You want to explore other universes? Get under the skin of some weird, complicated, are-we-even-sure-they’re-human people? Rekindle the love you once had for word balloons and illustrated drama? The comic books being published nowadays are a great place to do that. Here are twelve sequential series that will open you up to all sorts of awesome.
There are thousands of comic books coming out in digital and print form every week. People coming to the land of words-and-pictures-together might need help figuring out what they’d like. Even if you’ve been an ardent reader for decades, the thrill of a great new taste remains intoxicating. So, the staff at Kotaku have come up with a handful of ongoing comics series and miniseries that we think comics-curious folks would enjoy. Like the rest of the lists that we tag as “Bests,” this will be a living, mutating compilation. And this particular dozen picks comes after much internal debate and soul-searching, just as we’ve done with our other Bests. Think we’ve done a grave injustice to a favorite series by leaving it off the list? Let us know—politely—in the comments below.
Who it’s about: Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teenager who sneaks out one night, inhales a weird mist and wakes up with superpowers that let her change shape and size. After years of playing video games and writing superhero fan fiction, she decides to put on a costume herself.
Why we like it: Marvel Comics have a long, beloved tradition of speaking to the times in which they’re created, with characters shot through foibles of all sorts. The newest heroine in the publisher’s fictional universe continues that trend for the 21st century. She looks and sounds a teenager of the now: a child of immigrants and a fan of the fantastic fictions borne of nerd culture. For all her nerd savvy, she’s still awed by the world-saving action she just become a part of, which lends Ms. Marvel much of its charm.
Start with this issue: Ms. Marvel #1. Ms. Marvel sits solidly in the superhero origin story template so readers should begin with the very first moments of Kamala’s funny, bittersweet adventures.
Don’t read it if you want: Cosmic spaceship battles or melodramatic space opera. So far, Kamala’s battles have been grounded in a down-to-earth version of Jersey City. She might get to space one day, though.
Who it’s about: Beautiful space humanoids Alana and Marko, who fell in love while fighting for opposite sides of long-running galactic war. They’ve given birth to a little girl and are trying to be the best parents they can be while on the run from bounty hunters and political operatives who want to capture or kill them.
Why we like it: Saga’s biggest appeal is a prickly, temperamental cast of characters that each have fears, flaws and doubts a mile long. They’re neurotic, hardheaded and horny, like people in the real world, but have magic spaceships, robot royal families and suspicious spectral strangers to deal with.
Start with this issue: Saga #1. Everyone grows and changes in Saga and watching how the unpredictable spacewinds toss characters like Lying Cat, The Will and Hazel around is defnintely part of the fun.
Don’t read it if you want: Grandiloquent bombast. Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ craftmanship have created an understated universe and the naturalistic tone of the proceedings makes the sharp spikes of dramatic climax a guilty pleasure for everyone who reads Saga.
Who it’s about: A polyglot team of six beings from the Vega system, where the oppressive Alpha Citadel has ruled for years. They kidnap former Green Lantern Kyle Rayner and begin a long bid to get him to join their asymmetrical machiavellian campaign against the Alphas.
Why we like it: The political drama of DC’s sci-fi antihero series asks one crucial question: how far can those who do heinous acts in the name of righteousness go and still be understood as good people? Through theft, wanton killing or psychological manipulation, The Omega Men callously use the lives of others as cover for their actions, saying all the while it’s for the greater good. The fact that their oppressors uses the same reasoning simultaneously makes the book a great read and ethically uncomfortable.
Start with this issue: DC Sneak Peek: The Omega Men #1. The beginning of Kyle Rayner’s fractious journey with the insurgents gets shown in a short story that echoes the broadcasts of modern-day terrorists like ISIS.
Don’t read it if you want: Pulp escapism. Historical events of the DC Universe—like the death of Krypton—get used to power metaphors about the culture of shameful political deal-making in the real world. Omega Men is science-fiction that reflects mankind’s foibles back at the reader.
Who it’s about: The person wielding the magical hammer Mjolnir. For most of Marvel Comics’ real and fictional history, it’s been Thor Odinson, prince of Asgard. Right now, it’s a human woman whose identity remains a secret to everyone except the people reading her comic.
Why we like it: Though it’s featuring a new female lead character,
the newest Thor series is actually a continuation of three years’ worth of excellent storytelling. Writer Jason Aaron has delivered a great mix of politics, Norse mythology soap opera and cosmic-scale heroism for a good while now and it feels like that’s just going to continue.
Start with this issue: Thor: God of Thunder #1. The sagas in this series will show you the Odinson facing up against epic challenges throughout space and time, and also returning to Earth to remind himself of the lives that stretch on for millenia. Don’t worry: when the new Thor appears, the Prince of Asgard is very much a part of all the drama that follows.
Don’t read it if you want: to see Thor rolling with his/her Avengers teammates. These adventures primarily take place in realms mere mortals can’t access easily, despite the presence of a few human cast members.
Who it’s about: The Dark Lord of the Sith. This Marvel Comics series happens between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes and shows Vader grappling with the internal political fallout after his defeat at the hands of the Rebel Alliance.
Why we like it: Darth Vader is essentially a workplace drama, showing the man once known as Anakin Skywalker trying to appease his evil boss while furthering his own secret agenda. Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larocca deliver a Vader who’s sympathetic but still evil, along with offering a fascinating view of the constant rivalries that make up the Empire’s inner workings.
Start with this issue: Darth Vader #1. The series’ biggest strength is that it manages to let readers in on the tortured emotional churn happening underneath the black armor. But the book also keeps in line with the clipped, terse characterization that made Vader one of the most ominous fictional villains ever created.
Don’t read it if you want: to see anything from past Star Wars continuities. While some archetypes may be intentionally familiar, this series is introducing new characters and events into Force lore.
Who it’s about: Jon and Suzie, two lovelorn singles who hook up to suddenly find out that they have the same weird superpower: freezing time after they orgasm.
Why we like it: Because it pokes fun at how twisted society’s messages about sex and relationships have become (and probably have always been), painting people into ridiculous corners. For every adolescent horndog moment that Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky splatter onto the page, they offer heartfelt counterpoints about how rare and fragile it feels to find completion in another person.
Start with this issue: Sex Criminals #1. Things feel like an Apatow-esque romantic comedy at first, complete with bathroom humor and randy outsiders. But it feels increasingly raw and real as the story goes on, exposing the characters in ways that are more meaningful than just getting them naked.
Don’t read it if you want: Porn. This comic has sex in it and can feel sexy. But it’s not exploitative, objectifying titillation. The appeal here is not just physical; it’s also in seeing how if Jon and Suzie will be able to reconcile their different needs with each other.
The Wicked + The Divine
Who it’s about: a pantheon of 12 pop stars who are reincarnated gods, all young adults fated to live only two years after the musical magic hits them. The chart-toppers become engulfed by drama after a mysterious conspiracy frames one of their own for murder.
Why we like it: It winks at the way the gap between celebrity adulation and religious worship has shrunk in our modern world, while giving us an alluring celestial reasoning for the recycling of pop-star archetypes.
Start with this issue: The Wicked + The Divine #1. Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie hook the reader with just a few intriguing musical deities at first but, with each new persona introduced, the gossipy, seductive feel of the pop/rock opera grows even stronger.
Don’t read it if you want: Neatly scheduled plot payoffs. The Wicked + The Divine is more of a long-playing concept album than a collection of radio-ready singles. Things are developing slowly here, building to a crescendo that will probably be deafening.
Who it’s about: The android Avenger called Vision and the family he created so he could have meaningful connections in the world he protects. The Visions’ attempt to live an unassuming existence in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., gets shattered by a secret act of sudden superhero violence. The Vision family’s humdrum normalcy slowly starts to crumble from within.
Why we like it: Rising star Tom King brings a deft touch to dialogue and pacing to The Vision. While the third-person narration often offers heavy foreshadowing, it only serves to ramp up the tension created by Gabriel Walta’s art, making moments of heavy silence feel even more weighty.
Start with this issue: The Vision #1. Don’t worry about a lack of familiarity with the titular character’s long career as an Avenger. You don’t need to know anything about his past to enjoy what happens in this series.
Don’t read it if you want: Widescreen superheroics. It may star a family of solar-powered synthezoids with ties to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes but The Vision is a intimate, interpersonal melodrama.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl
Who it’s about: Doreen Green, a freshman in college who can talk to squirrels. She’s been part of some wacky superteams and a babysitter for members of the Avengers but this series is all about her trying to live a normal life.
Why we like it: It doesn’t always feel like the main characters in superhero comics have the feelings that their word balloons say they do but that’s not the case with Squirrel Girl. Ryan North and Erica Henderson have made her into a character who’s able to communicate the wonder and whimsy of superhero escapism, with humor and friendliness that’s become increasingly rare on the mainstream comics landscape.
Start with this issue: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1. Doreen’s been a superhero for a while but never had any sort of civilian life to speak of. The stories in her series show her learning how to make friends (and enemies) for the first time.
Don’t read it if you want: to see universe-threatening action drama. Though she’s saved the earth from getting eaten by Galactus, the story arcs tend to focus on smaller, human (and squirrel)-sized conflicts.
Who it’s about: Mick Moran, a shlumpy news photographer whose troubled dreams reveal that he’s actually the secret identity of a decades-dormant hyper-powerful hero called Miracleman.
Why we like it: Miracleman is one of the founding texts of 1980s superhero comics, one that helped start the trend of deconstructing long-accepted elements of cape-and-tights mythologies. Like, “why ever go back to pretending to be human when you can be so much more?”
Start with this issue: Miracleman #1. It’s been out of print for more than twenty years so you should really read Alan Moore’s long-lost work from the beginning.
Don’t read it if you want: A PG-13 version punching-and-flying metahuman battles. The physical and psychological ultraviolence in Miracleman tries to show what the damage of superhero existence would really wreak on ordinary peoples’ lives. It’s ugly to look at sometimes.
Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses
A collection of losers, wannabes, psychopaths and innocents who collide, ignite and veer off on serpentine paths in one of the best crime comics ever created. The newest installment revolves around an ice-cold interloper who has upset Baltimore’s criminal ecosystem by headshotting a big-time mob boss. The girl he’s just started hooking up with? Besties with the dead capo’s enforcers, including series regulars Spanish Scott and Monster. Things start out spectacularly bad and will only get worse, which is 53% of the fun with Stray Bullets.
Why we like it: David Lapham’s opus tends to happen in a chain of loosely connected series—each issue its own roller coaster—knotted together by nasty, stupid and naive recurring characters. The one introduced here
Start with this issue: Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses #1. It’s chock full of the series’ signature formula: terrible people doing hurtful things and pulling in innocent civilians deep into their amoral singularity.
Don’t read it if you want: A psychological examination of the criminal mind. People just do things in Stray Bullets because they feel like it, no matter who gets hurt.
Who it’s about: Some pretty rough people in Craw County, Alabama where high school football is religion and the cops won’t stop the guy with Rebel tattooed across his throat from beating someone to death.
Why we like it: Writer Jason Aaron may write good super-hero and Star Wars comics, but his grittier, more realistic tales are his best. What his dark, magnificent Scalped was for life on a Native American reservation, Southern Bastards is for the Deep South.
Start with issue: Southern Bastards #1. And don’t peek ahead. Trust us.
Don’t read it if you want: something cheerful. Aaron is telling some grimy, painful stories, drenched in blood and BBQ sauce.
How has this list changed? Read back through our update history:
Sadly, the powers-that-be at Marvel Comics are pulling the plug on X-Force and She-Hulk, so the morally ambiguous mutant strike team and gamma-irradiated lawyer are leaving this list. They’re being replaced by Stray Bullets and Hellboy.
Multiversity has run its course and its alternate-dimension cast of heroes are probably awaiting another crisis. It’s being replaced by Thor.
Daredevil exits our list because the excellent run of comics from recent years has come to a close. And the end of the Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. 1952 miniseries means that it’s gone too. Those two books are being replaced by Darth Vader and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.
Action Comics flies up, up and away and Black Science teleports off. The Omega Men and The Vision get added on to the Bests.