Western comics are an area where I admit I don’t have enough experience or knowledge of, something that I have been actively trying to remedy through research and reading as much as I can. However, I also know that I have almost no interest in trying to delve into the world that is Marvel or DC. I’ve tried once before with Deadpool and Wolverine, but didn’t get too far considering the amount of history and crossovers there is to follow. So, in this list, I’ve added comics from independent publishers, graphic novels, and even webcomic artist. Some of these have full reviews themselves, and I encourage you to check those out, and if you think something deserves a chance to make it onto this list, let me know in the comments below. Now, starting with number one, here are my top picks for best romance comics plus one honorable mention.
Saga is a sci-fi/fantasy epic that follows the harrowing lives of Alana and Marko as they run from their homes torn apart by war and the people trying to kill them and their newborn child. Hailing from two warring planets, the winged Alana and horned Marko find themselves star-crossed lovers in a space-opera of epic proportions. With their baby daughter, Hazel, now a symbol of what could be peace between their two races, these two inexperienced parents must fly to the end of the universe to keep her safe while coming to terms with their differences and facing all sorts of people who want to help or harm them.
This is a comic that I have been wanted to talk about for awhile, but is both a very long series and one that has by now been talked about to death. Nevertheless, it remains in the top slot of my overall favorite comics because it is just that good. Art and brilliant storytelling combine to give us a fresh take on the star-crossed lovers story, giving us unique characters and fascinating world building. This is the first independent work produced by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, created from Vaughan’s ideas when he was a child and a father. The first chapter was released in March of 2012 to rave reviews and a sold-out printing. The critical acclaim has continued to this day and for good reason.
What I look for in comics that make it onto my list are ones that either do something new or do a fresh take on an old concept. The idea of star-crossed lovers from warring families very clearly comes from Romeo and Juliet, but when you add on the elements of space travel, parenthood, interesting character designs, and great art provided by Fiona Staples, you get something that doesn’t feel repetitive. Saga is also a great example of a modern romance in that it doesn’t seem to hold conventional ideas about gender and sex, choosing to display a whole spectrum that makes the world and characters seem real and infinitely more interesting. Vaughan also includes Alana and Marko’s struggle in raising Hazel, which makes their relationship seem more grounded. They have to face real problems and compromise to keep their relationship together for Hazel’s sake creating a romance narrative that keeps you rooting for them to work things out.
Blankets tells a tale ripe with childhood innocence, the search for religious meaning, and the pull of obsession found in love. Written as a memoir, the story follows Craig as he grows from a child troubled by bullies and the fundamentalist religion that both scares and comforts him to a man tangled in obsession and searching for the meaning behind God. Craig recounts the childhood games him and his brother used to play and the fateful meeting that led to a relationship shadowed by naivete and shame.
This graphic novel is quite a long read, coming in at 592 pages, but it’s well worth it for both the story and the art that Craig Thompson produces. Out of everything, though, I think the art is what held me with this series. Thompson has a keen eye for how to use line-art and panel design to enhance his story, giving special attention to moments of high-emotion. Large full-page spreads may find words twisting, characters engrossed in a dreamscape of shapes and stylized art, or moments of stillness as snow begins to fall. As a story that discusses the nature of imagination, Thompson uses the space that he has liberally, depicting the sound of falling snow or relying on imagery and art in place of dialogue. By far, the most creative part of this graphic novel may be the page or panel design, where it is sometimes done away with in favor of a more open sequential art design.
The story itself is touching as well, telling of someone searching for the truth behind his religion while dealing with his first experience of love and a weakening relationship with his brother. Christianity and religion become a sort of twisted comfort to him as he both fears it and uses it as an escape from the bullying he faced during childhood. But it was also religion that led him to meet Raina, his first love. We see its influence in his thoughts and depictions of her, high in the clouds like an angel of god, only to have those hopes dashed as the reality becomes apparent. Blankets is an autobiographical graphic novel with a lot of depth and story to it. I highly recommend checking it out as well as my full review here.
The story of Daytripper follows the life of a man named Bras who works as an obituary editor at his local paper. He spends most of his time writing about the lives of people who have recently passed while trying to make a name for himself as a novelist. In each chapter, Bras takes us through a different segment of his life, whether it be his childhood playing with his cousins on a farm or the time he first met his future wife. However, each event inevitably ends in his death, highlighting the inescapable nature of death and cycle of life itself.
Like many of the comics on this list, Daytripper made it because of the combination of quality art and storytelling. The combination of Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon has made a graphic novel full of creativity and strikingly vibrant watercolor art. Their style is truly unique and recognizable, and one I will be returning to for any future comics. On many pages, we can see that the implementation of the watercolors creates a sort of fantastical nature as panel borders are done away with leaving scenes free to bleed into one another. I’m always drawn to artists who try to do something different and Ba and Moon have managed to create a comic wholly unique unto itself. Vibrant colors, bold line-art, interesting composition means the story itself begins to stand out as well.
The story is one that revolves around appreciating the cycle of life and relationships that you have. It also manages to display many different kinds and levels of love, from childhood crushes to the love of families to close friendships. In the space of the comic, Ba and Moon show us how each relationship can be important in our lives. The collection of stories emphasizes how one’s life can be cut short at an inopportune moment, punctuated by an obituary spelling out his life, people he leaves behind, and hinting at things left undone. This is a story about taking chances, and while those choices may end in failure, I never got the feeling that the message wasn’t to put yourself out there and take risks. I think we get a chance to see so many different scenarios of his life that it seems more likely that the comic is merely emphasizing the finality and unpredictability of life itself. You can read my full review of this comic here.
Penny Brighton is a woman down on her luck. She lost her job, lost her apartment, and is now living in a storage shed and working for a 12-year-old boss at a laundromat. Armed with her stash of raunchy romance novels and a cat named Boyfriend, she tries to make the best of her situation. But when she agrees to go on a date with the slightly dorky and quiet Walter in exchange for free showers at the gym, will her luck begin to turn? What about the rumors of middle schoolers causing trouble, does that have anything to do with the sounds she’s hearing outside her shed door?
Lucky Penny is one of the first full graphic novels created by one of my favorite webcomic pairs, Yuko Ota and Ananth Hirsh who create the webcomic Johnny Wander. Yuko Ota has one of my favorite art styles as she is able to capture movement and expressions in a way that makes her pages truly dynamic. I see a heavy influence from Brian Lee O’Malley in much of what she draws as well as various anime or manga artists. I especially love her use of values and panel design to add meaning and emphasis to a given scene, something small that can influence a comic’s feel quite a lot. Where I think we really see Ota’s style pop, though, is in dream sequences with her unique brand of fantasy creature designs.
The story within Luck Penny is one that follows two inexperienced people trying to grow in a world that just seems to make it harder for them. The combination of the strong-willed Penny and geeky Walter make a great pair that emphasizes their character strengths as well as places they need to improve on. We begin to see just how unsure of herself Penny can be and just how charismatic Walter can be, an interesting mix of character. But Ota and Hirsh love action as well and this comic has its fair share of that as Penny winds up in some great battles. In the end, this story is about two people inexperienced in love finding out what it really means to be in a relationship, and it winds up being a very sweet and funny story. You can read my full review here.
This series of graphic novels follows the exploits of slacker and musician Scott Pilgrim who meets the mysterious but enchanting delivery girl Ramona Flowers. He quickly falls in love, but in order to actually date her, Scott must defeat all seven of her evil exes. I’m fairly certain the vast majority of you know this series, so I don’t have to say much more about the plot. This series was created by one of my all-time favorite comic creators, Brian Lee O’Malley, and was picked for publication by Oni Press and later HarperCollins. Full color versions were released later with the help of Nathan Fairbairn, which I have some of and they came out awesome. A few short years ago, the series was picked up for a movie adaptation that, by at least my account, was not nearly as good as the comics.
I struggled a little with where I wanted to add Scott Pilgrim on this list, and was almost going to put it higher except for the overwhelming amount of other talent and unique stories. I love Brian Lee O’Malley and I think he did something truly entertaining in this series, but the ultimate reason it wasn’t high was because it isn’t all that challenging story-wise. As for the art though, it’s some of my favorite, drawing from a lot of different sources, anime and manga included. In fact, I think the general nature of the comic itself is fairly based off of Shonen manga given the length and size of the volumes as well as the overall style. O’Malley has a real knack with depicting movement during fight scenes and expressions that really gives life to his pages. Throw in many references to video games, anime, and geekdom in general, and you have a very entertaining comic.
I might say that I don’t particularly find O’Malley’s story challenging in say the same way Blankets or Daytripper is, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. I find equal enjoyment out of comedic stories as I do out of dramatic, and each have their uses. However, the reason that Scott Pilgrim sits at number five is because the story is very straightforward in nature. I really appreciate the creativity and design of it though, giving us action packed fighting scenes touched with comedy as well as fantastical moments and enemies. Perhaps one day I’ll get around to reviewing the whole thing. I may need to add it to my list.