Some stories are just BIG. Sweeping epics, or moments in history that will be remembered for centuries. Even if they’re moments that never happened, in a world that never existed. These comics are those stories.
First up, Prince of Cats by Ron Wimberly, with letters by Jared K. Fletcher.
So, a hip-hop ninja Romeo and Juliet remix about Tybalt. You have never read anything like this, and it has all the passion of the story that inspired it. Reading Wimberly’s afterword, I was struck again by how good of a writer he is, and the connections he drew between Kurosawa’s Ran, Wu-Tang Clan, and the streets of Verona to create this book.
Do I have to say anything else to sell you on this book? Really? I didn’t think so.
Mouse Guard by David Petersen.
This is one of the best all-ages comics ever. And by “all ages” I really do mean from 5 years old through 95 years old. And if you know any 105 year olds, I’d hand it to them too. Petersen’s art is gorgeous, and his stories impeccable in plot, character, and emotion. The mice of Mouse Guard are people, and they are also heroes and epic figures.
Even if you’re not into the epic fantasy genre or talking animals, the characters are what make this series so compelling. (See how all three mice above look totally different? How does he do it?! They are mice!) Petersen puts out books really slowly, though, so supplement with the Legends of the Guard anthologies set in the same universe if you catch up and then get antsy waiting. You probably won’t love every story because that’s the nature of anthologies, but there are some real gems.
East of West by Jonathan Hickman, with art by Nick Dragotta. Frank Martin handled colors, and Rus Wooton did the lettering.
East of West is… a post-apocalyptic science fiction magical epic about averting the apocalypse? Maybe? It takes place in a U.S.A. where the attempted conquest of this continent by Europeans resolved very differently than in our history, leading to a Native American nation, the Kingdom of New Orleans ruled by an African-American dynasty, and a Chinese nation, among others. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are ready to bring about the end of world, except that Death has defected. He had fallen in love, married, had a child, was betrayed and murdered, and rose again to seek vengeance.
Martin’s colors are stunning from the very first page, a gorgeous match for Dragotta’s art. And this is Hickman at his best, telling a multi-layered story made of conspiracy and shifting allegiances, while also communicating the emotional core of each character in a large cast. The use of an alternative history to present such a diverse population also won my heart.
Blade of the Immortal by Hiroaki Samura. Translation of Volume 1 by Dana Lewis and Toren Smith, lettering by Wayne Truman.
This could not come out quickly enough for me. A ronin warrior in feudal Japan is full of magic worms that make him immportal. A girl whose family was murdered by a rival sword school wants vengeance. This is how it starts, and 29 volumes later, we know it’s ending soon, but we have no idea how! So many factions, so many characters, so much has happened, it’s like an extremely gory soap opera.
I don’t even like the art much, though I respect it, and I’m still 100% hooked. (I will admit to flipping through the fight scenes until someone walks or crawls or is dragged away.) I always have to find out what happens next so the end of each book is painful knowing how long I’ll have to wait. One of my favorite things about the series is the multiple strong, complex, interesting female characters who are all very different from each other. They all get beat up, cut up, held prisoner, and various other calamities – but so does just about every male character.
However, serious trigger warning for this series for multiple sexual assaults (not just happening to women). I didn’t feel they were all gratuitous, but the behavior and speech of one character in particular went way past my personal line by about book 25. If you have any triggers around this issue, just skip this whole series!
Northlanders by Brian Wood, illustrated by various artists over time.
Northlanders is an ongoing series of fictional stories set around the Viking Age. The tales range from very short stories to multiple chapter miniseries. War, occupation, conquest, the arrival of Christianity, plague, and a lot of very cold weather.
It’s pretty brutal, but the stories are SO good. (Seriously, this may be one of the only pages in the series that doesn’t have blood splattered around somewhere.) Male characters are predominant, but there are plenty of interesting female characters here, including stories where they lead.
However be aware that Brian Wood has been accused of sexual harassment. Comics creator Tess Fowler, who spoke out, specifically did NOT ask for a boycott of his work, but different people have different levels of comfort separating the art from the artist.
Next up is Three by Kieron Gillen, with art by Ryan Kelly and colors by Jordie Bellaire. Clayton Cowles handled the lettering.
Stories about Sparta usually focus on the Spartans. Gillen instead focused on the enslaved people who made up their support system, the Helots. Terpander has a really big mouth, and one joke for the wrong audience starts a slaughter that he, Damar, and Klaros barely escape. Now they’re fugitives, and the Spartans are looking to make them an example.
It’s pretty bloody, just warning you. C-Man’s take is that even though it’s well-researched and depicts part of an ancient culture we don’t see in media, it’s a good story rather than a dry historical re-enactment. If you read it, definitely read through the notes at the back with all the historical extras. Fascinating to see how Gillen shaped his story based on what was known and unknown.
47 Ronin by Mike Richardson with art by the inimitable Stan Sakai, with editorial consultation from Kazuo Koike. Colors by Lovern Kindzierski, and lettering by Tom Orzechowski and Lois Buhalis.
A head of household betrayed in the Imperial Court. Loyal servants who must avenge their master, but how? And what are they willing to sacrifice to fulfill that duty?
My heart absolutely broke for the leader of the 47 ronin as he lost his lord and began his journey, and then broke again at several points through and after that journey. Richardson did a great job making this legendary story about people. Sakai is best known for Usagi Yojimbo, so C-Man notes he was quite pleased that Sakai knocks it out of the park with his art in a serious story with human characters. Instead of, you know, anthropomorphic rabbits. (More about Usagi Yojimbo here.)
Digger by Ursula Vernon.
What is Digger? It’s a long-running webcomic bound into an 800+ page omnibus collection. It’s a fantasy adventure about a female atheist wombat who meets a statue that speaks for the god Ganesha, a priest living with mental illness, and a solitary artist. It’s an amazing story about the strength of women that also includes wonderful male characters. It’s one of the funniest comics I’ve read. C-Man says it’s one of the best books he’s ever read, not even just one of the best graphic novels. If you’re at all intrigued by stories about fantasy, adventure, religion, or culture, you have to pick this up. Digger the wombat, Murai the traumatized priest, and Ed the exiled hyena painter are some of my new favorite characters in comics.
Moving from history into myth, I really enjoyed Siegfried by Alex Alice.
Gorgeous retelling of Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas. Even the trees look amazing and epic. Look at them!
Even though I am showing you a picture of the trees (because I would hang the dang thing on my wall), what I enjoyed most about this first book is that Siegfried and the other characters are so real and human, despite the audience knowing they are larger than life figures of legend. You can see the larger wheels turning and destiny approaching but you get to watch Siegfried grow up and get to know him.
I don’t own this only because the cost for the book is so high for how much story you get. It looks like a big book, but half of it is bonus materials. If you’re an actual artist who benefits from poring over that kind of stuff, that might make sense for you. But for me, library recommendation. (I didn’t like the second book as much, but your mileage may vary.)
And that’s the list of the most grand, sweeping, epic comics and graphic novels we’ve enjoyed! If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments – and thanks for sharing on social media or with friends!