Columns > Published on April 18th, 2014

10 Unconventional Comics You Must Read

There is an impossibly long list of great “must read” comics out there. But I thought, for a change, I’d take some time to highlight not only some unconventional comics, but also some that might have been overlooked. There are a few stars on here — Hyperbole & A Half for example is a crazy breakout best seller (Yes! Mission accomplished!) — but many on this list have not had the same success. Let’s give them a second look, yes?

01. UNLIKELY by Jeffrey Brown (Top Shelf)

Unlikely is the first “real” indie graphic novel I read on my own outside of class, and it blew my mind wide open. That said, it’s not for everyone. Unlikely is essentially an autobio comic about the ups and downs of Jeffrey Brown losing his virginity at the age of 24. It’s told in little vignettes (for lack of a better word) that are not in chronological order, and it’s illustrated in a stripped down scratchy black and white style that many find off-putting or even ugly (it’s also a small — adorable! — size, measuring about 5 x 8 inches). However, for me it’s some of the most honest work I’ve ever read in comics. The stripped down nature and awkward style is so relatable and real. It doesn’t dress itself up as anything but what it is, and Brown lays himself absolutely bare in the pages. He pulls no punches. He’s unafraid to make fun of himself and even humiliate himself, all in the name of art and getting to the truth.

Obviously, the truth told through one person’s eyes is highly subjective, but what Brown puts down in Unlikely feels like one of the most truthful takes on relationships I’ve ever seen — in comics or ANY media. Brown taps into something absolutely primal here about love and life, and even the non-sequential order, something that seems like it would be irritating, works as a transport to how we all feel and process failed relationships after the fact. If you’re open to unconventional comics — and you must be if you’re reading this piece — then start here. Unlikely was Brown’s second major work, and though he’s done some great stuff, I feel it’s also his best and most honest. There are two other volumes in his “girlfriend trilogy”  — his debut work Clumsy, about a long distance relationship, and AEIOU: Any Easy Intimacy are also worth your time (all of Brown’s work is, quite frankly, and you may know his name from the wildly popular Darth Vader and Son) but Unlikely is the star.

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02. GLORY by Joe Keatinge and Ross Campbell (Image)

Glory is one of the most un-superhero superhero books ever. What Keatinge and Campbell did with this revamp is even more impressive when you consider it’s terrible origin in the 1990’s.  But even without that context, this is a take-no-prisoners-we-will-do-whatever-we-want-and-it-will-be-awesome kind of superhero-book.

Bucking convention at every opportunity, there’s simply nothing “by the book” about Glory. From her massive frame and totally non-traditional appearance to the way Campbell evolves her visually over the series — the way an immortal character could and would change over the years — everything is mesmerizing. Keatinge’s story is equally odd and bold, frequently making choices you'd never expect that somehow feel completely organic, and thus all the more honest and engaging. It’s too bad that Glory could not continue on, but the story has a finished quality that is at once epic and personal. It feels complete. Besides, it’s impossible that Glory could have continued on indefinitely at this level of boldness — eventually something would have to give. Better to get this awesomely bizarre but wonderfully finished book that can stand on its own two feet forever. *Of note is that the gorgeous hardcover collected edition — with a spectacular new wraparound cover (pictured left) — comes out the first week of May, so if you’re considering picking it up it may be worth waiting for that volume (I know that’s what I’m doing).

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03. HYPERBOLE & A HALF: UNFORTUNATE SITUATIONS, FLAWED COPING MECHANISMS, MAYHEM, AND OTHER THINGS THAT HAPPENED by Allie Brosh (Touchstone)

I put Hyperbole & A Half on my Lit Reactor Holiday Gift List, but I’m going to keep banging the drum, because it’s just that good and everyone should have at least one copy. It's unconventional in part because it’s a web comic collected as a comic book, but this is becoming less unusual by the day with web comic phenoms like Kate Beaton, Noelle Stevenson, and Faith Erin Hicks making it look easy (it’s not). But Brosh also has an odd but supremely charming and utterly hilarious drawing style that I defy readers to remain immune to, even if on first glance they’re unsure it's for them. Her style is so simple that it seems like it would miss so much in that simplicity. Instead it manages to capture every nuance of emotion and humor with the tiniest flick of the pen. The woman has the kind of talent I’m not sure you can learn (though I’m sure she did learn and works very hard), but it just feels and reads as effortless. So effortless and funny and engaging that you want to be her best friend (that sounds weird, I'm not stalking you Ms. Brosh, I promise!). Tales vary wildly — from how Brosh can’t handle life in general as an adult (“Wait…what is this? I have to go to the bank? What am I, some sort of Wizard?”) to the story of her perceived power gained by wearing a dinosaur costume. All are awesome. All are hilarious. All must be devoured if you have any good sense.

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04. BEASTS OF BURDEN by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson (Dark Horse)

The execution of Beasts of Burden is rather traditional, in the sense that it’s a beautifully illustrated and well-written comic book about crime solving. However, since it’s about cats and dogs that solve (mostly mystical) crimes, it’s just a little bit different than your average book. To be honest, the idea of this book (prior to reading) seemed a bit silly to me. Trust me, it’s not silly. It will have you near tears in your concern and engagement with the lives of these (mostly) household pets. So yes, you read that right, household cats and dogs have a whole community and among themselves solve mystical crimes and set wrongs right. Sharp funny writing by Dorkin and absolutely stunning realistic watercolors by Jill Thompson bring undeniable life into a pitch that on paper sounds laughable. But you will laugh. You will howl with happiness, you will privately squee at the adorableness, you will clutch your hands in worry, you will all the good things that should happen when you read a wonderful comic book.

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05. CASTLE WAITING VOLUME 1 by Linda Medley (Fantagraphics)

Linda Medley’s magnificent Castle Waiting is such a beautiful and strange book. It’s the very definition of boundless creativity. She takes old oft-forgotten fairy tale characters — or those shunted to the sidelines — and shines a wonderful light on their weird and quirky world. The titular Castle is actually Sleeping Beauty’s Castle (hence “Castle Waiting” — get it?). Anyway, Medley picks up after Sleeping Beauty and her Prince have taken off — leaving behind a Castle with no real purpose. It becomes a place for travelers, misfits, and searchers to find a home. Decidedly feminist and surprisingly light despite the inherent darkness of many fairy tales, Castle Waiting gives readers a rare and impressive glimpse into a collection of unusual characters and stories that will delight. Gorgeous clean line work, clear storytelling, and a sweetness that gives one hope fill Medley’s stories and make for a wonderful retreat from the world. Which is not to say the book is thin or insubstantial. Quite the opposite in fact. It’s frequently insightful, surprising, and is wonderfully dense and layered, not to mention literally long — each volume (there are two) clocks in at 456 pages. As a note, be absolutely sure when shopping for Volume II to pick up the “Definitive Edition” which bears Medley’s name on the cover. (The other version does not have her name and is notably missing the last chapter of the story and feels, as expected, unfinished.)

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06. NEXTWAVE AGENTS OF H.A.T.E. by Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen (Marvel)

This is perhaps the least unconventional on this list, since it’s about superheroes and superheroes are the definition of conventional/traditional when it comes to comics. Still, Ellis and Immonen did superhero comics in a ballsy way that gave the finger to most traditional books (but in a NICE way). With a female lead of color operating sans code name, they were already doing things a bit different. Then they added two more female characters — also basically sans code names — a gun toting, cuss flinging monster hunter in Elsa Bloodstone and a gum popping super fun revamp of D-Lister Tabitha Smith (formerly both Boom Boom and Boomer), a robot named Aaron Stack, and a random white dude named The Captain. This was not your average superhero team from go. Then you have them fighting Fing Fang Foom, killer koalas and broccoli men, cussing up a blue streak, and going rogue from their agency when they find out it's funded by terrorists, and it is pretty much chaos. Beautiful beautiful motherf***ing chaos! Read it, now.

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07. DAYBREAK by Brian Ralph (Drawn & Quarterly)

I know you’re sick of zombie books, so am I. However, Daybreak is the most un-zombie zombie book ever. It doesn’t have any fancy spin on the idea that some of the better zombie tales have, but the brilliance is in the approach and execution. The entirety of Daybreak is told as if you the reader are within the story — a broken fourth wall throughout — with the narrator — a one-armed survivor — speaking directly to you. The artwork all perfectly reflects this vision and it’s an understatement to say the technique magnifies the tension and stakes dramatically. The entire concept is surprisingly effective and magnificently engaging and emotional. While at heart it’s a simple horror story, the execution makes Daybreak so much more, and the themes of survival and loneliness are both heartbreaking and exactly what any GOOD zombie story should be about.

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08. LUCKY by Gabrielle Bell (Drawn & Quarterly)

Until I die I will continue trying to get people to read Gabrielle Bell. I re-read Lucky at least once every year, usually finding myself lost in it by accident one random day and being eternally grateful once I emerge from it again hours later. Bell is, to my mind, one of the most underrated comic book writer/artists on the scene today. Like Jeffrey Brown, her autobio content and rough black and white style (though certainly more refined than Brown’s) is not to everyone’s taste, but she really drops truth bombs like they’re going out of style. Incredibly personal and somehow majestic in scope despite being about mundane things like, moving into a series of crappy New York apartments, Bell has a fine tuned ear for humor. And if you find yourself in her particular wheelhouse you’ll find yourself nodding along to her stories, laughing, crying, shaking a fist in anger. Unfortunately not enough people “get” Bell the way I do, or she’d be a household name. Then again, if she was a household name I suppose it would feel a hell of a lot less special, though I’m sure Bell’s bank account would feel pretty okay about that. Seek her out. She’s done a lot of great work, but Lucky remains my favorite. 

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09. STRANGE TALES VOLUME II by Kate Beaton, Dash Shaw, Gilbert Hernandez, Harvey Pekar, Jeffrey Brown, Rafael Grampa, Jillian Tamaki, Jeff Lemire, and many many more! (Marvel)

This is quite literally a collection of strange tales. Filled with short stories, vignettes, and riffs that would never make their way into a standard Big Two comic book for a variety of reasons, it also happens to be a collection of some of the best indie comic book creators around taking a (usually) super fun whack at superheroes. Like any collection, it has its strengths and weaknesses, but on the whole it’s innovative, often hilarious, and displays exactly the kind of outside the box thinking that more conventional superhero books would benefit from. Kate Beaton’s adorably creative short featuring Professor Xavier and Rogue alone is practically worth the price of admission (all her contributions DO make it worth the price of admission, nothing "practically" about it). Probably more enjoyable for those readers that already have a taste for and knowledge of superheroes, it’s still a veritable smorgasbord of creative talent that runs the gamut of style and simply hums with pure creativity.

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10. WET MOON VOLUME 1 by Ross Campbell (Oni Press)

Yes, Ross Campbell makes this list twice and for all the right reasons. He’s one of the top creators out there if you’re looking for strong unconventional work that pushes on boundaries and highlights characters that are usually relegated to the shadows — if shown at all. Campbell’s long running Wet Moon — currently on volume 6, and I recommend them all as they are not only wonderfully dense and emotionally engaging works, but a fascinating look at a talented creator as he evolves over eight years — features an incredibly diverse cast that highlights women and is inclusive in nearly every way. Characters — mostly college age kids, as the story centers around some key students at a college in the fictional town of Wet Moon — come from every walk of life, have a variety of sexual orientations and body shapes, are racially diverse, and are naturally open minded the way you are when you’re at college and trying to find yourself and figure out the world. Campbell has a deliberately natural writing style in his dialogue that may unnerve some, but it’s pitch perfect when it comes to capturing voices that feel real, thus creating emotionally engaging and authentic characters. Loosely plotted, as Campbell cares more about character and emotional beats then getting to the next plot point, the books have a meandering way about them that can’t help but be charming and suits their fictional sleepy southern location perfectly.

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So…have you read any of these? Do you love them? Do you hate them? If you don’t know them did I pique your interest? What’s an underrated unconventional book YOU love? Sound off!

About the author

Kelly Thompson is the author of two crowdfunded self-published novels. The Girl Who Would be King (2012), was funded at over $26,000, was an Amazon Best Seller, and has been optioned by fancy Hollywood types. Her second novel, Storykiller (2014), was funded at nearly $58,000 and remains in the Top 10 most funded Kickstarter novels of all time. She also wrote and co-created the graphic novel Heart In A Box (2015) for Dark Horse Comics.

Kelly lives in Portland Oregon and writes the comics A-Force, Hawkeye, Jem & The Holograms, Misfits, and Power Rangers: Pink. She's also the writer and co-creator of Mega Princess, a creator-owned middle grade comic book series. Prior to writing comics Kelly created the column She Has No Head! for Comics Should Be Good.

She's currently managed by Susan Solomon-Shapiro of Circle of Confusion.

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