Robot 6

Six by 6 | Six great superhero comics by unlikely cartoonists

The Death Ray

Apart from all the “new 52″ brouhaha, one of the more interesting and talked about bits of online  was Michael Fiffe’s essay on the delineations between mainstream (i.e. superhero) comics and the alt/indie comics scene. Spinning off of his essay, I thought it would be fun to list my own favorite super-styled tales by folks who usually don’t do that type of material, some of which Fiffe talked about in his essay.

Note: For the purposes of this article I’m deliberately avoiding any of the officially sanctioned productions from the Big Two, namely Strange Tales and Bizarro Comics, just to make it a wee bit harder.

1. The Death Ray by Daniel Clowes. Clowes’ rare dip into super-genre waters involves Andy, a withdrawn and awkward teen being raised by his grandfather who discovers his late scientist dad gave him the ability of super-strength whenever he smokes a cigarette, as well as a special gun that helps … get rid of unwanted things and people. Unable to find a good use for his newfound powers — his attempts at heroics fall flat on their face — things quickly spiral out of control. Yes, to some extent the book is a comment on the superhero genre’s inability to deal with or examine real life issues, but Clowes is not drawing on snark here; Death Ray is a haunting character study of a young man whose inner demons drive him to do horrible things. Easily Dan Clowes best, richest work to date, Drawn & Quarterly is releasing a spiffy new hardcover edition of the book this fall, so there’s really no excuse not to check it out.

Panel from 'The Ti-Girls'

2. The Ti-Girls by Jaime Hernandez. The Hernandez brothers have never kept their love for classic superhero stories a secret, so it really wasn’t that much of a surprise when Jaime opted to mark the debut issue of Love and Rockets New Stories in 2008 with The Ti-Girls, about a an older all-female superhero team that reunites to stop a newly superpowered Penny Century from running amok due as she tries to find her lost children. The plot’s a bit convoluted, but there’s no question Hernandez has a knack for delineating kick-ass fight scenes. Ti-Girls isn’t just an example of how alt-cartoonists can enliven the genre, it’s an example of how poorly the Big Two handle female characters in general.


3. Destroy by Scott McCloud. McCloud’s oversize smash-em-up, done after completing Zot! in 1986, is the most obvious parody of the bunch on this list, but it’s a fun parody, winking with affection at the sheer ludicrousness of most superhero battles. One long fight scene from beginning to end, Destroy is nothing more or less than two overpowered musclemen laying complete waste to New York City. If that doesn’t tickle your fancy I don’t know what will.

4. The Amazing Life of Onion Jack by Joel Priddy. AdHouse’s Project Superior anthology — a thick book of superhero tales by alt-cartoonists — was successful enough that publisher Chris Pitzer briefly attempted to spin it off into a pamphlet series. That in turn led to Priddy contributing this story for AdHouse’s 2004 Free Comic Book Day, turning in what ended up being the best of the bunch. Jack is a charming, minimalist tale about a WWII-era superhero who really would prefer to be a fine chef, but keeps getting pulled into battle. Each page chronicles a different era in the hero’s life, which really plays nicely to Priddy’s spot-on comedic timing. Though the original issuemight be hard to find, the story, thankfully is also included in the 2006 edition of The Best American Comics.

5. Batman by Josh Simmons. Simmons is one of the pre-eminent horror cartoonists working in the field today, and in this unofficial “tribute” he applies all his creepy skills to the Dark Knight. Batman’s been portrayed as borderline psychotic in some past DC books, but never to the extent he is here, as his war on crime seems to have driven him completely insane, to the point where he’s sleeping on dirty roofs and preying on helpless junkies. Even Catwoman has lost interest in the poor slob. It’s an unsettling in the best sense of the word that never comes off as a simple “superheroes are dumb” screed.

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6. High School Analogy by Ron Rege Jr. Not every story in the seminal Coober Skeber #2 (i.e. “the Marvel Benefit Issue”) was gold, but it contained enough stellar work (and more significantly, introduced readers to the Fort Thunder crowd) to be fondly remembered and highly influential. One of the highlights — arguably the best story in the entire anthology — was Ron Rege Jr’s take on Spider-Man. Drawing heavily on Ditko and Lee’s original stories, Rege plays up Peter Parker’s angst and isolation with a slightly modern spin (“I’m on edge every day when I come to this fucking place,” Parker thinks about school at one point), to really capture the sort of inner turmoil a lot of teen-agers go through. In a way, Rege got what Lee and Ditko were doing better than some of the artists and writers that followed the duo in the “real” Spider-Man books.



fwiw, Rege’s story from Coober Skeeber is reprinted in the Against Pain book from D&Q.

“High School Analogy” is really great, and I’m glad it got reprinted. Against Pain is truly outstanding.

Hey Chris,
Cool article. I was wondering, however, in what form the latter two “books” appear and how to get them. Just too lazy to Google them myself, I guess. Thanks.

Sean — No. 4 is only available online. Click the link, it will take you directly to it. No. 5, as Derik and Rob note, is in the Ron Rege collection Against Pain, which is available from Drawn and Quarterly, which I completely forgot.

Best Batman story ever.

What, we’re gonna pretend that Raphael Grampa didn’t write and draw the ultimate Wolverine comic in Strange Tales II #1?

Death-Ray was good but Black Nylon was better.

Interesting article, to be sure.
– I humbly submit the works of Kyle Baker – he’s more cartoonist than superhero artist… And “Truth: Red, White, and BLACK” should’ve gotten at least an Eisner award.

– Conversely, on the topic of top-shelf talent moving out of their original medium:
David Mazzuchelli’s “Asterios Polyp” is flat-out fantastic.

Now, the meat and potatoes of my comment:
Every time I talk comics with an Indie/Alt-Comics reader, I get the same vague feeling of condescension I get when talking cars with someone that drives a Prius. A lot of Indie stuff is very good… But the reason it’s “Indie/Alternative” is that it doesn’t have mass appeal. Case in point: Jhonen Vasquez is probably the rudest, most immature jack-ass I’ve ever met… And he’s genuinely angry that Invader Zim is his most enduring work. The reason Zim caught on: It showcased the best of what Vasquez has to offer, without being annoyingly over emo-goth.

Also, my one word review for Maus: OVERRATED!
-It’s mediocre… It really freaking is. It won a Pulitzer because it’s about a Holocaust survivor… That’s the only reason.

Interesting, especially as I just saw Michael T Gilbert’s EC inspired Superman story (I know, amazing idea right?) at The Comics Detective.

I love Jaime Hernandez, but thought the Ti-Girls was not his strongest work. The Alarma side-storyline in Love & Rockets II was a great little superheroic gem though, and for a more mainstream tale, check out his Strange Tales take on the Marvel universe!

@John can you explain how Jhonen Vasquez was immature and rude to you? he seemed like a nice enough guy in the interviews i’ve seen of him

I think Batman: Spore, by MIchel Gagné, could be on this list too:

Clowes’ Death Ray sounds really interesting, if it,s getting a new edition I might check it out.

What about Sergio Aragones’ The Mighty Magnor from the early 90s? I guess Sergio is probably too mainstream for this list. But has Magnor ever been collected in any form? Dark Horse should think about it!

I have always wished that one day Jaime H. would do a 12 issue Wonder Woman arc. That would be a sure sell-out. Hell…give Clowes a 12 issue Spidey maxi also.

Here are some other interesting works of superhero fantasy from the indie side of comics:

Humongous Man by Harsion Stepp

Normalman by Jim Valentino

Maximortal and Brat Pack by Rick Veitch

Project Superior

The Blonde Avenger by Cindy Johns

To name a few.

… and Wonder Warthog by Gilbert Shelton (better known for the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers).

Destroy! is the only one on this list that I’ve read. It’s great fun.

I’d also recommend the Marvel Monsters book, with stories by a number of atypical creators. Fin Fang Four by Roger Langridge is in particular is a work of amusing genius.

A big thumbs up for Wonder Warthog. The book “Wonder Warthog and the Nurds of November” is well worth searching out. The storyline is even more relevant today than when it was originally published 30 years ago.

i had the oversized “Destroy” comic. It was great. Wish it’d see a reprint in a normal size!

Bob – I met Jhonen at the NYCC several years ago, and his signing was scheduled at the same time as Stan Lee’s. Stan Lee’s signing was a ticketed event, and I didn’t get in. Stan Lee, naturally, had an enormous crowd. He also had his handlers set a two book signing limit… Because he’s Stan fucking Lee.

Meanwhile, at the Jhonen Vasquez booth, there was a whopping 10, maybe even 11 people in his line. He stood up, told everyone he would not be sketching and he was setting a two book limit… Invader Zim was amusing, don’t get me wrong,.. But Jhonen Vasquez is not Stan Lee. If I were that guy? Signing at the same time as Stan Lee? I’d do and sign anything I could. Anyways, Ten people in line, and I hop on the end. He capped the line about 5 minutes after I got in… Stan Lee??? I then proceeded to wait in his line for – I’m not kidding. I timed it – an hour and a half. The reason it took so long? He flirted and giggled like a schoolgirl with every single one of the little 14 year old hot-topic made goth girls in front of me… And he did sketches for all of them.

I finally get up to him, and I’ve brought my complete run of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac with me for him to sign. Six books… After waiting an hour and a half. I don’t want a sketch. I just want him to sign the books. He proceeds to look through the stack, then glare at me and ask me if I heard him set a 2 book limit. He made a sound of disgust and said “Ugh, here’s your comics. I’m outta here.”

I was stunned by this for a few seconds, and then proceeded to tell him that I think he’s a creepy pederast, and that if he wants his books back, he can look for them on eBay.

The guy is an absolute ass.

similar experience with jhonen at the APE years ago, but whatev…

more on topic, how could Mike Allred not be on the list? you COULD look at Madman as a superhero book (which it isn’t really) and therefore equate his (Allred’s) name and output with superheroics, but he’s mostly a storyteller of trippy-ness and bizzarrofun who can also do quirky superhero stuff. like X-Force and X-statix.

i would have put ‘im on the list.

“Goodman Meets S*perm*n.”

I know marvel and dc was off the list, but Seth fisher’s batman, green lantern, and iron man/ff stories are all amazing visual insanity that are nice to flip through over and over again. My favorite indie superhero book is James kochalka’s super-fuckers, which is the funniest thing I’ve ever read, and don simpson’s megaton man and its follow-up, bizarre heroes, are also both really good.

I second allred’s madman and any superhero work by Rick veitch, as they’re both dark and twisted and fun all at the same time. Oh, and batman: black and white had some great stories by unusual creators, like katsuhiro otomo…

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