The barrier separating comics and prose has long been a superficial divide, with acclaimed talents like Neil Gaiman and Joe Hill dashing between the mediums so nimbly that either “team” would claim them as their own. Some novelists, like Marjorie Liu and Duane Swierczynski, cross into comics and hardly look back. Others, like recent Marvel recruits Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay, remain frequent prose powerhouses. A few long-time comic writers, like Warren Ellis and Mike Carey, have even found prose success over a decade into their funny-book careers.
The novels (and short story collections) below represent some of most compelling prose releases from writers who spend a good deal of time in the fully illustrated world. Chances are that new Marvel or DC writer who seems like an “overnight sensation” has a New York Times bestselling novel tucked away in their bibliography.
Nnedi Okorafor’s first published comic doesn’t hit stands until early 2018. But there’s a ton of hype surrounding her upcoming Black Panther series, and with an HBO adaptation of her novel Who Fears Death in production with George R. R. Martin attached, Okorafor is on the cusp of becoming a household name.
Binti, Okorafor’s Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novella, follows the titular first member of the reclusive Himba people to join a prestigious interstellar academy. Beyond navigating differences in customs, Binti is thrust into a diplomatic situation with the long-feared Meduse alien race. Okorafor imbues her trilogy with a respect for clashing cultures and an eye toward the ways colonialism affects society. Expect her Black Panther miniseries to feature the same deft balance of awareness, imagination and action.
M. R. Carey, better known to comic fans as Mike Carey, is a sequential art favorite thanks to multiple runs on X-Men titles and epic stints on Vertigo series like Lucifer and the literary The Unwritten. His 2014 novel The Girl With All the Gifts broke through the zombie buzz to become a bestseller and inspire a critically praised film adaptation. We named his follow-up, Fellside, one of the best horror novels of the 21st Century thanks to its harrowing take on Orange is the New Black-style prison tension.
This year, Carey published The Boy on the Bridge, a prequel to The Girl With All the Gifts. It follows a scientific team, including a 15-year-old autistic boy, aboard their fortified research vehicle during the breakout of the “hungries” that eventually overrun Britain. Knowledge of TGWATG will enrich your time with this one, but The Boy on the Bridge ably functions as a standalone story about the stresses put on humanity during times of crisis.
We also included Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls on our list of the 21 Best Horror Novels of the 21st Century, but it was really a toss-up between that time-jumping serial killer novel and this Hannibal-meets-Lovecraft ensemble piece set in a recovering Detroit. Like her Vertigo comic series Survivors’ Club, Broken Monsters requires a disparate group of protagonists (including a Latina cop, her teenage daughter, a freelance journalist and a homeless man) to assemble against a disturbing threat. Beukes, who contributed to the landmark Vertigo series Fables, has a knack for managing complicated casts and situating unknowable horror within the everyday. But readers with a lower tolerance for mangled bodies should consider Zoo City and Moxieland, the South African author’s earlier sci-fi outings.
Benjamin Percy is one of those comic writers who seemed to come out of nowhere, but the Green Arrow and Teen Titans scribe has an acclaimed backlist of essays, post-apocalyptic thrillers and werewolf horrors behind him. The Dark Net, his 2017 blend of all-too-real cyberpunk intrigue with occult horror, was hailed by the New York Times Book Review as “one of the best Stephen King novels not written by the master himself.” Just as Percy has rehabilitated the two DC properties he writes, the author has managed to produce one of the few works of fiction centered around the (real) dark web that doesn’t embarrass itself with outdated portrayals of hackers and internet culture.
Caitlin R. Kiernan is a giant of weird fiction, with both World Fantasy and Bram Stoker Awards to her name. She was one of the first contributing architects to Neil Gaiman’s sprawling Sandman mythology, scripting much of the spin-off series The Dreaming as well as The Girl Who Would Be Death and Bast. Her comics work in recent years has focused on her character Alabaster, an ideal vehicle for Southern Gothic fantasy. Perhaps Kiernan’s most notable trait as an author, beyond her emphasis on feeling over plot, is her prolificacy, and 2016’s Dear Sweet Filthy World collects 28 rarely published short stories in her 14th collection. The stories within contain vampires, Paleozoic beasts, industrial fairies, desperate writers and much, much more. While Kiernan continues to produce novels and novellas like Agents of Dreamland, these briefer tales showcase the breadth of her work—and read a bit like a trip through the realm of dreams.
America, Gabby Rivera’s Marvel comic with artist Joe Quinones, debuted in all its unabashed queerness and space-Latinx pride earlier this year. But before donning America’s star-spangled jacket, Rivera wrote the breakout YA novel Juliet Takes a Breath about a Puerto Rican lesbian coming out and coming to terms with her relationship to her family, her gender and her sexuality over the course of one whirlwind summer. With its emotional rawness and representation of a desperately under-served community, Juliet Takes a Breath found an instant niche in the YA world and helped bring Rivera to Marvel’s attention. And Marvel is fortunate to have her; America is going strong with its first trade collection on shelves and its second arc underway.
Warren Ellis is easily the most prolific comic writer on this list, with deeply humanist sci-fi books like Transmetropolitan and Planetary under his belt. Ellis has long been a bit of a polymath, and in the last few years has staked his claim as a novelist with books like Crooked Little Vein and Gun Machine. Normal, his latest, may also be his best at a brief 160 pages. Ellis is a bit of a futurist, and this novella takes place in an experimental forest where doom-forecasters go to unplug and unwind…until one of them ends up dead in a locked cabin. As in comics like Global Frequency and Iron Man: Extremis, Ellis knows how to toe the line between the startling technology we have today and the possibilities—good and ill—just around the corner.
Thriller writer Chelsea Cain entered the comics world in 2015 with Mockingbird. She transformed the titular character, who briefly appeared on ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and sported a confusing history as a B-lister in Avengers comics, into a suddenly cool, feminist super-spy. Cain already had a history as an accomplished prose author, spanning titles from the New York Times bestselling Archie Sheridan/Gretchen Lowell thrillers (one of the few serial killer series to feature a female antagonist) to One Kick, her 2014 novel about a survivor of child abduction who turns herself into the perfect weapon. Cain’s novels don’t have the same sexy-funny tone as Mockingbird, but her skill with tension and potboiler plotting have earned her a legion of fans both within and outside of the comics community.
Ryan North’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is one of Marvel’s most consistently delightful series, both for its chipper protagonist and its heartfelt approach to the publisher’s often-goofy history. And the Canadian cartoonist, who also wrote a protracted run on the Adventure Time tie-in comic, ran a massively successful Kickstarter for a choose-your-own-adventure Hamlet novel as well. He sold the result to Penguin Random House and followed it up with Romeo and/or Juliet, a similarly gut-busting take on Shakespeare’s classic doomed lovers. Don’t expect simple “Juliet fell for Mercutio instead” twists, though; North’s novel is packed full of puzzles, puns, robots and over 100 hilarious ending illustrations from cartoonists like Kate Beaton and Jon Klassen.
Voodoo Heart is the oldest book on this list, but it’s worth tracking down to read Scott Snyder’s prose before his meteoric rise to Batman fame with DC Comics in 2010. Snyder’s short stories reveal a deft hand at cutting whimsy with darkness, which surely helped earn that Stephen King cover blurb. While authors like Gaiman and Hill ply their brands of dark fantasy and horror in both the prose and comics worlds, Snyder unlocked a different door when he stepped into Gotham, only bringing with him a fondness for interior monologue. So fans of the comics superstar will be pleasantly surprised with Voodoo Heart’s entertaining yet disturbing fictional landscape.