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The 12 most influential indie comics of the decade

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Dec 15, 2019

Comic books ruled the 2010s, on just about every platform. Movies and TV (including streaming) were dominated by adaptations of classic, mainstream characters (hello Marvel Cinematic Universe and Arrowverse), and conventions became must-attend, newsmaking events. But it wasn't just the big players who had a big decade — it was a blockbuster year for indie publishers as well.

Indie comics broke new ground in the 2010s in large part because they better represented their readers, with a focus on themes of diversity and inclusion, which in turn fostered more diversity and inclusion in the industry. Every graphic novel on this list has won an award, and every one influenced the comic book medium or culture in some way. However, this list only covers 12 of our favorites, and there is literally no way to include everything that influenced the decade into one list, so we invite you to comment with the titles you feel we missed.

Wicked and Divine

Wicked+Divine

Words: Kieron Gillen  

Art: James McKelvie

Heavily influenced by pop culture and old mythology, Wicked+Divine was one of the fantasy series that defined the decade. The story follows Laura, a teenager who discovers the existence of the Pantheon, a group of 12 human teens who find out they are really reincarnated and become pop stars. Every 90 years, the gods come to Earth in something called the Recurrence and possess a chosen few. There is only one drawback to becoming a Pantheon member. It only lasts two years, at which point the chosen become the discarded.

They die in a variety of ways that often rival Game of Thrones' creative death scenes. Ultimately, Laura goes from fan to a goddess herself when the reincarnated Persephone possesses her. Heralded for its philosophical discussion of life and death, McKelvie’s stunning artwork (and fashion sense) and the diversity of ethnicities, sexuality, and spirituality depicted within the pages. 

SAGA

Saga

Words by: Brian K. Vaughan

Art by: Fiona Staples

Saga is the Star Wars meets Romeo and Juliet fantasy epic you never knew you needed. Alana and Marko are forbidden lovers, each representing one side of a civil war neither wants to continue fighting. New parents, they flee the conflict and try to raise their daughter Hazel while on the run. A story of epic proportions, Saga is a universe of hybrid characters, a Prince with a TV for a head, a Cyclops who writes romance novels, and an assassin with arachnid legs.

The world-building here is so expansive and epic that, as more than one critic has pointed out, it’s probably going to prove impossible to adapt to film (not that somebody probably won't try at some point). And although the stories all exist in a fantasy world, they are all incredibly relatable and poignant. Saga’s most significant achievement might be that Vaughn and Staples have been able to create a spectacular fantasy world full of magical creatures and people and still represent marginalized voices in an authentic, very human way.

Bitch Planet

Bitch Planet (Image Comics)

Words by: Kelly Sue DeConnick

Art by Valentine DeLandro

Bitch Planet takes its title from the nickname of the prison at the comic's center. It's a clink for women, who are sent there when society deems them “non-compliant." The place is filled with all kinds of women, and not all of them are hardened criminals — you'll also find women who wouldn’t conform to strict beauty standards and the discarded wives of cruel (or bored) husbands behind Bitch Planet's walls, too. If that’s not traumatic enough, the incarcerated women are forced to fight each other Hunger Games-style for men’s entertainment.

Delandro’s '70s exploitation film style and raves from critics from across the socioeconomic, racial, and gender spectrums made the series an instant hit. Just 3 issues into the series, fans were declaring themselves “non-compliant” and getting "NC" tattoos. Soon enough, Bitch Planet was no longer “just” a comic book, it was a movement.

Even when DeConnick became too busy with her other comic book work, she created Bitch Planet: Triple Feature, an anthology-style series that featured writers and artists of color that the mainstream comic book industry largely ignored.

prince_of_cats

Prince of Cats

Words and art by: Ronald Wimberly

Prince of Cats is a retelling of Romero and Juliet set in 1980s Brooklyn during hip hop’s heyday. It was groundbreaking for many reasons; not only did Wimberly illustrate and write the entire saga himself, he used rap inspired iambic pentameter to do it. Many Romeo and Juliet adaptations focus on minor characters from Shakespeare’s famous play, but, none are done as well as Wimberly who chose Tybalt Capulet, Juliet’s hot-tempered cousin, as the lens through which to retell the legendary story.

First published by DC/Vertigo in 2012, the book went out of print until Image Comics picked it up in 2016 and ran with it. Wimberly’s manga art style, depicting backpacks and Kangols, skateboards and subways paired seamlessly with swords and poetry make Prince of Cats the best remix album of Shakespeare’s work yet.

lumberjanes

The Lumberjanes

Words: Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, and Shannon Watters

Art: Brooke Allen

One summer, a troupe of five different teen girls attending a summer camp and get lost in the woods, where they are set upon by a pack of three-eyed talking foxes, whose howls beam up lights in the sky that together read “Beware the kitten holy." And things only get weirder from there.

The best way to describe The Lumberjanes is as a mash-up between the girl scouts and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This YA comic took the girls on adventure after and adventure and was groundbreaking in that it became a hugely popular series despite the fact that it featured only women characters. It even sweetly depicts queer love& without straying from the story or seeming pandering.

The series truly resonated with its fans, earning the team has won two Eisner awards and a slew of GLAAD Award nominations.

Upgrade Soul

Upgrade Soul

Words and art by: Ezra Claytan Daniels

It took Ezra Claytan Daniels over 15 years to complete Upgrade Soul and the process almost made him give up the medium altogether. Thankfully, he persevered, and in 2016 the 300-plus-page graphic novel was awarded the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity, only the second book to win the award (the first went to Nilah Magruder for M.F.K.).

Hank and Molly Nonnar are an elderly couple; the former is a sci-fi writer, the latter an actual scientist. They are taking part in an experimental “rejuvenation” procedure called the “Upgrade Cell” project which, they are led to believe, will ostensibly make them live longer.

However, the procedure inadvertently clones them, creating doubles that are, while severely disfigured, superior both mentally and physically. Not only is the story a Ghost in the Shell type of morality play, but the story's length allows Daniels to deftly weave in the origin stories of even the secondary characters. Giving other points a view a chance to breathe. Upgrade Soul explores ageism, mental and physical disability, and if you squint, racism and classism wrapped in a sci-fi, body horror mystery.

BLACK

BLACK

Words by: Kwanza Osajyefo and Tim Smith 3

Art by: Jamal Igle and Khary Randolph 

“What if only Black people had superpowers?”

BLACK intrigued and excited fans with that premise when its creators launched its Kickstarter campaign in February of 2016, ringing up $90K in contributions in less than a week. The book reached its goal, and eventually, went on to be published by Black Mask Studios. 

Just four years after the Trayvon Martin case and two years after the Ferguson Protests, BLACK tapped into the zeitgeist of the time by addressing racial trauma head-on. The story follows Kareem Jenkins, an African-American teen from Brooklyn who is mistakenly shot by police, which activates superpowers he never knew he had. He's resurrected in the back of an ambulance, then becomes a refugee, running from both the police and a secret organization that seems to know more about his powers than he does. Luckily, he is saved by a secret organization of superpowered Black people who have been hiding in plain sight for decades.

Not only is Kareem one of the most powerful supers to awaken, he has no plans to live in the shadows. His journey and conflict with the older more conservative members of the organization resonated with many readers, and it was optioned for a TV adaptation.

CheckPlease!

Check Please!

Words and art by: Ngozi Ukazu

To the rest of the publishing world, Check Please! seemed to come out of nowhere, but to fans of the popular Tumblr webcomic, it was the most addictive soap opera ever. The story follows Eric Richard 'Bitty' Bittle, a gay figure skater, vlogger and master baker from Georgia who joins a northern college hockey team his freshman year. The story follows his life on campus, his crush on the closeted team captain Jack and the rest of the team year by year.

The creator, Ngozi Ukazu, came up with the story as her senior thesis. Giving herself a crash course on the sport of hockey in the process. (She’s a self-professed fan now). The series features a multiethnic cast, tackles issues like depression and homophobia and combines them with unrequited love and stress baking... all before midterms. Between a real-life Twitter account Ukazu set up for Bitty, the fanfiction-like premise and her;manga art style, the comic became a sleeper hit.

The award-winning series has been translated into three languages, and the Year Two and Year Three volumes both raised over $300K on Kickstarter.

Sex-Criminals-1-int

Sex Criminals

Words by: Matt Fraction

Art by: Chip Zdarsky

Susie is a librarian has an interesting superpower: When she orgasms during sex, she stops time. When she meets Jon at a party, they find out later that evening that he possesses the same gift. So, they do what any normal couple who with shared time-manipulation powers does...they rob banks. Why? To save the library, obviously.

Fraction and Zdarky's book is as funny as it isn't kid-friendly. Fraction (Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon) writes zinging dialogue, while Zdarsky’s artwork is bright and detailed but not crowded (even when there are 11 panels on the page). The story is about more than just sex (although there’s a lot of sex) and robbing banks (they’re not good at it); it’s really about relationships, shame, gender, and the sex trade.

For better or worse, these two are the only ones with orgasmic superpowers. In fact, there’s a whole crew of time-stopping orgasmic vigilantes after them.

Monstress

Monstress

Words by: Marjorie Liu

Art by: Sana Takeda 

Monstress takes place in a steampunk fantasy somewhere in 20th century Asia, filled with humans, witches, and magical creatures. Liu’s extensive worldbuilding and Takeda’s museum-worthy artwork combine masterfully to produce a stunning tale of war and redemption, with a focus on the magical Arcanics and their conflict with the Witches of Cumea, which has lasted for all of eternity.  

Monstress broke through the mass of the indie comics scene for two reasons: Liu’s epic worldbuilding and Takeda’s stunning intricate artwork. The comic doesn’t hide the grim details of war and Liu doesn't hold the reader’s hand throughout much of the story. She provides exposition when necessary and lets Takeda’s art breathe and do the rest. Even the most horrific bits of body horror is rendered in a beautiful tapestry of linework and color. The book has won five Eisners, evidence of its quality and impact.

Deadly-Class-Feature

Deadly Class

Words by:& Rick Remender

Art by: ;Wesley Craig 

Homeless and hungry, Marcus Arguello is saved from being arrested by a mysterious Japanese girl with a samurai sword on a motorcycle. It isn't a chance encounter — here is where he first learns of King's Dominion Atelier of the Deadly Arts, a secret school that educates the children of murderers and crime bosses in 1980s San Francisco.

When Marcus falls for a deadly classmate with an equally vicious boyfriend, he finds out his real purpose for being at the school and his whole world turns upside down Deadly Class was adapted for TV and ran for a season earlier this year on SYFY.

Southern Bastards

Southern Bastards

Words by: Jason Aaron

Art by: Jason Latour and Chris Brunner

Euless Boss is a big shot football coach of the Runnin’ Rebs in backwoods Craw County, Alabama. And surprise surprise, he also happens to moonlight as a crime lord. Disturbingly, most residents are actually aware of his crimes and look past coach Boss's obvious criminal activity as long as the Runnin' Rebs keep winning games.

But not everyone is so cill about the illegality; Earl Tubb and his family have a very personal vendetta against Boss, and while there are no superheroes in this book, there is plenty of violence and lots of violence.

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