Though it may seem like a natural fit at this point, there is nothing intrinsic about the comic book form that naturally aligns it with superhero characters. This genre took off during the golden age when competing with other pulp genres like westerns and various “adventure” tales, and its popularity has now been ingrained in the culture through superheros’ place as modern mythology. The mainstream of superhero comics, from Marvel and DC to their replacements in the smaller companies, have real high points of greatness, but because they are the “bread and butter” they rarely take a lot of risks. Over the years there have been superhero books that challenged this, that deconstructed the idea of the superhero or came at the genre with a unique look that allowed for a shift in the way that these types of characters are seen. For lack of a better title we are going to call these “alternative” superhero comics that utilize the superhero genre with a slightly different edge than the mainstream.
Ok, we just need to get this one out of the way. This is obviously the best known of these as this launched the darker and more self-referential take on the superhero that we have had since its release in 1986. It takes a realistic look at what would happen to a world with autonomous masked heros in it, and the reactionary and genocidal elements at play. This was the first major work to take the superhero out of the “apirational hero” role of the casual youth reader and into a real place of social commentary.
This was Alan Moore’s first real attempt at the deconstructionist superhero that he perfected in Watchmen, while also using the “reconstructionist” method of restructuring a character’s backstory. Here Miracleman discovers that his original golden age history was actually implanted in his mind, and we are challenged as he uses his powers to completely reshape society into a utopian socialist vision that borders on authoritarianism. Every part of this books draws on the complex place that a superhuman would have in a modern society, and the difficulty that it would place in raising children, having relationships, and building a society with a rebellious underclass.
This books could not be more different than the previous entries. Instead of using superheros as a way of deconstructing the more difficult elements of the human condition, Astro City celebrates the idea of the hero with an anthology tale taking place in a metropolis that is built around its superhuman population. Telling the stories of people who work with heros, heros themselves, and those on the outside, it has a real love for the genre that draws on its entire hundred year history and uses it as an vessel to tell real rich character stories.
One of the holy grails of post-modern comics, and what launched Grant Morrison’s career into American comics. The first twenty-seven issues takes Animal Man, a b-comics character, into a self-referential place where we use Looney Tunes as christ metaphors and where Morrison himself becomes a character in the book. Even the later runs maintain a real amazing feel as it shift more towards a horror book, and the hero himself begins leading a cult that focuses on him as an avatar of a subdermal natural force called The Red. This even extends itself somewhat into the Jeff Lemire run of Animal Man in the New 52, which somehow was able to maintain the darker tone and personal interaction between the family members.
This is again Grant Morrison’s take on a team of obscure, and not particularly good superheros. He then helped drive the area of the DCU that would become Vertigo, and utilize radical politics, dissident art movements, and occult traditions to weave one of the strangest meta takes on the superhero concept. His run, starting at issue #19 also set the tone for later writers and we can see that from that point on he uses the superhero concept to really explore the fringes of reality.
The Punisher character in the Marvel universe was built for a more adult and realistic take, and that is exactly what Garth Ennis did in Punisher MAX. Here the mass murderer that is the Punisher is seen for what he is, a man on a run of bloody vengeance. The several volumes that Garth Ennis wrote draw their own universe and then set the stage for later authors like Jason Aaron that continued the theme that was set. This is the best MAX book to be released yet, and an example for how you can evolve a character based on what is really implicit to its qualities.
Alan Moore’s most personal, and almost didactic, work on the role of magic in the culture. Here, a character gets superpowers from the ability to tell stories, and she draws together as a part of Moore’s miniuniverse of America’s Best Comics. When we now look back on the five volumes of Prometheus we see an incredibly rich artscape where the source of the powers is really a meditation on both the role of fiction and of esoteric occult traditions in forming the critical parts of the culture. If that sounds a little academic, you’re right.
Grant Morrison’s Batman
So this is a bit of cheating for the list. First, it is including multiple different runs. Second, the main run here is actually the very definition of mainstream comics since it was his run on the central DC title. That being said, what Grant Morrison actually does as he takes us through Batman and Son, Batman RIP, Return of Bruce Wayne, Batman and Robine, Batman Inc., and all the rest of the storylines that make up his run, is one of the more complicated deconstructionist adaptations of a comics character that you will find. Driving the character through the meta-religious crossover Final Crisis, each storyline again takes Grant Morrison’s obsession with the occult into how they develop Batman’s rogues gallery, and the storylines play more like dark myth than action story. This theme is also at play in Morrison’s first major Batman work: the Arkham Asylum graphic novel. Here Dave McKean’s cut-up painting work draws one of the most adult and disturbing takes on Batman, where he his own fragmented psychology is seen through a confrontation with the inhabitants of the famous asylum. Morrison’s take on Batman in its various manifestations is as close as you will get to an alternative superhero comic being thrust onto a classic character. Well, at least until you get to Multiversity.
This original run that marked the beginning of Vertigo has Neil Gaiman again revamping an old and forgotten character for a new radical take on the superhuman universe. Instead, playing with memory and the “victim scientist,” Black Orchid uses the painted method that characterized that period in the early nineties to create a dreamlike narrative that helped set the stage for books like Sandman. The original three issue miniseries is a true classic, though even the brief ongoing that came later is worth a read.
The heart of Alan Moore’s brief universe, America’s Best Comics, Tom Strong is a celebration of golden age comics and pulp stories. Telling the story of Tom who was raised on an island by scientist parents in a gravity chamber and fed a strange indigenous plant that would give him powers, he is America’s “science hero” who is super strong and seemingly unaging. Him and his multiracial family confront fascists, intergalactic invaders, and deal with parallel versions, time travel, and interdimensional dangers in every issue. Usually drawing on the designs of the past, it tells interesting morality tales while also having fun with many of the absurd conventions that you can have in a superhero book. This extended beyond just its main series, but also includes Tom Strong’s Terrific Tales, Terra Obscura, and others. Even now that ABC is long gone, the Tom Strong character keeps returning. More recently there was a miniseries(though not written by Alan Moore) on Vertigo titled Tom Strong and the Planet of Peril, drawing on the parallel characters of Terra Obscura.
How does a book sound about a superhero who gives up heroics and decides to become the mayor of New York? This may not sound like the most engaging concept out there, but Brian K. Vaughn’s Ex Machina, original published at Wildstorm, is one of the most engaging takes on a superhuman narratives that has ever been written. Going into the depths of what it takes to run a city and how this plays with a previous life that was somewhat “off the grid,” our main character balances the power to “talk to electronics” with the responsibilities at a bi-partisan leader of the biggest city in America. Great characters, rich storytelling, and it never relies on action heroics at the cost of real human stories.
What is superheros acknowledged their real power? The power to withhold labor in a collective bargaining unit, striking for better wages, benefits, and control in the workplace. C.O.W.L., a newer book at Image tells the story of a superhero union in Chicago in the 1950s, where some of the heros have powers and some don’t. Here the city attempts to bust the union based on the idea that they have already taken care of all the supervillains. This leads to underhanded dealings, questionable moral responses, and an interesting character complexity that we are not used to in most superhero books.
For those who read The Authority now it may not stand out immediately what is really “alternative” about it, but at the time this was earth shattering. For one, it was the first superhero book to really do the “widescreen” blockbuster format. This means huge splashes, huge destruction, planet destorying violence. Second, the heroes dealt with issues on a scale that could not even be considered in most mainstream books. Third, it dealt with international politics in both a cynical and revolutionary focused way, where the heroes overthrew third-world dictators and were subverted by the state when they challenged the ruling class. The storytelling is crisp and challenging, still holding a “mature readers” label, and the first two volumes have epic four-issue arcs from Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, and Mark Millar. Not only this, there was upfront queer characters and sexuality that was not forced to the background, while also matching human qualities with archetypes and mythology that holds a real sort of social and ethical commentary.
As with any list we are missing a lot of very worthy candidates. The recent book Sex from Image, Supreme, Black Hood from Dark Circle, and so many other stand out. What books have held this place in your long boxes?