How Image is Revolutionizing Comics for Adults
By Tyler Edwards
I get asked every now and then “So what kind of comic books do you like?” and I realized recently that I usually take the easy way out of answering that question. It’s a lot more simple to tell people you’re reading Black Widow, Thor, Batgirl, and Hawkeye than it is to have to explain to people what The Wicked + The Divine, Saga, Sex Criminals, and Alex + Ada are (also why so many comics have +’s in their title). A question I got asked the other day was why do I even like comics? This actually got me thinking, my immediate response was joke (as is my nature) that they’re easy to read because it is mostly pictures. But seriously, why do I like comics so much? One of those common misconceptions about comics is that they’re something only kids read. While many of the titles from Marvel and DC might skew towards a younger audience, or teenagers at least, there are many that are certainly aimed for adults, particularly comics outside of the Big Two. Comics, as a medium, have way more of a freedom of story telling than movies or television shows do. They aren’t restricted by networks, by a ratings system, or by the limits of what is reasonably filmable. Part of what makes comic books the amazing medium that they are is how limitless the scope of what they are capable of is, in story telling, art, and scale.
Over recent years there is no publishing company that has taken advantage of this more than Image Comics. If you are not part of the comic book reading world you probably think you have never heard of them, but you would be wrong! They publish the comics that the much loved AMC television series The Walking Dead is based on. But Imagine is so much more than just zombies and katana wielding women of color, even though both of those things are definitely awesome. Image’s titles over the last few years have taken them to what I consider to be the upper echelon of comic books. So here I’m going to look a few series that highlight how Imagine revolutionizing the quality of comic books aimed at an older audience.
If you’ve heard of any Image comic other than The Walking Dead it most likely would be Saga. Written by Brian K. Vaughan (Y the Last Man, Runaways), it tells the intergalactic epic of man and woman who’s respected races are at war, forcing them and their newborn to flee for their lives. To put it mildly, Saga is batshit insane. There is a race that have TVs for heads, a cat that knows if you’re lying, and half-woman half-spider assassins, just to name a few of its more unconventional aspects. The amazing thing about what Vaughn does with the story telling, which has been described as “Game of Thrones meets Romeo and Juliet meet Star Wars” is turn the insanity of the plot and visuals into one of the most intricate and compelling stories being written on any medium. Vaughan once said, “This is an original fantasy book with no superheroes, two non-white leads and an opening chapter featuring graphic robot sex. I thought we might be cancelled by our third issue.” They certainly are far from being cancelled, in 2013 Saga volume 1 was the number one selling trade paperback of the year, with volume 2being the third highest. Aside from being a runaway hit in sales it also has won numerous awards, winning Eisners, the Hugo award, and Harvey awards. He has also said that Saga, as he conceived it, was “to do absolutely everything I couldn’t do in a movie or a TV show. I’m really happy with it just being a comic.” You can see this in Fiona Staples art where she holds nothing back in terms of gore, sex, and just general nonsensical imagery. If Vaughan is writing Saga in a way that will never be able to adapted for the big or small screen, that is fine with me. It is the current pinnacle of the level of story telling that comic books can offer.
My personal favorite comic published by Image is the much smaller scaled, by comparison, Alex + Ada. It doesn’t come with the prestige or accolades that Saga of The Walking Dead does, but this incredibly intimate story about love and humanity does so much with nary a superhero or epic battle in sight. Set sometime in the near future, where robots are commonplace, the protagonist Alex is receives a gift from wealthy grandmother, an android of his own. The robots in this world vary, from ones that look very much like machines that do menial work, to more expensive ones that look exactly like humans, such as Alex’s. The politics of the book get interesting when we learn that at one point scientists had developed sentient robots, but this resulted in the newly self-aware robots attacking and massacring humans. After this the government banned artificial intelligence. Alex eventually becomes unsatisfied with his android, that he named Ada, who just does what he says, obviously having no thoughts of her own. He learns that there are illegal ways of possibly making her self-aware. The story tackles issues love and loneliness, with Alex having just come out of a long-term relationship, and the feeling and companionship he feels with Ada. It also touches on issues like individual rights and government privacy. Alex + Ada is a bit of a slow burn, and is definitely dialogue heavy, which is not always my thing, but the story is just so unbelievably good that you don’t want to put it down.
Saga is the grandiose space epic, Alex + Ada the intimate love story about human nature, well Sex Criminal is just an absolutely bonkers, hilarious, and beautifully drawn story about, as the titles implies, sex and crime. But it is also so much more. The gist of the story is that when either of the protagonists have sex, time stops. It goes through each of their childhoods, not understanding what is happening to their bodies – as is the case with most kids going through puberty – and eventually coming to terms with their incredibly unique abilities. As the story goes along the two meet each other, and when they hook up they realize that they both can stop time. Which leads to humorous shenanigans and eventually to them deciding they should rob a bank to fund the library Suzie works for, naturally. The writer, Matt Fraction, uses a similar dry wit that is seen in his other books like Hawkeye. At the beginning Suzie is doing the narrating and speaks to the reading in an unconventional way, with lines like: “That [question] was rhetorical. You don’t need to answer. We couldn’t hear you anyway, this is a book and you are a person and that’s not how it works.” While definitely being funny and having a story that has never been told before (as far as I’m aware) it also gets into some deeper issues, especially concerning the awkwardness of adolescence, becoming comfortable with one’s own body, and how sex can be awkward even when you’re an adult. Artist Chip Zdarsky doesn’t hold back with what he depicts either, but what is most refreshing about his art is that these aren’t two ridiculously beautiful people having sex, they just look like regular Joes. Also, much like Saga, Sex Criminals has started picking up lots and lots of award nominations, so don’t expect this one to end any time soon.
This was just skimming the surface of the amazing work Image is putting out. There is also The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie (Phonogram, Young Avengers), about a pantheon of god who are reincarnated every 90 years and live for only 2 as world wide pop idols. Or Deadly Class by Rick Remender (Uncanny Avengers, Captain America) and Wes Craig (Guardians of the Galaxy), set in 1987 about a high school that trains assassins, and one of the pupils has a personal vendetta against Ronald Reagan. Image has taken ideas that, for the most part, would never work on TV of film and have developed beautiful and rich worlds within these comic books. Tackling mature themes in stories that are just begging to be read. Comics geared towards an older audience have existed for a long time, but I can’t think of when so many from a single publisher have come into the mainstream zeitgeist. Series like these are how Image is revolutionizing comic books for adults.