14 (More) Science Fiction Graphic Novels That Knocked Me Out

   January 8, 2018    Comments Off on 14 (More) Science Fiction Graphic Novels That Knocked Me Out

Last week I updated my first post about my favorite science fiction comics, but yes, here’s a fresh post with even more recommendations, because there are just that many good science fiction comics out there!

Before we jump in:

  • All comics here can be bought as graphic novels/collections, not only as single issues. Your library may own many of these!
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  • If you need to know whether a book has certain content that would make it a bad fit for you, I’m happy to check!

Venus (Amazon / Comixology / Goodreads) Written by Rick Loverd. Co-created by Filip Sablik. Illustrated by Huang Danlan. Colored by Marcio Menyz. Lettering by Colin Bell.

100% of the comics-reading adults in my household regularly lament the dearth of hard/military sci-fi in comics, so we were excited to find this space colonization survival book.

Venus is set in 2150, during a race between the U.S. and the “Pan Pacific Alliance” to settle Venus and exploit its natural resources. (Apparently and unsurprisingly, humanity hasn’t learned much by 2150.) The story follows a U.S. ship as it crashes on Venus. There’s a stark contrast in the first pages between the too-real crash and the shiny, patriotic political speech about the expedition, as given back on Earth. That contrast sets an appropriately grim tone for the book. Commander Pauline Manashe assumes command during the crash due to the Captain’s death and has to deal with a damaged ship, injured and dead crew, environmental hazards, sabotage, and unclear loyalties among the surviving crew. It’s one completely believable disaster after another. If you like a tale where every 15 minutes you say “Holy sh–, what NOW?! These people are SO DEAD!” then this book is for you.

Characters are fully developed, the atmosphere is tense, and the conflicts between them are significant and feel real. Manashe is far from perfect and has to make hard decisions, but I appreciated that neither the story nor the other crew members give her a pass just because she’s the main character and commanding officer. As an illustrator, Danlan is especially strong with body language and perspective. A perfect fit, since this book is like 80% arguments and action scenes. In a good way.

I’m sad that this was a miniseries, because I would have settled in to read an ongoing series, especially with the way it ended. Not a cliffhanger exactly, but plenty of room to keep going.

Diversity notes: (1) Two of the three major characters after Manashe are POC and scientists: Lt. Alejandra Reyes, the female ship’s engineer, and civilian botanist Dr. Chad Park. The ship’s doctor, last name Gold, is a woman of color. That was yay in a genre that often seems to forget people of color when envisioning the future! (2) For the creators, I can’t find any biographical info about Huang Duanlan. Marcio Menyz is Brazilian.

Horizon (Amazon / Comixology / Goodreads) Written by Brandon Thomas. Art by co-creator Juan Gedeon. Colors by Frank Martin in book 1 and Mike Spicer in book 2. Lettering by Rus Wooton.

Horizon uses a sci-fi plot I haven’t seen before: a team of undercover agents from another planet is dispatched to prevent Earth from invading their home to escape environmental destruction. The first volume is full of timeline jumps to get you caught up on current events, so I had to read it twice to properly assemble everything in my brain, but I’m glad I did.

What The team’s actions against humans are only half the story. The other half is their emotional experience of being outnumbered and vulnerable on a hostile world, and how this warps the relationships between them and even their own morality. They knew they were risking everything for this mission to protect their people, but the reality on the ground is still staggering. There’s plenty of action, and I love how Gedeon draws action, but the quiet moments of despair and confusion are just as compelling.

Right now there are two collected editions, and I’m really looking forward to the third volume.

Diversity notes: (1) Three of the four team members are female. Both the primary human characters the alien team interacts with are Black, though so far they are firmly secondary characters. Really, really interesting secondary characters. Especially the guy with telekinetic powers. That dude freaks me the hell out. (2) Brandon Thomas (who is also the creator of our household fave Miranda Mercury) is African-American. Juan Gedeon is Argentinian. Rus Wooton is disabled.

O Human Star (Official Store / Amazon / Comixology / Goodreads) By Blue Delliquanti.

When Alastair Sterling wakes up, his last memory is of collapsing while coughing up blood. Where is he? When is he? And most importantly, what is he? He’s a robotics genius who has awakened as a robot, it turns out, though no one seems to know how it happened. He tries to reconnect with his lover and colleague Brendan, but it’s complicated. Their relationship was secret when Sterling was alive, and he’s been dead for 16 years. It’s a science fiction setting, but at its core, O Human Star is about humans (and robots) doing the best they can to relate to each other. The art is grounded and confident. Humans (and robots) are solid and real.

C-Man had low expectations of the first volume because it started as a webcomic – this was back when we didn’t know much about webcomics. He declared it one of the best books he’d read that year. (And as you may have noticed, we read a lot of books.) I adore it too, and the second volume was just as thoughtful and emotional as the first. We’ll definitely be supporting the Kickstarter for the third volume whenever it goes live.

Diversity note: The two male main characters are gay, and the female main character is trans.

The Spire (Amazon / Comixology / Goodreads) Written by Simon Spurrier. Illustrated by Jeff Stokely. Colored by André May. Lettered by Steve Wands.

By the last page, The Spire had become one of my fave science fiction comics, fave fantasy comics, and fave queer comics all rolled into one. It’s part police procedural, part political conspiracy, and has significant commentary on discrimination, so there is possibly no way it could be any better for me. It follows Sha, a queer woman (and the last of her species) who’s Commander of the City Watch in The Spire, as she tries to solve a series of murders while a new leader of the city is about to take control. But of course Sha finds so! many! secrets!

I fall more in love with Spurrier’s writing every time I read one of his books. Stokely’s art is appropriately weird, and someone wrote a blog post about the lettering by Steve Wands because it’s that good.

The Spire is complete in one volume.

Beyond: The Queer Sci-Fi & Fantasy Comic Anthology. (Beyond Press for print or digital / Comixology / Goodreads) Edited by Sfé R. Monster and Taneka Stotts.

Two words for this anthology: Overwhelmingly excellent. I keep trying to flip through it so I can include some details, but I get sucked in and start re-reading it. With 20 stories and 270+ pages, that’s a lot of good stuff here. Two dads save their daughter from goblins. The heir to the throne tricks a pirate into having “just a little chat.” In a side story from O Human Star, an android envisioned as male gets help from her creator to transition to a new female body. (Realistic hair is tough!) A worker on a faraway planet makes a desperate dash across its surface after an accident and depressurization in a nearby facility. This may be my second favorite comics anthology ever, it’s incredibly diverse in both characters and creators, and it’s given me a lot of homework for writers and artists to go find their other work. Even if you’re not queer like me, if you’re a genre fan, you want this.

Southern Cross (Amazon/Comixology / Goodreads) Written by Becky Cloonan. Art by Andy Belanger. Colors by Lee Loughridge. Lettering by Serge LaPointe.

If you like stories about people finding creepy things in space, this series is for you. Alex Braith books passage on the Southern Cross for a journey to Titan. Her stated goal is to bring her sister’s body back home. But Alex wants to know why her sister died, and it turns out that the Southern Cross is exactly the right place to start asking questions. Cloonan and Belanger create an amazing level of tension as (strange) things start to happen on the ship. It almost feels like time jumps in some scenes, which adds to the spooky.

The second volume centers around Hazel Conroy, a retired detective who now lives at the Titan refinery the Southern Cross was expected to reach. Murder, mysteries, intrigue, sabotage, and riots result in Hazel and a small team heading to the site where an alien artifact was removed was unearthed, and damned if things don’t start getting bizarre again.

Loughridge uses these flat, dark colors that make everything look artificially but dimly lit. This is grungy sci-fi, not the shiny future where everything’s white and chrome. The female lead characters are awesome. The swirling conspiracy is compelling. I love it.

Southern Cross is an ongoing series.

Saturn Apartments (Amazon/Comixology / Goodreads) By Hisae Iwaoka. Translated by Matt Thorn and Tomo Kimura. Lettering and Touch-up by Eric Erbes.

Quiet, thoughtful, initially slice-of-life manga about Mitsu, a young man who takes a job washing the windows of a station in near-Earth orbit. All humans live there, having abandoned the Earth to keep it as a nature preserve. Mitsu’s father died doing the same job, and the story (so far) mostly revolves around Mitsu’s attempts to learn more about his father by following his vocation.

Saturn Apartments is kind of like Makoto Yukimura’s Planetes (see below), in that it focuses on the lives of working class people in a science fiction setting. It’s more about characters than human colonization of space, though, especially as Mitsu begins to interact more with his coworkers and their families, and upper-class clients of his window-washing company.

The art is a little funny, with characters of all ages drawn with toddler proportions, i.e. big heads, small bodies. Older characters do look a little less toddler-y than junior high graduate Mitsu, so I adjusted pretty quickly. It’s more than made up for by the amazing perspective work with rooms, both large and small, and the exterior of the station during work shifts. Several times I had to stop just to gawk at a specific panel.

The personal growth, relationships, and vignettes about people on the station are so intriguing that I would have been happy reading this series just for that for more than its seven books. However, a larger plot started emerging later in the series where some working-class people on the station began a project to drop a manned craft down to Earth. Without spoiling, I can say that this project ends up intersecting with the class tensions on the station in an interesting and dramatic way that involves every character we got to know over the series. Every bit of character development for them was important to the series conclusion, which was was 100% satisfying. Very skillfully told.

The Beauty (Amazon/Comixology / Goodreads) By Jeremy Haun and Jason A. Hurley. Haun is the primary artist, with guest artists Mike Huddleston, Brett Weldele, and Stephen Green working on the second volume. Thomas Nachlik does most of the art in the third volume.
Coloring by John Rauch. Lettering by Fonografiks.

The premise: an STD has appeared in the human population that reshapes those infected to look more like current Western conception of attractiveness: younger, thinner, etc. (It’s not stated explicitly in the intro text that this is culturally specific attractiveness, but it clearly is, and that gets even more interesting in the second volume). The book begins as a pair of detectives investigate what they thought was the murder of a person with The Beauty by anti-Beauty terrorists… but they realize that no, the gal has just internally combusted. And then the CDC shows up and kicks them off the case, which doesn’t make them suspicious at all. Not one bit.

Pretty soon it becomes clear that it’s just a matter of time before the infected half of the population is going to wind up dead. Our detective heroes are thus pulled into a mess of conspiracy, terrorism, assassinations, and a possible cure. And that’s the first volume, a tense political conspiracy / action movie based on a sci-fi what-if far more complex than “aliens show up to kill us all.” With good character development and everything! I don’t have a lot to say about the art, but I like it, especially Jeremy Haun’s faces.

(The end of the first issue is a well-executed kick in the stomach. I literally gasped.)

The second volume is more complicated. It’s two stories from earlier days of The Beauty, which interlink later in the book. In the first, a 6’4″ 360 pound Hispanic gang member murders his whole gang, steals a ton of money, and infects himself with The Beauty to hide. It turns him into an athletic GQ-looking white guy. In the second, a black trans woman infects herself with The Beauty and it transitions her body to one that feels right to her. The contrast between those two changes is hella interesting: increasing social privilege and meeting a need for safety versus attaining congruence between internal and external gender identification. They’re way bigger changes than we’d seen in the first volume, and they’re more obviously tangled with cultural and social perceptions than the premise admits in the initial description that opens the comic.

Issue 12, the first story in the third volume, is a perfect little vignette about dating in the context of the Beauty and I adored it. The rest of that volume wasn’t as interesting to me, most of it being a somewhat straightforward police procedural, but C-Man and several people I follow on Goodreads liked it better than the first because of its examination of the social impact of infection and how Beauties are treated.

The Beauty is an ongoing series.

Planetes (Amazon / Goodreads) By Makoto Yukimura. Translated by Yuki Johnson. Lettering and Touch-Up Art by Susan Daigle-Leach.

Set in the far future, Planetes is working-class sci-fi that follows the crew of a sanitation ship. Basically, space garbage collectors dealing with all the junk that humans have let accumulate in Earth’s orbit. I didn’t completely like it until the second volume, but then I loved it.

Initially it’s a slice of life comic following these folks through their work and family lives, but a larger arc emerges as crew member Hachimaki trains to apply for a deep-space exploratory mission to Venus. His continuous speechifying about space and his destiny got a little old for me (yes, Hachi, we know, we get it, SHUT UP) but the rest of the cast made up for it so I kept going. In the second book, his character is a lot more settled, so that was a relief. The series is by turns hilarious, touching, suspenseful, and political. It’s such a nice change in science fiction to focus on characters who aren’t explorers, soldiers, or scientists – just folks getting their regular day-to-day work done. Well worth the time, especially since Yukimura’s art is, as always, crisp and expressive.

Planetes is complete in two Omnibus editions, which are fairly large, but don’t take as long to read as you’d think.

The Woods (Amazon / Comixology / Goodreads) Co-created by writer James Tynion IV and artist Michael Dialynas. Colors by Josan Gonzalez. Lettering by Ed Dukeshire.

I advise other people to read The Woods only if they want awesome diverse sci-fi, queer rep (Tynion is bi so yay #ownvoices), people with glowing eyes, infighting and dysfunction among humans trapped on an alien planet, love stories that may or may not be doomed, and badass female characters. But only then.

Messrs. Tynion, Dialynas, Gonzalez, and Dukeshire took all these wonderful babies (okay, teenagers) and gave them compelling backstories and distinctive personalities and all kinds of problems and then yanked them out of time and space into some kind of horrible murder-world where people get possessed by sentient computers and horrible monsters are trying to kill them and sometimes so are other people! Because political machinations and infighting!

Looking back, it seems that the first volume didn’t actually grab me too hard (thanks Goodreads for keeping a record of my comments so I don’t revise history), so maybe I should have stepped away at that point and let these heartless creators go on with their sci-fi magic horror spree, making these poor high school students fight for their very survival. But I made the mistake of reading on… and now we’re eight volumes in and terrible things have happened and it HURTS!

In a good way.

I can’t wait to see how many more times they’re going to kick me right in the heart before it ends.

Injection (Amazon/Comixology / Goodreads) Written by Warren Ellis. Art by Declan Shalvey. Colors by Jordie Bellaire. Lettering by Fonographiks.

I’m totally here for techno-horror magic run amok and the tortured team of smart people who (hopefully) try to stop it. Even though they caused it in the first place. Because if you put a group of geniuses together in fiction, of course they’re going to do something stupid just because they’re smart enough to think of it. So I just take that for granted, rather than holding it against them, and look at what happens next. If that involves creepy monsters and possessed computer systems, so much the better.

The first volume was a great opening act for the series, balancing backstory and present adventures. When Ellis is on, he’s one of my favorite writers, and he’s definitely on here. The second volume just makes everything worse in interesting ways. (Though I wish it hadn’t included cannibalism, since that’s normally a hard pass for me. YMMV.) The third volume, sadly, didn’t add much interest value to the central threat, feeling more like a straightforward “bad magical things are happening” episode of a television show, but towards the end there’s some promise that the Big Bad is about to level up again.

Bellaire is one of the best colorists in the business, and Shalvey gives her SO much to work with. Especially all the characters with dead eyes (shiver). The difference between how backgrounds are done in present-day scenes versus back-then scenes is one of my favorite art features in this book, so watch for that.

Injection is an ongoing series.

Diversity note: I very much appreciated the team being 3 POC and 2 white people, with additional speaking POC characters outside the team. If we could get 50% of comics to this level of diversity, it would be a revolution. The white characters are more central in the first book, but the second and third books make the POC characters the main characters almost all the time.

Orange (Amazon/Comixology / Goodreads) By Ichigo Takano. Translated by Amber Tamosaitis. Adaptation by Shannon Fay. Lettering and layout by Lys Blakeslee.

If you got a letter from your future self, would you believe it? What if everything the letter predicted came true? What if it asked you to save one of your classmates from a terrible fate… and you start falling in love with him?

Time-traveling letters, possible parallel universes, friends who love each other… there is no way I could have resisted this manga, even if I wanted to. It’s possibly the cutest saddest comic I have ever read and I love it five million. I seriously want to buy two copies of this book so I can use one to cut out every panel where there’s a face close up to make a giant poster, because they are so damn beautiful. And then if there are any speech bubbles left, I’ll make a collage of all the different lettering styles and speech bubble decorations, because they are also too freakin’ adorable.

I was hesitant to read the second book, because I was afraid the author wouldn’t keep up with the complexity of the feelings and relationships between the characters, especially in what could be viewed as a love triangle between the main POV character, the classmate she’d trying to save, and another boy who’s obviously in love with her. Have no fear, my friends. The ending was just as good as the rest of the story.

East of West (Amazon/Comixology / Goodreads) Written by Jonathan Hickman. Art by Nick Dragotta. Colors by Frank Martin. Lettering by Rus Wooton.

East of West is a gory alternate history post-apocalyptic science fiction magical epic about averting the apocalypse? Maybe? It’s set on the continent we call North America. The attempted conquest of that 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. It does make for a complex reading experience, especially since volumes come out once or twice a year. We’ve generally had to re-read at least the preceding volume each time one has been published just to remember exactly what was happening.

If you’re into intricate plots and backstabbing, though, it’s SO very worth it. Plus, if you start now, you can read seven volumes straight through before having to wait in agony for the next book like the rest of us!

Diversity note: Rus Wooton is disabled.

Paper Girls (Amazon/Comixology / Goodreads) Written by Brian K. Vaughan. Art by Cliff Chiang. Colors by Matt Wilson. Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher.

Paper Girls is a time travel comic that begins in 1988 starring a diverse group of teenage girls who all have paper routes. Until most of the people in their town disappear after they find a weird alien device in a basement, at which point there isn’t much call for newspapers, and also they spent most of their time running for their lives, caught between two factions engaged in a time travel war, and trying to figure out what the heck is going on.

The first volume felt a little baffling, even on re-read, though it had plenty of intriguing mystery. But can I say how amazing it felt to read a science fiction comic where teen girls are the stars? The second volume included more answers about the war and deeper character development, so that’s when the series really “clicked” for me. (Yes, someone does meet up with their future self, because time travel.) The third volume was a little more straightforward “stranded in the past” storyline, and I enjoyed it. So far, Paper Girls is a strong sci-fi action comic centered around girls and women, with POC, Jewish, and queer rep, and I’m looking forward to the fourth volume.

I hate to recommend a comic without discussing the art, but I don’t know what to say about Cliff Chiang’s art except that I always adore it.

Diversity note: Cliff Chiang is Asian-American.

That concludes today’s roundup of more great science fiction comics 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.