I’m of a somewhat odd breed of comic reader. Having grown up reading superhero comics, I still love the genre as a matter of principle and always will. But whenever I pick up a Marvel or DC title now and try to read it, I find it hard to get into. That sense of rapt immersion that came so easily as a younger fan is now elusive, at least when it comes to superhero titles.
Yet at the same time, I still get excited at the idea of reading superhero comics and often find myself wanting to lose myself between the pages of a good one. But the same thing inevitably happens when I try to read one from the Big Two: I get bored, annoyed by the same conventions being used, or just overwhelmed by all the years of missed storylines.
So what to do? Read Watchmen again for the umpteenth time?
Well, the good news is that outside of Marvel and DC there are plenty of superhero titles right now that are virtually tailor made for jaded readers like you and me. And in this post I list twelve of them, twelve superhero comics that I’ve read to various degrees in a recent binge attempting to find ones that I found interesting.
How do I define the term “alternative” here? Pretty simply and broadly—basically just anything that takes superhero tropes or themes and adds a unique or interesting twist to them, sometimes in a big way, sometimes in a small way. The commonality is that these are all current titles (well, except for Ex Machina which ended in 2010). They are either limited miniseries recently completed or still-in-progress or ongoing monthly series. Most of these are also creator-owned which is a cool bonus.
The titles are listed in order based on my personal preference, but nothing here is bad in my opinion. So it’ll be up to you to check these out and see which ones you like best. Also, about half of the titles here are definitely not appropriate for kids. Next to these titles I’ve added the tag [mature].
May you find something here that will once again make you, as Stan Lee would say, a “true believer.”
Think Desperate Housewives, only said housewives (or househusbands) are married or mated to superheroes. Creator-writer Grace Randolph’s Supurbia is an attempt to part the curtain, with tongue in cheek, into the domestic lives of superheroes and their mates when they’re not out fighting crime, with all the bickering, squabbling and gossiping that entails. Personally, I can’t say this is really my cup of tea and I stopped reading after the first two issues, but I did find the idea interesting enough to include on this list. You might quite like it. It’s different enough, it’s graced by sleek and beautiful art by Russell Dauterman, and it’s worth checking out.
America’s Got Powers is a very derivative title that is nevertheless not without its entertainment value. The title is obviously a reference to America’s Got Talent but this is more The Hunger Games, Battle Royale and The Running Man, except with super-powered individuals. In this world, people with paranormal abilities are the target of the same kind of paranoia and mistrust that often drives the plot in the X-Men stories, only they’ve all been rounded up and forced to take part in a twisted game show for the amusement of the public.
Both the action and the visual aesthetic is similar to traditional superhero fare which isn’t surprising given that artist Bryan Hitch has done a lot of work for Marvel and DC. As such, for readers who want a twist to the genre but nothing too progressive or experimental, this is a pretty good title to try.
Again, very derivative. Basically, this is a superhero version of Galaxy Quest and Three Amigos. Our team of reluctant heroes are an all-star cast to a big budget Hollywood superhero movie. There are recognizable pastiches both of fictional characters like Captain America, Wasp, Quicksilver and Professor X as well as real-life actors like Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans. The superhero characters they play actually exist as real heroes in a parallel dimension, but when those heroes are killed it’s up to these actors to “play” those heroes and convince the villains of that dimension that they are still alive.
Real Heroes is very much Bryan Hitch’s baby as he is both writer and artist on it (he also did the art for America’s Got Powers). For me, the first two issues were a bit slow and involved too much “I can’t believe this is happening!” dialogue but once things got going I started enjoying it and now I’m looking forward to issue #4.
There’s only one issue of Black Market out so it’s still hard to tell if it’s a title I’ll want to continue with, but I do like the premise a lot, which is that the blood and organs, namely the DNA, of superheroes hold the key to curing all disease. Naturally then, there are wealthy and powerful people who’d be willing to pay a premium price to fund research that will unlock that key.
Ray Willis is a down-on-his-luck medical examiner, kind of like Breaking Bad’s Walter White in the sense that his brilliance is obviously being wasted in his job. He has a chronically ill wife at home whom he worries about constantly and wants only to find a cure for. But opportunity (or more bad luck?) comes knocking in the form of his criminal brother who offers a proposition that could prove lucrative. The only problem is that it involves abducting superheroes and stealing their blood and/or organs and then selling them on the black market. Ray agrees to take part, though just as Walter White only wanted to provide for his family, it’s clear that Ray’s motive is not so much the money per se as to find a cure for his ailing wife.
The idea is great and so far the execution ranges from moments of not bad to pretty good. Nice art by Victor Santos that at times reminds me of some of my favorite independent titles I used to read in my “I only read indie comics!” days.
In overall look and feel, this is perhaps the most traditional of the titles on this list. There’s lots of spandex, good guys and bad guys, secret identities. But somehow Astro City manages to make it different in each storyline, and an interesting thing that writer Kurt Busiek often does is place regular people at the narrative center with the superheroes orbiting their perspective. And since this is an ongoing title, he finds plenty of ways to explore the superhero archetype in ways just different enough to hold the interest of jaded superhero comic readers looking to once again ignite that sense of wonder.
For instance, one of the early storylines follows a day in the life of Samaritan (a Superman knockoff) and is a more realistic look at the inner life and thought process of a character like Superman were he to be real: insanely busy, exhausted, never able to do enough or save enough lives, continually trying to shave off the number of seconds it takes to prevent an accident or save a cat, and longing for that moment when his head hits the pillow so that he can bask in the carefree freedom of sleep and dream. It’s quite interesting, and it’s probably how Superman—or any superhero living a double life—would really feel if he had to do what he does day after day.
Oh, and the covers by Alex Ross are what you’d expect from Alex Ross: glorious.
7. Ex Machina (DC Comics/Wildstorm) [mature]
An ex-superhero once called the Great Machine hangs up his leather and becomes mayor of New York City. Yeah, I know, sounds kinda bad at first, but this is a very intelligent and well-executed series. The art is conventional but lovely, the dialogue is smart and witty (if a bit pedantic at times), the Great Machine’s power is unique, and the insider’s glimpse into urban politics is knowing and convincing.
It’s sort of like The Rocketeer meets West Wing meets Law & Order. It’s a great comic and one of the better works of any medium that give the audience a fly-on-the-wall look at the workings of city politics. I just wish The Great Machine’s costume didn’t look so much like a gimp outfit. Also bear in mind that this title is very dialogue heavy, and it does get a bit slow in parts, so if action’s your thing Ex Machina might not be an ideal title for you.
Ordinary is the only work of all-out humor on this list. Supurbia has aspects of comedy but it’s more of a satire whereas Ordinary plays out like a superhero story written by Woody Allen in his Sleeper or Bananas era—in other words, balls out comedy. When a plumber wakes up one morning to find that the entire world suddenly and mysteriously has superpowers, and the streets of New York City are running amok, his mission becomes to get from his apartment in Queens to a school in Manhattan to rescue his son. But there’s a problem: he’s the only guy in the world who somehow did not get the powers that everyone else got. Genuinely funny and even a little bit sweet with great writing by Rob Williams and cotton candy art by D’Israeli that pleases the eyes as it tickles the belly.
Like some of the titles on the upper-half of this list, this is also on the surface a semi-traditional superhero titles in the sense that there’s a costumed superhero and a costumed supervillain. They even have a compelling love-hate relationship that somewhat resembles, at times, the symbiotic relationship that the Batman has with the Joker. Yet from the get-go it is somehow clear that a traditional superhero story is not what Translucid is interested in doing. For one thing, with this hero and villain their relationship is not just about respecting a worthy opponent—they genuinely like and care about each other. They save each other’s lives. The hero even tells the villain that he’s the closest thing to a real friend he’s ever had. Fascinating stuff.
After four issues, I’m still not quite certain what overall direction writers Claudio Sanchez and Chondra Echert are taking this title, but I’m hooked for the ride nevertheless. Daniel Bayliss‘s acid-drenched panels and colors evoke Grant Morrison-esque psychedelia, and when stared at long enough, especially in the dark, just about induce a subtly altered state of mind.
4. Death Sentence (Titan Comics) [mature]
I recently reviewed this title separately and credit it as the comic that made me want to get back into comics. In Death Sentence, a mysterious virus called the G+ causes terminal illness in those infected by it, but it also endows them with superhuman abilities. How do people choose to spend their remaining days and what factors lead to their decisions? Montynero and artist Mike Dowling deliver all the ballistic action and mayhem of a traditional superhero comic but with more intelligence and sophistication and healthy heaps of adult themes, gore and sex. It’s excellent.
3. Sex (Image Comics) [mature]
Ever feel like you’ve tried so hard and long to live like some kind of perfect saint that one day you just realize that much of your life has already passed you by and that you’ve missed out on so many different experiences that others take as par for the course? If so, then Sex will resonate with you.
Simon Cooke (superhero alias, appropriately enough, the Armored Saint) is pretty much a stand-in for Batman. He’s extremely wealthy, has his own mega-corporation, doesn’t have any super powers and relies on technology, a sharp mind and trained body to fight crime. Or, rather, when he fought crime, because Sex begins with Simon’s retirement from his superhero career. Why? To see what he’s been missing while spending all his time trying to save the world. And despite the provocative title and covers clearly meant to boost sales (yes, there are some graphic scenes), sex isn’t the only thing he’s seeking to get his fill of—it’s more like just the embodiment, the symbol, of a normal life which makes sense since the sex impulse is basically the life impulse.
While reading this, one almost gets the sense that writer Joe Casey—who has written for both Marvel and DC—once might have pitched this idea as a Batman story to DC Comics only to have the suits there say, “Whoa, no way, pal!” Thankfully, Image Comics is more willing to take risks.
2. C.O.W.L. (Image Comics) [mature]
C.O.W.L. has supposedly been described as Mad Men with capes, but the comparison is only accurate at the most superficial level in that it takes place in the 60s and there are a lot of well-dressed characters with vintage hairdos and clothes. This is one of those ideas that make you wonder why no one else has done it before. If superheroes fight crime and keep the public safe, why shouldn’t they be paid with tax dollars for what they do? And if they get paid then they need a union, of course. Writers Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel have created a detailed, ambitious world set in 60s Chicago. The story does take a while to get going but it’s because there are a lot of pieces and players to set in place. Stick with it and you’ll be rewarded.
The art by Rod Reis is gorgeous, thick with noir-like shadows and speckled with palpable atmosphere. Very highly recommended.
1. Supreme Blue Rose (Image Comics) [mature]
There is only one issue of this out so far but it was so good that I’m putting it at the very top (or bottom, as it were) of this list. It’s that good. I mean, just four pages in and I belonged to this comic. See, I love stories that get me itching with curiosity, that make me ask questions. And after I was done reading the first issue on a late night, I actually lied in bed thinking about it as I waited to fall asleep. For the first time in years I actually felt that sense of anticipation and eagerness for the next issue.
According to its press release, Supreme: Blue Rose resurrects the universe of Rob Liefeld’s Supreme, a traditional superhero title which ran from 1992-96 via Image Comics (for which I think I bought like the first few issues or so but didn’t continue with and don’t remember much about). How this comic is going to connect with Liefeld’s world, I have no idea and that’s part of what makes Supreme: Blue Rose so intriguing as it reads more like David Lynchian neo-noir, complete with a beautiful but psychologically disturbed blonde heroine, a powerful man with a hidden agenda, a creepy man whose face is perpetually hidden in shadow, and an even creepier man with no face at all.
And, oh, the art! Tula Lotay makes the whole thing feel like part of some feverish dream, beautiful on the surface but something dark and sinister lurking underneath… The wavy lines permeating every panel can be a little disorienting at first but eventually this only adds to the hypnotic effect.
I actually read this comic before reading the press release so I didn’t know it was a relaunch of Supreme, and this knowledge actually made me a little disappointed as I did not want this to just become another run-of-the-mill superhero title.
On the other hand, as I read that press release I realized that it made Supreme: Blue Rose an ideal pick to include on this list. So far it reads nothing like a superhero title, not even an “alternative” one, and wondering how it will weave in the pending superhero elements is now part of the fun and mystery. But the writer is the mighty Warren Ellis and if anyone can do this, he can.