It’s a fact: the landscape presented by modern comic books is more diverse than it’s ever been, and it’s expanding even further with each passing year. From slice-of-life superhero mix tapes and small-town murder mysteries to world-traveling, dimension-hopping buddy cop comedies, there’s definitely something out there for every fan. Like any medium, comics has the potential to become stale, but modern creators refuse to stop innovating, continually keeping the freshness rating high every Wednesday. Although every fan has their own tastes and preferences, there are always a few titles that rise to the top as fan-favorites, while others stay in the background as indie and/or critical darlings — and some are lucky enough to have both as a part of their identity.
While the books listed below are far from unknowns, each has a special quality that keeps readers coming back every month — whether it’s innovation, a reinvention of a classic formula or just plain fun, these are the titles that rise to the top of my list every month.
“Captain Midnight” (Dark Horse) By Joshua Williamson. Victor IbÃ¡Ã±ez and Pere Perez
For fans who love: “Captain America,” Geoff Johns’ “JSA,” “All-Star Squadron”
Dark Horse has been quietly building its superhero universe with the classic Golden Age character “Captain Midnight” as the centerpiece of the Project Black Sky line. One of those forgotten gems of the Golden Age, Captain Midnight is a former impact character who did not manage to transcend time to become a modern day publishing staple like some of his brethren, a situation Dark Horse is determined to correct. Fans have read the “World War II legend fighting the good fight in the modern day” story many times, but writer Joshua Williamson is crafting a unique juxtaposition of nostalgia and modernism rather than a retread of the same old thing. Captain Midnight is a man out of time, a man who remembers the morality of the past and desperately wants to bring it into the modern age. Somehow, Williamson makes the Captain old school heroic without making him seem like an anachronism. The book debuted strong, with a great direction and note perfect tone. What could have been a redundant rehash of “Captain America” has instead proven to be a fantastic read, month in and month out.
“Revival” (Image Comics) By Tim Seeley, Mike Norton and Mark Englert
For fans who love: “The Walking Dead,” “Y, The Last Man,” smart, contemporary horror.
To those who haven’t read it, “Revival” is that other zombie book at Image. But the fact is, it’s so different from “The Walking Dead,” it’s practically a different genre. The story of a rural Wisconsin town where, one day, the dead returned to life, “Revival” owes more to “Fargo” than it does George Romero. One of the smartest, sleekest, most understated horror comics on the market, co-creators Tim Seeley and Mike Norton understood that if the industry is to sustain another ongoing zombie comic, it would have to hit different notes than those already being played in “The Walking Dead.” The duo nails it with polished character work, a tone of constant and quiet foreboding and the best damn covers on the racks by Jenny Frison. “Revival” is a subtle horror piece that is not afraid to get visceral when necessary and doesn’t shy away from some socio-political commentary on how modern day society and religious bodies would react to an event that has remarkably Rapture-like overtones. This is smart horror coming from smart creators, and it should be on everyone’s pull list.
“World’s Finest” (DC Comics) By Paul Levitz, George Perez, Kevin Maguire, Robson Rocha, R.B. Silva and Scott McDaniel
For fans who love: “Earth 2,” “Legion of Super-Heroes,” “Birds of Prey”
“World’s Finest” is a unique modern nostalgia piece that has returned two of DC Comics’ second-tier icons to their roots, resulting in a fresh, new take on the beloved characters. For decades, The Huntress and Power Girl have been removed from their original pedigrees: Post-Crisis, Helena could no longer be the daughter of the Earth 2 Bruce Wayne and Selena Kyle, and Karen could no longer be the older version of the Earth 2 Supergirl. Instead, writers and artists had to come up with new origins for both characters. In Huntress’ case, it worked; in Power Girl’s case, it resulted in a mess of disjointed continuities. Now, with the New 52 in place and “Earth 2” a legitimate hit, Helena and Karen have returned to the their original status quo, though in this reality they’ve been forced to survive on DC’s prime Earth after their Earth 2 mentors were killed at the hands of Darkseid. It’s refreshing to see two characters that have been struggling to find identities for so long be allowed to exist as they were meant to since their inception. As Power Girl and Huntress learn about the New 52 Earth, so do the “World’s Finest” readers. Levitz was born to write these characters, and it shows, as their friendship and banter sings in a classically and lovingly done comic about two old friends that have been away for a long time.
“Archer & Armstrong” (Valiant Entertainment) By Fred Van Lente, Clayton Henry and Matt Milla
For Fans who love: “Incredible Hercules,” “Thor: God of Thunder, immortal people drinking
The best buddy comic on the market, “Archer & Armstrong” is Valiant’s hidden treasure, taking the odd couple pairing of the original concept and mixing in ancient conspiracies, time travel, secret orders and mass consumption of alcohol. Fred Van Lente has crafted an epic than spans millennia, while never forgoing humor or human drama. Fans are guaranteed a laugh on every page, but the book does not traffic in schlock. A core title in the growing Valiant Universe, “Archer and Armstrong” has been the place where concepts like The Eternal Warrior and the Geomancer, concepts essential to Valiant’s running narrative, are both introduced and fleshed out. The comic is anchored in the past with an eye toward the future, both eras seen through the eyes of the likable and relatable characters of the immortal Armstrong and the naÃ¯ve fighting machine, Archer. While the title is immense in scope and daring in execution, the reader is never overwhelmed thanks to the breezy nature of the protagonists’ bromance. For those who miss the antics of Blue Beetle and Booster Gold (and really, who doesn’t?), Valiant offers the buddy adventure book you’re looking for.
“Red Team” (Dynamite) by Garth Ennis and Craig Cermak
For fans who love: “Preacher,” “The Killing,” “The Punisher”
Garth Ennis’ lengthy run on “The Punisher” certainly earned its share of acclaim, making it no stretch to imagine Ennis tackling another vigilante saga, this one steeped in realism, would find plenty of traction. Dynamite’s “Red Team” is one of the better crime books on the market, a realistic and hard hitting drama about a team of highly trained cops who decide to take the law into their own hands to bring down the criminals the system can’t touch while exploring the danger of operating outside the law and the seductive nature of power. All four members of the Red Team are complex, seemingly leaping from Ennis’ imagination fully realized. This is the same type of elite crime fiction that redefined the genre during his “Punisher” run, but with even more realism — think of it like a comic book version of HBO’s “True Detective” and you’ll understand why no crime connoisseur should let this one fly under their radar.
“Astro City” (DC/Vertigo) By Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson
For fans who love: Any era of superheroes, “Powers”
For almost a generation, writer Kurt Busiek has been crafting the preeminent superhero series in “Astro City,” his magnum opus that pays reverence to the past while keeping superheroes relevant for the future. With stunning artwork by Brent Anderson and covers by Alex Ross, this title has defined and expanded the potential of the genre, yet despite its loyal following and recent Vertigo relaunch, it continually falls well outside of Diamond’s Top 100. While it chronicles the lives or original heroes rather than those with 50-plus years of history behind them, one could argue its sales should be closer to household names like the X-Men, Avengers and Justice League. It’s not for lack of quality; Busiek’s exploration of superhero archetypes from every era has always been both thought-provoking and surprising. As far as being a superhero deconstruction, only “Watchmen” has done it better than “Astro City” — and not by much. “Astro City” is worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ classic, and more readers should be booking their tickets to Astro City to experience the adventures of the Samaritan, The Confessor, Jack-in-the Box, Winged Victory and the Gentleman. While not part of a grand tapestry of continuity spanning decades, “Astro City” remains the most intelligent superhero book on the market.
“The Massive” (Dark Horse) By Brian Wood, Kristian Donaldson and Garry Brown
For fans who love: “DMZ,” Tom Clancy, “Blade Runner,” “Y: The Last Man”
There’s no denying “The Massive” has been a critical darling, so you might be surprised to find it on this list. The book’s sales, however, have never quite reached the level of its accolades. For fans who miss his work on “DMZ,” Brian Wood is delivering just as timely and important a book with “The Massive,” a hyper intelligent look at a dystopian future where society as we know it has ended following an environmental and economic collapse. The book is overtly political, and while that may deter some readers, the always steady Wood handles controversial topics with such care and aplomb that even the touchiest of readers will have trouble taking offense. The series centers around the consequences of environmental abuse, but the real draws are the flawed and complex characters. Wood focuses on each character’s past as they try to save the future aboard their stolen military vessel. The plot is structured like a classical quest with real world issues and fears always at the fore. It’s the kind of book that offers both drama and knowledge to its readers, teaching them something new or challenging their world view with each subsequent issue.
“Hinterkind” (Vertigo) By Ian Edginton and Francesco Trifogli
For fans who love: “Fables,” good urban fantasy, the novels of Charles DeLint
Any book that can successfully mash-up the dystopian future and contemporary urban fantasy genres is worthy of recognition, and while we’re only a few issues in, “Hinterkind” is shaping up to be a fascinating exercise in expert world building. Writer Ian Edginton has created a reality where humanity struggles to eke out an existence in overgrown, ruined versions of modern cities while being hunted by mythological creatures come to life. The political dynamics between the tribes of creatures is fascinating, and the survival of the two main protagonists lost in the mythic wilderness is gripping, a testament to the creators’ storytelling prowess. One would think the fairy tale genre would be getting tired, but the truth is, with totally original and exciting approaches like “Hinterkind,” Vertigo continues to push the boundaries of graphic storytelling.
“Superior Foes of Spider-Man” (Marvel) By Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber
For fans who love: “Nextwave,” ” Deadpool,” “Pulp Fiction”
“Superior Foes of Spider-Man” is, simply put, hilarious. Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber are giving readers a monthly look at the underworld of the Marvel Universe. No, not the scary underworld populated by the Green Goblin, Kingpin or Dr. Doom. No, “Superior Foes” is a deep look into the loser villains portion of Spidey’s rogues gallery, showing what Boomerang, Speed Demon, the new Beetle, Overdrive and Shocker, do on a typical day. No disrespect to “Deadpool,” which is also currently firing on all cylinders, but “Superior Foes” is just that: Superior to any other humor book Marvel is producing. It avoids farcical, fourth wall breaking situations, focusing instead on the story of a bunch of losers with somewhat lame powers trying to survive in a world of gods and Avengers. The result is one of the funniest, tightly written, beautifully drawn, conceptually original books on sale today.