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Courtesy of Epic Comics

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August 24, 2016

CHAZAN | Beyond the Big Two: Four Alternative Superhero Comics

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I think it was Scott McCloud who once compared superhero comics to cake: a delicious treat, but perhaps not the basis of a healthy, balanced diet. In a medium artificially saturated with capes and tights, it can be easy to forget how sweet these stories can be — many of the finest, most bombastically enjoyable comics ever made have been in this very genre, along with some of the dreariest garbage imaginable. It certainly does not help that the vast majority of books published by Marvel and DC, the so-called “big two” who have made superstuff their bread and butter, are bland-to-unreadable exercises in corporate IP. But there’s more to life than continuity. Here are a few super-powered, super-artistic titles you can simply enjoy.

Copra by Michel Fiffe

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Courtesy of Copra Press

Initially a riff on the John Ostrander run of Suicide Squad, Copra is the current cause célèbre for comics lovers, and rightfully so. An adventure story about a gang of super-powered former government agents on the run, Copra is the exciting and entertaining comic you remember superhero comics being but almost never are. It’s beautifully illustrated too, an artful remix of the ’80s comics look exemplified by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, with appealing, creamy colors and the kineticism missing from most modern action movies. And the characters are great too — Fiffe manages to inject a lot of humanity into the cliché posturing of superhero comics. If you’re not reading this one, you’re missing out.

Stardust (and others) by Fletcher Hanks

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Courtesy of Fantagraphics

Fletcher Hanks is a weird cartoonist. A raging alcoholic, Hanks drew stories for a variety of pulp magazines in the late ’30s to pay for his booze habit, and produced some truly bizarre and idiosyncratic power fantasies in the process. Hanks’ crude drawings and otherworldly dialog (“YOU TRIED TO DESTROY THE HEADS OF A NATION, SO YOUR OWN HEAD SHALL BE DESTROYED!”) have a blunt energy that has a way of lodging itself into your mind with an intensity that “real” art can only dream of: pulp trash and outsider art taken to the their most insane, pure, puerile extreme.

Of his many series, my favorite has to be Stardust the Superwizard, a godlike superhero with undefined and seemingly limitless abilities. Every Stardust story goes like this: some evil man or group wants to destroy the world and causes a shocking disaster. Stardust flies down from space, immediately defeats the bad guy(s), and spends the rest of the story enacting an elaborate punishment. In one story, he turns the villain into a rat and turns himself into a cat to terrorize him. In another, he leaves an entire crime syndicate in a limbo where they must eternally stare at the floating skeletons of their victims, gloating “Gaze at them a while!” as he leaves. Forget Batman: THIS is the hero we deserve. Fantagraphics has reprinted Hanks extensively, and with a new hardcover collection forthcoming, so  now is the best time ever to discover his wild world.

Marshall Law by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill

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Courtesy of Epic Comics

Initially published by Marvel’s “mature readers” Epic label in the ’80s and leapfrogging from publisher to publisher ever since, Marshall Law is probably the funniest superhero comic ever made. The titular Marshall is a hero hunter (as he reminds us every issue: “I hunt heroes. I haven’t found one yet”), employed by the government to take out the super powered perverts prowling the streets in spandex amidst dystopian chaos.

It’s Watchmen gone silly, a cynical, violent romp crammed with jokes, caricatures and puns while overwhelming the reader with over-the-top posturing. While O’Neill is now probably better known for illustrating Alan Moore’s literary riff League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, his best work is here, angular, painted cartoon imagery and delightful visual humor packed into every page.

Hellberta by Michael Comeau

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Courtesy of Color Code Printing

And now for a comic that the “big two” might not want you to know about, if they even know it exists. The bootleg superhero comic was a big thing for a while in the art comics scene, with some highlights including Josh Simmons’ horror comic Mark of the Bat and Michael Deforge’s gross-out Spider-Man tale Peter’s Muscle, but Hellberta rises above the rest for its sheer audacity. Beginning as an apocalyptic battle between Wolverine and then-Prime Minister of Canada Steven Harper, the narrative expands over three issues into a psychedelic Canadian road trip narrative, alternatively meditating on Albertan landscapes and Uncanny X-Men back issues, finally reaching a furious conclusion as Wolvy goes on a drunken “berserker” rampage as he realizes he is a “profanity of nature.” Comeau is best known for designing punk concert posters and storefronts in Toronto (he has a cameo in the first volume of Scott Pilgrim as “the guy who knows everyone”), and in Hellberta he takes the roughly sketched, heavily silkscreened collage ferocity to new heights. It’s the X-Men comic for the Tar Sands generation, a comic that’s not for everyone but you’re probably cool if you like it. A collected edition is available from Color Code Printing.

Nathan Chazan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at ndc39@cornell.edu. 

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