These graphic novels have been chosen because they were all released in the past 6 months and equally combine qualities of well-crafted concepts and remarkable artwork to create solid visual narratives. They aren’t the only great graphic novels that have been released in recent months, but they are notable, and worth considering as near-misses if they haven’t appeared on your radar during release announcements. None of them happen to be standard superhero stories, but that’s not an essential judgment on superhero comics. With high-quality genre comics on the rise, there’s more to choose from, and these represent a wide range of story types that might appeal to omnivorous readers who are looking for new fare to chew on. These choices appear in alphabetical order to clarify that there’s not a differentiation or ranking involved. They are so varied in content and style that it would be pretty groundless to try to decide whether one scores more points than another for quality. They are all quality; that’s why you don’t want to miss out on them.
Firstly, CITY IN THE DESERT by Moro Rogers from Archaia, subtitled, “The Monster Problem”: the presence of a subtitle suggests that there will be a series, and Archaia has confirmed that intention, which is a great thing. This rather gorgeously designed little hardcover has raised and imprinted patterns on the surface and a limited color palette that accents the sinuous brush-work of the inks. It tells the tale of two monster hunters in a remote land uncovering secrets that may prove too dangerous for them, but the real stars of the narrative are the monsters so playfully and sympathetically evoked by Rogers. It’s a book that casts a spell, reveling in the exotic in many senses, and it will charm from cover to cover.
Secondly, there’s HARBINGER: “Omega Rising”, the first collection of Valiant’s intriguing, re-launched series. Though many Valiant comics lines are worthy of attention, the concepts behind HARBINGER are particularly compelling. It has many of the qualities of a classic hero story: a teenager, unusual super-human powers, but placing human destiny on one figure, who does not, we may note, have to wear a cape, and seeing him interact as a terrifying figure in society is gripping. In fact, you might even call it a horror comic. The artwork by Khari Evans has a lot to do with that. The gold-washed tones of apocalyptic “psionic” force that Peter exhibits are downright bone-chilling. Joshua Dysart crafts a mean story-line that pushes ambiguity in heroes about as far as it can go.
Thirdly, PUNK ROCK JESUS by Sean Murphy, will deviously undermine just about every assumption you start to build as you read it and leave the lasting impression of intense, disturbed facial expressions etched, albeit beautifully, on your mind. Setting Murphy loose on his own series seems to be just about one of the best decisions Vertigo has ever made in a long line of some pretty good decisions (though Oni can claim that honor first with the award-winning OFF ROAD). Not only is the story just excellent in its premise and detail, a reality show following a clone boy derived from the messianic shroud of Turin, its balanced in using secondary characters and even minor characters in significant ways to illustrate its themes. It comes very close to elevated phrases like “total storytelling”, from Murphy’s confident aesthetics to his handling of contrasting violence in words and in images. This is one of those books that urges you to read it in one sitting.
Next up: RAVINE, from Top Cow via Image, which you may not have heard of, but that’s the point of this list. It’s a work of pure fantasy in the sword and sorcery tradition with Dave McKean-like title pages and calligraphically accented water-color maps to guide the reader. Stjepan Sejic combines a photo-realistic and painterly style with crowded scenes of pure spectacle as well as keeping an eye on developing mythical weight for RAVINE’s characters through giving them room to breathe. The story, by Sejic and Ron Marz, is well-paced, but doesn’t make any allowances for falling behind in names and plot elements. If you do, however, lose the thread, they’ve handily included a substantial prose guide to characters and concepts in the back of the volume, a nod, perhaps, to video game elements, but also a realistic acknowledgment that intricate fantasy works usually take several books to firmly establish new realities and RAVINE, in good comics fashion, jumps right into the action. Its core concept: a man trying to bring his beloved deceased family back from the dead, is one of the most basic myths of all time, strong enough to bind such a wide-ranging story with a host of characters together. But the artwork is what will sell you this book; its colors and energy make it a top-notch fantasy comic.
Lastly, one you probably have heard of: THINK TANK by Matt Hawkins and Rahsan Ekedal, also from Top Cow/Image. It’s not a heavy or dense book, collecting only 4 issues, but it doesn’t have to be and it also contains a fair number of extra features for those who have read the issues. Like Tony Stark, David Loren is a genius, and like Stark, he wants out of the weapons game, but when a genius is posed with a seemingly unsolvable problem, their own self-created captivity, that’s a fresh story based on rather magnetic characterization. The art style of the collection is going to challenge your assumptions about how a story that could be so mainstream should be told, and its hats off to the indie experimentation you’ll find at every turn, from layouts to lettering and the generous helping of Albert Einstein quotes to guide your way. Finally, it’s also a rather eerie comic, with its own share of horrific images, but mainly it’s eerie because of its calm, greyscale panels that seem to generate tension very easily, combined with smart decisions in layout, to force you to turn the page for major reveals. In short, it will engage the reader on many levels and possesses a very strong original voice as a graphic narrative.
So, if you had 5 recent graphic novels with you on a desert island, this wouldn’t be a bad mini-library to keep you sane. I’d also add that these are likely to stand up to rereading and aren’t outlandishly dated in their content despite current, relevant references, so may well develop into “classics” of their generation over time. One thing is certain, whether you read them or not, they are likely to influence the development of graphic novels still to come because works like these tend to seep into the pop culture imagination in subtle ways. Happy reading.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.