With Donald Trump and Steve Bannon are offering new assaults on human rights and American values every day, the struggle to keep struggling is exhausting. We could all use a little extra inspiration, and you may be ignoring a huge source: comic books.
Though every other movie and TV show is based on a comic nowadays, these adaptations are not even the tip of the tip of the iceberg that is the vast history of comics. While just about any comic could provide escapism, a select few offer inspiration.
Some titles provide inspiration that’s directly political, feeding into our need to engage and protest. Other titles are inspiring in a circuitous way, refreshing our spirits and making us feel better about being alive. Both types of refreshment are needed right now. Get thee to a comic book store and check out some titles that, directly or indirectly, can help us stay energized right when we need it the most.
Transmetropolitan: No comic is more directly relevant to our current situation, nor more hopeful in its own absurd way. In this 60-issue sci-fi series, writer Warren Ellis and artist Darick Robertson created Spider Journalism — a heightened take on the already heightened person of Hunter S. Thompson. Living in a semi-dystopian future that now feels like non-fiction, Jerusalem works tirelessly to bring down a corrupt President via means that are often extreme but boil down to basic journalism: finding, documenting, and telling the truth. Warning: After reading this comic, you will yearn for a real-life version of Thompson’s favorite weapon, the bowel disruptor.
American Barbarian: This creator-owned series by unabashedly Jack Kirby-esque writer/artist Tom Scioli is one of the weirdest odes to the spirit of America ever created. In this exuberant adventure, a Thundarr the Barbarian-type hero with red, white, and blue hair fights dinosaurs, robo-dinosaurs, and an evil pharaoh with tanks for feet named Two-Tank Omen. I am unable to confirm the rumor that Two-Tank Omen made Trump’s short list for the Supreme Court.
Ms. Marvel: The ongoing adventures of Marvel Comics’ Pakistani-American teen hero, by co-creator G. Willow Wilson and various artists, felt necessary pre-Trump: they’re even more necessary mid-Trump. Kamala Khan continues to carve out a space in a superhero universe previously dominated by white dudes, providing vital representation and shaping the superhero movies of the future (and not the distant future, let us hope). To paraphrase Commissioner Gordon, she’s the Muslim hero we deserve and need right now.
Ragnarök : In 2014, writer/artist Walter Simonson — who did career-defining work for Marvel on “Thor” in the 1980s — returned to his most famous character in the ongoing creator-owned IDW series “Ragnarök.” But this isn’t just another new spin on mythology or superheroes. In “Ragnarök,” named for the Norse day of doom, that day has passed, and Thor has inexplicably found himself alive (though damaged) after the death of his parents, children, friends, and home. This series was already an inspiring look at heroism in the face of disaster, but it’s much more important in the era of Trumpery, which feels like an American Ragnarök. This comic is a perfect myth for our time — and not only because Simonson’s Thor says things like, “I never liked trolls.”
Captain America: The very first issue of Captain America, by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, was published over a year before the U.S. entered World War II and remains a pinnacle of political comics: the very first thing Captain America ever did was punch Hitler in the face. As Amanda Marcotte put it here in Salon: “Sorry, Fox News: Captain America has long been a liberal, anti-nationalist character.”
Uncle Sam: This two-part 1997 series by Steve Darnell and Alex Ross is frighteningly relevant right now. We first see this version of Uncle Sam as a confused vagrant spouting quotations from past Presidents and other national figures, from Patrick Henry to Dan Quayle. After careening through the confusing history of America in all its honor and horror, poor Sam ends up in a Japanese monster-style battle against another Uncle Sam. This clever story is an entertaining reminder that America has always been its own best/worst frenemy, and sometimes frenemies have to fight.
The Ultimates: The first arc of Al Ewing & Kenneth Rocafort’s run on "The Ultimates" in 2015 is an ode to limitless possibility that feels particularly refreshing in these constrained, cramped times. After Marvel rebooted their universe, a group of extremely diverse superheroes set to work on solving, as their name suggests, the ultimate problems. The first problem was Galactus: the giant purple fella who eats planets the way you eat kale chips. Adam Brashear, Ms. America, Black Panther, and the rest of the team decided to fix the Galactus problem, not by killing him, but turning him into a life-giver rather than a doom-bringer. In any universe, Marvel or real, optimistic solutions can feel like crazy talk, but Ewing and Rocafort made them feel brave, wise, and necessary.
Cage: Marvel has been getting a truckload of attention for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work on “Black Panther,” and deservedly so. But another comic about one of the first black superheroes completely flew under the radar, and that’s a shame. Animator Genndy Tartakovsky, in a mere four issues of “Cage,” revisited the blaxpoloitation roots of Luke Cage and created the most visually bonkers Marvel Comic in years, maybe since Bill Sienkiewicz went nuts on “The New Mutants” in the eighties. By taking full, ludicrous advantage of the possibilities of the page, Tartakovsky created a glorious comic that should inspire as all to break out of our own cages, self-imposed or otherwise.
Bitch Planet: The 2016 campaign and election of Donald Trump was a worst-case scenario for women and anyone who cares about them, with an admitted sexual predator elected President. This enshrinement of misogyny is depressing to say the least, but at least we’re not yet living in the world of “Bitch Planet”: a sci-fi dystopia in which women are sent to space jail for being non-compliant. Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Valentine De Landro have built a compelling world and feminist classic in which the struggles of the inmates are a powerful parallel to the struggles of real women. “Bitch Planet” is a devastating warning against where misogyny leads.
Shirtless Bear-Fighter: This forthcoming comic (by writers Jody Leheup and Sebastian Girner and artist Nil Vendrell) was recently announced by Image Comics. Just the fact that this comic exists is a ray of hairy sunshine in a bleak, shirt-filled world. Sometimes you need nuanced, complex narratives; other times you just need a comic about a dude hitting bears. I’m certain the Comedy Central version of Stephen Colbert would agree.
All-Star Superman: In this singularly humane story by writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely, Superman deals with his own mortality. He develops cancer after getting up and personal with the sun — but never, ever gives up on making the world a better place. The page where Superman rescues and comforts a suicidal teen is one of the most uplifting in the history of comics, and the series is full of the optimism that made Superman a wonder in the best comics and the Christopher Reeve movies. This Superman — unlike the scowling jerk in current DC movies — is so noble he even believes Lex Luthor has good in him. That kind of optimism, so hard to come by these days, is much-needed.