Required Reading: 50 of the Best Sci-Fi Comics

From cyborg sexuality to superhero futurism, these comics represent the best the genre has to offer.

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Required Reading: 50 of the Best Sci-Fi Comics

Science fiction and comics have been close bedfellows since both genres’ infancies in the pulp markets, with heroes obtaining bold powers from strange elixirs, villains constructing death rays and a cosmos full of bizarre beasts. And both sci-fi and comics matured quickly, offering countless examples of the ways genre conventions can be used to tell not only thrilling escapist tales, but also thought-provoking stories that turn a mirror back onto the reader. Unlike a list of the best horror comics of all time, compiling comics’ best science fiction isn’t as simple as asking, “Is it scary and is it good?” A quick glance at contemporary comic shelves proves the breadth of what might be considered science fiction, from all-too-real near-future dystopias where women are punished for breaking gender norms to optimistic superhero futurism and breathtaking worlds in which science and magic have become indistinguishable. Nearly every major publisher—as well as some small press outlets and foreign pubs—is represented in the gallery above, as we attempt to pin down 50 examples of the best that science fiction comics have to offer. Be sure to let us know on Twitter if we left off anything egregious enough to earn us a one-way trip out the nearest airlock.

The Airtight Garage

Writer/Artist: Moebius
Artist: Moebius
Publishers: Métal Hurlant, Marvel

"Anything can still happen in the Airtight Garage," exclaims a character in the midst of one of the many, and occasionally baffling, plot turns in the story sometimes called "Le Garage Hermétique de Lewis Carnelian." And it's true, anything can and does happen in this Jean Giraud masterpiece. Here, in the pages of this extended comic strip (it took four years to complete the "narrative") we find Giraud, primarily known to the world as Moebius, at his purest and most uninhibited.

The plot concerns a conflict between the characters Major Grubert (at one point called "Mage-or") and Lewis Carnelian (in the original French printing known as "Jerry Cornelius," a nod to the Michael Moorcock creation). Grubert is something of a god, having created the Airtight Garage—a synthetic reality containing three levels. Carnelian is an old associate of his, and has attained semi-deity status as well, the mechanics of which are left for the reader to imagine. To elaborate further on the events that bring these two men together would do the work a disservice, for it is the improvisational, non-sequitur nature of the story that gives it its power. To understand the Airtight Garage, one must throw away notions of plot and character and structure. It is a work that defies expectation, and must be engaged with directly. No synopsis will do it justice. (It is no mere coincidence that "hermétique" has two meanings in the original French: "airtight" and "esoteric.")

Moebius once described the Airtight Garage as "a flight into a universe of pure fantasy," but even that doesn't fully explain the method he employed to create it. He worked on the story in small increments, sometimes without a script, and would write himself into narrative corners by the end of each chapter. Each subsequent chapter would require that he try and fix the wayward plot, only so that he could break it to pieces by the new chapter's end. Because of this improvisational approach, everything in the story remains in a constant state of flux. The title itself changes with each chapter. And from panel to panel, Moebius' line morphs as well, fluctuating along the spectrum of his myriad styles, from Sunday newspaper comics to Western adventure to complete abstraction. The artist excels in all these modes—the story veers seamlessly from lighthearted adventure to daring spy intrigue, all the way to science-fiction triumph. It is a work of singular genius.

The Airtight Garage may be Moebius' crowning achievement, but it also functions as a testament to the abilities of one of the greatest cartoonists to ever walk the earth. We lost a titan when Giraud passed away several years ago, and hopefully readers unfamiliar with his work will be able to meet him on the ever-shifting planes of his esoteric creation, his Garage Hermétique. Jakob Free


Artist/Writer: Katsuhiro Otomo
Publisher: Kodansha

Set 38 years after a massive explosion obliterates Tokyo and plunges the globe into the depths of World War III, Katsuhiro Otomo's 2,200-page body-horror/cyberpunk odyssey of teenage motorcycle gangs clashing with super-powered psychics is nothing short of a herculean feat of manga artistry, and one of the most uncompromising visions of creative storytelling. The impact of Akira's influence, much like the comic's namesake psionic mute, is still felt throughout the world of comic books, animation and popular culture to this day, more than 30 years after its initial publication. From Otomo's prolific draftsmanship and dynamic linework to his iconic character designs and dramatic pacing, it's not hard to see why (although its ubiquity outside of Japan stems largely from the film adaptation, also directed by Otomo). The comic is a maelstrom of intersecting storylines and monolithic cityscapes realized with dumbfounding, meticulous detail—only to be willed out of existence with a cacophonous sweep of devastation whose beauty and horror words fail to adequately convey. There's no way around it: Akira is the very definition of required reading. Toussaint Egan


Writer/Artist: Shirow Masamune
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics

Though the later period of his career has seen him slide nearer to gaudy, voyeuristic and poorly drawn pornography, Shirow Masamune's body of work is full of exceptional comics—Appleseed being the most sinewy, expertly chiseled muscle on that body. Starring Deunan and Briareos, a pair of SWAT officers in the futuristic, post-WWIII city-state of Olympus, the series interrogates utopian ideals. Full of references to Greek mythology and then-contemporary international affairs, Appleseed does what all good science fiction should: thoughtful and fecund, it allows us to more deeply understand the real world that we live in.

Addressing philosophical, political and sociological ideas, as well as the way those things interact, Shirow demonstrates what those concepts look like, what they feel like at the granular, quotidian level. Easily on par with the quality of its prosaic writing, Shirow's visual writing—his communication via images—is sharp, energetic and richly detailed. The apotheosis of this aesthetic is the vaunted knife-fight scene in Appleseed's fourth volume, which demonstrates that action and intelligence are not mutually exclusive. Shea Hennum


Writer: Alex Paknadel
Artist: Eric Scott Pfeiffer
Publisher:BOOM! Studios

This eight-issue BOOM! outing depicts a world in which most of humanity is wiped out by a fast-moving pandemic, save four billion souls digitized into a simulation that offers a Utopian second life—and a handful of survivors needed to maintain this resource-heavy Arcadia and negotiate with its demanding, ever-evolving digital citizenry. Writer Alex Paknadel, whose Turncoat also twists sci-fi conventions in fresh directions, builds on the real-world tension of community clashes as well as the very frontier of personhood, brought to life by Eric Scott Pfeiffer's clean, expressive linework. The trade collection branded itself with IGN's deft praise of "The Matrix, but better," and that seeming hyperbole might not be too far off. Steve Foxe

Beyond Anthology

Editors: Sfé R. Monster and Taneka Stotts
Publisher: Beyond Press

There are enough examples of closeting, torturing or killing off LBGTQ+ characters in fiction to fill countless dissertations, and that's equally true of science fiction. Despite the genre's ability to show a world as it should or could be, sci-fi often fails queer characters and the audiences that identify with them, which makes the Beyond anthology a welcome respite. Composed of 18 stories by more than 20 different creators, the anthology features comics of various subject matter and lengths with one thing in common: the teams behind them and the characters in them all identify as LGBTQ+. Beyond is refreshing not only in its inclusion of queer voices, but also in its overwhelming normalcy, as none of the stories focuses undue attention on the sexual orientation or gender identity of the characters, but simply center queer characters in sci-fi tales. Beyond includes stories of exploration, love, fringe science, fear and redemption, but the unifying theme is that everyone belongs in science fiction, and it make the whole book that much more vital. Caitlin Rosberg

Bitch Planet

Writer: Kelly Sue DeConnick
Artists: Valentine De Landro, Robert Wilson IV, Taki Soma
Publisher: Image Comics

Distilled down to the simplest of elevator pitches, Bitch Planet could be called Orange is the New Riddick, a mixture of Netflix's much-celebrated women's-prison drama and the science-fiction jail-break trilogy starring Vin Diesel. Kelly Sue DeConnick takes this already interesting idea into entirely new territory without hesitation, confronting head-on issues of sexism, homo- and transphobia and political oppression on every page; remarkably, she does all that with an intentionally intersectional bent, and an eye on her own privilege. At first, a world where women are imprisoned in space for being "non-compliant" with expectations of femininity seems far-fetched and ludicrous, but as the backmatter guest essays—and the 2016 election—prove, it's not that far off from where we are now. Valentine De Landro's gritty art is brutally honest without being cruel to the women who make up the cast, and the team has created a world that, judging by the number of stylized "NC" tattoos real-world comics fans are sporting, speaks to their audience in a deep and meaningful way. Caitlin Rosberg


Writer/Artist: Dash Shaw
Publisher: Pantheon

Nearly eight years after it finished its online run (Pantheon collected the comic as a book in 2010), Dash Shaw's BodyWorld remains ahead of the present era in its innovations. Designed for the up-and-down scrolling of online reading, it examines the possibility that we might be able to exit own heads and enter the consciousness of others. The story is complicated, but Shaw makes it feel simple, gently scattering clues needed for a deeper dive, should the reader want to unpack the details that signal the physical locations in which these events take place. BodyWorld isn't exactly a vision of our future, but it's a vision of a future, equally frightening and familiar. Hillary Brown


Writer: Jeff Lemire
Artist: Dustin Nguyen
Publisher: Image Comics

Artificial life has a long and storied history in science fiction, and Descender, by writer Jeff Lemire and artist Dustin Nguyen, taps into some essential questions surrounding that concept. What is consciousness? What does it mean for humans to potentially create another sentient form of life? The fact that the book centers around an adorable kid—a robot in search of his family—gives it a powerful sense of narrative momentum, with plenty of intrigue and secrets from the supporting cast and conflicting agendas that play out over the course of a vast narrative. Lemire's script balances moral ambiguity with bigger crowd-pleasing moments, and Nguyen's character designs and watercolor artwork are utterly breathtaking, giving a tangible sense of place to a host of strange and distant locations. Tobias Carroll


Writer: Matt Kindt
Artist: Trevor Hairsine
Publisher: Valiant

Before it spawned the "Stalinverse" and a full-blown crossover, Divinity was modern Valiant's first big experiment: a fresh, challenging story unrelated to legacy characters or lingering nostalgia. Writer Matt Kindt, who appears elsewhere on this list for his thoughtful sci-fi experimentation, pushes the same core concept of Superman: Red Son—what if the Soviets had a nigh-omnipotent hero under their sway?—in new directions, ably matched by Trevor Hairsine's just-off-kilter-enough traditional action storytelling skills. Cosmonaut Abram Adams (Biblical references clear enough?) may have been created to help fill the gap left by Valiant losing the rights to Solar, Man of the Atom, but in Kindt and Hairsine's hands, Divinity becomes a meditation on godhood and free will that feels less like a corporate creation and more like an original, passionate work of thought-provoking, political science fiction. Steve Foxe

East of West

Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Nick Dragotta
Publisher: Image Comics

Jonathan Hickman isn't the first comic creator to revive the Western as a genre, but with East of West, he's certainly one of the most successful. Imagining the western United States of the Reconstruction Era shaped by a shifting power structure, with major players (including a powerful Native contingent) vying for control, East of West is exactly the kind of science fiction you'd expect from a tale with more gunslingers than space travelers, with a focus on character dynamics and the impact they have on the larger world. The primary character happens to be one of the Four Horsemen, and the larger world is struggling not only with plain, old political backstabbing, but with Apocalyptic supernatural forces. Articulated through crisp, evocative art from Nick Dragotta and colors from Frank Martin that manage to encapsulate both personal mourning and the expanse of futuristic deserts, East of West is what stories like Cowboys & Aliens want to be when they grow up. Caitlin Rosberg