Comics Worth Spending Money on

Three Chronicle writers recommend 14 current comics, from standard superhero fare to funny-animal satire to slice-of-life drama.

Obviously, the idea behind a promotion like Free Comic Book Day is that once you come in for the free stuff, you'll be inspired to get something else that costs money. But there's so much being published in comics today that it can be a little overwhelming just scanning the shelves for a comic you think you'd like. With that in mind, the Chronicle has come up with just over a dozen suggestions for you, comics that range from standard superhero fare to funny-animal satire to slice-of-life drama.

Amazing Spider-Man

by J. Michael Straczynski, John Romita Jr., & Scott Hanna

Marvel Comics, $2.25

What could have been a lame sales gimmick -- signature Marvel character handed over to the creator of Babylon 5 -- has instead resulted in a series of top-flight stories that are true to the spirit of the character -- the luckless schmoe struggling to shoulder the great responsibility that comes with great power -- and crackerjack adventures that raise the stakes for our hero at every turn. Romita's art, with its exquisitely dramatic composition and cinematic flow, enhances Straczynski's feel for action and mood -- and upholds his father's considerable legacy with Spidey, the Charlie Brown of superheroes. -- R.F.


by Jessica Abel

Fantagraphics, $2.95

The one-woman comics promotion society called Jessica Abel, when she's not teaching or championing or otherwise Doing Good With Art, also creates this paneled chronicle of people as real as blood & bone: young adults moving through their post-college years, hanging in clubs, dealing with romantic entanglements and difficult life choices. It's humor anchored by angst, harshness with a sincere and yearning heart.

-- Wayne Alan Brenner


by Tomer & Assaf Hanuka

Five O'Clock Shadow, $2.95

Brothers Tomer and Assaf Hanuka fill the first half of their book with a variety of Tomer's enigmatic and disturbing stories, rendered in a fine, sketchy style that complements the darkling mood; the latter half, "Pizzeria Kamikaze" is a continuing tale, drawn by the equally talented Assaf, based on a story by Hebrew writer Etgar Keret, about an afterlife inhabited exclusively by suicides. It's -- ah ha ha -- a little funnier than you'd think. -- W.A.B.

Black Panther

by Christopher Priest, Sal Velluto, & Bob Almond

Marvel Comics, $2.50

The Black Panther -- aka T'Challa, king of the African nation Wakanda -- has to balance superheroics with diplomacy, high tech concerns, and volatile tribal warfare. Priest, the character's first African-American scribe since the Panther's debut in the pages of the Fantastic Four in the 1960s, may be the best yet. His mix of political intrigue, over-the-top heroics, and a razor-sharp sense of humor make BP the sort of comic that can take an adult to that same place of jaw-dropping awe that Spider-Man took you to when you were a kid. -- Ken Lieck


by Dave Sim & Gerhard

Aardvark-Vanaheim, $2.25

Hard to believe there are fewer than 25 issues left until the conclusion of this 300-issue saga, begun in 1977 as a funny-animal parody of the then-popular Conan the Barbarian comics. Now, Cerebus has grown into a vast, personal account of one anthropomorphic aardvark's life, increasingly tinged with Sim's radical views about feminism, homosexualism, and any number of other -isms. The series remains a visual tour de force, though the storyline's guaranteed to baffle newcomers into submission. And lately, madman Sim has replaced the letters with a lengthy, serialized lecture on the history of Islam. No kidding. -- K.L.

Howard the Duck

by Steve Gerber & Phil Winslade

Marvel Comics, $2.99

The Duck is back! In the 1970s, Gerber's Howard was a shining beacon of what comic books could be: a bitingly satirical, adult look at life through the eyes of someone who truly lived in "a world he never made." Fights, firings, an unfathomably bad movie, and lawsuits kept the man and the Duck apart for two decades, but last year, Marvel asked Gerber to do the Duck again. He responded with the sickest, least commercial plot he could -- rife with erection-gauging machines, mass boy-band-icide, anthrax-spraying super-terrorists, the "Religion as Replacement for Thought Coalition," and, yes, even a pit bull -- but Marvel went for it, and it's like Howard never left us. Get down, America! -- K.L.

The Incal/The Metabarons/The Dreamshifters/The TechnoPriests

Alejandro Jodorowsky & various artists

Humanoids Publishing, $2.95

Though still best known for such perverse cinematic epics as El Topo and Santa Sangre, Chilean eccentric Jodorowsky has always found the film medium too restrictive for his visions. So he's all but completely turned to comics to fully illustrate his twisted tales of ugly, sadistic beings who populate an even more unpleasant futuristic dystopia. Where his movies were cluttered mish-mashes of symbolism that left most viewers scratching their heads, Jodorowsky's four (so far) intertwined comics series give him the luxury of an entire universe (a "Jodoverse," to pervert a popular term of the comics industry) in which to realize a rich, full vision. For those with the stomach for imagery that makes work by Tarantino and Peckinpah look like that of Disney and Don Bluth, Humanoids' series offer unique peeks into the mind of a mad genius at his unsettling peak. -- K.L.

The Incredible Hulk

by Bruce Jones, John Romita Jr., & Tom Palmer

Marvel Comics, $2.25

Mystery and suspense may not be qualities you'd typically associate with a book about a grumpy green behemoth whose favorite verb is smash. But in the hands of writer Bruce Jones, the title has morphed into a taut little thriller, with Hulk's alter ego, Bruce Banner, on the run from assassins employed by shadowy masters. Cat-and-mouse chases propel the book forward, with Banner's fear of becoming the Hulk -- re-emphasizing the character's Jekyll-Hyde roots -- ratcheting up the tension. Artist Romita lays it out like a Hitchcock film and delivers the most brutally terrifying Hulk in years. -- R.F.


by Geoff Johns, David Goyer, Leonard Kirk, & Keith Champagne

DC Comics, $2.50

The Justice Society of America started the super-team tradition during WWII, so you might think it'd be ready for retirement by now, but writers James Robinson and David Goyer, and artist Steve Sadowski, gave the old club a new lease on life via this series that smartly balances old and new: vintage heroes and new incarnations, traditional teamwork and modern character interplay, hip humor and old-fashioned adventure tales. Lately, writer Johns and artist Kirk have joined Goyer on this great cliffhanger book that'll have you wondering, "How the hell will they get out of this?" -- R.F.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

by Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill

America's Best Comics, $2.95

The genius writer of The Watchmen and From Hell doing the whole Justice X-Legion super-team thing one better with figures from 19th-century literature -- Rider Haggard's Allan Quartermain, Verne's Captain Nemo, Stoker's Mina Murray, Wells' Invisible Man, Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde -- joining forces to deliver the Empire from evil. But besides crafting a ripping yarn, Moore probes the Victorian mind -- especially what it feared and repressed -- to show these "heroes" caught between propriety and their dark desires, which are feverishly realized in O'Neill's baroque, scratchy artwork. The Victorian flavor extends to the period ads and what may be the funniest letters page in comics. (A new six-issue series begins July 24.) -- R.F.

Meat Cake

by Dame Darcy

Fantagraphics, $2.50

Maybe Dame Darcy isn't actually Edward Gorey's long-lost daughter with a more punk sensibility, maybe she's not the undisclosed fourth member of tattergoth band Rasputina, but even her lovingly limned characters -- the conjoined twins, Hindrance and Perfidia; the anthropomorphic wolf, Richard Dirt; Strega Pez, whose speech appears as words on giant Pez extruded from her slit throat -- might not believe that. -- W.A.B.

Optic Nerve

by Adrian Tomine

Drawn & Quarterly, $2.95

You don't need another hero, costumed or otherwise? Look into Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve, where the mostly twentysomething characters are only as powerful as you or me, and moving through the often quiet, sometimes explosive violences of their lives in well-drawn, perfectly composed panels. Imagine: If Raymond Carver had chosen sequential art as his medium. -- W.A.B.


by Alan Moore, J. H. Williams III, & Mick Gray

America's Best Comics, $2.50

What began as an inventive riff off Wonder Woman has become, in typically Moore-ish fashion, a Magical Mystery Tour through the cosmos and the nature of fiction. As the latest incarnation of imaginary warrior woman Promethea, college student Sophie Bangs embarks on an odyssey through the levels of the universe as defined in the tarot and the cabala. Moore's weaving of arcana, history, myth, and science is hypnotic, especially coupled with Williams' boundary-stretching, very, very trippy artwork. Clever, mystical, illuminating, sexy, and out of this world. -- R.F.

Scooby Doo

Various writers and artists (usually Joe Staton)

DC Comics, $1.99

Make no mistake: Scooby Doo, in each and every one of its TV incarnations, totally sucked. There is no merit whatsoever in its repetitive limited animation, vapid humor, and complete absence of suspense or logic driving the so-called "mysteries" solved by those "meddling kids." The characters themselves, however, have always been strangely appealing and make excellent fodder for post-ironic discussions of the "is Shaggy stoned?" variety. The Scooby comics don't go quite that far, but they do keep a tongue in each cheek -- as in the issue where the gang investigated odd goings-on at a prison, only to find the entire facility filled with crooked land developers that they had put there! -- and no Scrappy! Worth a look. -- K.L.

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    The folks who make and sell comic books are hoping that a promotional giveaway of 2 million comics after the release of the Spider-Man movie will rescue their ailing industry.
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Drawn & Quarterly, Adrian Tomine, Optic Nerve, Meat Cake, Dame Darcy, Fantagraphics, Artbabe, Jessica Abel, Bipolar, Tomer Hanuka, Assaf Hanuka, Five O'Clock Shadow, Etgar Keret, Amazing Spider-Man, J. Michael Straczynski, John Romita Jr., Scott Hanna, The Incredible Hulk, Bruce Jones, Tom Palmer

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