Comic books have traditionally been a tough place for writers and artists seeking to own — or profit from — their creations. Though he’s apparently well-compensated by Marvel, Stan Lee doesn’t own Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man, Thor, etc. The heirs of Lee’s frequent collaborator, the great Jack Kirby, are currently trying to get the Supreme Court to reconsider the rights to Kirby creations such as the Fantastic Four and the Hulk. Batman co-creator Bill Finger has been denied credit for decades. The norm in comics has been depressing: A brilliant mind creates; a cunning company owns and profits.
Thankfully, things have swung in the other direction for comic books, as many of the most exciting and innovative current series are owned by the writers and artists who actually produce them. Creator-owned work can be found at many small publishers, plus Marvel’s Icon line and DC’s Vertigo line. But by far, the vast majority of creator-owned work is coming from Image Comics, which is in the midst of a creative renaissance that includes diverse, quality series such as “The Walking Dead,” “Chew,” “Invincible,” “Manhattan Projects,” “Morning Glories,” “Fatale,” “East of West,” and “Saga” — a Shakespearean sci-fi epic I’d wager is the best comic around.
Those series have been getting a lot of company as of late. These days, it seems like Image is coming out with a promising new series every single Wednesday, including many female-centered series like “Rat Queens,” “Velvet,” and “The Wicked and the Divine.” For a taste of the wide-ranging fare Image is producing, here’s a look at eight recent series that are helping Image prove what’s been obvious in the world of TV for decades: When you give creators room to do their own thing, the results are tremendous.
If you’re a fan of “Silence of the Lambs” or NBC’s “Hannibal,” this should be up your alley, you sicko. “Nailbiter,” written by Joshua Williamson and illustrated by Mike Henderson, is partially about a serial killer nicknamed the Nailbiter, so-called because he picks his victims based on their nail-nibbling. But the real topic, not to mention mystery, is about Buckaroo, Oregon: home to the so-called Buckaroo Butchers. This seemingly unremarkable little town has been home to 16 serial killers since 1969, and no one knows why. This already feels like a quality TV drama, and it’s worth checking out before it inevitably becomes one.
The title of this series works as a synopsis, too. Set in rural Alabama, writer Jason Aaron (who, I might add, is in the midst of one of the best “Thor” runs of all-time) and artist Jason Latour (whose deliberately ugly characters and non-realistic colors set a menacing mood) have created a Southern noir that would make Elmore Leonard proud. Both creators are from the South, and as such they have mixed feelings that infuse every page of Earl Tubb’s journey back to the town where his father was sheriff. This series should appeal to anyone who struggles with where they came from, even if your hometown isn’t a redneck’s wet dream.
This historical fiction is set in 1960s Chicago, and the geography and politics of the city play a major role. The setting (which should be quite enjoyable to anyone familiar with the Second City) grounds the otherwise fanciful subject matter, which answers the question, "What if superheroes belonged to a union?" Writers Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel are building an intriguing world, and the art by Rod Reis has flashes of Bill Sienkiewicz’s energy and experimentation. So far, the Chicago Organized Workers League is a fresh alternative to the Justice League and the Avengers.
Written by Brian Joines and illustrated by Dean Kotz, this series features a crisis among the Secret Society of Santa Clauses, a crisis so severe they must turn to their long-imprisoned enemy for help: the Krampus, the legendary Christmas monster who stuffs naughty children in a sack. This series puts diverse holiday lore in a blender, spinning it out into a visually vibrant, unpredictable series. Unfortunately, low sales seem to have cut this one short after the first story arc, perhaps because people can’t handle holiday content year-round. But I haven’t given up on this one; it’s one of the funniest, most original series I’ve read in years. Maybe if enough people discover the first five issues, Image will have a green, German-accented, demonic treat for us all.
“Walking Dead” writer Robert Kirkman is a busy man these days, as he continues to write that best-selling comic while executive producing the TV show and also writing “Invincible” (a long-running superhero comic that might be his best work). Now he’s also writing “Outcast,” the story of Karl Barnes, who is a bit of a demon magnet — specifically an exorcism magnet — in his ultra-religious home of West Virginia. Artist Paul Azaceta has given this promising series a subtly ominous look that seems to be building a more grounded world of horror than “The Walking Dead.” To no one’s shock, this one is already lined up to be a TV series.
Banned by Apple and lauded by Time magazine as 2013’s best series, this should appeal to anyone who likes sex, romance, crime and mysterious superpowers blended together in a colorful, humorous stew. Protagonists and new lovers Suzie and John discover they share a superpower: each can stop time, freezing the world, after orgasm. These dating partners-in-crime soon become literal partners-in-crime, using their orgasm-propelled powers to knock over a bank. Written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Chip Zdarsky, this series is colorful in every way possible: it’s full of wit, humor, and strong emotion.
Oddly enough, “Sex Criminals” may not be Matt Fraction’s most sex-saturated book. This series — illustrated in black and white by comic legend Howard Chaykin — is set in 1951 and revolves around a popular sci-fi TV series called “Satellite Sam.” Michael White is forced to step into the lead role of the TV show, investigate his father’s death, and deal with his obsessive needs for alcohol and sex while navigating a seedy world of early TV where no one trusts anyone else, nor should they. This is another series that is like nothing else on the shelves, and I wouldn’t know how to classify it. Historical-tragi-sex-mystery-comedy-noir? Whatever you call it, “Satellite Sam” (along with “Hawkeye”) is Exhibit Umpteen in the case that Fraction might be the best writer in comics today.
Comics legend Warren Ellis has created a spiffy new science fiction story illustrated in scratchy, high-energy style by Jason Howard. The gist of this series is that aliens come to Earth in the form of huge, tree-like monoliths that plant themselves around the globe. Nothing else happens at the time of this event: the Earth is just suddenly full of ominous, silent, disturbing reminders that we aren’t alone in the universe. “Trees” picks up the story a decade later, and we see how humanity has adjusted to this bizarre invasion.
“God Hates Astronauts”
This series starts at Image in September, but you can read the initial chapters here. Ryan Browne is probably the best humorist is comics right now, writing and drawing stories full of inventive visuals, hysterical dialogue and insane scenarios that should appeal to the paint-eating 12-year-old boy in us all. “God Hates Astronauts” might be the most summary-resistant comic I’ve ever read, but it involves a team of superpowered NASA agents dedicated to stopping farmers from launching themselves into space using homemade spacecraft. But that’s merely the tip of the lunacy-berg, as Browne’s creativity, humor and innovation fill every page with surprises and laughs. Bonus Browne: Check out his fill-in issues on “The Manhattan Projects” (another Image series you should be reading) and the page-a-day barnburner “Blast Furnace."