Five Fresh Takes On Superheroes
In lieu of the "best of" this or that superhero or series, here are five original takes on superpowered beings that easily outclass most other comics for imagination and execution. In addition to being fresh takes on superheroes, these titles are also simply immense fun to read.
1. The Adventures of Superhero Girl, Faith Erin Hicks
Wouldn’t it be grand to find a brand new heroine with her own life and issues who happens to also fight crime and monsters? And she didn’t have 50 years’ worth of continuity to wade through or an embarrassing alternate version with a skimpy outfit? Your wish has been granted. Hicks writes with double doses of fun and humor that leave all of the buff movie-star superheroes in the dust. One day Superhero Girl battles a space monster whose whiskers make it too cute to attack (just before it breathes fire on her), the next day she runs into Skeptical Guy who doubts that she’s even a real superhero. This wonderful comic makes me wonder why there aren’t a hundred copycat versions already on the market before I’m thankful this self-confident black and white webcomic could flourish into a color print edition.
2. Starman, James Robinson & Tony Harris
Speaking of comics existing on their own, Starman is hands-down my favorite superhero ever (EVER). James Robinson was given free reign by DC Comics to invent Jack Knight, son of Golden Age hero Ted Knight, aka Starman. He also constructed Opal City, a fictional city with a colorful past reflected in many characters’ histories. Where most comics would rush to introduce a league of villains and edgy costume designs, Robinson and Harris give us a reluctant hero who would rather run an antique store and compare pop culture artifacts. There are still super-powered antics to be found, including cameos by some of the comics world’s rock stars, but the series is smart about building stories and lives. Robinson pays reverence to classic heroes by creating something new out of them. Best of all, when the series ends, it’s over, giving readers a massive dose of post-novel depression and gratitude. Consider this one of the greatest artifacts and treasures of the 90s.
3. Axe Cop, Malachai & Ethan Nicholle
The deceased family member. The radioactive reaction. The alien origin. Add to these comic book origins the cop who picked up an axe and became known as Axe Cop. Sprung fully formed from the mind of Malachai Nicholle (age 5 when the comic started, now 8 and still churning out fantastic tales) and illustrated and edited by his older brother Ethan, these comics are every kid’s toybox come to life. Malachai’s constant left turns and absurd logic are equally matched by Ethan’s ability to portray each feat of make-believe with an eye for comedy that always shines his little brother’s punchlines. Between Axe Cop’s allies Uni-Baby ( a baby with a wish-granting unicorn horn), Sockarang (Axe Cop’s best friend with socks for arms that are thrown as boomerangs), Wexter (Axe’s pet T-Rex), Ninja Moon Warriors (named Vampire Wolfer and Fire Slicer, of course), Best Fairy Ever (right?), and a crossover with Dr. McNinja (with Christopher Hastings, linked below), the blank canvas of the comics page is packed to the brim with ridiculous potential, and all self-serious brooding heroes appear a bit… silly.
4. Pluto, Naoki Urasawa
Osamu Tezuka’s heroic robot Astro Boy enjoyed massive popularity in Japan, including a story titled, “The Greatest Robot in the World.” Suspense author Urasawa has built an entire series around this tale, exploring multiple mature themes such as the value of artificial life, roots of hatred, reverence toward celebrities, limits of pacifism, and more, all tied into a murder mystery strung with cliffhangers. The books are subtitled “Urasawa x Tezuka,” representing how the story is true to Tezuka’s original goofy and earnest tale while injecting Urasawa’s pathos and intelligence. Robot fiction, manga, and thrillers all have cues to take from this modern classic, and the artwork is detailed at a level beyond manga's usual eyeballs the size of dinner plates.
5. Nextwave, Warren Ellis & Stuart Immonen
The easiest way to resist superhero tropes is to make fun of them, and Ellis produced one of the best takedowns of superhero teams with Nextwave. The team is made up of maladjusted Marvel Comics D-listers whose self-contained adventures usually involve them barely cooperating enough to take on outrageous threats in the name of H.A.T.E. (Highest Anti-Terrorism Effort). Extreme violence is performed in the name of extreme comedy, but perhaps Ellis can describe the comic better himself from a Heroes Con interview: “It's an absolute distillation of the superhero genre. No plot lines, characters, emotions, nothing whatsoever. It's people posing in the street for no good reason. It is people getting kicked, and then exploding. It is a pure comic book, and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. And afterwards, they will explode.”
- Axe Cop / Dr. McNinja Crossover
"Stolen Pizza, Stolen Lives" - This story will put hair on your face.