While I’ve always been a fan of movies and tv, it was during my early days at Michigan State that I really got into film as an art form. Safe to say, it was a better way of making friends than babbling on about progressive death metal and Swans-esque noise rock. But why am I talking about all of that when the post is about comics? Well, during my junior year I joined the MSU Filmmakers Club. Within a semester, my best friend in the group introduced me to the world of comics, which up to that point I had largely ignored. Turned out all it took was finding creator-owned studios and imprints like Image and (the tragically now-defunct) Vertigo. In other words, the kinds of series that don’t provoke high levels of commitment anxiety like Marvel and DC do. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying those kinds of comics are bad, I just like one-and-done narratives with comics; it’s less time-consuming to read and, to an avid media collector like myself, easier on the wallet.
Now, it should come as no surprise to anyone with eyes and ears and a pulse that comic-book-based movies and tv shows are really popular these days. One only has to look at the sheer success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but beyond that, it seems every movie studio is trying to churn out superhero media based on pre-existing comics. But here’s the thing; those aren’t the only comic-based stories. There’s a whole world of indie comics not involving superheroes that is largely untapped by Hollywood. You know, the kind that won’t reflexively spark legions of online debates about box office oversaturation and samey looking media. Don’t believe me? Did you know that The Walking Dead is not only AMC’s biggest franchise but that it is based on Image Comic’s best-selling comic book series? Or that the true-crime biography My Friend Dahmer is based on a graphic novel of the same name, written and drawn by a professional cartoonist that was highschool classmates and loose friends with the infamous cannibal? Or that Snowpiercer, both the Bong-Joon Ho sci-fi-action flick and the ongoing TNT series, are based on a French graphic novel series? And there are more coming soon. FX has been developing a series based on the Vertigo classic Y: The Last Man. Netflix is hard at work making Neil Gaiman’s seminal series The Sandman a television reality. And all that is off the top of my head, and I know that’s barely scratching the surface. All of that is to say that Hollywood could make movies and shows based on comic books and graphic novels, both with and without superheroes, for years and never run out of quality source material.
So, inspired by the roaring return of the MCU with WandaVision and my (so far successful) 2021 resolution to read more, both comics and prose, I decided to make a list of some non-superhero indie comics I’ve read that could make for some quality film entertainment but for some reason or another haven’t yet. That, and/or recommend some solid comics for all you readers out there. So with all that said, let’s get into it, and I hope you enjoy this list.
Table of Contents
Written by: Ed Brubaker
Art by: Sean Phillips
While my list isn’t in any particular order, I figured The Fade Out should be at the top of the list for two reasons.
First, while this isn’t the first comic book I read or even my favorite work by Brubaker and Phillips (that would be Criminal), it’s the series that convinced me that comics were an art form and a storytelling medium to be taken seriously. To this day, I still pick up anything written by Brubaker and drawn by Phillips.
Second, this would make an awesome movie. It’s a 12-issue noir miniseries set in Hollywood in 1948. It follows Charlie Parrish, a successful screenwriter turned PTSD-riddled and alcoholic mess after his time in WWII. After getting blackout drunk at the production wrap party of the latest movie he’s worked on, Charlie wakes up in a stranger’s bathtub. When he goes out to the main living area, he finds the body of Valeria Summers, the picture’s starlet, murdered by strangulation. He manages to get out undetected, but soon after the studio covers up the murder and the picture gets mired in endless reshoots. During this endless production, Charlie’s best friend and mentor Gil, a screenwriter blacklisted due to suspected communist sympathies, drags him into an amateur investigation of Summer’s murder and the studio’s cover-up, leading them into the seedy underbelly of 1940’s Hollywood.
In other words, it has the makings of the best noir movie since Chinatown if played right. Like, I’m honestly surprised a studio hasn’t already secured the rights to The Fade Out and churned out a hardboiled masterpiece yet.
Written by: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Art by: Moebius
Who out there watched Jodorowsky’s Dune? If you haven’t, it describes the attempt by Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky to adapt Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi tome Dune back in the 70’s. Safe to say, the production failed for numerous reasons, but the people brought onto the project went out and made some of the greatest science fiction movies in history. For one example, the artist H.R. Gieger and screenwriter/special effects designer Dan O’Bannon worked together designing sets. They later reunited for a little movie O’Bannon wrote called Alien. For a collaboration more on topic, there was the collaboration between Jodorowsky and Jean “Moebius” Giraud, a French comic book artist who Jodorowsky hired as the DP and art director. After the movie failed, the two would collaborate on a number of renowned graphic novels over the following decades. Among those novels, the one that’s considered the most influential is The Incal.
The Incal is an esoteric space-opera that follows a lowly PI named John DiFool. DiFool is bequeathed the Light Incal, a mythical jewel of enormous power, by dying alien considered equally mythical. Before long he’s being chased by all sorts of groups, both political and religious, who want the Incal for their own ends, ranging from increased political power to the destruction of the Universe. Now while that may sound like a stock space-opera plot on the surface, just know that what’s in the book is far weirder, mystical, and imaginative. Between Jodorowsky’s mysticism flavored-storytelling and Moebius’ peak Jungian-inspired artwork, reading this is like a religious-flavored acid trip.
Out of my 7 picks, this is also the only one I want animated; the others I wouldn’t mind seeing either live-action or animated. Mostly this is because Moebius is my favorite comic book artist, and I just want to see his artistic vision in motion. Plus, if this is a success, there could be a whole cinematic universe around the Jodo-verse; not only are the sequels and prequels to The Incal, there are spinoff series like The Metabarons and The Technopriests. I mean, what do studios have to lose?
Written by: Jonathan Hickman
Art by: Nick Dragotta
Now, remember how two entries ago I said that while The Fade Out was the comic that got me into comics it wasn’t the first comic I read? Well, East of West isn’t the first comic I read either. That honor goes to Watchmen back in early highschool before the premiere of Zack Snyder’s haphazard adaptation. That said, East of West was the first comic I picked up once I was better introduced to the medium. Still got the first trade paperback on my shelf in fact (if you don’t know what a trade paperback is, it’s a collection of between 4 and 6 individual issues, often containing a full arc, that can be stored on a shelf). Also out of my selections, it’s the one I finished most recently; it was a monthly series that ran for 45 issues between 2013 and 2019, and I finally got around to reading the last 2 trades just the other week.
So, with all 45 issues and 10 trades behind me, I can safely say East of West would make one of the wildest shows on TV. It’s a post-apocalyptic alternate history weird western set during a Biblical apocalypse. In a nutshell, it’s the late 21st century, nearly 2 centuries after the Civil War ended in the formation of the 7 nations of America – the Union, the Confederacy, the Endless Indian Nation, the Republic of Texas, the Kingdom of New Orleans, the People’s Republic of America, and the city-state/temple Armistice – and three of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse have come back to life in order to kickstart the end of the world. The remaining Horseman, Death, has a different goal; eliminate the Horsemen and the world leaders aligned with the Horsemen who left him for dead a decade prior and find his lost son Babylon, the Beast of the Apocalypse. Against this backdrop is the evolving drama between the leaders of the Seven Nations as political ambitions and old vendettas threaten to throw the continent into the chaos of war.
So yeah, when I say wild, I mean fucking wild. It’s like Game of Thrones if it was conceived and told by a spaghetti western-obsessed doomsday cult leader, which is why I think East of West could be the dark horse candidate to fill the post-Game of Thrones void that numerous studios are trying to fill. By the looks of it, there was an hour-long series in development at Amazon Prime, but it has since been dropped. Now it’s up to some other studio to pick up the pieces and make a TV show like none other.
Written by: Ricardo Delgado
Art by: Ricardo Delgado
Publisher: Dark Horse
If you’ve been reading my posts, you’ll know I low-key love prehistoric fiction. Quest for Fire is in my top 5 favorite movies, The Clan of the Cave Bear is a solid coming-of-age novel, and Primal is one of my favorite tv shows of the last few years. So, it shouldn’t be too much of a leap to assume that when I first learned about the 3 part graphic novel series Age of Reptiles, I sought that shit out.
Age of Reptiles is, drumroll please, a comic book series about dinosaurs living the dinosaur life. It’s completely silent; there are no names, no dialogue or sounds effects, just dinosaurs fighting to survive. Despite all that, the stories told are surprisingly complex and emotional while avoiding the worst aspects of anthropomorphization that happens when stories focus on animals.
If this were made into a show, I imagine it would be like Primal if it only focused on Fang. In that sense, an Age of Reptiles show could be seen as derivative. That said, there’s also a dearth of good prehistoric fiction out there, so a show as unique and uncompromising as Age of Reptiles is as a comic will always be welcome in my book.
Written by: Tom King
Art by: Mitch Gerads
Since WandaVision swaggered onto the television screen and enraptured audiences all around the world, I bet Tom King has seen an upswing in sales; he was the author behind the critically acclaimed run of The Vision back in 2016, in which Vision tries to live the life of a suburban dad as the patriarch of a nuclear family of androids. You know, a comic run that was name-dropped as an influence on the show. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about. We’re here to talk about King’s most famous non-superhero work; the wartime crime thriller miniseries The Sheriff of Babylon, based on his 7 years as a CIA counterterrorism analyst.
It’s Baghdad in 2003, and Saddam Husein has been removed from power, nominally replaced by the American armed forces but really leaving a power vacuum. CIA contractor Chris Henry is brought to the city to help create and train a police force from local recruits. Then, one day, his most promising recruit is murdered, his body found by a monument inside the Green Zone. Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, Chris teams up with Sofia, an American-raised Iraqi who serves on the interim governing council, and Nassir, a grizzled cop who may be the last investigator in the city. Working together, the three begin to dig, and what they find suggests a greater conspiracy with a darker and grander agenda.
What really sells The Sheriff of Babylon is its authenticity; this is based on King’s own experiences in Iraq during the height of the Iraq war, and it reads that way. Beyond that, this is as gritty and morally myopic as any hardboiled noir murder mystery. Like The Fade Out, I’m honestly surprised no film studio has picked up the right to this and made a solid movie already.
Written by: Fabio Moon
Art by: Gabriel Ba
Now for something a bit different compared to the previous 5 entries, these last two entries are some low-key slice-of-life comics. I remember it was back in 2017 when I started getting into slice-of-life stories through movies like Before Sunrise and tv shows like High Maintenance. It wasn’t until I got to Chicago though that I started diving into the (at least to me) surprisingly deep well of slice-of-life comics that I’m still trying to plumb. In terms of acclaim, not many are more well-loved than Daytripper, and for good reason.
Daytripper is a 10-episode miniseries that follows the life of Brazilian journalist and author Bras de Oliva Domingos. The son of one of Brazil’s most famous authors, Bras decided he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps from an early age. Instead, he ends up working for a newspaper in Sao Paulo writing obituaries. As such, Bras unwittingly develops a fascination not only with death but in life as well. Not in a morbid mind you, more in a “what defines a life well lived” kind of way. Each issue thus chronicles the moments that define Bras’ life; his first love, his first kiss, the birth of his daughter, the death of his best friend, etc. In the end, the miniseries becomes a highly emotional yet nuanced reflection of an imperfect but well-lived life.
Out of all my picks, I think Daytripper would require the most delicate work to adapt. This is due to one unique aspect of the graphic novel; each issue ends with Bras’ death, along with an accompanying obituary. Naturally, these don’t stick but they provide a great thematic examination of life and death, and if Daytripper is brought to the screen I’d want it as a miniseries so each episode can end that way. That said, if done well, I bet Daytripper could make for one of the best pieces of Brazilian cinema since City of God.
Written by: Jeff Lemire
Art by: Jeff Lemire
Publisher: Top Shelf
For my last entry, I decided to save the best for last, or at the very least, my favorite; the graphic novel series Essex County. Since I had started reading comics in earnest, I knew who Jeff Lemire was. Mostly this was because one of the first ongoing comic series I got invested in other than East of West was Lemire’s space-opera Descender, itself another series that should see the light of day as a tv show. That said, it was the one-two punch of The Underwater Welder and Essex County that made Lemire my current favorite comic book author. Like, for the last few years, if I walked into a comic book store just to browse and maybe buy something I would usually just default to buying something either Lemire or Brubaker wrote.
But what about Essex County? The premise is rather simple. Each graphic novel in the series follows some of the residents of Essex County, a small Canadian farming community in Ontario. While the one-offs follow large random residents, the three main graphic novels follow the Lebeuf family over the 20th and 21st centuries. The first story, Tales from the Farm, follows the story of Lester, a 10-year-old orphan who moves in with his uncle after his mother dies. Bereft of friends and gifted with a wild imagination, Lester befriends Jimmy Lebeuf, a local man who played in the NHL for one game before sustaining a permanent brain injury. The second story, Ghost Stories, follows Jimmy’s granduncle Lou. Lou, now an old man unable to live by himself due to steadily worsening Alzheimers, reflects on his lonesome life and his tumultuous relationship with his brother Vince. The last story, The Country Nurse, follows a day in the life of Anne Morgan, a local nurse whose most recent patient was Lou Lebeuf.
So yeah, this isn’t a high octane story; there are no big, flashy battles with world-reaching stakes. Essex County is a story about normal people dealing with family drama and country living. It’s also the most relatable and tragic thing I’ve read in the comics medium; so far it’s the only comic that has brought me to tears. In terms of adapting Essex County to the screen, I think this would either make a solid tv show or movie series. Apparently, there has been some interest at CBC, but nothing has come about it yet. Hopefully, something happens soon, cause Essex County is a goddamn heartfelt treasure.