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Although superhero comics and comedic newspaper strips are still the first thing you think of when you listen to comics, dark-topic comics have been around since the early 20th century and have had a huge impact on comic storytelling . Back to Will Eisner: Dark comics about difficult topics that explicitly deal with unpleasant topics have a lot of power for cartoonists and readers alike.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the underground comic scene gained a lot of momentum, inspiring writers to tackle difficult subjects in their work. With the wild popularity of Maus I in 1980, it became even more evident that comics and graphic novels were the right medium for thinking about trauma, history, and darkness. Comics allow freedom of form and style to explore dark subjects in a more abstract way. It can be difficult to find precise language to explain the darkness. That is why art is the perfect medium. We’ve talked about dark comics before, and there are so many out there who satisfy the need for discussions about darkness in a highly stylized format.
LaGuardia by Nnedi Okorafor and Tana Ford
Shape-changing aliens, interstellar travel, and discrimination between species are just the starting point for this fantastic science fiction comic series. Okorafor is a master at fusing real-world concerns with speculative fiction, and this series explores the fear of the unknown, even when aliens become incorporated into society. A doctor named Future takes an alien named Letme Live through the new LaGuardia intergalactic airport, and Future must hide her alien pregnancy while they hide in the South Bronx. Tana Ford’s art connects the streets of New York with a distinctively alien style. Rather than approach the question of immigration and refugee status at an angle (like many other science fiction companies), this miniseries puts these issues at the center and privileges the perspective of the changing aliens who find their way through a harsh world.
My favorite thing are Emil Ferris monsters
The best part about this book is how Emil Ferris uses so many of her artistic influences to tell this story, from Renaissance paintings to pulp horror novel covers. A young girl named Karen Reyes becomes a detective and tries to solve the murder of her upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg, who was a Holocaust survivor. Karen’s story takes place in Chicago in the late 1960s and she discovers more about Anka’s life in Nazi Germany. The book itself mimics a diary where Karen rounds up her favorite horror iconography and finds out what happened in the past and present she is investigating. For someone like me, who grew up reading the entire Amelia’s line of notebooks by Marissa Moss, this was absolutely perfect read.
In Waves by AJ Dungo
Surfing in Hawaii is not an immediately dark topic, but AJ Dungo’s memoir uses surfing as an entry point. Dungo focuses on the life and work of two surf icons and then abruptly changes color to aqua blue (from sepia) when he writes about his partner Kristen and her battle with cancer. While I don’t know much about surfing, AJ Dungo can convey the resilience and beauty of the sport. Mixing his love of surfing with the deep pain of his dying partner is a fantastic way to explain how we can process grief in unexpected ways.
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Do you hear? by Tillie Walden
Bea and Lou both try to escape the past and take a trip through Texas together. The road trip between two strangers is a fairly common story, but Tillie Walden is an incredible artist who manages to find pathos in words and images throughout the book. Feeling lost due to trauma and getting lost on the street are two things that go very well together. Walden also fills the story with magic and a strange cat that accompanies the journey to even stranger places. As the world around them becomes less familiar, Bea and Lou are forced to face the darkness from which they sought to escape.
The diary of a girl by Phoebe Gloeckner
This recommendation contains a major substantive warning against underage sexual abuse and drug use. Minnie is a 15 year old who is starting to have consensual sex with her mother’s boyfriend. This book is half a memory, with large parts of it coming from Phoebe Gloeckner’s youth diary. The comic section of the book was drawn from Gloeckner’s adult perspective, and it is clear that she has perspective on this dark relationship. The drawings of her in sexual moments with Monroe are intense and grotesque, and give an adult an understanding of the injustice and abuse that exists in the relationship. Despite the intense darkness of this relationship, Minnie is still a young girl who discovers her artistic potential and starts writing to Aline Kominsky-Crumb. That’s not to say that everything turns out perfectly for her, but Minnie, the character, can have very youthful experiences while embroiled in a dark time.
Dark comics have been adopted by all sorts of authors in a variety of genres, from ultra-dark anti-heroes to manga and horror comics. These artistic explorations are great readers too, as they invite us to get a little deeper involved. If you’re looking to delve into the wider world of comics, dark comics are a great place to start.