At their best, comics (and their thicker brethren, graphic novels) combine deep, thoughtful storytelling with real works of art. I’m glad to see that great comics are still being written and drawn (and inked and colored) and that science fiction is really well represented in the comics world.
In a future just a few years down the road, a woman’s failure to comply with her patriarchal overlords will result in exile to the meanest penal planet in the galaxy. When the newest crop of fresh femmes arrive, can they work together to stay alive or will hidden agendas, crooked guards, and the deadliest sport on (or off!) Earth take them to their maker?
“Seldom do comics burst onto the scene and shatter our worldview by being entirely poignant, raw, and captivating—but then, most comics aren’t Bitch Planet.”
— Entertainment Weekly
The cult hit 2001 Nights is a combination of 2001: A Space Odyssey and a science fiction version of 1001 Arabian Nights. It’s a loosely connected series of stories following humanity’s exploration of space over the course of several hundred years.
“It is reminiscent of the classics and develops its science fiction well enough on its own that is not diminished by comparisons.”
— Ain’t It Cool News
Saga is a hugely popular and imaginative series won the 2013 Hugo for Best Graphic Story. Personally, I couldn’t get into it. The inclusion of so much fantasy in a science fiction book simply put me off. However, it’s so popular that it’s earned a space on this list.
When two soldiers from opposite sides of a never-ending galactic war fall in love, they risk everything to bring a fragile new life into a dangerous old universe.
“Vaughan’s whip-snap dialogue is as smart, cutting, and well timed as ever.”
— Booklist (starred review)
Planetes is a hard SF manga that’s often recommended as a “gateway” manga for newbies. It takes place in 2075 and the follows the lives of three interplanetary space debris collectors—Hachimaki, who dreams of owning his own spaceship; Yuri, who lost his wife in a space travel accident; and Fee, who has left her husband and young son on Earth to join the crew.
“[H]ighly recommended by manga enthusiasts, in part, because of its realistic tone, rich backstories, and complex themes…”
— Mental Floss
In a future where New York has evolved into a sci-fi metropolis, “S,” a man addicted to “heavy liquid,” a substance that is both a drug and an art form, finds himself trapped in a mystery littered with love and drugs. This Eisner Award-nominated tale follows S’s journey across two continents as he searches for the one artist skilled enough to render heavy liquid into a perfect sculpture. But as he attempts to complete this mission, S finds himself battling deadly psychopathic foes and inner demons of addiction. If he can survive these physical and mental trials, S just may discover the shocking secret of heavy liquid and a love he thought lost forever.
The Eisner-winner RASL is by Jeff Smith, author of the kid-friendly epic fantasy Bone. The noirish RASL is definitely grittier than Bone, so adjust your expectations. It’s a hard-boiled tale of an inter-dimensional art thief caught between dark government forces and the mysterious powers of the universe itself.
“Stunning visual narrative that impresses with its originality, sophistication, and complexity.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Neo-Tokyo is built on the ashes of a Tokyo annihilated by a blast of unknown origin that triggered World War III. The lives of two streetwise teenage friends, Tetsuo and Kaneda, change forever when paranormal abilities begin to waken in Tetsuo, making him a target for a shadowy agency that will stop at nothing to prevent another catastrophe like the one that leveled Tokyo. At the core of the agency’s motivation is a raw, all-consuming fear of an unthinkable, monstrous power known only as Akira.
One of the first manga to be translated in its entirety.
“Otomo’s hyperkinetic black-and-white drawings explode across the page.”
— Publishers Weekly
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is set in the future at the closing of the ceramic era, 1,000 years after the Seven Days of Fire, a cataclysmic global war, in which industrial civilization self-destructed. Although humanity survived, the land surface of the Earth is still heavily polluted and the seas have become poisonous. Most of the world is covered by the Sea of Corruption, a toxic forest of fungal life and plants, which is steadily encroaching on the remaining open land.
Three house pets are weaponized for lethal combat by the government. But they are just the program’s prototypes, and now that their testing is complete, they’re slated to be permanently “decommissioned,” causing them to seize their one chance to make a desperate run for freedom. Relentlessly pursued by their makers, the We3 team must navigate a frightening and confusing world where their instincts and heightened abilities make them as much a threat as those hunting them—but a world, nonetheless, where there is something called “home.”
“It’s a groundbreaking and bravura performance.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
The “garage” of the title is actually an asteroid in the constellation Leo that houses a pocket universe. Major Grubert orbits the asteroid in his spaceship Ciguri, from which he oversees the development of the worlds contained within. Several entities, including Jerry Cornelius, seek to invade the garage.
Moebius has explained that the story was improvised in a deliberately whimsical or capricious manner. For this reason, the story is at times (deliberately) confusing.
After years of self-imposed exile from a civilization rife with degradation and indecency, cynical journalist Spider Jerusalem (an homage to gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson) is forced to return to a job he hates and a city he loathes. Working as an investigative reporter for the newspaper The Word, Spider attacks the injustices of his surreal 23rd century surroundings.
In the first volume, Spider ventures into the dangerous Angels 8 district, home of the Transients—humans who have decided to become aliens through cosmetic surgery. But Spider’s interview with the Transients’ leader gets him a scoop he didn’t bargain for. And don’t miss Spider’s first confrontation with the President of the United States… in a men’s room.
Detective John Difool is the key to the Universe after accidentally discovering the mystical Incal artifact!
“It’s quite simply one of the most perfect comics ever conceived.”
— Mark Millar, writer of Kick-Ass and The Ultimates
Mooncop is an oddly beautiful piece of work about the last policeman on the moon. Short and simply drawn, it’s a quiet story, with broad lunar landscapes and mostly-silent people that go about their business as the lunar colony slowly winds down.
The quiet is just on the surface, though. It’s clear there’s more going on in the heads of the characters than just what’s in the speech bubbles.
The writer/illustrator Tom Gault is a popular cartoonist in Britain. After reading Mooncop, check out his funny comic collection Baking with Kafka.
“Mooncop [is a] light, rueful comedy, whose motor is the absence of anything happening…long, lovely silent passages…Even when dreams don’t quite work out, the book suggests, it can still be possible to find beauty in them.”
―The New York Times
This Eisner winner is set in suburban Seattle in the mid-1970s. A strange plague has descended upon the area’s teenagers, transmitted by sexual contact. The disease is manifested in any number of ways, from the hideously grotesque to the subtle (and concealable) But once you’ve got it, that’s it. There’s no turning back.
As we inhabit the heads of several key characters—some kids who have it, some who don’t, some who are about to get it—what unfolds isn’t the expected battle to fight the plague, or bring heightened awareness to it, or even to treat it. What we become witness to instead is a fascinating and eerie portrait of the nature of high school alienation itself—the savagery, the cruelty, the relentless anxiety and ennui, the longing for escape.
And then the murders start.
When the space shuttle Venture returns to Earth after a ten year disappearance with all of its crew missing except for the catatonic pilot and with substantial changes to the ship, a team of three specialists must discover what happened.
“Ellis has struck gold: his old talents for mad ideas and nuanced tough talk melds with a new optimism, giving this story an emotional depth far beyond that of typical sci-fi.”
— Publishers Weekly
Every male mammal on Earth dies, except for one human guy. He travels the world in search of his lost love and the answer to why he’s the last man on earth.
“Funny and scary … an utterly believable critique of society. A+”
— Washington Post
She’s a beer-swilling, chain-smoking, kangaroo-worrying lunatic who blitzes her way through a dazzling array of bizarre adventures, including bounty hunting, delivering colostomy bags to Australian presidents, and kangaroo boxing.
“As much of a wisecracker as she is woman warrior.”
— New York Times
This is one of the few stories that combine science fiction and fantasy elements in a seamless way that actually works.
The Ronin, a dishonored, masterless 13th Century samurai, is mystically given a second chance to avenge his master’s death. Suddenly finding himself reborn in a futuristic and corrupt 21st Century New York City, the samurai discovers he has one last chance to regain his honor: he must defeat the reincarnation of his master’s killer, the ancient demon Agat. In a time and place foreign and unfathomable to him, the Ronin stands against his greatest enemy with his life and, more importantly, his soul at stake.
“His brutal yet elegant noir renderings, pulpy yet eloquent scripting, and thoroughly uncompromising attitude make [Frank Miller] one of the most distinctive voices in comics.”
— Entertainment Weekly
In a near-future world, a fascist government has taken over the U.K. The only blot on its particular landscape is a lone terrorist who is systematically killing (through terrorism and seemingly absurd acts) all the government personnel associated with a now destroyed secret concentration camp.
The masked hero/villain saves a young girl and takes her under his intelligent but strange wing.
At one point in time, V for Vendetta seemed overly paranoid. Not so today.
Normal Earthling Zita is transported to a mysterious alien planet, which appears to be the Star Wars cantina dialed up to eleven. Zita must rescue her friend who’s been kidnapped by an alien cult while dealing with con men, bloodthirsty robots, humanoid chickens, a friendly giant mouse, and the impending destruction of the planet she’s standing on.
Zita the Spacegirl is fun and captivating: my son (and I) has read it many, many, many times. Strongly recommended.
Deep into the twenty-first century, the line between man and machine has been inexorably blurred as humans rely on the enhancement of mechanical implants, and robots are upgraded with human tissue. In this rapidly converging landscape, cyborg superagent Major Motoko Kusanagi must track down the craftiest and most dangerous criminals, including “ghost hackers” who are capable of exploiting the human/machine interface and reprogramming humans to become puppets to carry out the hackers’ criminal ends. When Major Kusanagi tracks the cybertrail of one such master hacker, the Puppeteer, her quest leads her into a world beyond information and technology where the very nature of consciousness and the human soul are turned upside down.
“This is a work of profound and melancholic beauty; every bit as essential in the 21st century as it was in the 20th.”