Look, we get it: neither wallets nor long boxes are infinitely deep. Maybe you commit your comic budget to supporting self-published indies, or you feel your money is best spent staying abreast of Big Two events, or perhaps you’re only interested in following one particular franchise, like Marvel’s merry mutants (in which case: congrats on all of your recent saved income!). For any number of reasons, excellent mainstream books can still fall off the hype train regardless of their quality or noteworthiness.
To be clear, we’re in no way suggesting these books aren’t hitting their specific sales goals—only that we don’t hear these titles volleyed about often enough in discussions of the best floppies lining comic store shelves. To the best of our knowledge, we constrained the list to currently ongoing titles with at least a semi-regular release schedule and consistent placement in the lower 2/3rds of Diamond’s direct-market sales rankings. The next time you’re browsing sequential offerings, consider committing three bucks to one of these under-the-radar jams.
1 of 10
Writer: Jeff Lemire
Artists: Mico Suayan, Lewis Larosa, Butch Guice
God only knows what an introspective soul like Jeff Lemire would want with the collage of '90s action clichés known as Bloodshot. (Repeat that name: Bloodshot. It's a 2 A.M. Golan-Globus production that HBO 6 ran for a week in 1993, starring the Baldwin brother that Stephen refuses to acknowledge.) Lemire knew his challenge and rose to it admirably: to inject a soul in a dour, character-less killing machine relegated to forgotten long boxes. In this series, the writer and a respectable cache of artists including Mico Suayan and Lewis Larosa force the reader to empathize with the plight of the modern warrior. Bloodshot, or Ray, may be a nanite-injected black ops berserker, but abandoning the war is his new battle.
Each story arc offers an emotional reflection on the trials of post-conflict military existence. Debut arc "Colorado" revolved around post-traumatic stress disorder; second arc "Analogue Man" explored how individuals trained as professional killers recalibrate and age; and current arc "Bloodshot Island" comments on the cyclical, worthless nature of war. This is the smartest action movie you'll never see, a treatise on peace and ruined lives executed with intelligence and thought. Also: it offers one of the coolest dissections on '80s slashers we've ever seen in its annual. Sean Edgar
2 of 10
Writer: Gail Simone
Artist: Jon Davis-Hunt
Publisher: Vertigo/ DC Comics
Horror comics have been enjoying something of a resurgence lately, and they're getting smarter and more interesting thanks to a saturated market. While Gail Simone certainly isn't an unknown name in the industry, Clean Room is in many ways a divergence from what she's worked on in the past, replacing capes and capers with gore. While there are moments of hilarity, the core of the book is so bound up in terror and fear that it can be hard to shake the feeling even after the book returns to the shelf.
Clean Room revolves around a mysterious woman that some accuse of running a cult. Chloe Pierce, a journalist, is sucked into Astrid Mueller's world while attempting to investigate her fiancée's apparent suicide, which she believes was prompted by Mueller's teachings. What unfolds is a world of magic and technology, demons and monsters that look like men. Jon Davis-Hunt's crisp, clean inks turn gooey and stringy with viscera, thanks in no small part to Quinton Winter's excellent color work. It takes talent to make everyday objects and even empty space look terrifying, but this team pulls it off with grace and the end of every issue only heightens the mystery. Caitlin Rosberg
3 of 10
Hip Hop Family Tree
Writer/Artist: Ed Piskor
Ed Piskor's immaculately researched biography of an entire art form may be the most passionate long-form comic series in recent memory. From "sampling" the jaundiced color of the comics printed when this music was first produced, to slipping vinyls into the monthly reprints, Hip Hop Family Tree is more than a love letter—it's an authoritative account. Diagramming the genre's ascension from funk-inflected party jaunts to socially conscious anthems, Piskor walks a graceful tightrope between overwhelming the reader and skirting the sheer density of this musical ecosystem. Each volume guarantees at least one laugh-out-loud moment—especially if the Fat Boys are involved. Like a Ken Burns' doc without the decompressed pace and glacial slideshows, HHFT firmly inserts one of America's marquee creations in a context that both celebrates and defines it. Sean Edgar
4 of 10
Writer: Chris Dingess
Artists: Matthew Roberts & Owen Gieni
Publisher: Skybound/ Image Comics
Skybound is all about two things: Kirkman-driven projects and high concepts. Manifest Destiny is a defining example of the latter, as Chris Dingess, Matthew Roberts and Owen Gieni chart the expedition of Lewis and Clark through an untamed America teeming with monsters of myth and legend who must be (discreetly) exterminated before western expansion can proceed. Roberts and colorist Gieni (who drew the similarly underrated Negative Space at Dark Horse) hit a Tony Moore-esque balance of horror and humor, and are equally at home depicting fungus zombies, bison centaurs and bisexual threesomes among the founding fathers of the United States. And while the relationship between America's best-known trailblazers is compelling and nuanced, Dingess' deft handling of the party's most competent member, Sacagawea, is one of Manifest Destiny's best plot threads. Fans of Hellboy's folklore-mining should feel right at home on this gruesome adventure through America's dark underbelly. Steve Foxe
5 of 10
Writer: Chelsea Cain
Artist: Kate Niemczyk
Publisher: Marvel Comics
In an era of big-time Marvel superheroines, the one flying stealth is boasting some of the publisher's best, most complex writing since Matt Fraction's run scripting Hawkeye. Mockingbird is a weird little puzzle box of a book, with each issue a fully standalone story in Agent Bobbi Morse's life. You might know Bobbi from her stint as Hawkeye's crazy ex, or Captain Britain's crazy ex, which is what makes the meta of her first standalone series so brilliant. Writer Chelsea Cain addresses the feminism of that problem head on, outright telling readers the truth: we've just never heard Bobbi's side of the story before.
As Cain takes Bobbi through each strange little story, Kate Niemczyk's art lays her out as a blonde bombshell in perfectly thematic outfits, rendering each setting like its very own twisted Barbie dreamhouse. From underwater sea-labs to BDSM clubs, each and every issue of Mockingbird can be read front to back, over and over, and even out of order to discover the infamous S.H.I.E.L.D. agent's secrets. Need another reason to pick this one up? Each and every issue comes with a page of paper dolls. Tini Howard
6 of 10
Writer/Artist: Walter Simonson
Publisher: IDW Publishing
These are glory days for fans of the thunder god. Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman's remarkable Thor run continues and will soon feature separate series for current Thor Jane Foster and the hammerless, unworthy Odinson. But you're missing the Norse longboat if you're not reading IDW's Ragnarök, written and illustrated by legendary Thor cartoonist Walter Simonson. Even in these Thor-heavy days, this post-apocalyptic adventure story is a gorgeous standout.
In this series, set centuries after Norse doomsday Ragnarök, Thor turns out to be not quite as dead as Odin, Sif and his children. The god's been kept alive (barely) thanks to magic apples from a talking squirrel, and now he's determined to avenge his friends and family in huge, bombastic, Kirby-esque adventures.
Ragnarök's writing has Simonson's usual wit and humor, but the art is astounding in its vitality and creativity. The series' bold, distinctive look is heightened by longtime Simonson letterer John Workman and colorist Laura Martin, who convincingly shades the dreary wastelands with a few rays of light propelled by Mjolnir. When it comes to innovative page design, powerful storytelling and fresh takes on myth, Simonson is more worthy than ever. Mark Peters
7 of 10
Writer: David Baillie
Artist: Meghan Hetrick
Publisher: Vertigo/ DC Comics
2015 saw the return to form of one of comics' legendary pillars: Vertigo. The DC Comics offshoot's lineup had lost many of the genre-bending creations that brought it to prominence, such as Sandman and Fables, and books like Hellblazer and Swamp Thing had been fully subsumed into the DC Universe proper. One of the standouts of Vertigo's 2015 "rebirth" is Red Thorn, a supernatural mystery set amidst the backdrop of urban Glasgow.
While it's easy to compare it to standards like Fables and Once Upon a Time—and with its dreamy dudes and fairy tales, I recommend it to fans of both—for me, Red Thorn brings to mind less well-known fairy favs, like The 10th Kingdom and Changeling: The Dreaming. While it may scratch the itch brought on by Buffy and Fables, main character Isla is a grown-ass woman doing grown-ass things. Writer David Baillie perfectly straddles the line between fantasy and relatability in his characters, while artist Meghan Hetrick uses her well-honed character-design sex appeal to illustrate all of the other straddling going on in the book (if you get my drift). Forget the primetime TV version of fairy tales: Red Thorn is pure HBO. Tini Howard
8 of 10
Writers: Mad Rupert, KC Green, others
Artists: Allison Strejlau, Wook Jin Clark, others
Publisher: KaBOOM!/ BOOM! Studios
Adventure Time might be the pillar that holds up both its animation home of Cartoon Network and KaBOOM's stellar all-ages licensed slate, but Mordecai and Rigby's quarter-life crisis/ode to the early '90s has quietly inspired nearly 40 straight issues of excellent comics, many under the pen of current writer Mad Rupert. Embracing the cartoon's madcap spontaneity and commitment to baiting the nostalgia of adults in their late 20s/early 30s, Regular Show (the comic) has covered everything from epic pog showdowns to epic hunts for lost VHSs to spring-break genies, all gorgeously cartooned by an array of talents including Allison Strejlau and Wook Jin Clark. Much like BOOM!'s Steven Universe offerings, Regular Show is less concerned with being perfectly on-model or continuity-heavy, and more interested in being a radical good time for its chill-AF target audience. Bonus: the standalone graphic novels written by Rachel Connor are all similarly tubular. Steve Foxe
9 of 10
Writer: Rob Williams
Artist: Michael Dowling
Publisher: Vertigo/ DC Comics
It might feel like we're shading Vertigo by placing three titles on this list, but it's truly a testament to the imprint's quality that even when the spotlight has shifted to Image and other creator-owned venues, Vertigo still cranks out titles worthy of its historic name. Written by incoming Suicide Squad scribe Rob Williams and drawn by British import Michael Dowling, Unfollow is the most compelling book around that simultaneously feels like a discreet television pitch. Like Battle Royale for the social media era, the book kicks off with an eccentric dying billionaire leaving his fortune to 140 users of his Twitter-like app. The twist? For every member of the 140 who kicks the bucket, the survivors' pie slices grow proportionately. In a murderous instant, a charity windfall becomes a test of inherent human kindness...or cruelty. Dowling's stippled style isn't quite like anything else on the American market, and the book's guest artist, Scalped legend R. M. Guera, made fill-in issue #6 a visual treat. Hopefully Williams' new gig scripting Harley and the gang will bring eyes to this ruthless, insightful, tension-packed book. Steve Foxe
10 of 10
Writer: Ales Kot
Artists: Matt Taylor, Ricardo Lopez Ortiz
Publisher: Image Comics
Ales Kot's writing holds nuance, but it would be hard to argue that it's subtle, and thankfully Wolf isn't a deviation from that norm. Closer to Kot's other creator-owned output like Material and Zero than his work for Marvel or DC, Wolf is urban, modern fantasy in every sense of the word, magic based on blood and belief and bone-deep effort. There are old threats in new forms and a cast of characters that breathe life into what could have been a stale story in anybody else's hands.
Lee Loughridge's excellent colors provide a sense of continuity as the art transitions from Matt Taylor to Ricardo Lopez Ortiz, and all three paint a world that looks convincingly and appropriately filthy, gritty and raw and bright with neon. Wolf feels like a Warren Ellis noir detective story with a heftier-than-usual dose of psychedelics: there are ghosts and old gods wandering around terrorizing people with sex and blood, but there's also a man with tentacles instead of a mouth and a vampire with a sense of humor almost as thick and dry as her accent. It's the bastard lovechild of Hunter S. Thompson and whatever eldritch horrors he met in Vegas, and you should read it immediately. Caitlin Rosberg