A few people have asked me to recommend great science fiction comic books. Here, in a slightly random order, is my list of great science fiction comic books.
This was actually written and ready to post a few weeks ago, but simultaneously, Sam Humphries happened to post his own list of science fiction comics on Robot 6, so I thought I’d give it a bit of breathing room. Since then I have read his comic book Our Love is Real and I can recommend it as a wonderful, classic-feeling science-fiction comic book. It has a great ’80’s science fiction movie feel, something close to Aeon Flux and Robocop.
Anyway, on with the list. It is rough and mixed, but I hope I’ve given options to cover a broad range of science-fiction / comic book tastes.
1. Top Ten
Nobody does it quite like Alan Moore and while his most zealous followers trace his every magic step, it is in the world of science fiction that he seems to play with the most light-hearted joy. Often described as a gritty cop show (in the vein of popular ’80’s tv series Hill Street Blues) with the addition of superpowers, this massively underplays the hilarity of the world of Top Ten. Everyone has superpowers and every trope of science fiction comic books is true in this reality. No one else could bring an ensemble piece like this alive, every character is rich and relatable in some way, through them we experience unique and enlightening angles on life. The humor and frivolity of this book belie an incredibly rich world which I still miss.
2. Heart of Empire
Predating steampunk fashion by decades, Bryan Talbot’s take on a technologically advanced British superpower is incredibly strange. The Adventures of Luther Arkwright set the scene, but it is in this full-color wild ride that things properly take off. It reminds me somewhat of the odd Neal Stephenson book The Diamond Age, where a different sort of technologically advanced Victorian era runs rampant. I love the combination of the utterly arrogant colonial British pomp with the brutalities of an industrial computer age. A rare instance of a science fiction comic book written and drawn by the same person, we’re very lucky to have this eccentric gem in the world, shaping dreams and altering reality.
Uniting two of my favorite authors this is the story of the accidental release of a slew of Indian gods (good and bad) which live under a Bradford corner shop (that’s a convenience store in US speak.) Grant Morrison penned this ludicrously delightful tale while Philip Bond contributes the extremely funny art. While this could quite easily have been more in the fantasy camp, it is the nature and science of the gods which drives it firmly into the camp of science fiction. With nods towards Bollywood, the texture and joy of the action is palpable, even in the scenes of the evil gods bent on destruction as they rip limbs and tear apart London.
4. The Life and Times of Martha Washington
Martha Washington is such an incredible creation. Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons really outdid themselves when they created this bitter futuristic world, then did one better in Martha Washington. Watching the descent into grime, poverty and war through the eyes of this bright and wasted child, we then see her pull her life together to become the saviour we so desperately need. This massive tome collects all of the books about this character, beginning with the visionary Give Me Liberty, written over 20 years ago. Although a satirical vision of America’s political future, like so much of our best examples of science fiction, there are many moments of truth to be seen in our immediate ecological future. With shades of the much maligned (yet still impressive) movie Soylent Green, Martha must escape the constraints of a restrictive society to join the army to fight for the safety of the world.
5. V for Vendetta
This is the veteran of this list and the one which first which united my love of science fiction and comic books. As always, I am talking about the comic, not the movie adaptation, but since there is one of this, let me add that, for me, the movie missed some of the most pertinent points of the book. V for Vendetta is an incredibly relevant and exciting contribution to society and to the medium, but unfortunately the many small changes in the movie remove these. The constant observation of the populace, the depressingly heartless sexual mores, the politicians propagating repression and xenophobia who are firmly endorsed by the general populace… these are all forceful warnings in the comic book. Meanwhile, most importantly for the reader relating to the protagonists, we have no way of knowing if V is male or female and this is never clarified. Alan Moore and David Lloyd created this story and it still serves as both a stark warning against living in a climate of blame and hatred, and also as an example of elegantly simple clever comic book writing.
6. Heavy Liquid
Paul Pope’s drug dream of a book gradually becomes the story of our first contact with an entirely alien race on this hectic roller coaster ride through a hip future. With his fluid brush ink work Pope illustrates his own vision of a grimy future, complete with fashions, vehicles and entertainment fitting for such an environment. This is what I imagine a Philip K. Dick novel would be like if he’d also been a visual artist, one of his pre-Valis novels, more Stainless Steel Rat action and adventure with the seeds of his future psychedelic seeking. Pope is often lauded for the overtly cool attitude of his books and their sexy Jagger-esque heroes set in cities that look like Bladerunner goes to Tokyo, but for me it is his joy and delight in the very other-ness of the alien contact that makes me so happy about this book. Will worth looking past the veneer of coolness to the deep and meaty center.
First of all this is a book with a really fun team of people to focus on, that makes things easier. I’m happy to read about their adventures, just as I am happy to read their back story. A combination of super fun, action-packed chapters, and one, overarching, deeply intriguing back story. Filled with a kind of monster movie mayhem, much of the story reminds me of those 1950’s films like The Incredible Shrinking Man. The thing that people forget about those old science fiction movies is that even though they had a very pulp feel, they often used the medium to get some very big concepts across. Like the movies, these comics ask some big questions, both of the protagonists and the readers, and it makes for a very satisfying read. On top of all that, you have Warren Ellis writing at his stomping best and John Cassaday drawing an increasingly elaborate, elegant world.
8. Y – The Last Man
If Planetary is ’50’s, then Y – The Last Man is more like a 1970’s horror/science fiction movie. I love things like Capricorn One and Planet of the Apes, so this sprawling story of the last man left alive on earth and the journey to create a future for the earth is wonderful. With plenty of references to space, science and role-playing, this book really utilizes every tool in both the science fiction and comic book medium. In the ’60’s, Thomas Disch wrote a book about the end of the world called The Genocides, which had a sort of depressing, “going out with a whimper” sort of feel. While Y – The Last Man could also be said to be a world ending book, it is always far from despondent, with so much action and adventure that you feel sure that we will find a way to go on. It is a very hopeful, loving book and while I didn’t always love the protagonist, I always had to ask myself how the hell I would comport myself if I were literally the last of my sex on this planet.
9. Desolation Jones
Does everyone loves seeing familiar territory used in science fiction? Maybe it is just me, but the idea of Los Angeles as a sort of prison for crazy, messed-up super beings is kind of hysterical. I know that Warren Ellis is probably one of the busiest writers and loves to plunge with the new ideas, but I’d love to see him write some more of this series. The damaged character of Jones himself is rather wonderful in that classic Ellis style (cranky old man with horrible powers that aren’t really useful), but it is his friends, enemies and counterparts which truly entertain. The defectively engineered populace of this dystopian LA aren’t all that different from the current ones, in that their surgical enhancements make them strange, it is just the extent of that strangeness which is so wonderful.
10. Doc Frankenstein
A world featuring violent airborne battles between Doc Frankenstein (as the hero of science and sanity) and the church (vehemently fighting for the status quo.) Crazy and irreverent, this comic is filled with ridiculous humor and depravity. So far this hasn’t been published for a while, though the back issues are still available from the publisher online. I could certainly handle more of Doc Frankenstein and I hope that the Wachowski brothers and Steve Skroce find the time to make it happen one day.
A few more science-fiction comic books I love include Akira, Marshal Law, Transmetropolitan, Judge Dredd, Promethea, The Incal, Ghost in the Shell, Ronin, Technopriests, Hard Boiled, Mister X, American Flagg, Astroboy… and I know there a ton more I am forgetting, but I’m sure you can fill in my blanks.