By Cory Webber — As someone who jumped into comics fairly recently—I started reading in 2014—I quickly found myself overwhelmed by decades of superhero continuity and backstories. Where should I begin? How do I keep track of things in both multiverses? What do I cut out of my life to make time for my newfound passion? The answers were start by identifying favorite characters, give up on ever entirely keeping track of both multiverses, and sacrifice sleep.
As I learned more about superhero comics, I also discovered Image, which opened a new world to me. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Big 2, but it was incredible to find Image and its trove of rich, self-contained stories unburdened by prior continuity or connections to other books. These creator-owned comics are stories I can open and enjoy on their own individual merits. I like and respect both types of books. I have, however, found there is a special intersection between the two, and that’s what I’d like to talk about today.
So, why not turn this into a list? Well, here you go: my Top Big Two Books That Read Like Indie Comics, in no particular order. My criteria is simple: the book either has to read as a self-contained story, or transcend superheroics to incorporate elements of other genres, or at least have hints of them (Editor’s Note: No Big 2 imprints are included..this list is strictly superheroes).
Big 2 Books That Read Like Indie Comics
Hawkeye by Matt Fraction and David Aja
Hawkeye was the first superhero book I read that really subverted what I thought I knew about comics. Matt Fraction took the most obvious thing about Clint Barton (his lack of superpowers), and used it to not only humanize him, but to showcase what he was truly capable of (being a real pain in the butt, mostly). Also, the relationship between Barton and Kate Bishop (the better Hawkeye) developed into something special. Their back-and-forth banter, and Clint’s inability to be a decent partner, is something still being mined in comics today. Namely, Kelly Thompson’s recently concluded Hawkeye run. If you haven’t, do yourself a favor and read it!
The issue that really stands out in this run is issue #11, the pizza dog issue, which won an Eisner in 2014 for Best Single Issue (or One-Shot). It’s told from the perspective of Lucky, aka the titular pizza dog. What transpires and how it is presented is utterly brilliant, and this remains the single best issue of anything I’ve ever read.
Vision by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta
Vision was my first introduction to Tom King, and I was blown away. In this 12-issue maxi series, we see what happens when Viz creates his own family and attempts to assimilate into suburb living. What comes to pass is equal parts intriguing, disturbing, and heartbreaking. Watching this android family attempting to fit in and be normal was quite different from anything I’d read before, and I don’t think I’m alone there.
King’s writing was poetic and poignant. There was something fascinating about the interactions between Viz and Virginia, and how they precisely, and concisely, analyzed everything. Whether it was discussing the ironic usage of the word nice, or the semantics of ideas like certainty, belief, and luck, it was interesting to see them process information and incorporate it into their attempt at emulating a human pathos.
Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett
This book is the most recent on this list. At the time of writing this, only 4 issues have been released. The only thing you need to know here is that the Hulk was dead, and now he is not. Al Ewing’s choice to tell this story as straight up horror was an inspired one. Joe Bennett’s art, combined with Ewing’s script, makes for an eerie, unnerving setting as Bruce Banner goes from town to town trying to lay low while also unraveling mysteries involving gamma-ray exposed individuals like himself.
Most impressively, the last two issues have barely focused on Banner. Rather, they have centered on reporter Jackie McGee, and her investigations into these other gamma-ray afflicted individuals plus a seemingly mysterious green door that connects them all. If you don’t like the Hulk, you may still want to give this a shot. It’s unlike anything on shelves today from either of the Big Two.
The Omega Men by Tom King and Barnaby Bagenda
Surprise, surprise—I’ve included another of Tom King’s works. In Omega Men, King takes lesser known characters from the DC pantheon and weaves a space opera laced with murder, adventure, and betrayal...lots and lots of betrayal. I recently read this for the first time, and I’ll be honest, the early issues were rough. I was unaware of the previous Omega Men from the ‘80’s, nor was I familiar with Kyle Rayner.
King quickly changed all that. In fact, by #4 I was comfortable and fully-immersed. Also, Rayner may have just become my favorite lantern. One of the things that stands out, which King does well and often, is the 9-panel grid. One sequence that stood out, in particular, was a two-page affair where each grid mirrored the grid opposite it. For example, the same dialogue that was used in panel 1, was used in panel 9; same for panel 2 and panel 8, and so forth, with the middle panel having no dialogue. It was a minor thing, but it really highlighted King’s poetic tendencies.
Being one of King’s early books and one of his first Big 2 comics, it maybe comes as no surprise that there were so many parallels between this story and the conflicts he witnessed as a CIA agent in the Middle East. For example, going to war to acquire resources, branding those who oppose you as terrorists, the role of religion in all of it, etc…However, despite all the political and religious content, this book does not come across as heavy-handed. Rather, it is ultimately a densely woven tale about love, loss, and relationships.
As for the art, Barnaby Bagenda absolutely blew me away. His action had great movement, and he was able to superbly convey the emotion of this story via great facial expressions and body poses. Moreover, Romulo Fajardo Jr.’s colors really complement Bagenda’s art. In the backmatter of the trade, the team detailed its fascinating art process. They didn’t do any inking, rather they flattened right after pencils, then did the color work and added special effects. It all adds up to a gorgeous, dynamically-drawn story that grabs you right away and doesn’t let go until the final page.
Hot take: If this were published by an indie publisher, and an ongoing series, it would be spoken of in the same breath as Saga. As it stands, the book is still critically-lauded, and it helped land King firmly on everyone’s radars, and rightfully so.
Silver Surfer by Dan Slott and Mike Allred
So, ummm, apparently a superhero comic can make a grown man cry. Dan Slott and Mike Allred’s Silver Surfer did just that. This series ran for 29 issues, and it tells the story of Norrin Radd and Dawn Greenwood as they traverse both the expansive cosmos above, and the ever-expanding love from deep within. You know, the kind us humans can only hope to aspire to.
Slott’s use of Dawn as a lens, through which we get to see the Surfer and the multiverse, also served as a lens through which we got to see the good in everything. And I mean EVERYTHING. This optimism was refreshing and welcoming. Furthermore, Allred’s art, and his wife Laura’s colors, really drove the positivity home with unique character designs and out-of-this-world, Kirby-esque scenery that spanned space and time.
As with Hawkeye, my favorite issue was issue #11 from Vol. 1. Again, another Eisner-award winning single issue. The layout of #11 is something that just has to be seen. Never has a layout design been so integral to a story as it has been here - it’s simply brilliant!
Cory Webber is a work-from-home entrepreneur who also reads and reviews comics for fun. Find him on Twitter at @CeeEssWebber. He lives in Lehi, Utah with his wife and three sons.