The mention of comic books usually brings to mind images of masked crusaders in capes and tights, with some sort of superhuman power(s); comics has become nearly synonymous with superheroes. However, there is a plethora of fantastic comic series out there that don’t feature superheroes at all. It’s not that we don’t love spandex-clad vigilantes, but when comic book writers don’t have those superhero tropes to rely on, they tend to come up with some highly original and compelling concepts (as evidenced below).
Here’s our ultimate list of the 21 best non-superhero comics, which proves that there really is a comic for everyone.
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Fiona Staples
One of my personal all-time favorites, Saga is the story of two star-crossed lovers who started out as soldiers in opposing armies in an interplanetary war. It begins with the birth of their daughter, Hazel, who narrates most of the tale as they flee across space from the government and its hired bounty hunters. With a wildly imaginative plot (we’re talking a lie detecting cat, people with televisions for heads, and a forest that grows autonomous spaceship-trees) and absolutely stunning artwork, this series is a must-read for all comic book fans, as well as an ideal starting point for those who are new to the world of comics. I hate to gush, but seriously, this is just amazing for so many reasons – not least of which is the fact that the first volume features breastfeeding on the cover.
2. East of West
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Nick Dragotta
One of Image’s most impressive debuts over the past few years is East of West, a sci-fi western comic revolving around the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Horsemen are depicted as heroes, with Death even having a Clint Eastwood vibe; the three others, however, disagree with his stance on the apocalypse, causing him to break way from them. Death’s character is by far the most interesting, as he even falls in love in the story (which is a strange thought, Death being in love). The idea behind the comic series is absolutely fantastic, and it’s executed well. The pages are colorful and the art is gorgeous. The story is textured and rich, with an epic feel to it, and well worth the read. It’s the apocalypse with a Western feel – what’s not to love?
Writer: Bill Willingham
Artist: Lan Medina, Steve Leialoha, Craig Hamilton, James Jean
Fables is about beloved fairy tale creatures that have been forced from their Homeland by an enemy known as “The Adversary”, and now reside in Manhattan’s Upper West Side (vaguely similar to television’s Once Upon a Time). They have formed a secret society known as Fabletown, and hide among the “mundy” citizens of New York City, fighting for their survival. The first volume reads much like a murder mystery, with a reformed Big Bad Wolf serving as the sheriff of Fabletown; each volume, however, has its own unique feel, which is part of what makes this series stand out. Willingham provides a unique take on the characters we know and love, which he has adapted well for the modern-world setting.
4. The Walking Dead
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Artist: Tony Moore
Denying The Walking Dead‘s importance in the comic book world would be a crime, and we’re not criminals. The Walking Dead is one of the best comic book series of the past ten years, and thanks to the AMC series, it has exploded in popularity. It’s the comic book that made us first fall in love with Image Comics, pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a comic book. The series is filled with incredibly shocking moments (not to mention cool zombies). It’s a brilliant take on the zombie apocalypse and what it means to be human. It frequently has its readers pondering what they would do in the various situations that Rick and the gang often find themselves in – and when you truly stop to think about it, Rick is essentially a superhero without the cape, anyway.
5. Y: the Last Man
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Pia Guerra, Jose Marzan Jr.
Y: the Last Man is an essential read for comic book lovers looking for non-superhero stories. It’s 60 issues of a brilliantly told post-apocalyptic story, filled with adventure. It follows the story of a man and his pet monkey, in a dystopian world where everyone else has seemingly vanished. It’s set after all living mammals with a Y chromosome simultaneously die, except for the young man, Yorick, and his monkey, Ampersand. New Line was slated to develop a movie based on the property, but sadly, it has since been cancelled. Luckily, FX announced in October that a Y: The Last Man TV series is in the works, and we can’t wait for this story to be adapted to TV. We highly recommend that you go out and read this before that happens.
6. Watson and Holmes
Writer: Karl Bollers
Artist: Rick Leonardi
Watson and Holmes – A Study in Black re-imagines the famed characters from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as two African American men living in modern-day Harlem. Watson is an Afghanistan war vet working at an inner-city clinic, and connects with Holmes – who is a PI – when one of his cases ends up in the emergency room. The creators funded the project on Kickstarter, and quickly surpassed their goal; also, it was nominated for an Eisner award in 2013. The idea of transplanting Sherlock Holmes to a more modern setting is not exactly a novel idea, but Watson and Holmes offers a fresh take on the concept. We’re interested in any and all Sherlock incarnations, and especially love the idea of depicting the beloved duo as POC.
7. Scott Pilgrim
Writer: Bryan Lee O’Mally
Artist: Bryan Lee O’Mally
I’m sure you’re all familiar with the 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World starring Michael Cera, which is of course based on this comic. Scott Pilgrim is a manga-influenced series about a 23-year-old Canadian slacker that plays in a rock band and is dating a high school girl. His life is turned upside-down when he meets Ramona Flowers, a cute rollerblading delivery girl, but in order to win her heart he will have to defeat her seven evil exes in battle. This comic is adorably quirky, lighthearted, and just plain fun; if you saw the movie and liked it, you should definitely read it and if you didn’t – read it anyway.
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Artist: Paul Azaceta, Elizabeth Breitweiser
Outcast is another horror series from the creator of The Walking Dead, and if that’s not enough to pique your interest, you should know that the television series is coming to Cinemax this June. This world is equally creepy; Kyle Barnes has been surrounded by demonic possessions his entire life, and has consequently become a recluse. The local preacher discovers that he has a knack for exorcisms and teams up with him to discover what, exactly, makes him a target for demons; they all seem to know him, and call him “outcast”. The artwork is fantastic, and fits the bleak tone of the story perfectly. The plot meanders along and there are not many answers in the first volume, but stick with it – it will be worth it by the second volume, we promise. You’ll definitely want to get ahead of the game and read this before the TV series debuts.
9. Sin City by Frank Miller
Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: Frank Miller
Frank Miller, previously known for his work on such titles as Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns, really comes into his own with Sin City, which is a must-read for comic noir fans. If you saw the film and enjoyed it, you should definitely check out the comic. If you didn’t and you’re not familiar with the story, it is as follows: Marv wakes up from a night with Goldie, a prostitute seeking his protection and also his dream woman, to find her dead; he sets out to find her killer and avenge her death in a city run by the corrupt. It is a noir masterpiece, uber-gritty and atmospheric; the stark black-and-white artwork is striking and perfectly suited to the story. Be warned, though – the graphic violence is not for the faint of heart, but if you can stomach it, get your hands on a copy of this immediately.
Writer: Tim Seeley
Artist: Mike Norton
Tim Seeley’s Revival is one of the darkest comics we’ve ever read (and that’s saying something). It follows the story of a rural town in Wisconsin who sees the dead come back to life, forcing the town to deal with their dead loved ones. They’re not exactly zombies in the traditional sense, as they retain their intelligence and personalities; they are, however, unquestionably dead. But what happens when a brutal murder is committed in the town, and everyone becomes a suspect? Technically, it’s a zombie story, but there’s so much more to love about this macabre tale. The art is incredible — of course, it’s frequently highlighted with shades of red — and the story plays out like a crime noir. If you’re looking for a different sort of tale about the undead, Revival is a great choice.
11. Locke & Key
Writer: Joe Hill
Artist: Gabriel Rodriguez
More From Nerd Much?:
Locke & Key is a series from New York Times bestseller Joe Hill (the spawn of Stephen King) that tells the story of the Locke family, who moves to Lovecraft, Massachusetts – to a mansion known as Keyhouse – after Mr. Locke is brutally murdered. They find some unexpected surprises in the ancestral home: it’s full of doors that require special keys to open them and do strange things to those who enter, and there is a vengeful spirit in a well. It’s clear that Joe Hill inherited a flair for the macabre from his father, as genuinely creepy and unsettling moments abound…some are just downright disturbing, but in the best way. Also, Gabriel Rodriguez’s artwork is fantastic. Fans of horror, this is the comic series for you.
12. The Sandman
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artist: Sam Keith, Mike Dringenberg
The Sandman is the Eisner Award-winning masterpiece from New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman, and one of the earliest publications from DC imprint Vertigo. As is typical of Gaiman’s work, it is rich in mythology and fantastically surreal. In the first volume, magician Roderick Burgess attempts to capture Death in order to attain immortality, but mistakenly captures Dream instead. After Roderick dies and his son Alex inherits Dream’s captivity, but Dream manages to escape and curse Alex. He then sets off on a quest to recover his totems of power, and we are eventually introduced to his sister Death. This is a must-read even if you’re not typically a fan of comics, and definitely if you are a fan of Gaiman’s novels; it definitely lives up to all the hype.
Writer: Garth Ennis
Artist: Steve Dillon
In Preacher, small-town minister Jesse Custer, who is struggling with his faith, merges with a spiritual force called Genesis and gains the power of “the Word”, which is the basically the ability to make people do whatever he says. The Reverend then teams up with his gun-toting ex-girlfriend and a whiskey-drinking Irish vampire and sets out on a cross-country quest to find God. It is highly irreverent, profane, gruesome – and also a great story with fantastic artwork. If you’re not the type that’s easily offended by harsh and graphic language, this series is worth reading.
14. Bitch Planet
Writer: Kelly Sue DeConnick
Artist: Valentine De Landro
Yes, this comic is as awesome as the title makes it sound; the best part, undoubtedly, is that it is unapologetic in its feminism. Eisner Award nominee Kelly Sue DeConnick brings us to a dystopian future in which women are exiled to a penal colony for being non-compliant in a patriarchal society (think Margaret Atwood meets Orange is the New Black in space) – which can include things as simple as not conforming to strict standards of beauty. Bitch Planet takes all the issues women currently face in their day-to-day lives and takes them to an extreme, which makes for a poignant commentary on the ludicrousness of the scrutiny that women are subject to. This comic is a feminist’s dream, and you should drop everyting you’re doing to read it.
Writer: John Layman
Artist: Rob Guillory
Chew reminds me of iZombie, in that detective Tony Chu is a cibopathic, which means he gets psychic impressions from whatever he eats. Also, chicken has been outlawed due to a bird flu epidemic and the FDA is now the law of the land. Tony is hired by their Special Crimes Division to investigate their most bizarre crimes using his unique ability. His one weakness, by the way, is beets. He’s not actually a zombie, but he still nibbles on the corpses of murder victims in order to solve the case. It’s frequently incredibly gross and also laugh-out-loud hilarious; readers should prepare to find themselves simultaneously repulsed and highly entertained. Just don’t plan to read this while you’re eating.
16. 100 Bullets
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artist: Eduardo Risso
If you were given the opportunity to exact revenge on one person who has wronged you in some way, without any consequences whatsoever (you could literally get away with murder), would you take it? That is the question 100 Bullets asks its readers. The mysterious Agent Graves approaches potential clients with just such an offer; he carries a briefcase with absolute proof of the transgression against you (including the person’s identity), a gun with 100 bullets, and a guarantee of immunity. The first two people given this chance are a Latina woman whose husband and son were murdered, and a man who lost everything after being falsely accused of pedophilia. Will they take the offer? You’ll have to read to find out.
Writer: Jeff Smith
We’ve included a lot of gritty, adult-themed comics on this list, so we’re looking to balance that out with Bone (which is worthy enough in its own right). It shook the foundation of the comic world when it debuted, and it remains one of those timeless classics that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. In the first volume, the Bone cousins are exiled from their homeland of Boneville, separated, and lost in the desert; they make their way into a mysterious, forested valley, and epic adventures ensue. The adorable artwork has now been re-imagined in color, but it was stunning even in black and white. Bone would be a perfect introduction for those who are new to comics, and it’s one that parents can (and should) buy to read with their children.
18. American Vampire
Writer: Scott Snyder, Stephen King
Artist: Rafael Albuquerque
Eisner Award-winning writer Scott Snyder, known for his work on various Batman comics, has also collaborated with Stephen King on a vampire series titled American Vampire. Basically, they each wrote half of the story and stuck ’em together; Snyder’s takes place in the 1920s, where aspiring actress Pearl is attacked and left for dead, until Skinner Sweat steps in and turns her to a vampire. King’s story takes us back to the Wild West in the 1880s, and deals with Skinner Sweat’s origins, and how he became the American Vampire. This is a classic horror story, and the vampires are not romanticized; rather, they are portrayed as the killers they were always meant to be. The two writings styles are distinct, yet fit together perfectly; this comic is a must-read for horror fans.
19. Sex Criminals
Writer: Matt Fraction
Artist: Chip Zdarsky
The premise for Sex Criminals is so incredibly unique and well-executed that I couldn’t not include it; it was even named one of Time Magazine‘s top 10 graphic novels for 2013. It starts out as a sort of coming-of-age story in which Suzie discovers that she has a rather singular ability: she can stop time when she orgasms. Not sure if she’s the only one with this ability, she endeavors to find a way to bring this up in conversation without it being super awkward. Eventually, she meets Jon, who possesses the same capability, and of course they fall in love. Which begs the question: what are two people whose sex literally halts time to do? Rob banks, of course! Initially, they are doing this for the noble purpose of saving their local library. Of course, they’re not the only ones in the world with time-stopping power, and of course there is THE SEX POLICE. Hilariously awkward and NSFW, this comic may make you feel uncomfortable reading it in public, but you should definitely read it (if only in the comfort of your own home).
Writer: Josh Williamson
Artist: Adam Guzowski, Mike Henderson
In Nailbiter, NSA Agent Nicholas Finch must solve the mystery of why the town of Buckaroo, Oregon has produced 16 of the world’s worst serial killers in order to save his friend. To do so, he must team up with the most recent of these serial killers: Edward “Nailbiter” Warren. It is a great horror-mystery with a gripping plot, peppered with plenty of Silence of the Lambs references. It’s almost more of a psychological thriller than outright classic horror, so even if you’re not a fan of traditional slasher stories, you might find that you enjoy Nailbiter. As the title suggests, there are some rather gory scenes, so don’t read if you’re easily grossed out – but if you’re not, definitely do.
21. Afterlife With Archie
Writer: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Artist: Francesco Francavilla
Take everything you thought you knew about the Archie comics and throw them out the window; this is the Archie comics for people who don’t read Archie comics. Jughead’s pet Hot Dog is killed in a hit-and-run, and Jughead enlists the aid of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. She is successful after a fashion, but Hot Dog is not his old self, and it turns out she has unwittingly unleashed a zombie apocalypse on the world, forcing the gang to try and escape from Riverdale. The familiar characters are beautifully fleshed out (no pun intended), and Afterlife with Archie is much more adult-themed than the Archie comics we’re used to — it’s kind of like the original comics combined with The Walking Dead. So be prepared for that if you’re a longtime fan, but don’t let it deter you from reading.