Yay, we’re back to the themed roundups of excellent comics and graphic novels! This is so exciting.
Superheroes are hot right now thanks to blockbuster movies and popular television shows. Beyond that world, though, you can find amazing independent writers and artists telling stories about superheroes, and about what being a hero really means (even when you don’t have superpowers). These are my favorite graphic novels and comics about being a hero.
(If you’re new to my blog, you can see all my comics recommendations here. My book posts use affiliate links, but check your local library too!)
The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang, with art by Sonny Liew. 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 he? How did he get his powers?
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!
Strong Female Protagonist by Brennan Lee Mulligan, illustrated by Molly Ostertag.
This may be the best 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. 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 not in the webcomic. It’s like director’s commentary, but bite-size and funny. I like the book lettering better, too.
Starling by Sage Stossel.
Like Alison from Strong Female Protagonist, Amy Sturgess became a superhero crimefighter in her teens. However, 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.
In this book, 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.
Global Frequency 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 you wish you were 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.)
Some of the art has held up better than other parts, but having basically one consistent colorist and letterer for the series helped pull it together. Each issue is its own short story, so it’s okay to have each one in a different style. 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. I almost cried. 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 story, he nails it. If you want some world-saving and you don’t mind a lot of violence, this is a great book to try.
Planetary 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 and read it from start to finish, so I wouldn’t be interrupted by my toddler. 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 seems to interface 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 of this universe 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 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.
Five Weapons: Making the Grade by Jimmie Robinson.
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.” 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?
I WAS GOING TO SHOW YOU A PAGE HERE, I PROMISE! However, C-Man has objected that all the good pages are spoiler-iffic. He’s right. You’ll just have to trust us on this one.
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 appreciates 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.
Red Sonja: The Art of Blood and Fire by Gail Simone, with art by Walter Geovani and Noah Salonga. Colors by Adriano Lucas and Elmer Santos. Letters by Simon Bowland.
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. Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Mercenary Red Sonja doesn’t want to take the 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. She has to save them. 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 attention to detail. I’m surprised to be recommending a Red Sonja comic, but here we are.
And those are my best-loved graphic novels and comics about being a hero! I realize that “being a hero” isn’t a genre, but these books go together so well, I couldn’t resist a roundup post. Leave a comment if you’ve read any of these, want to read any of these, or know what I should read next! And if you enjoyed the post, please share it so the audience for these books grows.