Some comic creators you can really find a high-water mark with their superhero books, mainly because the kind of talent and infrastructure that supports them is fantastic. Brian Woods is not one of these. His personal stories, straying into political, revolutionary, mythological, and coming of age themes, run the kind of gamut that you would be hard pressed to find in almost any medium. His narratives look at the nature of character and community in high-intensity environments. From the inter-revolutionary period of DMZ, to the post-Crash discovery of The Massive, his work is built around looking at the possibilities for macro civilization under-strain, and what you find when the juice is finally squeezed.
All of this is mixed with an art and design sensibility taken straight from the culture-jamming ethos that many of his most deeply drawn characters would share. Block constructs, street art, digital mash up, and multiple type faces together tell you almost as much as the text on the page, and set up an entire world-view that strays from the path well traveled. Each panel feels like an AdBusters construct, challenging the ways that media represents the world around us, and how we look at reality and develop it into a narrative. Part fictional journalism, part travelogue of the possible future, his work collectively sees the world as both fragile and everlasting, the kind of destructive optimism that we need right now.
So, with that fawning description in mind, I am putting together the top five Brian Wood comics list. Just to apologize now, there are no superhero books on this list. A couple will be mentioned in the Notable Mentions section, but I will continue to maintain that his creator-owned work just blasts above any of those licensed properties. This includes many of his work on Star Wars and Conan, both of which were spectacular.
This is what young adult should look like. With short vignettes that look at young people dealing with the regular hurdles that make the teenage years ones that you barely survive, with a small catch being emerging superpowers. Each short piece over the two volumes has fully realized characters with real weight to them, and it keeps the fantastical elements to a minimum as you instead find catharsis and reflection in the people on the page that you can recognize. Becky Cloonan’s black and white strong images cannot be understated as well.
- Channel Zero
The earliest one on the list, and one that really helped launch Brian Wood. This is heavy on the design that would become part and parcel, and it plays directly with the story of a hacker challenging a dystopian religious fascist state. All of the elements that he would use in later series are birthed here, and the raw state of the art makes for a visceral experience that draws you in immediately and makes it the kind of book you want to carry with you. The cyberpunk elements here are also made uniquely American in that you start to associate the possible existential enemies as being Christian, which was a real possibility in the late 90s and early 2000s.
- The Massive
This recently completed book is one that feels more like a maxi-series, even though it lasted thirty full issues as well as the appearance in Dark Horse Presents. It tells the story of a Sea Shepard-like group of environmental direct action marine warriors, who are on mission when the world begins to end. They are perpetually looking for their sister ship, which may or may not have found a new angle on survival, and many of their crew run a lot deeper than we could imagine. The art and colors are breathtaking, and the short three-issue arcs are always fulfilling and take you on a long story that never burns itself out.
This is often called Wood’s magnum opus, and no top five Brian Wood comic lists would leave it out. This story from Vertigo looks at a militia movement gone full revolution as they run a middle-American revolt, all the way to New York City. These urbanites are now caught in a Demilitarized Zone where they have to find a way to survive in the midst of an ongoing conflict, emerging tribalism, and territorial struggles that seem implicit when people are vying for power. Both a meditation on political divides in America, as well as the necessity of community and relationship, this is an incredible use of dystopia and political radicalism to go beyond the politics themselves.
This is the top of the list by a huge margin. These stories of Vikings during different periods of the Norse age is heavily researched and gives a look directly into all aspects of these unique peoples’ lives. One of the real strengths here is that it is able to change both subject and tone so dramatically while still bringing cohesion to the whole series. With Metal they draw inspiration from the Black Metal themes of strength and anti-Christianity, and the Icelandic Trilogy draws from epic organized crime stories. Whether it is focused on the women, or the male warriors going from childhood to adulthood, the stories are tight and clear, always creating challenging characters that are instantly readable. It has been criticized for drawing on the more controversial and sensational aspects of the Viking culture, but it does so in a celebratory way that makes this the kind of comic that is both fulfilling and instantly entertaining. The art is varied between the different episodes in the series, and with people like Fiona Staples and Becky Clooney it is hard to find a single panel that isn’t stunning. A winner from start to finish, and one I will continue to return to for years to come.
His short story from this anthology tells the quick story of the generations in the development of a feminist communal society, and continues his look at post-revolutionary societies with strong female and non-male characters.
Wood has recently taken over Moon Knight from Warren Ellis and the series has only gotten better, developing a visual style where Wood’s eye for design only enhances the colorful art.
A great young readers miniseries from Image telling the story of a future professional athlete Mara who suddenly, and very publicly, discovers she has super powers. This was a hard one to not include to the main list, and it is a quick and wonderful read that should be on your list.