1. Bizarro Comics & Bizarro World (Various)
Using Superman’s warped reflection Bizarro as a starting point, DC brings in some of alternative comics’ top creators to offer a fresh point of view of its superheroes for two graphic-novel anthologies: Bizarro Comics and Bizarro World. Never before has Superman’s musculature been more grotesque or Batman’s costume more wrinkled, as most of the creators choose to spotlight the less glamorous side of superheroes. Dylan Horrocks and Farel Dalrymple craft a sad story about The Flash wanting to stop running, Mike Doughty and Danny Hellman put Aquaman onstage with an acoustic guitar, and Todd Alcott and Michael Kupperman depict a Justice League in the midst of its ultimate crisis: ennui. Actor/comedian/writer/occasional A.V. Club contributor Patton Oswalt pens a Batman story, and James Kochalka’s Legion Of Superheroes short lays the foundation for his later SuperF*ckers series. The creative pairings are inspired, from Harvey Pekar and Dean Haspiel on the titular character to Peter Bagge and Gilbert Hernandez on Red Bee and Jeff Smith and Paul Pope on Superman, exhibiting the type of refreshing creative chemistry that should be embraced by mainstream superhero comics.
2. Birds Of Prey Vol. 1 #50-55 (Gilbert Hernandez)
While his brother Jaime—who worked on the female dynamic duo of comix, Maggie Chascarillo and Hopey Glass—might seem like a more natural choice to write the adventures of DC’s premier female superhero team, Love And Rockets’ Gilbert Hernandez delivers a charming six-issue Birds Of Prey storyline that feels like it’s been pulled from a different era. A bright, Silver Age-inspired adventure that partners Black Canary and Oracle with Metamorpho, The Element Man, Hernandez’s story embraces the silliness of the superhero genre. The dialogue can get a bit hokey and overly dated—at one point Black Canary actually says, “Like Lucy, they got some ’splainin’ to do”—but Hernandez’s script benefits from Casey Jones’ clean, animated artwork. Jones has a more conventional superhero style than Hernandez, but it would be fascinating to see what the writer could do if he were given control of the visuals as well.
3. Shazam!: The Monster Society Of Evil (Jeff Smith)
Jeff Smith is one of those comics creators who is, and will likely always be, irreparably linked to one major work: the fantasy epic Bone. His most recent series, RASL, expanded his scope into darker territory, but his 2007 miniseries, Shazam!: The Monster Society Of Evil, has been his biggest departure from Bone. Not only does he work with Captain Marvel, one of DC’s most critically neglected characters, Smith unabashedly taps into the gosh-wow iconography of the (literally) boyish hero without suppressing the fluid dynamism and graphic boldness of his idiosyncratic, creator-owned work.
4. Zot! (Scott McCloud)
Even if Scott McCloud had never created anything other than his 1993 book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, he’d be rightly lauded as a visionary in the medium of graphic narrative. But where Understanding Comics dissects and qualifies the hidden wonder of comics, McCloud’s lesser-known comic book from the ’80s, Zot!, embodied it. The 36-issue series—which McCloud briefly revived in 2000 and belatedly collected in 2008—chronicles the lighthearted yet conceptually sophisticated adventures of Zot!, a zippy, youthful superhero not too far removed from Captain Marvel. As McCloud’s follow-ups to Understanding Comics continue to roll out, Zot! feels increasingly like an oddity in his catalog—although it’s vital one.
5. Strange Tales I & II (Various)
Following the success of DC’s Bizarro graphic novels, Marvel engaged in its own alternative-comics experiment with two Strange Tales miniseries. The books share many of Bizarro’s creators, including Peter Bagge, Michael Kupperman, James Kochalka, Paul Pope, Harvey Pekar, and Tony Millionaire, but the Marvel miniseries places considerably more emphasis on superhero action. Super Spy and Mind MGMT creator Matt Kindt writes and draws a retro Black Widow adventure, Rafael Grampa tells a brutal tale of Wolverine in a fighting ring, and James Stokoe details the destruction caused by world-eater Galactus in chilling detail. There are plenty of lighter stories as well, including Kraven’s hunt for a prom date by Kate Beaton, a mustache-growing contest between The Thing and The Human Torch by Jacob Chabot, and hilarious comic strips by Perry Bible Fellowship’s Nicholas Gurewitch. It’s also the only place to find samurai Hulk, given life by Usagi Yojimbo creator Stan Sakai.
6. Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules (James Sturm, Guy Davis)
What if the heroes of the Fantastic Four were based on real people? That’s the concept of James Sturm and Guy Davis’ Eisner Award-winning miniseries Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules, exploring the cultural foundation of Marvel’s First Family by stripping away its powers and casting it as a middle-class American family in the 1950s. Dr. Reed Richards is a scientist stretching himself thin between his home and work; Susan Sturm is a neglected woman aching to escape her life of suburban domesticity but tied down by Reed and her rebellious kid brother, Johnny; and Ben Grimm is a deadbeat boxing trainer desperately looking for someone to love. It’s a brilliant piece of historical fiction that looks at the relationships among these characters in ways that haven’t been detailed before, and even includes a cameo appearance from the founders of Marvel Comics, who crash the party Susan throws for Reed’s co-workers.
7. God And Science: Return Of The Ti-Girls (Jaime Hernandez)
In its early-’80s infancy, the universe of Los Bros. Hernandez’s Love And Rockets encompassed a myriad of genres and probabilities, from subdued magic realism to pulp science-fiction. Jaime Hernandez returned to the latter—with a healthy dose of capes and tights—in 2012’s God And Science: Return Of The Ti-Girls. A collection of a serialized tale from the pages of L&R, Ti-Girls revolves around the series’ secondary player, Penny Century, and her tragicomic stabs at superheroism—with plenty of ultra-powered poignancy provided by L&R main character Maggie Chascarrillo.
8. The Death-Ray (Daniel Clowes)
In his epochal indie series Eightball, Daniel Clowes set about deconstructing everything he could put his pen to: David Lynch-esque surrealism, coming-of-age angst-fests, and even comics fandom itself. In a 2004 issue of Eightball, he introduced his ultimate pastiche: The Death-Ray. Fleshed out into a 2011 graphic novel, The Death-Ray not only spoofed and backhandedly honored Steve Ditko’s groundbreaking co-creation of the ectomorphic, misanthropic superhero (see: Spider-Man), it stretched Clowes’ postmodern oeuvre into the mythology of spandex.
9. Omega The Unknown (Farel Dalrymple)
When novelist Jonathan Lethem revived forgotten Steve Garber creation Omega The Unknown in 2007, he needed an artist that could balance superhero spectacle and slice-of-life realism for his haunting coming-of-age story. Pop Gun War creator Farel Dalrymple renders the New York City environment in meticulous detail, and shows an understanding of the full range of human emotion that is required for Lethem’s deeply personal, psychologically dense script. Following a teenage boy who discovers his parents are robots just before meeting a superhero that he shares a mysterious bond with, the miniseries breaks down superhero conventions to tell an experimental yet deeply poignant tale of a young man trying to find his place in the world. The superhero elements take a backseat to the character interactions, and Dalrymple’s talent for capturing the mundane aspects of civilian life brings even more impact to the moments of fantasy.
10. Batman: Year 100 (Paul Pope)
The thick inks and dynamic motion of Paul Pope’s work make him an ideal fit for the shadow-covered, action-packed world of the Dark Knight, and he gets free rein to do whatever he wants with the hero by jumping forward in time to tell story set in the Gotham City in the future. Pope’s sense of design is utilitarian with a heavy dose of sci-fi spectacle, creating a strikingly imposing urban environment that is grounded in gritty reality. Few Batman costume designs are as meticulously detailed as Pope’s, which calls attention to the folds in the costume’s fabric, the laces and tread of his leather boots, and the clips that attach his cape to his body armor. It’s such a great look that DC made a statue of it, and the three-dimensional model beautifully captures the sense of weight that Pope brings to his artwork.
11. SuperF*ckers (James Kochalka)
The best superhero spoofs cut to the core of the pratfalls and bathos that real people would suffer if given extraordinary powers. And then there’s SuperF*ckers. Collected in 2010, James Kochalka’s saga of his band of do-nothing do-gooders departs wildly in topic—if not tone—from his quirky-yet-heartfelt works like the autobiographical American Elf. It makes synchronous sense that SuperF*ckers was adapted in animated form starting in 2012; if ever there were a contender for a superhero parallel to Adventure Time (only with profanity), SuperF*ckers is it.
12. Wonder Wart-Hog (Gilbert Shelton)
The underground comix revolution that began in the ’60s went arm-in-arm with the ascendant counterculture—which means superheroes were about as welcome as narcs. Leave it to underground cartoonist Gilbert Shelton of Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers fame to mash together the two ends of the spectrum. Started as a lark in college humor magazine in 1962, the grotesque takedown of the Superman mythos—at a time when DC was doing its Silver Age best to make the real Superman look as ridiculous as possible—continued for years, eventually being recognized as one of the first instances of an independent cartoonist publishing his own warped mutation of the upstanding superhero.
13. Daredevil Vol. 2 #51-55 (David Mack)
Kabuki creator David Mack introduced deaf assassin Maya “Echo” Lopez in an earlier Daredevil storyline with artist Joe Quesada, but he takes complete creative control when he sends the Native American character on a vision quest years after her first appearance. Using his signature mix of pencil, paint, and collage, Mack creates a visually stunning story that reads unlike anything else Marvel published at the time. It’s stylistically and thematically similar to Mack’s creator-owned work, but replaces Japanese mythology and iconography with that of Native American culture. Being one of the publisher’s top characters, Wolverine has to appear in as many Marvel titles as possible, but Mack cleverly inserts him in the middle of Echo’s vision quest by casting the hairy mutant as her spirit animal.
14. Runaways Vol. 3 #1-9 (Terry Moore)
Terry Moore’s Strangers In Paradise shows an acute ability for depicting believable human relationships on a comic page, but that skill doesn’t translate when he’s working on superhero teens. Following in the footsteps of former Runaways writers Brian K. Vaughan and Joss Whedon isn’t an easy task, but Moore opts for a Saturday-morning cartoon feel that doesn’t gel with the more mature tone of the previous volumes. The writer backtracks on established character development to return the Runaways to the personalities they had in the very first issue of the series, and he loses sight of the book’s central concept: being on the run. Sales plummeted during Moore’s run, and despite Marvel’s best efforts to revive the title after Moore’s departure, it was quickly canceled, and the Runaways have not had an ongoing series since.
15. Wonder Woman (Kate Beaton)
Unlike Peter Bagge’s Megalomaniacal Spider-Man or Incorrigible Hulk, Kate Beaton’s recurring rendition of Wonder Woman is not officially condoned, licensed, or otherwise approved. Not that Beaton cares. On her Hark! A Vagrant webcomic, Beaton interprets the Amazonian superhero as a snarling, mean-spirited woman who only wonders why everyone around her—Superman and Batman included—are such idiots. Not only does Beaton poke fun at the many attempts by male creators over the decades to make Wonder Woman a strident feminist, it loops a mercilessly satirical Lasso Of Truth around the character’s inherent magniloquence.
16. Bighead (Jeffrey Brown)
For every muted, hushed, depressingly funny burst of autobiography that Jeffrey Brown has put on the page—from his 2002 breakthrough, Clumsy, to the superb new A Matter Of Life—the cartoonist has executed a goofy interpretation or parody of some pop-culture icon. Whether it’s the Transformers in Incredible Change-Bots or Star Wars in his current series of Darth Vader-as-hapless-dad books, Brown’s flair for parody is both cutting and loving. But he’s only dabbled in superheroes once; in 2004’s Bighead, he uses his titular crusader to illustrate how acting gentle, silly, and even deploying a non sequitur can save the day as easily as being made of steel.
17. Prophet (Various)
Brandon Graham’s library of erotic comics and sci-fi slacker stories makes him an unconventional choice to revive a Rob Liefeld property from the early ’90s, but his unique point of view is exactly why Prophet has become one of Image’s best series. Teaming with artists Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, and Giannis Milonogiannis, and occasionally contributing to the visuals himself, Graham has created a sprawling epic that is part Conan The Barbarian, part Dune, complete with a H.R. Giger-esque design aesthetic inspired by genitalia. Every few issues, Graham hands over the writing reins to one of his artistic collaborators, introducing even more distinct perspectives to the narrative. Prophet is one of the most bizarre, unpredictable superhero comics currently published, and the scope only expands with each new issue.