The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix (Scott Lobdell and Gene Ha)This is the oldest of the entries on this list, but one that stood out in my mind. I’ve always been a Cyclops fan, probably largely because I spent a lot of my youth being a Good Kid ™. I followed the rules, wasn’t a rebel, and so on. Characters like Wolverine or Jubilee didn’t really resonate with me. But Cyclops, the long-suffering earnest leader of the X-Men, he stuck with me.
I’m also endlessly interested by dystopian settings, and the challenges of growing up in harsh circumstances. Like in many things, my genre education was fairly non-standard, and The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix was part of it – teaching me about dystopias before I’d even heard of the term, let alone read foundational texts like Brave New World, 1984, or Fahrenheit 451.
Planetary (Warren Ellis and John Cassaday)In the parallel world where I’m a recently-minted PhD, one of the classes I’d offer is “The Planetary Guide to 20th Century Pop Culture Genres.” The class would use the comic series Planetary as an interpretive lens for examining 20th century pop/pulp genres (pulp, western, supers, golden age sci-fi, super-spy, Hong Kong action, etc.). Because for me, that’s what this series is – a way of re-interpreting a wide swath of 20th C. pop culture.
The series itself ran from 1999 to 2009, and I followed the series month-to-month almost that entire run.
The central premise of Planetary is that the 20th Century pop culture genres – pulp, superheroes, atomic horror, kaiju, etc., are all real. And the job of the protagonists, members of Planetary, are “Archaeologists of the Impossible,” discovering the secret history of the 20th century and fighting to keep the world strange and wonderful.
The full story is much larger and more magnificent, taking a knowing, deeply intertextual trip through 20th Century pop culture. Warren Ellis is one of my all-time favorite comics writers, and his partnership with John Cassaday on this series is simply incredible.
I highly recommend this series to any pop culture fan, especially if you are fond of re-interpretations of cultural history like Red Son, Astro City, or Soon I Will Be Invincible.
Y: The Last Man (Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra)One of the best “change one thing” science fiction comics that I’ve ever read, I also love that Y: The Last Man had a complete 10-volume arc, then ended. The ending works, the character arcs are rich and fulfilling, and then it’s done. One of the criticisms of comics as a medium that I hear and acknowledge most keenly is the fact that its serial nature can make it very impenetrable for a new reader. Where do you start? Will this series ever end? And so on.
Well, Y: The Last Man has been complete for five years now, and still stands out in my memory as one of the best whole comic book stories ever told.
Yorick Brown, the titular last man, is a loser. He’s an amateur magician without much life direction, who is on the phone about to propose to his girlfriend (who is in Australia) when the phone goes dead. The phone goes dead because at that moment, across the world, every other male mammal in the world is dying grotesque death. Except for Yorick’s pet capuchin monkey.
The story that follows spans across the world, and, by necessity, is full of amazing, complex, dynamic female characters, who largely drive the story. If you or someone you know is put off with the (abysmal) way that women are depicted or treated in comics, this series is a fine contrast to that trend.
Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia (Greg Rucka and J.G. Jones)Wonder Woman is my favorite mis-used character in DC comics. She’s the least popular member of DC’s Trinity (Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman), despite the fact that I think she’s an incredibly interesting character.
The Hiketeia is one of my examples to people of how awesome Wonder Woman can be when handled well. The Hiketeia was the first time writer Greg Rucka worked with Wonder Woman, and his success with the story is a likely contributing factor to him landing the role as the series’ regular writer for an extended (and very well-received run).
In The Hiketeia, Wonder Woman is honor-bound to protect a young woman who is executing a Greek ritual of vengeance known as the Hiketeia. This puts her in direct opposition with Batman, who is hunting the girl as a criminal and murderer.
The Hiketeia shows the entire conflict from Diana’s perspective, highlights her conflict between honoring tradition and protecting life. It also features a fantastic fight between her and Batman, where she wipes the floor with the Dark Knight, because, well, she can go toe-to-toe with Superman, and WW doesn't have a Kryptonite-analogue for Batman to use against her.
But ultimately, it is the characterization of Wonder Woman as thoughtful, determined, and compassionate that makes this story a winner in my book. It’s one of the best Wonder Woman stories I’ve ever read, and is marvelously stand-alone, which makes it a good book to use when saying “No, really, Wonder Woman is awesome. Read this.”
Marvels (Kurt Busiek, Alex Ross, Marcus McLaurin)Being a lifelong comics and supers fan, I am a total sucker for stories that let me re-examine familiar tales.
Marvels is all about re-examining huge moments of Marvel comics history from the perspective of the man on the street, casting the heroes as larger-than-life figures, nearly forces of nature.
Also, did I mention that Alex Ross does the art? That his paintings are probably the greatest Fine Art supers images in the business? No? Well, that. Ross’s painting style gives the series an instant feeling of historicity, of being something set a step aside from traditional comics storytelling, which proves an excellent approach for this mini-series.
Marvels follows news journalist Phil Sheldon as he reports on and experiences four iconic moments in Marvel comics history: The battle of The Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch (the first one), The juxtaposition of the wedding of Sue and Reed Richards with an anti-mutant mob, Earth’s first visit by Galactus, and finally, the death of Gwen Stacy. A veteran Marvel reader will have access to the interiority of the main players in these moments, but Sheldon is just an observer, forced to try to come up with his own explanation for the Marvels’ motivations behind their actions in the moments. In changing the frame, and giving one POV character across decades of Marvel history, Marvels is as much a work of self-reflection on the universe’s key moments, a meta-narrative, as it is a story unto itself.
Michael R. Underwood has been reading comics since he was six and living in Brooklyn. His parents would let him handle the recycling, and he took the deposit money to his friendly local comic shop to buy issues of X-Men, Spider-Man, and whatever looked awesome that week.
Mike is the author of GEEKOMANCY and CELEBROMANCY, as well as the forthcoming YOUNGER GODS series. By day he is the North American Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books. In his rapidly-vanishing free time, he games, reads, and studies historical martial arts.
You can find Mike on his website and on Twitter @MikeRUnderwood