The last 10 years have seen an explosion in independent comics, and not just in terms of volume. Independent comics as a whole are getting more experimental again and pushing the medium creatively like we haven’t seen since the early 90s.
Now seems like the perfect time to run through some of our choices for best in each category.
First, a definition of “indie:”
Creator-owned, creator controlled – While I love series from Vertigo and Marvel Knights, their comics are still under the thumb of corporate concerns. They have greater leniency, but not “independence.”
Nothing too big – While we celebrate books like Hellboy and Walking Dead, they’re kinda their own thing at this point with their own artistic concerns. If you’re big enough to have a movie franchise or a television series, you need your own list.
One per author – Some creators on this list have had an amazing decade, putting out multiple titles of note. So to keep things interesting, we’re going to judge those creators against themselves as well, and just highlight what we feel is their best offering.
If you like Daytripper and/or haunting realism
Writer/Artist: Nick Drnaso
A young girl is catsitting for her parents. Her sister is with her. They talk about family and trips.
Calvin, an airman in the US Airforce, offers to put his childhood friend, Teddy, up for a while. We learn that Teddy’s girlfriend had gone missing a month before, and either this event or something else has left Teddy a quiet, child-like shell of a man.
The catsitting girl is Sabrina. Teddy was her boyfriend.
These calm, small details form the basis of this utterly haunting story. Crucially, this book is not a “true crime” style story which follows familiar procedural details. Instead, it is a focus on the modern state of “tragedy.” How it’s no longer private anymore and belongs to click-bait articles and half-baked commentators more than the victims or the accused. The book reevaluates concepts like “evidence,” “fact,” and “trust” in this internet addicted, post-Trump era. Most of all, it is a frighteningly clinical and dispassionate look at what has become of our lives.
Writer: Lark Pien
Artist: Gene Luen Yang
From the pair that brought us American Born Chinese comes a brand new story from Chinese legend. But impossibly, this one is real. Boxers & Saints is a two-book set telling the true story of the “Boxer Rebellion” of the late 19th century China. It’s a complicated tale about a battle between five armies:
- A coalition of Western forces (including England, France, Russia, America, Italy, and more) who wanted control of the opium trade
- One rebel Chinese faction who believed that practicing kung-fu and traditional mysticism would make them literally bulletproof
- An opposing Chinese faction led by a local man who believed himself to be the long lost brother of Jesus Christ
It’s an incredible story. And just like in their previous work, Pien and Yang do an impressive job of detangling legend and presenting it in a fashion that’s both easy to follow and faithful to history.
If you like DIE and/or teens in supernatural trouble
Writers: Boaz Lavie, Asaf Hanuka, Tomer Hanuka
Artist: Asaf Hanuka, Tomer Hanuka
Having magic face-off against conventional armies is by no means a new concept, but I’ve never seen it like this. The Divine is a wild reimagining of the Htoo rebellion of 2000 when twins Johnny and Luther Htoo lead a child army to overtake a Thai hospital. Only now it’s Yaksha temple guardians and dragons versus planes and tanks. All of this is illustrated in a bright, almost feverish style similar to James Jean’s work.
Writer/Artist: Paul Pope
I’m conflicted about including this book. Its author is facing serious accusations of sexual misconduct. Ones that fit a deeply depressing pattern in this industry.
And yet Battling Boy exists and is enjoyable. This is the conflict. There is a fun, all-ages read to be had in this book. There’s a pre-teen demigod battling monsters in a futuristic dystopia future. There’s a kind of pop-culture mythology at play that’s fascinating and fits well with the manga-influenced art.
None of that answers the questions about Pope. But it presents a reason to consider the book.
Writer/Artist: Farel Dalrymple
A twisting, turning, writhing story about childhood fantasy. A book that’s wholly unsuitable for children.
The Wrenchies is a post-modern, post-apocalyptic fairytale in which packs of feral children must fight the manifestations of childhood nightmares in order to survive. But in that maelstrom is a shockingly complex story which could take several readings to totally grasp. The book rewards as it shocks, questions even as it revels. It’s a great read, but not the easiest one on the list.
Writer/Artist: Vera Brosgol
This is the story of Anya, a teenage girl who struggles to fit in at a snobbish, private school. Like all teenagers, Anya blames this on her parents, Russian immigrants whose bleak and taciturn style influences the aesthetic of the book. Anya acts out in your standard teenage rebellions (short skirts, smoking, skipping school). All of this is rendered in a wonderfully realistic way… which makes the supernatural turn so fantastic.
Like in a fairytale, Anya falls down a well and encounters the ghost of another young girl, Emily, who is bitter for having died before she could have had the kind of normal life Anya has.
The rest of the book feels like a perfect blend of teenage angst and fantasy. Great plotting, realistic feel of high school. Ghosts. A great book for girls without being pigeonholed as a “girl’s book.”
If you like March and/or historical memoirs
Writers: Mark Long, Jim Demonakos
Artist: Nate Powell
The Silence of Our Friends is sort of the precursor to March. The book follows the struggles of two families – one black, one white – as they fight for civil rights in Houston, Texas. Much like March, the book focuses on the day-to-day degradations and humiliations faced by adults and children alike during this time of extreme social upheaval in lush, lyrical ink drawings.
Told in small scale and without much celebrity, this book perfectly captures the dread and beauty of the era.
Writer/Artist: Box Brown
Andre the Giant was like something out of a folktale. So mythical that it seems almost sacrilege to call him by his real name, André René Roussimoff. Everything about him was larger than life. A professional wrestler, a movie star, a violent drunk who would pick up every tab. He had a soft laugh and an almost shy personal style who was arrested in Iowa for beating up a cameraman. He loved life to excess but lived his whole life with a death sentence.
This book attempts to tell that whole story, without making Roussimoff either the heel or the face. Instead, it tries to express the fullness of the giant in an artistic style that is as beautifully minimalist as Andre’s private demeanor seems to have been.
Writer: Tee Franklin
Artists: Jenn St-Onge, Joy San
This is a different look at the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. Namely, what it meant for LGBTQ women of color at the time.
St-Onge’s style paired with San’s colors gives the book a fantastic feel. Franklin’s characters feel emotive and lively in a way that makes them feel more animated than drawn. This, in turn, really makes the reader feel their way through this rocky romance. We watch these women fall in love, fall out of it, grow up, marry husbands, and find each other again at 50.
The book truly feels like loving someone at an imperfect time, and the miracle of a second chance.
If you like Monstress and/or horror for a mature audience
Writer: Garth Ennis
Artist: Goran Sudžuka
Garth Ennis is one of the most consistently excellent comic writers going. His work on Punisher, Hitman, Preacher, and The Boys is all top-shelf work, but they all show that Ennis can have a definite type when it comes to stories: Big guys with big firepower bringing justice to the world. Essentially, Ennis is always making a cowboy movie… even if it sometimes has powers and angels in it.
This is what makes A Walk Through Hell so interesting. It’s basically two steps to the left. This is Garth doing X-Files or Kolchak, with ramped up suspense and a fair bit of blood. And all of it beautifully illustrated by Sudžuka.
Writer/Artist: Masaaki Nakayama
There is a difference between “frightening” and “unsettling.” To illustrate this: Jason and his machete are scary; a man watching you from a street light is unsettling. The shock and adrenaline rush of Jason is a lot of fun, but the man watching you? That will stick with you. It crawls under your skin.
That’s the experience of reading PTSD Radio. It starts as an anthology with seemingly unrelated stories. But as you read on, the stories form a kind of conspiracy. There’s a deeper story here about old gods, modern blasphemy, and ghosts that haunt people rather than places.
If you like East of West and/or the Biblical Apocalypse
Writer: Cullen Bunn
Artist: Juan Doe
You know the story. A flood is coming to wash the Earth clean. Noah builds an ark to save two of each animal. God, in his mercy, saves Noah and his family from the end of all creation. This is the story of the other ark. About Shrae and his ship filled with every monster imaginable, and the God of Hell that brings all this into being. The story is about asking one question: can an unholy ship filled with vampires, ogres, and beasts work together to survive?
If you liked Dark Nights: Metal but wished it had a soundtrack by Behemoth, this might be for you. This might definitely be for you.
Writer/Artist: Sean Gordon Murphy
This is a very different take on the American Armageddon. A clone of Jesus of Nazareth gets his own reality television show, which sets in motion the potential end of days. The writing is fun, with characters that feel fleshed out but still rough around the edges. The plotting is manic and fun, but still makes time for introspection or criticism. But best of all is Murphy’s art which feels exactly like the punk and goth zines I grew up with, only with a little more comic flare. There are scratchy lines, overprints, scenester layouts, and I swear he’s using zip-a-tone.
But don’t let all that grunge put you off: this book is supremely easy to read. And a hell of a lot of fun, too.
Writer: Ryan Burton
Artist: John Bivens
I have to start this by saying I went to school with John Bivens. What’s more, I consider John a friend. And I am pretty sure both of these facts did more harm to this book than this article will do it good, because Dark Engine is a fantastically fun read all on its own. Independent of my love for it and the terrible influence I’ve been.
Burton and Bivens cram a lot into just five issues.
Dark Engine feels part of the older, oral tradition of myth-making. I’ve written elsewhere about the dangers of writing this way, but here it works for me. One about a failed savior and the divine assassins sent to destroy them. About the end of the world coming in the form of a vomitous elder god. It’s tribal sci-fi. It’s 100% grandstanding, and I love it.
Especially Biven’s work, which maintains a fluid, instinctual line that leaves his figures writhing on the page. John’s always shown a beautiful ease to his brushwork, and abiding love of terrible things to draw with it.
These two elements combine to make a rollicking great apocalypse.
If you like Deadly Class and/or big concept thrillers
Writer/Artist: Matt Kindt
A journalist investigates an incident where a plane filled with people lose their memory mid-flight. During the investigation, our journalist notices there’s a passenger on the flight manifest who isn’t accounted for in any other records describing the incident. Hunting down this passenger leads our journalist to discover a secret cabal of psychics working under the banner Mind MGMT.
Matt Kindt pitched this series as a 50-issue run but somehow condensed it down to 36 without spilling a drop. This isn’t to say the story is “dense,” rather that it feels like there’s more here, waiting in its subtleties. My favorite part is how the book feels like a conspiracy that’s trying to influence and convert you, the reader, into believing in it.
Writer: Greg Rucka
Artists: Michael Lark, Owen Freeman
It has become apparent over the last few years that something is happening within our economy. We now have families who are worth more than entire countries, and events like Davos now project that within our lifetime, the world will have its first trillionaire.
Lazarus exists within that world. It tells a story where a small number of people have become so incredibly rich that they are more powerful than nations. Where privately-funded science has allowed them to become functionally immortal.
This is a world of the permanent serf class, the ultra-rich, and the human weapons they employ to maintain it all. And it is deeply chilling.
Writer: Nick Spencer
Artists: Riley Rossmo, Ryane Browne
This book is a head trip. It follows the worst supervillain in the world, the insane Hatter Red. The book opens on him committing his worst act imaginable — killing a whole lot of children — and then the story immediately asks the question “why would anyone do this, and how do they come back from it?”
The bulk of the story follows this philosophical question about if evil is something you do? Or something you are?
The artwork is raucous, all black, white, and red. The designs are fantastic and the imagery compelling. But it’s the story that haunts. It’s the way we feel uncomfortable sympathizing a character who, just a few issues ago, did the worst thing imaginable. And was happy doing it.
If you like Saga and/or sci-fi/fantasy stories focused on the family
Writers: Rick Remender
Artists: Matteo Scalera, Dean White
On the surface, this is a story about traveling between different realities. Wildly differing ones where the Roman empire kept going until they took to space, or worlds where frogs evolved to become the dominant form of life. Concepts that really shine in comics, where anything is possible.
But dig a little deeper and this is a story about a brilliant scientist and neglectful father who must now come to grips with what he’s caused and the danger he’s put his children through. As big, strange, and beautiful as the realities are, it’s this small story that is so profound and has lead to some of my favorite passages in recent years.
Writer/Artist: Jeff Lemire
The best way to describe this book might be “grounded supernatural.” The characters feel flawed and closed-off in ways that feel realistic. And the book’s depiction of family dynamics feels especially truthful and forms the core of the story.
At its heart, this is a story about division. Jack, our main character, feels divided between his life on land, and his life underwater. He feels afraid of his responsibilities to his wife and unborn child. Jack feels conflicted about his relationship with his father who drowned years before.
I’m not sure I can say more without spoiling this story, except to say that it’s heartfelt and genuine and absolutely demands a read.
If you like Chew and/or rule breaking comics
Writer: Juan Díaz Canales
Artist: Juanjo Guarnido
Take the skill and talent of a pre-digital era Disney animation studio, give it the collected works of Raymond Chandler, and let it make an R-rated film, and you have a good start for Blacksad.
Blacksad is a huge black, anthropomorphic tomcat in a world of animals (figurative and literal). We can’t be sure of the time. It’s after WWII to be sure, but pre-Civil Rights I think. There’s racism based on fur, a bomb scares, and femme fatales. The stories are faithful but still clever and catchy. The artwork is truly incredible (I’m not kidding about Golden Era Disney.)
Blacksad books are a must for anyone.
Writer: Jason Aaron
Artist: Jason Latour
There’s no such thing as a “small story.” Southern Bastards focuses on just a few families within a small, Alabama town, and it uses those restrictions to show how grudges and cruelty transcend generations. How whole parts of our lives can be stuck in these endless cycles of violence, mistrust, and football. How it all forms a kind of obligation, a debt, that must constantly be paid, season after season.
There’s a little William Faulker and Katherine Anne Porter in the way Aaron sets his scenes. All of Latour’s drawings feel slumped by the heat and humidity of the place.
There are no superpowers. This is not a war fought on a huge scale. The world is not ending and, in fact, isn’t aware of this town at all. And that’s exactly why this book is incredible.
Writer/Artist: Kate Beaton
Finally, what was once only pixels is now merely paper. Hark! A Vagrant collects a stack of comics from the eponymous webcomic by Kate Beaton. Each one is whimsical, ridiculous, surprisingly well-researched, and the very best kind of sensible chuckle.
Honestly, I am not just sharing this because Ms. Beaton shares my distaste for the Sisters Bronte. No. I’m including this because it is not just silly but perfectly silly. It rummages around in the underwear drawers of literature and history, then reads their diaries.
This book is just good-hearted fun. Plus it tricks you into learning things!
Writer/Artist: Chris Ware
Chris Ware is one of those artists who consistently proves that comics can do things that no other medium can pull off. Building Stories is the latest and clearest example of this. This “book” ships as a clamshell case containing multiple stories, each in their own form factor. Some are magazine size, some are as small as a fold-out pamphlet. These short stories can be read independently, but they all overlap using brilliant graphics cues so readers can follow them as one master story.
This would be amazing enough as a graphic design gimmick, but there’s more here. Ware is a master storyteller (as proven by his Eisner Winning book Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth). His works have wit and insight, loneliness and humanity.
For my money, Chris Ware might just be the most important person working in comics today.
So we’ve got your shopping list sorted out for the next 12 months. And frankly, I couldn’t be happier. Still, this is by no means an exhaustive list, so if you feel something deserves to be added, just let us know and we’ll give it a read.