Walta (Vision) expand on this in the recently released spin-off Barbalien: Red Planet, which is set during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and pays homage to Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ activists. There is also Abraham Slam, who enjoys the idyllic life of a farmer in Rockwood and doesn’t want to return home, where he is an aging crime-fighter that can’t keep up with the new generation of heroes and their big guns, pouches, and shoulder pads. (This is a dig at the “extreme” comics of the 1990s by Rob Liefeld and others.)
All in all, Black Hammer focuses on the humanity of its characters first and their powers later while also being a pastiche and love letter to the superhero genre. Its universe has expanded to tell tales in a variety of settings ranging from the past of WWWII (Black Hammer ’45) to the twenty-second century (Quantum Age). Luckily, Dark Horse has collected these comics into handy library editions to make following this heartwarming yet thrilling saga easy for your patrons.
Black (Black Mask)
Black is a superhero comic from writer Kwanza Osajyefo (Ignited), designer Tim Smith 3 (Spider-Man Unlimited), and artist Jamal Igle (Supergirl) that provides a glimpse at a world where only Black people have superpowers. It opens with a sight all too common in the U.S. today: police officers cornering and gunning down young Black men who were just minding their own business. However, one of them, Kareem Jenkins, survives and is our POV character to a wondrous and multifaceted world of Black superhumans. In Black, Kareem ends up being caught between the ideology of Juncture, who wants to keep Black people’s powers a secret, and O, who wants to start a revolution and take down the Mann Corporation, which is run by a descendant of slaveholders and supplies weapons and technology to the U.S. government and military.
Black is a true showcase for the imaginations of Osajyefo, Smith 3, and Igle as they introduce a plethora of Black superheroes with diverse abilities and personalities. Jamal Igle’s black-and-white art style hits a sweet spot between superhero comics and shonen manga while Kwanza Osajyefo’s script throws subtext to the wind and tackles systemic racism in the U.S. head-on as Kareem embraces the hoodie-wearing superhero identity of “X.” Their intense approach to world building extends to Black’s spin-off series Black AF, and its three installments, America’s Sweetheart, Devil’s Dye, and Widows and Orphans, which all look at a government-approved superhero that might be the strongest superhuman of them all, a drug that causes serious side effects in superhumans, and issues of child soldiers and human trafficking through the lens of supporting characters Anansi and Hoodrat. They feature full-color art and can help tide your patrons over until Black’s long-awaited sequel White comes out as a graphic novel in late 2021 or early 2022.
Although they have different art styles, explore different themes, and range from stand-alone series to interconnected universes, these superhero graphic novels are perfect additions to any library’s collection and can be recommended to patrons who are frustrated with the overcomplicated continuity and constant crossovers and reboots of Marvel and DC’s fare or maybe want a superhero story that has more of a singular vision in its approach to characters, art style, or the way it deals with contemporary issues.
Logan Dalton (MSLS, University of Kentucky) is the Systems and Technical Services Librarian at the University of Lynchburg. When they’re not helping students with research or cataloging new titles, they can usually be found reading some comic, ranging from the latest X-Book to an emotion-filled diary comic, or writing about them at GraphicPolicy.com.
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