Comics 201: The Best Comics You’ve Never Heard Of; Or, Small Press and Self-Published Highlights
Yes, if you were wondering, that is the most hipster title I could think of, because nothing says classic hipster more than talking about underground comics.
There’s a lot of hidden gems in the wide world of comics publishing, and the smaller the press, the less likely readers are to stumble on them. To further guide you on your path to comic book expertise, here are some of my favorite finds from off the beaten path. Enjoy!
Watson & Holmes, by Karl Bollers and Rick Leonardi
Published by New Paradigm Studios, ongoing
We’re all up to our necks in adaptations of the World’s Smartest White Dude, but most of them are more re-hash than reimagining. This one is different enough to feel fresh and familiar enough to satisfy those of us who cut our mystery-loving teeth on Doyle’s detective.
Far from the foggy streets of Victorian London, Watson & Holmes takes place in present-day Harlem, with the characters and mysteries updated to suit both the setting and the tastes of a different range of readers. The series was originally intended to be a four-issue digital mini, but a successful crowdfunding campaign let super-tiny publisher, New Paradigm Studios, expand the first arc into five gorgeous printed issues, now collected in a paperback collection called A Study in Black. Volume two, a series of one-shot mysteries, met and passed its Kickstarter goal this fall and is set to be released in TPB on March 1.
Tiny twelve-year-old me spent many a delighted hour curled up with a two-inch-thick collection of Sherlock Holmes stories that had the ugliest brown cover and was heavy enough to be weaponized. Not-so-tiny grown-up me loves nothing more than a great story, an interesting adaptation, and stunning art, and Watson & Holmes delivers on all fronts.
The bad news is that the first TPB volume is currently listed out of print, so you may need to shop around if you want to find a copy. The good news is that you can get the issues in digital through Comixology. The New Paradigm website is out of date and a little lacking in content, but you can follow them on Tumblr and Facebook for info, news, and updates.
Necropolis, by Jake Wyatt
Publisher unknown, upcoming
This isn’t even out yet, and I can already guarantee you it’s going to be mind-blowing.
In between freelancing as an artist for Marvel, Necropolis is Jake Wyatt’s first big solo adventure, and it looks a-freaking-mazing. The text is epic poetry in the grandest tradition without being bombastic or overwritten, an impressive achievement on its own; but the art is what’s going to make this book shine. The vibrant palette and dynamic panels bring stunning life to Wyatt’s mythic designs.
I stumbled on Wyatt’s art a few years ago and have been insanely excited about Necropolis since he posted the first few pages on Tumblr. As of November, the books is still on track for publication this spring “-ish,” but that’s the only news update since Wyatt announced he would be taking a break from Marvel to work on it full-time. That, and the fact that it will be published in both English and French, is everything we know.
Fingers crossed we get this one on our LCS shelves soon.
The God Machine, by Chandra Free
Published by Archaia and Titan Comics, ongoing
This is another one that will immediately hook you with the art. Then it will reel you in with the weird, haunting story and keep you on the line with characters that remind you of high school in a good way. The God Machine is all of the best things to be found in goth comics, bringing together tragedy, horror, and humor in a way that is immensely satisfying and kind of makes you want to binge-watch The Crow TV series.
What really drives The God Machine forward is Free’s art, blending anime-inspired design with rich colors and fluid style to create a surreal landscape where even the real-world scenes seem disjointed and unsettling. Reading this book feels a little like falling down the rabbit hole, if the rabbit hole led to an upper circle of Hell, instead of Wonderland. Free’s influences are obvious, but her style is entirely her own, eye-catching and unmistakable.
The first volume was released by Archaia, and the long-awaited second volume will be published by Titan Comics. Titan will also be putting out a new edition of volume one, which is currently out of print. Alas, there are no release dates set, but both are projected for 2015-2016. So, soon, but not soon enough. Thankfully, volume one is still available in digital via Free’s website.
As an added bonus, I’ve had a chance to meet Free a few times at conventions, and in addition to being a fantastic creator, she also friendly and gracious, with super cool style and the best hair you’ve ever seen. Like any good self-promoter, she has a presence on pretty much every social media platform, so check out the Links page on her site to find her art and updates in your preferred format.
Rainbow in the Dark, by Comfort Love and Adam Withers
One of the cool things about going to conventions is finding things that never would have crossed your radar otherwise.
I discovered Comfort and Adam at a Dragon Con panel about, appropriately, indie comics, which also featured Chandra Free. Rainbow in the Dark was still ongoing at the time, so it was a while before I picked it up. Then I read it all in one day and bawled my eyes out.
Rainbow in the Dark is three volumes of relentless love and hope and pop music references, and if you think that sounds like a vapid pile of teenybopper fluff, you couldn’t be more wrong. As it happens, I already have a list prepared titled Reasons You Should Read Rainbow in the Dark.
- It’s deals with how finding freedom also means claiming responsibility for your actions.
- They save the world with the power of love and togetherness. I shit you not.
- The character designs are amazing.
- The hero is adorable, and she rocks this amazing ’80s girl rock look.
- Her girlfriend is a super hot Indian punk chick.
- All the character designs. All of them.
- The art is beautiful and always right on pitch.
- Did I mention the character designs?
- The creators are very nice people, and I have bought literally every book they’ve produced so far.
- I reiterate: girl rock lesbian protag and her kickass punk girlfriend.
The first few pages are done in muted grayscale that steadily unfold into bright, stunning, doesn’t-exist-in-nature color, tumbling you into a story full of song lyrics, car chases, and soul-eating monsters. Though the story takes a lot of grim turns, Rainbow in the Dark is unapologetic in its positivity, and the metaphoric triumph of love over indifference is so thinly veiled, it’s not really even a metaphor.
There are certainly critiques to be made, some of which are valid and some of which rest on the idea that stories have to be “realistic” to be any good, and it’s appeal will definitely be stronger for different readers. I’d say, if you’re a fan of Pacific Rim or Gillen and McKelvie’s Young Avengers, Rainbow in the Dark is definitely for you.
Because it’s self-published, the only way to get Rainbow in the Dark is directly from Comfort and Adam, which has the cool factor of seeing your money go right to the creators. You can get the entire series in digital or paperback at their website, which also has a free download of the first issue, or get the complete series omnibus through Amazon. You can also do what I did, which is find them in the Artists Alley at a convention and chat while you get your books signed, which may not be the most cost-effective option, but it’s a lot of fun.
Like everyone else on this list, Comfort and Adam are on various social media sites, most of which are typically 75% art and comics and 25% pictures of their many cats. Many cats.
As you might have noticed, reading mini-press and self-published comics requires a little more work and dedication than just sticking with the Big Two, and release schedules are even less reliable. The upside is a lot of variety and a closer connection to creators, which can make a lot of difference when you’re deciding which stories you want to give money to.
Unlike books from higher-profile publishers, these are less likely to come up as recs from your trusty LCS owner. A good way to find new underground titles is to stay connected with readers and creators who like the same things you like through fan circles, conventions, and, yes, through Tumblr.
If that sounds like something you’re into, then you know what you need to do next?
Go buy some comics!
Jordan West is an obsessive writer, dedicated cosplayer, and fake geek girl living in Minneapolis. Specialties include ultra angsty fan fiction, feminist commentary, and co-captaining the WTF Comics Club. Follow Jo on Facebook for ongoing hijinks.