You can’t swing an Uru hammer at any Comic-Con without hitting a superhero. (Although, for safety reasons, please don’t swing that hammer in crowded areas.) But comics have long been about much more than the costumed crime fighters; whatever your taste, if you’re not leaving with something new to read, you’re doing something wrong. Here are the graphic novels to check out this year as you make your way from booth to booth:
First up is Ben Hatke’s Little Robot, something of a cross between E.T. and A.I., in which a little girl accidentally activates a misplaced robot, whom she befriends and teaches about the world. (All the while, other robots search for the missing automaton.) Hatke, author of the Zita the Spacegirl series, uses simple language and crystal clear layouts here, packing a lot of emotion into his character design. Even emerging readers will be able to follow the story with their parents. ($16.99, First Second)
Another from First Second is Last of the Sandwalkers (16.99 — “like Watership Down, but with beetles,” says First Second senior editor Callista Brill), in which one of the insects makes the colossal discovery that insects aren’t the only creatures in the world. Cartoonist Jay Hosler is a biology professor at Juniata College, with a specialty in bugs: His first book, Clan Apis, was about the life cycles of bees. Even though the bugs in Last of the Sandwalkers are sentient (and sometimes wear top hats or baseball caps), real entomology underpins the adventure; there are pages of annotations and a list of scientific references at the end. First Second also goes for straight-up science education with Maris Wicks’s Human Body Theater ($14.99), a lighthearted and biologically sound trip through the body’s various systems.
Jennifer Hayden’s The Story of My Tits details three different women’s battle with breast cancer…and Hayden’s own experience with her breasts and all the cultural and emotional weight that gets carried by a bra. What leavens the story is Hayden’s drawing, packed with wiggly detail, and her voice, irreverent and blunt. The first chapter opens: “I was born without any tits. Just the usual one-size-fits-all nipples. I was happy and stupid and free.” Immediately welcoming the reader, it’s a voice that faces heartbreak head-on and comes out swinging. ($29.99, Top Shelf)
“People don’t write enough about aftermaths,” says writer Alex De Campi. “If you go through a traumatic event and have PTSD, you don’t start dressing like a bat.” De Campi is the writer of No Mercy, with artist Carla Speed McNeil, which opens with a bus full of college freshmen driving off a cliff in Central America. With no cell service, no food to speak of, and no help in sight, will these strangers band together or turn on each other? Packed with suspense, dread, and revenge, the first volume is available now; De Campi promises to follow the kids as this inciting crisis shapes their lives. ($9.99, Image)
In The Divine, even younger children are at the center of a civil war, a brutal war fantasia based on a 1990s uprising in Myanmar. “God’s Army,” a group of hundreds of Karen refugees, was led by two 12-year-old twins, child soldiers who were rumored to have mystical powers. Artists Asaf and Tomer Hanuka (also twins) and writer Boaz Lavie have built a new story around the incident, following a reluctant military contractor in a Southeast Asian war as he discovers he’s dealing with forces beyond his understanding. The Hanuka brothers’ art — thin-lined, with gut-punch blasts of color — conveys everyday military operations and giant mythic warriors with equal facility. ($19.99, First Second)
Magical warfare is also at the heart of Oyster War ($29.99), a more lighthearted adventure book by Ben Towle. Published by Oni Press as a big European-style album, the book follows a naval crew as they battle pirates that are disrupting the oyster trade…and are able to control sea serpents to help them do it. Cartoonish and fanciful, it contrasts with another Oni offering, Lion of Rora, by Christos Gage, Ruth Fletcher Gage, and Jackie Lewis, a Braveheart-style true story of Joshua Janavel as he fought for religious freedom in 17th-century Italy. ($24.99)
John Hendrix’s Drawing Is Magic: Discover Yourself in a Sketchbook is more on the DIY side of things is a book that looks like a graphic novel but isn’t, quite. It’s page after page of drawing exercises, inviting beginning artists to draw the things that interest them, finding out about themselves in the process. (One sequence urges the reader to draw four self-portraits using different references, to see how they draw most naturally.) Focusing more on inspiration than technique, it’s a welcoming volume for anyone who wants play with a pencil. ($17.95, Abrams)
Some images are indelible; Ralph Steadman’s ink-spattered illustrations for Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas have shaped the way we experience that book since its publication in 1971. Now cartoonist Troy Little reimagines that gonzo tour-de-force in a new graphic novel adaptation ($24.99, Top Shelf). It’s hard to believe that this book, buzzing with manic energy, shares the American Southwest (and a publisher) with Tim Ginger, the new graphic novel from British artist Julian Hanshaw, about a retired test pilot who might have seen something extraordinary up in the skies on the day his wife passed away. It’s meditative and haunting, finding a quietness that Thompson never discovered. ($19.99)
England’s premier comics publisher is 2000 AD, which has a presence on the con floor; it can be hard to get some of their books in the states, so they’re worth grabbing when you can. They recently published a U.S. edition of one of Judge Dredd’s best-regarded stories, America ($18.99), by John Wagner and Colin MacNeil, about two childhood friends who are pushed apart by an encounter with a one of MegaCity One’s judges — one becomes a celebrity, and the other becomes a terrorist — and years later, their lives intersect again. Walking Dead fans might want to take a look at Zombo, an over-the-top zombie satire by Al Ewing and Henry Flint ($17.99). And process junkies will dig the Zenith Apex Edition, which reproduces the first part of the Grant Morrison/Steve Yowell epic at the size of Yowell’s original art boards, with art and script notes in the margins. “Most pages from 2000 AD are scattered to the four winds, so this is a rare treat,” says 2000 AD spokesman Mike Molcher.
And while dystopian futures are 2000 AD’s bread and butter, we’re no slouch at them in the states. One of the most compelling recent ones is the world of Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet, set on a prison world where “non-compliant” women are shipped and sent into gladiatorial combat. Subverting exploitation tropes with a feminist eye, DeConnick and De Landro deliver relentless body blows. The first volume was released this week. ($9.99, Image)