Classic superheroes will always be popular, but ALSO there are some amazing independent writers and artists telling stories about superheroes, and about what being a hero really means even when you don’t have superpowers. Here are some of my favorite graphic novels and comics about saving the world – or at least making a difference. Hope you find something to enjoy!
Before we jump in:
- All comics listed here can be bought as graphic novels/collections, not only as single issues. Your library may own many of these!
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- Need more recs? All my comics recommendations are here.
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- If you need to know whether a specific book has certain content that might make it a bad fit for you, contact me and I’m happy to check!
This kick-ass magical girl series started as a webcomic and has now gone to print! LOVE IT! I wasn’t familiar with the magical girl genre before starting this, and I’m not sure how that happened, but I sure don’t regret this being my introduction. In case the name of the genre doesn’t essentially give it away, basically a group of girls get magical powers and form a team to fight evil. Every girl on the team has her own personality (not typecast as “the bitch” or “the snob,” etc.), her own story, her own look – and they’re not all the model / movie star kind of beautiful. The diverse cast looks like the real world. It’s fun, it’s dramatic, there’s action AND cute crushes, and the art is super interesting.
One printed volume is out so far, produced through Kickstarter, and I’d imagine future volumes will be put out the same way. As of 4/24/18, the online store is closed due to travel, but I think there must also be PDFs there, because that’s what I got from the Kickstarter.
Diversity note: Mildred Louis is black.
Arigon Starr is an actor, musician, playwright, and a member of the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma. She initially created Super Indian as a radio drama performed with a live audience. She then turned it into a comic book, writing and drawing it herself, because she is unstoppably multi-talented. It’s incredibly funny. Starr isn’t afraid to play with superhero conventions, reference pop culture, and comment on racism, oppression, and cultural appropriation in a way that makes you laugh, even while you’re shaking your head because it’s so sadly true.
Here’s the setup: Hubert Logan gained superpowers as a child due to a government research project that laced commodity cheese with “Rezium.” He keeps his alter ego, Super Indian, a secret while working as a janitor in the reservation bingo hall. His two personas have very different lives. We first meet Super Indian as he’s battling an evil anthropologist! We first meet Hubert as he’s being turned down for a date. :( Things just get more ridiculous and funny from there. A librarian suggests that Hubert start a blog , but unfortunately Hubert doesn’t blog responsibly in his third persona as “Rez Boy.” His blog stirs up all kinds of trouble, some of it involving a Brazilian rodeo cowboy, and there’s also a headlock incident due to an unfortunate comment about Revenge of the Sith. I know that as a non-Native, I didn’t even get all of the jokes, and I still laughed until I almost cried.
There are two collections out so far, and there may be a bit more webcomic that didn’t make it in, but I haven’t yet checked. Note to self!
Woman of color science hero in outer space? YES THANK YOU. Do I need to say more? Okay, I will!
Miranda is so fierce, and she’s all about smarts, strength, integrity, and saving lives. This book has action, adventure, futuristic gadgets, friendship, and even a section you have to turn upside down to read. What more could you need? C-Man said it was possibly the best book we read that year and I could not contradict him. Co-creators Thomas and Ferguson have done a bang-up job with one of the coolest female superheroes we’ve met. I was heartened when Brandon Thomas told me directly on Twitter that there will be more Miranda Mercury, because I would absolutely read an ongoing series.
A note about her costume: it’s kind of ridiculous for the first two thirds of the book. There are gals who would choose to wear a top that has big red circles for their boobs, but I am skeptical that Miranda is one of them. In the last third or so of the book, the design gets WAY better. Not sure what happened there.
Diversity note: Brandon Thomas is African-American.
C-Man read this, looked at me, and said “This is one of the best comic books I’ve read all year. Possibly the BEST.” (This was a different year from Miranda Mercury.) Five Weapons is whip-smart, has intrigue in all the right places, and mixes action with human connection in perfect proportions. Tyler Shainline, son of the famous assassin, enrolls in an elite school that promises to teach him how to kill. The only problem is, he won’t pick up a weapon. Why not? And who else is hiding something?
Yes, it deals with a school for assassins, but there’s really nothing distressing or gory about it. Its focus is on Tyler’s own survival, but also his efforts to help others by exposing secrets and leveling the playing field. C-Man appreciated the non-violent problem-solving without any cheesy after-school special aspect. There’s also an interesting “passing” aspect which isn’t explicitly discussed in terms of race and class in the first book, but which is good food for thought and discussion.
Diversity note: Jimmie Robinson is African-American.
Amy Sturgess became a superhero crimefighter in her teens. She kept doing it while going to college and landing her dream job. Her secret life as Starling often sabotages her work life, though, and let’s not even talk about relationships. As this book begins, things are getting even more complicated. The job is finally getting away from her. Her brother’s trouble with the law may collide with her crimefighting. The boyfriend that got away is back, but possibly not in a good way. This is the sweetest little book about trying to make life work, which all of us have trouble with. Even though we can’t generate electricity with our hands like Amy does.
I will always be skeptical of Red Sonja’s chain mail bikini. I also remember the 1985 movie Red Sonja far too well. So it took convincing for me to read this book, even though it’s written by comics rockstar Gail Simone. I loved it! And Sonja herself, who is bisexual in Simone’s series about her, yay!
Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Mercenary Red Sonja doesn’t want to take a job offered by the dying emperor, but she hates slavery more than just about anything, and the fate of one thousand slaves hangs in the balance. So she’s off on a quest to fetch six great artisans for the emperor’s “I’m dying” bash before it’s too late. Beyond even the physical challenges of the job, Sonja finds herself changed in ways she didn’t expect as she completes her tasks.
I was surprised to find so much attention to personalities and relationships in an action-adventure comic, and I was impressed. Simone’s always at her best when writing a team book, and she does “found family” very well. She mixes humor, action, and emotion deftly, and Geovani draws the main story with great details. This is not the beginning of Simone’s run on Red Sonja, but it can be read on its own, and it’s the book I liked best out of what she wrote for this character.
Diversity notes: Walter Geovani and Adriano Lucas are Brazilian. Noah Salonga and Elmer Santos are from the Philippines.
This may be the most thoughtful book about superheroes I’ve ever read. Alison Green used to be Mega Girl. She was really good at punching robots… until she discovered that punching robots couldn’t save the world. Now she’s in college, trying to live a normal life and figure out how to actually save the world. But things are more complicated when you have superpowers.
There is so much heart in this book, so much love for Alison, and Alison has such deep love for people. Mulligan and Ostertag explore the question of what you should do with your abilities, whatever they may be. And they do it well. The second book came out since I first started recommending this series, and it was completely satisfying. We’re definitely in for the third!
You can read Strong Female Protagonist online, since it was a webcomic before being collected in book form. The printed book has an advantage, though, because they included a line at the bottom of every page that’s semi-hidden as mouseover text in the webcomic. It’s like director’s commentary, but bite-size and funny. I like the book lettering better, too.
Diversity note: Molly Knox Ostertag is queer.
Global Frequency (Amazon/Comixology / Goodreads) By Warren Ellis, with art by 14 different artists over the 12 different issues. David Baron did all the colors except on issue #12, and Michael Heisler did all the lettering.
Global Frequency is the organization I wish I was awesome enough to join. Founded by Miranda Zero, it’s a civilian rescue organization that takes hush money from G-8 governments to save lives, and sometimes save the world. If you’re needed, you’re recruited. One thousand beyond-brilliant experts and specialists, on call 24 hours a day. When a problem arises, all-seeing coordinator “Aleph” calls the right people for the job. Soldiers, physicists, doctors, pilots, psychologists, para-psychologists, magicians. (Maybe I could do their filing. Except they are too awesome to need files. I guess I could answer their fan mail?)
Each issue is its own short story, so it’s okay to have each one in a different style. Some of the art has held up better than other parts, but having a consistent colorist and letterer for the series helped pull it together. And the stories are all amazing. Sometimes there are no good choices, but sometimes there are happy endings.
My favorite story is probably “The Run,” when parkour superstar Sita Patel is on the frequency for a dash through London to stop a bomb filled with Ebola. Look for the reaction of the young South Asian (?) girl who sees her on the ferris wheel. Ellis isn’t always great with race and gender, but he usually looks like he’s trying even if he’s clumsy about it. In this particular story, IMHO he nails the importance of representation.
Global Frequency was published in two books, then also in the complete volume linked above.
Yang and Liew are two of our favorite comics creators, and their reincarnation of an almost-forgotten 40’s superhero called Green Turtle is absolutely perfect. Who was Green Turtle? How did he get his powers? I just have to show you:
Okay, so, that didn’t work. Neither do any of his mother’s other attempts. She finally takes him for kung fu training from her ex-boyfriend (that’s not awkward), and The Golden Man of Bravery is born! Except a name change is possibly in order. The Golden Man of Bravery is too long! Whatever his name, I can’t think of a better way to describe this book than what’s on the back cover: “…this hilarious and insightful graphic novel about heroism and heritage is also a loving tribute to the long, rich tradition of American superhero comics.” So pick it up, y’all!
Diversity note: Both Yang and Liew are Asian-American.
Planetary (Amazon / Comixology / Goodreads) By Warren Ellis, art by John Cassaday. Colors by Laura Martin, David Baron, and WildStorm FX. Letters by Bill O’Neil, Ali Fuchs, Ryan Cline, Mike Heisler, and Comicraft.
What can I say about Planetary? When it was finally finished (after it took 10 years to publish 27 issues!) I got a hotel room for the night, so I wouldn’t be interrupted by my toddler, and read it from start to finish. It’s a really, really BIG story. It begins when the Planetary organization, self-described as “archeologists of the impossible,” recruit Elijah Snow to their team. Snow does not age, and he can create intense cold. His new teammates are Jakita Wagner, who has strength and speed beyond normal human ability, and The Drummer, whose brain interfaces directly with electronics. Together, they’ll be investigating abnormal occurrences.
Planetary is funded by the Fourth Man, whose identity is unknown. There are quite a few other mysteries going on. For Snow, who seems to be missing chunks of his memory, finding out more about what’s behind the curtain is appealing. But the more they find out, the more they realize that detective work isn’t enough. The world needs protection.
Some people seem to think this is Warren Ellis’s anti-superhero work, but it’s clearly not. The Planetary team members ARE superheroes, the kind who know their job is to make things better for people. Planetary is superheroes-saving-the-world action mixed with conspiracy investigation of the highest order. The characters are deep, interesting, and have relationships with each other that grow and change over the course of the series. And as always, John Cassaday is a master of comic art. If I ever get a tattoo, it may very well be something related to Planetary.
Planetary was published in at least three different collected editions: a set of paperbacks, an “Absolute” edition box set, and the giant Omnibus linked above. If you can’t sort out what your library has or where to start, drop me a line and I’ll help.
That concludes today’s roundup of comics about being a hero that I love and recommend! If you have any suggestions for me, please leave them in the comments – and thanks for sharing this post on social media or with friends.