Geek tastes running tall and wide, when we asked our writers to recommend favorite books that they felt hadn’t received the levels of popularity or public recognition they deserved, in came a heap of suggestions. Too many for one piece, hence us dividing the entries into four separate lists: adult sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fiction, graphic novels, children’s/YA fiction, and non-fiction.
We’ll let you use the power of your eyeballs to see which one of those lists you’re currently reading. And in the spirit of the piece, hope you’ll join in by providing your own suggestions to keep the recommendations coming in the comments section. Sharing: it’s what makes geek communities great.
Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E – Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen
Written as a reaction to Ellis’ “widescreen” storytelling in The Authority, Nextwave is a fast-paced, twelve-issue run that aims to tell a superhero story full of explosions and fighting and quips without any pretensions towards depth, plot, or subtlety. Things explode because explosions are cool. Everyone has sassy quips and putdowns at the ready. There is a theme song. Why? Because.
H.A.T.E. is a thinly veiled version of S.H.I.E.L.D., and while it would be amazing cinema to see Samuel L. Jackson play Dirk Anger, it’s unlikely that Marvel Films would be willing to mock themselves via a bunch of obscure characters engaging in increasingly bizarre splash page fights. However, if someone ever tells you superhero movies are ludicrous fodder working to an increasingly familiar story template while making you feel like there’s a vast wealth of research you have to do before you can fully understand what’s going on, you can hand them a copy of Nextwave and say “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
The drawback is that Nextwave is more enjoyable than many comics and movies, which raises further questions we don’t have time to go into in this article, but can be vaguely summarized by the hashtag #marveleventhorizon.
By Andrew Blair
The Tale of One Bad Rat – Bryan Talbot (1994)
According to writer/artist Bryan Talbot’s website, The Tale of One Bad Rat is the second-most requested graphic novel in U.S. libraries, behind only Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Despite this, it’s frequently overlooked when people discuss the best of emotionally complex comics, and fewer people seem to have heard of it than of many of the other classics of its type.
The book introduces us to a homeless teenager called Helen, who we gradually learn is running away from the twin demons of a childhood of parental abuse and an unusual mental link with the life and history of Beatrix Potter. Her journey takes her from London to the Lake District, and it’s in this that the book particularly shines artistically: both locations are drawn with extreme amounts of care and attention, so that they’re instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever visited or lived in either. It can be a difficult and potentially triggering read for some, but it’s an incredibly powerful and sympathetic human story.
By Seb Patrick
Sexcastle – Kyle Starks (2015)
80s action cinema will always hold a special place in the hearts of a certain generation, and they’ll find plenty to enjoy in Kyle Starks’ loving tribute Sexcastle. This graphic novel follows a former assassin as he’s freshly released from prison. He’s looking to leave his bloody past behind and become a florist, but a dispute with a corrupt businessman means it’s not long catching up with him. So, out come the gunchucks.
Sexcastle is a fast-paced run through all the classic action movie clichés, with nods to Commando, Enter the Dragon, Death Wish, Roadhouse, and many others. There are stupid one-liners, training scenes, gory fights, dumb henchmen, and even a gratuitous sex scene. The book works as a tongue-in-cheek parody while still serving as an entertaining story on its own terms. The numerous fight scenes manage to convey an impressive amount of movement despite the stark art style. Sexcastle himself is an insanely likable hero, and the story wraps itself up in a surprisingly sweet way.
By Padraig Cotter
The One – Rick Veitch (1985)
Although Watchmen is the post-modern superhero story that gets all the plaudits, it’s worth noting that it didn’t arrive in a vacuum. Just as many great scientific discoveries are the result of years of collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas, so Watchmen was itself the ultimate expression of a growing movement of superhero deconstruction. One of the books that helped to germinate those ideas was The One, a series originally published in 1985 by Marvel’s creator-owned Epic imprint.
In many ways, author and illustrator Rick Veitch pulls on the same threads in The One that Alan Moore would weave into a glorious, genre-rocking tapestry several years later. Cold War paranoia, superheroes-as-arms race, memory-as-propaganda. Escalating tensions between the US and USSR are threatening to tear the world apart, and the creation of government-sponsored superheroes results in The One, a genuine, next-level superhero – or perhaps, supervillain.
The emphasis of The One is on providing a commentary for philosophy, politics, and satire rather than superheroes themselves, and its powerfully developed themes and undercurrent of psychedelia make the story unique in its telling. It’s an interesting follow-up to the likes of Watchmen and Miracleman as both an exploration and alternate examination of similar themes, and one cruelly underappreciated as a companion piece to them both.
By James Hunt
Love and Rockets – The Hernandez Brothers (1982-present)
There was a very specific moment in Love and Rockets where I realized that it was the perfect comic series for me: in a short 1982 story, the on-and-off lovers and protagonists Maggie and Hopey scream the words to Black Flag’s “Six Pack” in a library.
I’d have been fine if Love and Rockets was merely the story of two bisexual punk rock lovers, but it’s so much more. Love and Rockets employs very strong elements of magic realism and science fiction, with characters regularly in hovercars or in space, and they act as if it isn’t a big deal.
There’s a real difference in the Hernandez Brothers’ stories: Jaime’s are usually set in LA and Gilbert’s tend to be set in the fictional Mexican town: Palomar. While Love and Rockets was in its heyday throughout the 80s and early 90s, the Hernandez Brothers have intermittently released new stories for the last 15 years, with some, like The Love Bunglers, showing the characters as middle-aged instead of traditionally being in their late teens.
By Stu Anderson
Superman: Secret Identity – Kurt Busiek & Stuart Immonen (2004)
One of the best Superman stories ever published, the unique thing about this miniseries is that it isn’t actually about the character of Kal-El. Instead, ostensibly set in the “real” world, it’s about a Kansas teenager named Clark Kent who, after growing up suffering all the usual jokes about Superman, suddenly finds himself with superpowers of his own. Donning a Superman costume to protect his identity, he begins to perform good deeds and rescue those in trouble.
Each of the four issues meets Clark at a different milestone in his life – in the second, he even meets and falls in love with a girl named Lois – and the whole thing is a beautiful meditation on life and growing up, through the filter of a fantastical superhero narrative. Immonen took on a distinctive, more realistic than usual art style for the series, and it makes for a strong contrast between the “real” Clark and the fictional Superman.
By Seb Patrick
Concrete – Paul Chadwick (1986-present)
Back in the 1980s, when Dark Horse Comics were all the rage, Concrete was a widely talked-about series – winning several awards, and even coming close to having a movie adaptation made of it. In the decades since, while many contemporary comics have continued to be held up as genre-defining classics, nobody seems to pay attention to this one any more (a TV version is currently in development for Universal, but it’s in its early days yet). Which is a shame, as it holds up extremely well, and is of an unusual style and tone.
A slow-paced, almost entirely conversational series, Concrete concerns a writer who is abducted by aliens while on a hiking expedition and has his brain placed in a seemingly indestructible stone body. Despite that pulp sci-fi premise, however, the series is almost entirely about how Concrete reacts to the world around him and his struggles to engage emotionally with other people. It’s quiet, contemplative, and not afraid of showing the flaws of its often immature and pretentious lead character. Writer/artist Chadwick has been publishing black-and-white Concrete stories in various anthology books and miniseries on and off since 1986, but the majority of the stories have now been collected into a series of six non-chronological volumes – the first is called Depths.
By Seb Patrick
La Muse – Adi Tantimedh and Hugo Petrus (2008)
In a not entirely dissimilar mould to The One (see above), La Muse by Adi Tantimedh and Hugo Petrus is also an underappreciated deconstructionist gem. The stars of the story are the two grown-up children of extradimensional aliens who have taken human form – one becoming an extreme leftist superhero, the other an ordinary, non-powered woman who acts as her sister’s publicist.
At the core of the book is a simple idea of what might happen if someone with the will and the ability to make the planet a better place truly existed. At one point, the lead character uses her powers to create a free synthetic polymer that replaces plastic, making oil worthless – but is then forced to intervene in the wars that ensue when oil-producing regions economically collapse.
Unlike The One, the commentary here is on superheroes to some extent, highlighting the way traditional heroes effectively maintain a conservative status-quo when they have the power to do more. The book’s satires are sharp, spending considerable time skewering celebrity culture and big business. It could be accused of being a self-congratulatory liberal fantasy – but when comics have so many right-wing ones, it feels like there’s room for the alternative.
By James Hunt
Daytripper – Gabriel Bá & Fábio Moon (2010)
Brazilian twins Bá and Moon are better known for their art on hit series such as The Umbrella Academy and Casanova – but they made their move into writing to quite devastating effect with this DC Vertigo series. It’s a ten-issue story about a Brazilian writer of obituaries named Brás who, quite surprisingly, is killed on the last page of the first issue. And then is also killed on the last page of the second issue: but at a younger age. And it gradually transpires that each of the ten issues is setting out to tell the story of Brás’ last day on earth if he’d died at a range of different ages, from as young as 11 to the final chapter which sees him reach the age of 76.
It’s an almost unbearably beautiful comic, exploring the relationship between life and death, and how one is viewed in light of the other. It also plays with form and expectation throughout, including one issue in which Brás doesn’t appear on panel, only instead on the other end of the phone. While it was hugely critically-acclaimed and award-winning at the time, it’s another series that often seems to get forgotten when the best of its era are discussed – and it really deserves to be considered among the finest achievements in the history of the medium.
By Seb Patrick
Malinky Robot: Collected Stories and Other Bits – Sonny Liew (2011)
Sonny Liew’s creator-owned Malinky Robot collection brings together several minicomics starring two friends, Atari and Oliver, who have their weird child-like adventures in a strange futuristic city where the technology is new and amazing, but the streets are still dusty and cluttered, and the appeal of hopping on a bike and riding out into the countryside with your friends still exists.
It’s an art-driven book, of that there’s no question. Liew’s pages contain stunning detail and texture, but also fantastic body language and variety of characters. The stories are whimsical and melancholy, driven by a Calvin & Hobbes-style wonder despite the futuristic setting, which could (but doesn’t) overwhelm the narrative.
There’s even room for experimentation with the form. One of the best sequences in the book gives a major character’s backstory in the style of a newspaper puzzle page, where you piece the truth together yourself rather than have it spelled out, exposition-style. It’s not hard to see why Liew won awards, and while he’s been reasonably prolific, it’s only here, without a co-writer or pre-existing property to set limits on his work, that the extent of his imagination and ability is revealed. It’s like nothing else you’ve seen, and that makes it worth your time.
By James Hunt
Ethel & Ernest – Raymond Briggs (1998)
If you recognize Raymond Briggs’ name, it’s likely to be from his pair of seasonal picture books for kids – The Snowman and Father Christmas – both of which were adapted for the small screen and aired on Channel 4 in the UK. But his most accomplished and personal work is the slim 1999 graphic novel Ethel & Ernest, a biography of his mother and father, following them from their first meeting in 1928 to their deaths, mere months apart in 1971.
Ethel & Ernest is packed with endearing biographical detail, but there’s a grander vision hidden behind the author’s deceptively simple storytelling style. Briggs uses wry, moving snapshots of everyday life to weave a social history observed from within the walls of a working class South London household. The book’s narrative spans the inter-war years to the Moon Landing, encompassing recessions, rationing, and the Welfare State as well as the coming of television and the telephone, culminating in a tribute to an age, a class, and a generation that has since passed into memory.
A long-gestating film adaptation of Ethel & Ernest is finally in active production. For now, though, Briggs’ hugely affecting opus deserves to sit alongside Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Art Spiegelman’s Maus as a uniquely British spin on the graphic family memoir.
By Michael Leader