There are a surprising number of folks out there who still believe that comics are just for kids. Anyone who’s been reading them for the last few decades knows this misconception just isn’t true. The medium and the industry (yes, they are two separate things) have grown in sophistication and craft over the past 30-40 years as publishers strive to keep up with a base audience that craves more mature content that they can relate to. Some say this has contributed to the decline in sales the industry has witnessed over the same time period. Others argue that more complex stories and characters have allowed comics to grow into the art form they are considered today.
No matter which side you come down on in this debate, the fact is there are loads of comics available for the discerning reader that deeply resonate with adult sensibilities. This isn’t porn we’re talking about here, but rather works that embrace and explore mature themes that would otherwise be out of place in comics geared for younger audiences. Here are 15 of the best comics ONLY for grown-ups. To be sure, these aren’t the kind of books that make for acceptable bedtime stories but they will make for a gripping read once the rugrats are all tucked in for the night.
SPOILER ALERT! Spoilers ahead for numerous stories published by various companies.
15. BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE
Alan Moore has built a career around pushing the boundaries of the comics medium. Whether he’s writing traditional mainstream superhero books or exploring new storytelling avenues in his creator-owned work, Moore has always approached comics with an elevated level of sophistication and craft. One of his most controversial mainstream works is 1988’s polarizing Batman: The Killing Joke, created in collaboration with Brian Bolland.
Exploring the birth of Batman’s psychotic arch-nemesis, the book attempts to cast the Clown Prince of Crime in a more sympathetic light, by examining his motivations via a trip down memory lane. The plot revolves around the Joker’s attempt to break Commissioner Jim Gordon by crippling and mutilating his daughter Barbara, in an effort to prove that we’re all mad on some level. The story continues to spark controversy to this day among readers of all stripes due to its depiction of violence against women.
Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher was one of the high-water marks of ‘90s comics. Although often cited for its perversity and violence, Preacher is actually an intelligent, well-crafted, at times manic, headlong dive into all of the big questions that define us as human beings. Does God exist? If He does, why does He allow terrible things to happen to good people? What is the nature of true friendship? Of love?
Revolving around the relationships between the titular preacher Jesse Custer, his girlfriend Tulip and the depraved Irish vampire Cassidy, Ennis and Dillon’s magnum opus follows the trio on a quest for the truth that refuses to pull punches. Its razor-sharp dialogue and keen observations about everything from pop culture to organized religion will make you laugh, cry and recoil in horror all at the same time.
The title of Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski’s Image Comics series is a little misleading. Sure, there are graphic depictions of intercourse aplenty in Sex, but the real tale examines the retirement of a former costumed vigilante in the mold of Batman and his struggle to adapt to civilian life. Casey and Kowalski present their audience with a story of obsession and interminable repression as the hero formerly known as the Armored Saint attempts to change his city by more conventional methods.
Along the way, he is plagued by old adversaries and his own sexual ignorance, his once compulsive regimen of violence and abstinence shattered by the reality of the regular citizen. It’s a fascinating portrait of a Bruce Wayne that could never exist in mainstream comics, one that explores the dual nature of traditional superheroes from a perspective that never fails to engross and titillate.
12. SEX CRIMINALS
As anybody who’s had really great sex knows, there’s a moment during the act when times seems to stop. If you haven’t been so fortunate, well, we can only recommend you keep trying. Created by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, Sex Criminals is a frank, unflinching exploration of the orgasm, brimming with humor, heart and surprising sensitivity. Suzie and Jon are star-crossed lovers who share a secret, one which they believed to be theirs alone until they make love for the first time.
Each of them possesses the ability to freeze time when they orgasm. But what do they do with such unique talents? Rob a bank, of course! More than just a clever play on words, Sex Criminals is a wonderfully quirky heist book that takes readers on a singular thrill ride that also manages to be a smart, often tender commentary about the nature of true love.
11. THE DIVIDED STATES OF HYSTERIA
Few comics have incited as much controversy over the past year as Howard Chaykin’s The Divided States of America. Chaykin is a legend in the field, who delights in courting controversy with a signature sarcasm that engages fans even as it disarms them. The Divided States of Hysteria is a much darker work than his previous books. The plot revolves around terrible terrorist attack on the heart of Manhattan that kills millions of people.
Although dressed up as an action-packed thriller, it only takes a few pages to realize that Chaykin’s series is designed to disturb, antagonize and foment debate. Some would say the book is tainted by belligerence and crassness, while others embrace it as a misunderstood call to arms, challenging readers to look beyond societal norms. Whether you love it or hate it, there’s no denying Chaykin’s passion for artistic activism.
10. YOUNG TERRORISTS
It’s only been five short years since Matt Pizzolo, Steve Niles and Brent Gurewitz founded renegade indie comics publisher Black Mask Studios, but in that time it’s managed to carve out a singular place in the industry landscape. Defined by a decidedly activist bent steeped in punk sensibilities, Black Mask challenges readers’ perceptions of acceptable comic book content by delving into the darkest corners of modern society.
Young Terrorists by Pizzolo and artist Amancay Nahuelpan is a prime example of the publisher’s desire to shake up the status quo. Chronicling the struggle of an organization of near-future revolutionaries, the book reads like a shotgun blast to the guts. It’s a violent, sexy, smart exercise in flipping the bird to the entrenched elitist institutions that run the show. It’s also been terminally plagued by lateness, but that doesn’t seem to stop its audience from scarfing up every issue as soon as a new chapter drops.
At its heart, Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples’ Saga is a story about family. It just happens to be set against the backdrop of an epic interstellar conflict that threatens an entire galaxy. The winner of numerous industry awards, including the Eisners, the Harveys and the Hugos, Saga chronicles the efforts of a young family struggling to stay one step ahead of a war threatening to tear them apart.
Still going strong after 40+ issues, the series continues to garner critical acclaim for its rich world-building, complex character development and stunning visuals. Although its creators never shy away from depictions of sex or nudity, it isn’t the racy parts of Saga that make it a book for adults. Rather, it’s the series’ level of sophistication in its treatment of mature themes and its layered storytelling that warrant its inclusion on our list.
Writer and artist Ray Fawkes may be best known to mainstream comics readers as the mind behind such critically-acclaimed works as Constantine and Justice League Dark, but it’s his creator-owned Image Comics series Intersect that lands him on our list of great adult comics. A talented painter whose ethereal watercolors bring to life a twisted world of body horror and metamorphosis, Fawkes explores the nature of sensuality and physiology in Intersect with a lyricism and insight that challenges his audience’s perceptions.
In the past, Fawkes has been purposely vague about the series’ core concept, encouraging readers to draw their own conclusions. Far be it for us to ruin the fun, then. Just know this: Intersect is a challenging, visceral read that isn’t for everyone. It’s visual poetry brought to life, and as such, is open to interpretation on many levels, most of which tend to disturb.
Craig Thompson’s massive 672-page tome, Habibi, is one of those instant classics of the medium that will be talked about years after its original publication due to its exquisite artistry, complex storytelling and multi-faceted characters. Set in a fictional fantasy world steeped in the Islamic tradition, Habibi chronicles the lives of two former slaves who escape their lives of servitude and embark on separate journeys of self-discovery. A story of transformation on both a physical and spiritual level, Thompson’s graphic novel explores numerous socio-cultural themes including global class politics, the commonality of major organized religions and our interaction with the natural world.
Not without its controversy, Habibi caused a stir in some circles that decried its one-dimensional portrayal of sexual violence against women. Although claims that Thompson’s work is life-changing might be considered overblown, Habibi definitely challenges the reader to look upon the world outside their window from a new perspective.
6. GREEK STREET
An ambitious retelling of Sophocles’ classic play Oedipus, Peter Milligan and Davide Gianfelice’s Greek Street repositions the tale of the tragic king Thebes against a violent backdrop of crime and corruption in modern London. A tale of incest, murder and love, Greek Street embraces its source material through its utilization of traditional dramatic tools such as the Chorus (here recast as strippers), pathos and the protagonist’s tragic flaw. Featuring scenes of abject horror, self-mutilation and graphic sexuality, Greek Street nonetheless refuses to be defined by any of these qualities.
Milligan and Gianfelice allow their story to unfold organically from its central conceit, taking into account the change of time period but never forgetting their story’s dramatic pedigree. At once disturbing, thoughtful and viscerally tragic, Greek Street is a tale of lust, betrayal and misguided family loyalty that brings one of the ancient classics of literature to life for a new audience.
5. LIKE A VELVET GLOVE CAST IN IRON
Creator Dan Clowes first rose to prominence in the indie comics scene during the early ‘90s thanks to his anthology series Eightball. The anthology typically featured short, self-contained strips plus a chapter of a longer ongoing serial story. Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron was first collected into a graphic novel in 1993. The plot revolves around Clay Loudermilk’s quest to find his estranged wife, who just happens to be the star of a BDSM porn flick.
A departure from the observational realism of his previous works, such as Ghost World, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron boasts extended sequences of phantasmagoric imagery, bizarre sex and body horror. Touching upon a wide array of fringe ideas and themes such as conspiracy theories, nymphomania and religious cults, the book actively tries to defy description. But don’t take our word for it. The best way to understand Clowes’ most infamous work is to experience it for yourself.
Published by the upstart After Shock Comics, InSEXts might just be the most disturbing book on our list. Set in Victorian England, Marguerite Bennett and Ariela Kristantina’s horrifying metaphor for female sexual repression is a suspenseful thriller that explores the love two women have for each other during an era where such feelings were forbidden. A lushly illustrated visual feast that stimulates your neurons even as it excites your senses, InSEXts is more than a piece of erotically-charged graphic fiction.
Bennett and Kristantina approach their material with a high level of craft and insight, imbuing the plot and characters with a sexual tension even during the series’ most distressful scenes of shapeshifting body horror. This is a series that isn’t for the faint of heart and yet its creators infuse the story with such emotional weight that we can’t seem to drag our eyes away from the grisly proceedings.
3. BITCH PLANET
Bitch Planet, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s homage to ‘70s women prison exploitation flicks, is informed by an inherent wit, intelligence and craft that far outstrip the genre that serve as its inspiration. Set in a dystopian future where “non-compliant” women are incarcerated on a brutal prison planet, the series chronicles the exploits of a group of prisoners struggling to survive their brutal environment.
One of the best reviewed debuts of 2014, the series is a smart, sexy, ultra-violent kick to the groin starring a diverse cast of strong women, none of whom you’d like to meet in a dark alley. Boasting a refreshing visual tone that recalls its smarmy cultural pedigree, Bitch Planet rises above the level of simple exploitation to deliver a deceptively complex story dressed up in ‘70s nostalgia. Easy to underestimate, this book is a true tour de force by two of the top female creators in the biz.
2. LOST GIRLS
First published in 1991, Lost Girls is a lushly illustrated, graphic narrative chronicling the sexual misadventures of three well-known fictional women. Created by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie, the book stars adult versions of Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Wendy from Peter Pan. Perhaps Moore’s most infamous work, thanks to the grand wizard of comics labeling it as pornography, Lost Girls isn’t a work that exploits women or depicts scenes of a sexual nature gratuitously.
That isn’t to say it isn’t explicit because it definitely doesn’t shy away from full frontal nudity and any number of compromising sexual positions. Lost Girls is a work of both narrative and visual artistry that approaches its often difficult material with maturity and sensitivity. Despite Moore’s kneejerk assessment of Lost Girls as porn, it transcends that description as a true work of erotic art.
1. PAYING FOR IT
You probably know Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown best for his biography of Louis Riel, a Metis revolutionary who fought for the rights of his people during the infancy of the nation of Canada. A remarkable talent who cut his teeth on the self-published series Yummy Fur (later picked up by Vortex Comics and Drawn + Quarterly), Brown’s most controversial work has to be the autobiographical graphic novel Paying For It: A Comic Strip About Being a John.
A starkly personal exploration of the artist’s proclivity for hiring prostitutes, Paying For It examined how physical love and romantic love interact and are often mistaken for each other. One part political diatribe promoting the decriminalization of prostitution and one part thorough accounting of his sex life, Brown’s examination of the love between two people is full of insight and wit, brought to life by an artist at the top of his game.
There are loads more comics for grown-ups out there. Let us know your favorites in the comments!
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