Pageturn: Comics with Pride

By | June 17th, 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 a way to celebrate queer comics without being heartbroken by their decades of underrepresentation in superhero comics? 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

The Wicked + The Divine

“The Wicked + The Divine” (I’m going to be calling it wicdiv going forward because I’m lazy) is probably the bedrock of modern queer comics, the series by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie brings ancient gods into the modern day and essentially asks the question, ‘what if they all only had two years to live?’ The answer mostly, is that they party, are worshipped, and inadvertently do everything in their power to die prematurely. Welcome to wicdiv, where joining the 27 club is an optimistic prospect.

The first thing you should know about this series is that it’s willing to get experimental, Gillen and McKelvie are both really fucking good at what they do, and what they do is fucking weird. McKelvie’s style especially, seems candid, he uses light stylisation and detailed figures in a really legible manner, I mean the covers for each issue is literally a portrait, not a complex piece, yeah? But then he starts putting together and pulling apart patterns in his page layouts, suddenly character designs are transforming and overlapping and everything just feels so chaotically natural and naturally chaotic. Mckelvie’s comic books are like jazz, and he’s the scatman. Gillen is similar, he uses a series of well-communicated shorthands, motifs and themes to push the series in a confident direction and diverge at every chance down a new road. In a story literally founded on thousand-year old mythology, the ability to find a new meaning is what the book lives or dies on, and Gillen makes sure it not only survives, but thrives.

Wicdiv is a character-centric series and it embraces that by never really taking the easy root in terms of tropes (that’s my wanky way of it zigs where other books zag). Protagonist Laura is a great example of this, while she begins as a fairly standard fish-out-of-water POV character, she goes on to crumple under the weight of her growing role in the world of the mythological, and then find new purpose as she both embraces and discards the Pantheon. It’s also never not fun watching how gods like Dionysus, Woden, Minerva and Lucifer are twisted and reinterpreted in a story about modern intersectionality, identity crises and celebrity culture. Not only that, but the book is willing to go back and carve out its own pre-history all in a crisp 50ish issues.

The weird thing about Wicdiv is that there are other series by Gillen I prefer over it, but none that I respect more than it. Sometimes it can be too wanky or too anticlimactic, but at the end of everything, I really admire this book. I love it because it’s unabashedly uncompromised, it’s this team’s unique story that’s built on the mode of storytelling, the characters and the social themes that they want to portray. I mean, this book has a magazine issues, a prose issue, an issue that’s literally just a Mary Shelley biography, it goes where it wants. Not only that but it has built a kindhearted community who engage with the text in a really rare and unique way. This is a book that’s introspective and looks both into the past, and into the future of a futureless generation. “The Wicked + The Divine” is the kind of comic that’s remembered.

Grab it if you like:
-Books at intersection between religion and celebrity culture
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-Misleadingly experimental stories
-Exploding heads

If you like “The Wicked + The Divine” read:
-“Phonogram” by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie
-”Fables” by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham
-”Runaways” by Brian K Vaughan and Adrian Alphona


“Crowded” by writer Christopher Sebela, and artists Ro Stein and Ted Brandt is a near-future satire of the gig economy following protagonist Charlie after she wakes up one day with a million dollar bounty on her (which was funded through an app), and has to hire a bodyguard, Vita (also through an app) and throw her old (app-filled) life away. This book could have easily been a depressing and ruminating grim-dark comment on society, and it sort of is at points, but it’s also one of the funniest and most heartfelt novels in the burgeoning realm of mainstream queer comics without sacrificing any of that high concept scifi-ery.

Sebela is a really great writer who injects this book with such great interplay between the protagonists, he’s able to be really smart and emotionally intelligent without having to linger on his good ideas. That goes for all elements of the book, the good ideas work because Sebela, Stein and Brandt don’t feel the need to bask in them. It’s perfect for a book all about the deteriorating attention span of the modern world and how that links to the gig economy, operant conditioning in social media, and multilateral issues like climate change and the resilience of democracy. I really love the work of colorist Triona Farrell here too, the way she tints each character’s outfit and each city’s skyline gives the book a sense of boisterousness and utopic sheen over the dystopia underneath. That goes for Brandt and Stein too (whose work you should recognise from the forever-fantastic ”Hell’s Kitchen Movie Club”) they have so much life and character in their work, so it’s fun seeing them bend genre and work in a gritty sci-fi crime story. It crosses the streams just right.

I think the most special thing about “Crowded” though, is the relationship between Charlie and Vita, which is as fluid as it is complicated, and that works to its strength. Sebela’s willing to give the pair the time they need to flourish, which obviously just ratchets up with sexual tension between them. I just love how the series is willing to keep digging into these characters’ backstories, compatibilities and incompatibilities; it’s willing to keep breaking its own status quo and seeing what Charlie and Vita look like once they’ve created that new normal for themselves. It turns what looks like a pretty standard dichotomy of ‘fun and playful vs serious and stoic’ into a pair of flawed, evasive and uniquely self-interested characters.

Right now, “Crowded” is two thirds of the way through its three book run and it’s hard to think of a reason why you wouldn’t want to dip your toes in. It’s this great blend of action, queer romance, speculative satire and soulful comedy that you should definitely give a chance.

Grab it if you like:
-Upbeat dystopias
-Revitalised buddy-cop stories
-The gig economy running rampant

If you like “Crowded” read:
-“Welcome Back” by Christopher Sebela, Jonathan Brandon Sawyer and Claire Roe
-“The Weatherman” by Jody Leheup and Nathan Fox
-”Kill Whitey Donovan” by Sydney Duncan and Natalie Barahona


I feel like, to my own detriment, I rarely put a spotlight on smaller publishers. It’s all too easy to toot the horn of a series with 50 issues and a movie deal in the works; so when I find unabashedly amazing comics that are pent-up with optimism, craft and commentary, and that feel like they would be a discovery even for avid comic readers, I take every chance I get to write about them. “Heathen” is the best example of that yet.

The series is written, illustrated and colored by Natasha Alterici and follows the viking Aydis after she’s exiled and presumed dead by her former neighbours, expatriated after being caught kissing another girl. So, full of righteous rage and a sense of unbelonging, she and her horse Saga go on a mission to free the Valkyrie Brunhild and, eventually, to topple the entire patriarchal Norse Pantheon. The whole series is an optimistic power fantasy that looks at how determination, bravery and an excess of sexual frustration can break down systematic evil, create agency and promote understanding. It’s like if “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” and God of War had a baby; a steroid-pumped, unkillable jugger-baby.

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“Heathen” is such an obvious passion project for Alterici, with every element of the art working in sync to create a consistently magnetic art style that focuses on the overpowering emotion and mood of each character and setting. I really liked how she did her inks and colors especially, the interplay between heavy lines and sketchier, rough outlines gives characters a cartoonish level of gruffness. It works to Alterici’s advantage, since it allows characters like Frejya to seem unearthly soft due to her smooth inks and soft-cornered expressions. Alterici’s paint-like, saturated color palette carries the book along as well, allowing her to create variety in the mundane and expand into brighter colors in moments of extremity. I also really loved the work of letterer Rachel Deering here, the way she uses white-on-black balloons to delineate immortals like Odin or (the unabashedly amazing) Skull and Hati from mortals like Aydis is really special.

Anyway, this book is soaked to the seams in endearing characters. It always staggers me how much sympathy Alterici can treat her characters with, she rarely leans on stereotypes and when she does she subverts and appropriates them for her own ends. For example, Aydis wears a horned helmet which, to anyone whose binged Vikings, would seem anachronistic; but the way the book addresses and goes beyond that stereotype, makes the helmet’s inclusion endlessly additive to the book and its identity.

Still, it seems like the series will be coming to an end with issue #12 in August and please, if you have any change you can shell out at the moment, give this book the recognition it deserves. Literally any book that steals Norse Mythology back from white supremacists deserves to live on a pedestal. This book champions acceptance and indomitability on every page, it tells us that we can break the narrative and make something better from it, and I really can’t think of anyone that wouldn’t appeal to.

Grab it if you like:
-Historical/Mythological queer lit
-Optimistic power fantasties
-Norse myth redefined

If you like “Heathen” read:
-“Tamers” by Natasha Alterici
-“Angela” by Marguerite Bennett, Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans
-“The White Trees” by Chip Zdarsky and Kris Anka

On the Shelf: Doctor Aphra

Star Wars comics aren’t in desperate need of new readers, there are about a million copies of “Star Wars” #1 that can prove that. But Kieron Gillen and Simon Spurrier’s “Doctor Aphra” goes above and beyond what you’d expect from a Star Wars book; providing big ideas, compelling momentum and heartful, authentic characters, all while looting tombs and blowing shit up.

The comic follows Doctor Aphra who’s like a cross between Constantine and Indiana Jones, except she’s a star-faring disaster lesbian. The book has such a great supporting cast too, it spins out of Gillen and Salvador Larrocca’s “Darth Vader,” so obviously Mr. Dark and Brooding comes and goes, but there are so many other great appearances like the Wookiee Black Krrsantan, Aphra’s rival/girlfriend/captive/co-conspirator Magna Tolvan, and the non-lethal monster hunter couple Winloss and Nokk. I really just love that Aphra is able to be a genuinely morally corrupt character, she’s hardly even an antihero. She’s someone whose greatest instinct is survival despite choosing a life of constant danger for herself, it’s such a well-ingrained and compelling premise, and it leads to all kinds of great character work.

I really enjoy this series for the optimistic success story it presents too, Aphra had the first ever same sex kiss in all of Star Wars, was the first major Asian character in Star Wars canon and already has almost 50 issues under her belt. What a fucking home run. Couple that with the book’s stand-out art by Caspar Wijngaard, Kev Walker, Emilio Santos and more, and some of the most creative uses of the Galaxy Far, Far Away, and you have a near-perfect Star Wars series. Seriously, story arcs like ‘The Enormous Profit,’ ‘The Disaster Con’ and ‘Worst Among Equals’ are up there in my favourite Star Wars stories of all time

I haven’t read the new “Doctor Aphra” #1 by Alyssa Wong and Marika Cresta yet, but Kate Kosturski had good things to say about it. Do yourself a favor and follow the adventures of the intrepid Doctor Aphra.

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Grab it if you like:
-Characters who thrive in the moral grey
-Quirky Star Wars stories
-”A treacherous space lesbian who can’t decide whether she’s amoral or immoral” (Si Spurrier)

If you like “Doctor Aphra” read:
-”The Spire” by Si Spurrier and Jeff Stokely
-”Die” by Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans
-”Star Wars: Darth Vader” by Charles Soule and Giuseppe Camuncoli


Excalibur (and the whole modern Dawn of X line)
Mainstream superhero comics have taken far longer than they should have to come close to any kind of LGBTQIA+ representation, it took until 1992 for Marvel to finally end its allusions and properly state that (the absolute icon) Northstar was the first gay superhero from the House of Ideas. Since then the X-Men have continued to champion queer representation and nowhere is that more apparent than in the new ‘Dawn of X’ line, especially “Excalibur,” from writer Tini Howard and artist Marcus To.

The intertwined comics “House of X” and “Powers of X” were lauded for their natural extension on the mutant metaphor as Marvel’s mutantdom found themselves a sovereign state to call home, in the process finding new spiritual purpose, a new social order and paradisiacal unity. It feels like this kind of progressive optimism has been absent in media recently and having something so unabashedly hopeful and accepting in mainstream media has been exhilarating. Much of that is thanks to the gold standard creative teams, namely “X-Men” writer Jonathan Hickman, editor Jordan White, and series writers Gerry Duggan, Tini Howard and Benjamin Percy. While it’s still a cis het male majority writing, the long anticipated arrival of “Children of the Atom” writer Vita Ayala and “X-Factor” writer Leah Williams is a strong step in the direction of remedying that. I know this is all very inside-baseball, but this kind of genuine thought and diversity in a Marvel comics line is something I really never thought I’d see.

Anyway! “Excalibur” is like this perfect intersection between english folklore, meditations on british nationalism, a mutant story and the analysis of acceptance in paradise. It’s a really introspective comic that has covered a lot of ground in just ten issues. In terms of queer characters, the series has an interesting two issue arc with a focus on Rictor (who also had the first ever same-sex kiss in a Marvel comic back in 2009) and Cullen Bloodstone, while the arc definitely departs from Cullen’s old depictions it gives an interesting look at the intersectional relationship between race, nationality and sexuality all mixed in with some action/adventure hijinks. So I really think if there are any superhero comics you should be reading right now, they should be the ‘Dawn of X’ books.

Going a tad bit further back, we have another great LGBTQIA+ X-Men series in the form of Sina Grace, Alessandro Vitti, Robert Gill and Nathan Stockman’s “Iceman.” For context, a couple years back in “All-New X-Men,” writer Brian Michael Bendis revealed Bobby Drake (Iceman) to be gay in one of the sloppiest retcons, the whole thing fell prey to waves of deserved critscism and undeserved homophobia, with Bendis leaving soon after and taking no accountability in justifying his creative decision. And so the torch was passed to Sina Grace who took all that bad blood and made a genuine and believable character study from it. Not only that but he had to fight Marvel editorial tooth-and-nail every step of the way. The series follows Iceman’s interactions with his past girlfriend Kitty Pryde, his homme fatale Daken and his time displaced younger self (comics are magical, aren’t they?). Still, the series survived only 17 issues, with Grace later speaking out about how “It is my belief that if we are telling stories about heroes doing the right thing in the face of adversity, wouldn’t the hope be to embody those ideals as individuals? Instead of feeling like I worked with some of the most inspiring and brave people in comics, I was surrounded by cowards.” It’s heartbreaking, but I think Grace should be commended for carving out a great sculpture from the most stubborn rock.

More stuff from Kieron Gillen
Yeah look, I really should have gotten it out of my system by now, but I’ve still got a whole laundry list of Kieron Gillen comics that I need to rattle off here before I can feel satisfied. His depiction of Loki in “Journey into Mystery” helped strengthen the gender fluid characterisation originally established in J. Michael Straczynski’s run on “Thor.” This was pushed even further by Al Ewing in his comic “Loki: Agent of Asgard” which was my favourite series of all time for a good while, seriously it’s such an existential, empowering adrenaline rush. Gillen went on to write “Young Avengers” which featured more Loki, as well as Marvel’s happiest couple Hulkling and Wiccan, and the debut of lesbian superhero America Chavez. It also featured art from “Wicdiv’s” own Jamie McKelvie, seriously there’s so much to love there. Finally Gillen wrote “Angela: Asgard’s Assassin” and “Angela: Queen of Hel” alongside writer/artist Marguerite Bennett and artist Stephanie Hans. The character was originally created by Neil Gaiman for Todd McFarlane’s “Spawn,” but after a legal crusade ended up in the Marvel Universe. I feel like this gave her a chance to go from a fairly one-note character in the Image series (don’t @ me, I’ve just never been a “Spawn” boy) into this really well-rendered lesbian warrior. It’s similar to “Heathen” in that it’s just a great norse power fantasy, except this gets to plumb the depths of the Marvel Universe at the same time. Also if you want to achieve maximum synergy then read Tini Howard’s “Strikeforce,” which features Angela, and you’ll have successfully read something that builds off of like four different books we went through today.

Thank you all for reading, until next time.

//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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