Pageturn: Action-Comedy Comics

By | September 30th, 2020
Posted in Columns | % Comments

Hey you! Have you ever wanted to read some different comics? Hopefully! Do you have a friend who you are always trying to get into comics? Yeah, you probably have 20! Are you looking for comics with that classic slapstick superhero style but none of the off-putting spandex you usually see? Well aren’t you in luck! If you answered yes to at least one of those questions then boy do I have the article for you! In Pageturn, I’m going to break down comics genre by genre and give you the best recommendations you can pester yourself and others into reading.

Some rules before we start (Even though I’ll almost certainly break all of them)
1. No superheroes
2. No Marvel or DC (maybe a sneaky Vertigo here and there)
3. Mostly modern reads

Assassin Nation

“Assassin Nation” is a pun-perfect series from personal favourite Erica Henderson and new favourite Kyle Starks. It looks at a string of attempted assassination attempts on the retired #1 hitman and the new bodyguards he hires to protect himself, the big departure though is that those 20 new bodyguards also happen to be the world’s current top 20 hitmen. Yeah, it’s about as dysfunctional as it sounds.

Those 20 assassins are by and far the best part of this book too, I mean it’s insane that in a book with a minimum two dozen different characters, I still remember more than half of their names. And what beautiful names they are: Smush Walker, Wistful Stan, Chad Fingerman, Frank Townhouse, David Bowieknife, FUCK TARINGTON! I reckon I’d trade years off my life to be in the room when Starks and Henderson were coming up with these. Still, characterisation in this book goes beyond names and presentation, through the five-issue run it all stays light and breezy, most of the cast die before they have a chance to develop, but there’s still some really cathartic and often heartwarming arcs here. In such a perfect character-focused action joint, you find yourself running into a bunch of characters that from page one you’re pretty sure you’re gonna love, and then you do! Because it’s just that excellent. You also have the opposite often enough where once you get past a quirky name, one of the assassins just seems boring or cliched, but then the creative team are able to turn it around and prove that the person isn’t boring, they’re just an asshole, and then you can channel a whole different kind of anger into them.

Erica Henderson is always such a triumph, and that only becomes more clear here. She carries so much expression and story in her art, which she manages to complement with an excess of style and action in this series. “Squirrel Girl” was perfect because of how nourishing the combination of Henderson’s art and Ryan North’s writing managed to be, it was perfectly overstuffed to the point of eccentricity. “Assassination Nation” is such a natural extension on that because of how Henderson is able to carry all that expression and background story sequencing into a book that’s already overstuffed from the premise, while still managing to capitalise on all the comedic material that Starks sets up for her. This book is so hilarious in its execution because of how much hilarity there is in its literal executions, simple as that.

There’s something great about a comic that is willing to set up all its pieces, it’s whole world and its objective, and within the space of five issues it just burns that all to the ground and puts the ashes back in the toybox. Starks and Henderson produce this big, beautiful, oversized genie, they get all the wishes you could ever want out of it, and then they manage to cram it right back into the bottle. “Assassin Nation” is just one of those books where it would be perfect if it packed up with that laser-sharpy precision and never returned after this punchy, perfect ending. Or it could just stretch on forever, killing and recycling and holding onto characters over and over and over, and that would fit the formula just as well. I think what I’m trying to say is that these two know how to create an idea dripping with constructive ingenuity and longevity, revelling in its contradictory pace and scale, leaving us wanting more while on the best kind of cliffhanger. We’ll miss you Fuck, stay perfect sweet prince.

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Grab it if you like:
-Sprawling stories that stay punchy
-Cold-blooded assassins who know how to keep it breezy
-Books that find their best identity when they don’t have to take themselves too seriously

If you like “Assassin Nation” read:
-”Sexcastle” by Kyle Starks
-”Crowded” by Christopher Sebela, Ro Stein and Ted Brandt
-“Manhattan Projects” by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra

Lone Wolf and Cub

Okay I’m going to be straight with you guys, I don’t think “Lone Wolf and Cub” is actually a comedy. That, however, doesn’t change the fact that it’s funny as fuck. Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s seminal series is one of the cornerstones of modern manga, following a disgraced assassin and his son on their various adventures across Edo Japan. It’s also a masterpiece in plotting where every single one of this man’s schemes involves intentional child endangerment in one way or another. I don’t know what it says about me, but I absolutely fucking adore this book.

“Lone Wolf and Cub” is probably the longest series I’ve recommended here, clocking in with 28 different 300 page graphic novels, but it really fulfills that length. The serialised nature of it could have been at its detriment but I think the gimmick that Daigoro (the Cub) lends manages to keep these stories feeling more exciting than those usual ‘travelling invincible, untamed, moralistic killer’ stories. Ogami (the wolf) is carrying this obvious point of vulnerability with him and seeing how he twists into a benefit every time is just compelling. That said, no matter how much of a structure this story has it’s never necessarily predictable. The level of immersion that Koike’s scripts have within the period and his fascination with ensemble characters just gives each story enough depth to come out with complexity.

“Lone Wolf and Cub” is filling, it’s comforting, and it’s also pretty as hell. Kojima’s pencils are so rich and atmospheric. It matches the clipped timing and sensory cinematics of a Kurosawa film with the charming design elements of modern manga in a really beautiful union that keeps the book legible and cripplingly addictive. Seriously, the fidelity of his pencils paired with the precision of the pacing and framing makes this book a prime example of what black and white art should look like.

Watching Daigoro, progressively, infinitesimally grow up from story to story is amazing and it will steal your heart away, so next time you see any of the million ‘warrior and baby’ films/TV shows/comics (Looking at you, Mando) just remember who you owe your thanks to. You should be especially thankful that this kid hasn’t got stabbed or drowned or sent to baby prison in one of his father’s elaborate scams. Seriously, this comic is what makes Child Protective Services wake up with a cold sweat at night.

Grab it if you like:
-Serialised adventure stories
-Meticulous depictions of Edo Japan
-Samurai splendor brought to the page

If you like “Lone Wolf and Cub” read:
-“Samurai Executioner” by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
-”Cosmic Ghost Rider” by Donny Cates and Dylan Burnett
-”Once & Future” by Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora

The Weatherman

A really good friend got me my copy of “The Weatherman” fairly spontaneously, neither of us had read anything by Jody LeHeup or drawn by Nathan Fox up to that point, but they thought it looked fun and presto, a perfect gift was born. The book follows the eponymous weatherman himself, Nathan Bright, in the far-flung future of martian society, a society still recovering from a terrorist attack that killed nearly everyone on Earth, totaling a body-count in the billions. This is such a unique, marching-pace comic and I’m going to try put that pizazz it has into words, but if you can’t be bothered reading any further, “The Weatherman,” essentially, is like a legible interpretation of getting shot in the head while eating cotton candy, and that’s an experience I challenge you to find anywhere else.

Behind all the great worldbuilding and tone-setting of “The Weatherman” is a story that’s just way better than it has any right, sometimes it gets really fucking smart and I have to pinch myself, the book will deliver page after page of firework theatrics that pop in a medium that already lives and dies on spectacle and still finds the real estate for existentialism. Whether it’s car chases on martian highways or digitally-induced torture resistance, LeHeup and Fox jump between schlock action and ground-up sci-fi organically, intelligently and stylishly in every issue. I feel like there’s a chance this book could have fallen apart when it comes to its cast, but it doesn’t! I got genuinely invested in the character narratives and anxious from moments of near-cer tain death that I would brush aside in any other comic. Nathan Bright feels like he should be a bundle of tired cliches and yet, he ISN’T!! He’s the best of the tropes he draws on while having character depth literally hardwired into his being. Not only that but he’s backed up by an amazing cast of foils, antagonists and accomplices wedged right in his moral grey zone.

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Even after all that, I’m still struggling to communicate why this book works as well as it does. I guess it just leans so hard in one direction that it carves itself its own lane. It’s like “Weatherman” is at a crossroads and instead just carves straight down until it emerges on the other side of the plane of ideas. It’s that kind of lateral thinking, mixed with a constructive confidence, that drew me in so quickly to this book. I’m such a sucker for funny stories that can present really interesting moral arguments without having to wave it in your face. I mean, Rick and Morty is fun, but so much of each episode is about dangling the moralistic point of the story in front of you. While that definitely has its own kind of charm, “The Weatherman” just outpaces it by happily presenting all those big ideas without getting on a soapbox to spell them out.

“The Weatherman” is two volumes in so far (pretty sure with one to go) and I couldn’t be more on board with what Fox and LeHeup are creating for themselves. This book is stylistically impactful, exhilaratingly memorable and wildly charming. Get on this as soon as you can and see what comics can do when you push the throttle to the floor.

Grab it if you like:
-Sci-fi with spectacle
-Ingenuitive genre fiction
-The artistic epitome of an ultra-violence overload

If you like “The Weatherman” read:
-”Shirtless Bear Fighter” by Jody LeHeup, Sebastian Girner and Nil Vendrell
-”Black Science” by Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera
-”The New World” by Ales Kot and Tradd Moore

On the Shelf: Fire Power

If you told me “The Walking Dead” guy would be making a comic about Shaolin Monks one year ago I would’ve told you that I would never go near that book. I think I’ve gotten to a point where I’m just so wary of Tibetan appropriation in media. But then “Fire Power” actually came along and somehow made it work, Robert Kirkman and Chris Samnee have made a martial arts comic that’s not only irreverent but smart, subversive, energetic and joyful in a way that has instantly charmed me to it.

I think the first major ace in the hole this book had (putting aside the star-studded creative team) was its publishing format, the series started off with an original graphic novel covering our main character Owen’s whole backstory at a really low price point. It sets all the pieces up, gives us some fun characters to work with, shows off the flashy artstyle and gets the reader on side. So by the time we hit the main series there’s no explanation necessary and the series gets to make its first major turn. It’s not just a martial arts book. See, after our fun introduction we cut forward about a decade and a half and suddenly Owen has a family, suddenly his powers and his training are in the rear-view and we’ve got a whole new tone. As the Serious Issues podcast put it, suddenly we’re reading Ninja Incredibles, and that’s just about the best left turn this book could take. See I think that’s Robert Kirkman’s biggest strength as a writer. He has this knack for getting well-trodden stories, seemingly introducing a fairly run-of-the mill premise from that genre, but then doing the whole thing better. You get all settled into these books and their catchy formulas and then finally, the rug flies out from under your feet and you’re in a whole other story. You see it in “The Walking Dead” and “Invinciblem” and it’s what makes him so new-reader-friendly. He writes unabashed feel-good blockbuster shit that is just working to be smarter than its competition.

Alright, now we’re onto the real heavyweight of this book, because as stellar as Kirkman is, Chris Samnee is an absolute fucking classic-coke mastermind of a comic book artist. This man is putting out some of the best work in his entire career and it’s so energising to absorb. He really mastered his trade at Marvel on “Daredevil,” “Black Widow,” “Thor” and “Captain America” with Mark Waid, which were all amazing books, but I think “Fire Power” succeeds because of how much of a departure it makes from the visual language he pioneered for himself at the House of Ideas. He’s paired with colorist Matt Wilson who mines so much depth from Samnee’s pencils rather than reveling in their simplicity. It’s a really additive form of coloring, especially when paired with the greater emphasis on vistas and environments by Samnee. The focus isn’t just on technicolor heroes here, it’s on a world that’s so much bigger than the hero navigating it. I think the book’s design elements are still fairly tame as of yet (well as tame as a fire-throwing monk war can be), but I can just smell it in the air, we’re gonna get some apeshit characters in this book and everyone’s gonna love it. Who knows? Maybe after this we finally get that Waid and Samnee Superman run that people have been praying for over the last ten-ish years.

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Y’know what? I think after writing this all I’ve discovered the secret sauce of this book. Robert Kirkman writes dude-bro comics but without any of the dude-bro hangups. He makes guilty pleasure stories that you don’t have to feel guilty about and that’s such a perfect way to construct a story. “Fire Power” is going places, I can guarantee you that, the exciting part is going to be seeing just how far it gets.

Grab it if you like:
-Martial arts stories that move with the times
-Charming art with an emphasis on landscapes
-A Retro ‘90s Mr Miyagi

If you like “Fire Power” read:
-”Oblivion Song” by Robert Kirkman and Lorenzo de Felici
-”Scott Pilgrim” by Bryan Lee O’Malley
-”Paper Girls” by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang


Black Cat
Black Cat hasn’t been a bad character in the past. A year and a half ago I wouldn’t have had anything that critical to say, but any questions you asked me about her would’ve ended with a painfully short conversation. And then Jed MacKay, alongside a really strong pool of artists including Travel Foreman, Kris Anka, Michael Dowling and Carlos Villa, found a way to epitomise the character. I think I’ve talked about just how underrated a writer MacKay is, but he just has this talent for finding these core pillars for a character and building really magnetic interpretations of them from that. I think that’s the best way to describe his version of Felicia Hardy, magnetic and frenetic. She’s still built flirty to a fault, but it feels genuine rather than the product of some comic writers externalised Catwoman fantasies. The best depiction of this is almost certainly her date with Batroc the Leaper, it’s casual and real and charming to a point where you can’t help but love their inherently fleeting chemistry. This series gives Felicia Hardy her own agenda, one filled with energetic heists, talking snakes and a history of thievery rendered in pencils that perfectly balance scratchiness with elegance, and colors that bounce between sleek monochromatics and sugar-rush technicolors. “Black Cat” is the underdog survivor series of 2020 and you have to do yourself a favour by reading it while it’s still here.

Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man
Tom Taylor, Juann Cabal and Andrew Robinson’s “Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man” is a book of weird polarities, it carries this perfect comedic, exasperated tone throughout, but the book so willingly jumps between overbearing multi-issue arcs and perfect single issue stories. Issues #5, #6 and #11 are these great stories in miniature that help epitomise what Spider-Man’s life can be in vignette, and I’d love to see more of that. He’s a character so often pulled into these giant sagas, even though his frenetic lifestyle kind of works better in these little meaningful episodes. It’s kind of like Batman, I’d argue all his best stories are one-and-dones from “Batman: Black and White” or his million anniversary issues. Anyway, personal baggage aside, “Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man” sits perfectly alongside Chip Zdarsky’s “Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man” as an indicator of what integral short-form Spider-antics should look like.

The Boys
This is a weird way to preface this, but I don’t think “The Boys” is necessarily a good comic, I do however think it’s the most cathartic response to the genre fatigue of superhero comics that you will ever find. It’s gratuitous, it’s unapologetic and it’s absolutely fucking diabolical. I’m telling you right now, you will know whether or not this book is for you by the first couple issues, but if you like it and you stick with it, it’ll be rewarding. “The Boys” is set in a world full of corrupt superheroes steeped in the excesses of celebrity culture and looks at the (relatively) ordinary people fighting to hold them in check. I would argue that the series is one of those rare books where the adaptation is arguably better than the original. Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson made a perfect material from which to sculpt a biting TV series, it meanders more, it’s less resonant today and it’s a little cruel for the sake of cruelty, but more than anything else it will make you weep for the fact that we never got the Simon Pegg Boys movie we were so obviously destined to see.

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“Invisible” is probably the sleeper hit of superhero comics, there’s really nothing immediately different about it, it’s about a kid with superpowers learning from his dad with superpowers in a world full of people with superpowers. So what’s the catch? Well, remember all those Kirkman-ocities I mentioned before in relation to “Fire Power”? It’s that. It just works because there’s so much constructive genre revival in it. No matter how sick of superheroics you are, you could find something to like in “Invincible.” On top of that, the second series artist on this, Ryan Ottley, is given so much time to visually evolve on this book and I LOVE watching that. More artists need that chance to grow with their work, and it’s probably the most integral thing lost lost in this era of low-longevity comics. A lot of people talk about organic worldbuilding in “Invincible,” but I think it’s important to mention the organic character development too. Very rarely are there sudden character shifts here, it’s all deliberate, understated and meticulous. But that means when those major shifts do happen, Kirkman is able to let his departures overwhelm his generic famiarities and the book becomes a blood-splattered triumph. Just like “Lone Wolf and Cub,” this book is almost certainly a binge comic, hammer through it and find the parts you enjoy while time passes you by.

Thank you all for reading, stay rough, stay rollicking, stay read.

//TAGS | Pageturn

James Dowling

James Dowling is probably the last person on Earth who enjoyed the film Real Steel. He has other weird opinions about Hellboy, CHVRCHES, Squirrel Girl and the disappearance of Harold Holt. Follow him @James_Dow1ing on Twitter if you want to argue about Hugh Jackman's best film to date.


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