Top Ten Dense ComicsA column article, Top Ten by: The Comics Bulletin All-Stars
Welcome to our list of the Top 10 Dense Comics. “Dense” seemed like the only word that could adequately describe the experience where, as a reader, you discover something new when you reread one of your favorite comics. So today we'll be exploring works that are fully realized, complex worlds that immerse you in strange places and shift your mind a bit; comics that are travelogues to places that only live in the creators' imaginations.
There are probably some creators and series you'll be expecting, but hopefully you find something new too. As always seems to be the case with these kinds of lists, we're bound to leave things off, so please do chime in in the comments with anything you think we've missed!
Travel, they say, broadens the horizons. It forces you to break out of your complacency, makes you adjust your attitudes, exposes you to people and places and smells, tastes and attitudes that you might never have been exposed to. Travel, when done right, can change you, give you perspective, and shift your view of the world a little bit.
But of course we can't all travel as often as we wish. We often have to travel virtually, via someone's imagination. That's easy when a person is describing a real place in the world. But that task is infinitely harder when we're traveling in an imaginary realm that just lives in the brain of a creator.
Carla Speed McNeil's astonishing Finder broadens your horizons. McNeil takes readers to impossibly exotic realms, where people are just doing their jobs, having romances and adventures, going to parties and interacting in a thoroughly complex, thoroughly unique and thoroughly real-seeming world.
Jaeger, the titular Finder, is our guide as he makes his way through his world, simply doing what he has to do to make a buck. Flipping through any collection of this series brings an endless series of unexpected but totally logical elements – talking lions and wolves, a complex pantheon of magical seeming people, natives and tunnels and secret passageways and shortcuts that only Jaeger knows and oh hell the list goes on forever and there's no way I can capture it all in one short essay.
Because the world of Carla Speed McNeil's Finder is the best kind of travel – the one that's so different from your everyday life, so interesting and complex and dense that you just want to go back as often as you can. Wouldn't it be great to go native in McNeil's world?
9. Uncanny X-Force
One of these is not like the other...
When you scan the other items on this list of "densest" comics you'll find that all of them are self-contained, completely original works outside of the big two. Monthly ongoing comics often demand accessibility; stories that need to be easily understood as to not scare off new or returning fans. Much of the time this requirement saps the writer's ability to utilize the immense catalog available to them, and can even hinder the creators in referencing their own material "in house" if it's too many issues removed. This isn't always the case, of course, but it's hard to argue against the noticeable trend of dumbed down superhero comics.
Rick Remender's Uncanny X-Force bucks trends. The premise is simple enough: Our pal Wolverine leads a group of clandestine killers on a mission to eradicate the most dangerous and uncontrollable threats to mutantkind. But it's so, so much more. What started out with the fairly innocent killing of a child ("It was fucking Apocalypse!" Fantomex would yell), has spun into multiple otherworldly adventures and actual, tangible character development.
Every page and panel of Uncanny X-Force is packed with info, and absolutely demands second and third reads. The work is highly self-referential, with arcs flowing into each other brilliantly and giving a continuous, whole feeling to the complex story. By making the team's existence a secret from the rest of the Marvel U the plot is able to go to magnificent places, both thematically and physically. So far the team has tangled with an army of Deathloks from an alternate future, the Age of Apocalypse, Otherworld, Weapon Plus's "the World" and a separate alternate future were X-Force is law and criminals are killed preemptively, Minority Report style. Keep in mind that this series just recently celebrated its 25th issue.
What's more is how every issue is stocked with Marvel lore, dripping in the type of continuity die-hards love. The book features a handful of different artists, from Jerome Opeña to Esad Ribic and Phil Noto, and of course the consistent, gloomy contributions of colorist Dean White, that have worked hand-in-hand with the writer to create a world that is truly unlike anything on the shelves. With so many nods to X-Men history and greater Marvel elements like the Captain Britain Corps and Celestials, Uncanny X-Force is the type of comic that will keep you clicking away at Wikipedia for hours, amazed at the stuff you didn't know about your favorite fiction world.
Is this the only example of dense superhero comics? No, probably not. Titles like Jonathan Hickman's Fantastic Four/FF run and Grant Morrison's multi-year Batman saga come to mind as deeply layered works that demand closer examination and an internet connection. Yet, there's just something about Uncanny X-Force that makes it a must-read, a piece of (still) ongoing work that's fairly young and gets more magnificent with age.
8. From Hell
History is by its very nature dense, filled with alternative perspectives and confused narratives as well as innumerable characters and plotlines. But in the hands of someone like Alan Moore, it's even more complicated, particularly in regards to his and Eddie Campbell's brutal historical epic From Hell. In rough terms a mystical murder mystery, From Hell is more accurately a murderous history of the troubled birth of the 20th century through the lens of the Jack the Ripper case.
Campbell's psychotic lines and anatomical ferociousness raise the stakes of Moore's multi-tiered narrative, placing us squarely in the mind of Sir William Gull, stripped from the context of real life and made into some kind of occult Yes Man, a dangerously focused being of immense talent and an even more immense appetite for measured and directed destruction.
Moore is less interested in the facts than in allowing Campbell to define London and the industrial revolution in demonic, ruthlessly sexual terms, providing a portrait of the modern era's first star serial killer that repositions him as someone who enjoyed his job far, far too much. Reading From Hell is a raw, visceral experience but it's one that pulls you back continuously, forcing you to look at Campbell's hideously mutilated figures for new clues about what Moore is really getting at. It's a dense work that is made all the harder to process because of how effectively Moore and Campbell can shock you no matter how many times you've read it, but that difficulty is never less than rewarding.
7. The Filth
To quote Matt Fraction, “The Filth is a dark fucking ride.”
Take practically every idea that Morrison had across seven volumes of The Invisibles, condense them down to thirteen issues, and then replace the radical optimism that seemed to permeate much of the series with a pessimistic sense of impending doom and you get The Filth.
It is, perhaps, one of the most depressing stories I have ever read; I don't mean “depressing” as in “my favorite character dies and it makes me sad,” I mean that after I'm done with it, the world seems just a bit darker.
Chris Weston's art only adds to it. Almost every page gives the feeling of a futuristic neon world that's got a nice thick coating of grime all over it. Indeed, we get a glimpse of this strange world beneath the surface only to discover that while, yes, it is quite fantastical, it is also quite filthy.
So then, why do I keep finding myself coming back to it again and again?
It's the same reason I keep revisiting The Invisibles, Final Crisis, Flex Mentallo, and so much of Morrison's oeuvre: they're all laced with so many different ideas. Every re-read brings something new to the forefront, whether it's a plot point or a philosophical idea, that gets me thinking.
Here's just a glimpse of what you get with The Filth: fractal realities, humanity as a series of cells in the larger organism of Earth (or the Universe), the impact of art on life, and Morrison's frequent blurring of the fourth wall.
As for the premise, we get Greg Feely, a pathetic old man whose only loves are pornography and his cat, who discovers that he is a sleeper agent of sorts for an organization called The Hand. The Hand are a secret society that is supposed to ensure that society is kept on the path to Status Q. From there, Feely's sent on a series of missions that are supposed to protect the universe, according to The Hand, but everything starts to unravel as he starts questioning exactly what it is they're doing.
Morrison uses the frame of a multi-dimensional espionage story (not unlike Casanova) that he originally intended for Nick Fury to give readers the darkest of mirrors to his creator-owned epic, The Invisibles.
Oh, and gigantic, murderous, mutant sperm. You get those too.
6. The Incal
The density of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius' epic space opera farce, The Incal, comes not from any question of length or physical proportion but instead from what Cory Doctorow deemed its "glorious, self-indulgent, eyeball-kicking science fiction high weirdness."
Barely adhering to narrative form or the demands of plot, The Incal instead asks readers to surrender to the atmosphere and tone, like some meta commentary on the plight of quasi-protagonist John DiFool, who is situated somewhere between the cyber-noir of Blade Runner's Deckard and a Kafka character. DiFool is a man who just wants to enjoy the finer things in life, namely whiskey and women, but instead finds himself dead center in pan-universal conflict over artifacts and prophecies and bullshit.
That The Incal inspired The Fifth Element is obvious, despite the poor ending of Moebius' ill-advised lawsuit against the creators of that film. The liberties Luc Besson's sci-fi magnum opus takes with its source material are enough to distinguish it, particularly in its adoption of a goofy but plausible plot that scraps DiFool's slacker affability in favor of Bruce Willis' trademark not-giving-a-shit. But The Incal in paper form is a more rewarding experience, as it depends so heavily on readers surrendering their need for order and clarity in exchange for maximum immersion, a dunking in Moebius' brand of heady, hyper-detailed surrealism and a saturation in Jodorowsky's kinetic philosophical cut up ballet.
This is a work that tricks you with its page numbers, allowing you to fool yourself into thinking you've begun some breezy, pretty experience that actually requires you to utilize the absolute maximum amount of brain power in order to pick up on even a single digit percentile of experience in the first few run arounds.
You read it, you surrender to it, you dwell on it and you begin again, never getting bored with the return and always confused by what it is you're processing. This is density as performance art, exploration as beautifully explosive bewilderment.
The world of Don McGregor's Sabre is as complex and strange and unpredictable and downright quirky as any ever created in popular comic science fiction. Writer and chief auteur Don McGregor has created an endlessly surprising, tremendously complex world that is as unpredictable and complex as the human heart. It encompasses love - not just the kind of love that we all feel every day for the people who are nearest to us – but the kind of intense, perfect, you-are-the-only-one-for-me love that only exists in operas and in certain really wonderful comic books.
It encompasses hatred – but not the standard sorts of hatred that we see in comics, where a villain is evil just for the sake of being evil or evil for the sake of greed or obnoxiousness. No, the people who hate in Sabre are genuinely bad people, evil men and women who are simply wired different from the rest of us; people who would make CIA torture chiefs blanch and make great warriors cry.
And it encompasses a complex fictional reality of bizarre character names and eye-popping settings like the high-rise condo made up of real houses and people flying on giant monarch butterflies and giant walking lizard creatures and strange robot horses; and all of that weirdness and craziness – amazingly enough, all of it – works because at the center of the work is that tremendous emotional honesty that makes the work of our friend Don McGregor so special.
So the world of Sabre may be complex and dense, and the text in the stories may be dense as well, but all of it adds to something special, something unique and powerful and – yes, despite its unreality –something real because emotional nakedness is always a real, tangible, awesome thing.
I never thought a series created by Rob Liefeld during the heyday of the greatest stereotypes of '90s comics would ever grace a list like this, and yet here we are. If you haven't been reading Prophet, well, shame on you. It is quite easily one of the greatest monthly books on the market, due in large part to the writing talent of one Mr. Brandon Graham.
That's not to diminish the talents of the artists working on the series, far from it. With the likes of Simon Roy, Giannis Milonogiannis, Farel Dalrymple, and Graham himself sharing art duties, you've got a beautiful looking comic. All of the artists bring their own style, yet they also add something substantial to the mythos that Graham seems to be mostly creating from the ground up (as of yet, we haven't gotten many clues just how this series connects with the original run). Despite their unique styles, they seem to mesh together in a way that adds to the series, rather than fractures it.
So, we've got a cadre of top-level artists illustrating a tale that has been billed as “Conan in space.” While this sounds like it could be an entertaining comic, it seems a significant leap away from many of the other stories on this list. So what's it doing here?
Well, one of the things that Brandon Graham does better than practically anybody else in comics is come up with interesting little sound bytes that add substantial amounts to the world he's creating while only taking up a couple of caption boxes. By seeding these corpuscles of depth throughout the series, it gives the benefit of feeling like Prophet has an enormous back story without actually needing to tell it to the reader directly. Add onto this that each storyline and backup story represents a different John Prophet, giving readers a different glimpse into this sci-fi epic, and I think Prophet's place on this list becomes much clearer.
With each revisit, I've found myself slowly building a bigger and bigger picture of the Earth Empire, the future of John Prophet, and the events that must have taken place to get humanity to the point that it's in.
3. 20th Century Boys
It’s a bit of a cop-out to call 20th Century Boys the Watchmen of Japanese comics—and creator Naoki Urasawa Japan’s Alan Moore. The only thing Urasawa and Moore really have in common is that they are both creative geniuses, working and enlarging the comic book medium like few alive. But for lack of a better comparison, allow me the convenient verbal shorthand to show you just how incredible this comic is—20th Century Boys is the Watchmen of Japanese comics.
Urasawa is a legend in his own time, and a mystery. He did some popular comics—like Yawara! The Fashionable Judo Girl and Master Keaton—that were charming and fun but not game changers. Then out of nowhere he created two of the most incredible pieces of modern Japanese comics, the serial killer-epic Monster and the dense, socio-political sci-fi drama 20th Century Boys.
I would have a hard time telling you what 20th Century Boys is about. Any tiny blurb description is going to capture only a small piece of the puzzle. The series moves backward and forward in time, from 1969 to 2017. The story focuses on a small group of elementary school outcasts in late ‘60s rural Japan, their adult counterparts in the present, and hints of their dark future.
As kids, the boys wrote a clumsy sci-fi story called the “Book of Prophecy.” As adults, it looks like someone is using the book as a roadmap to destroy the future. A mysterious, masked, cult leader known only as “Friend” might possibly have been one of their group, but no one can remember who. As “Friend” slowly gains power, the boys assemble to try and stop the doom they know is coming. Because they wrote it.
Urasawa is a virtuoso of the comics medium, who can switch tone and pace and emotion with the flip of a page. In one panel you feel the unfetter joys of being a young boy in the summer, daring your friends to go further into a haunted house; in the next panel there is abject horror as you see an unknown man lying dead on the floor, his body impossibly drained of blood. And always there is the ominous, inescapable undercurrent of the one called “Friend.”
20th Century Boys is multi-layered, with a series of themes and a dense interconnecting storyline that crosses all 22 volumes. Don’t try reading it one volume at a time, though. I have the entire series, and I am constantly having to refer back to earlier volumes to see details I missed before when I work my way through. It demands multiple readings. One quick swipe through just isn’t going to do it.
If you are looking for a comic that will occupy your mind for about a year or more, go give 20th Century Boys a try. “Friend” is waiting for you.
Casanova is dense in every sense of the word. In its original Image Comics "slimline" format, writer Matt Fraction packed each issue of his 16-page comic with the content of a story double or sometimes even triple that length, forcing rotating twin artists Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon to draw career-defining work to contain all that Casanova requires. In its longer Icon/Marvel incarnation, the team (joined by strong colorist Cris Peter) gets a bit more breathing room but uses the opportunity to push boundaries even more.
Narratively, Fraction and the twins crafted a damn-near-unexplainable mashup of sci-fi and espionage tropes that involves time travel, alternate universes, intentional and unintentional anachronisms, spirit animal powers, giant robots, magician assassins, regular sized robots, MODOKs and countless acronyms among about a billion other crazy ideas. Surprisingly a given issue rarely feels busy or confusing -- rather, all these colliding elements create a dizzying, fully formed secret agent fantasy world.
Casanova also presents an intensely personal yet pop culture-obsessed view of its world, thanks to Fraction's tendency for references to bits as seemingly disparate as spy movies, Wu Tang Clan, Howard Chaykin comics, art cinema and Thomas Pynchon, embodying the sum of its co-creator's interests but also acting as a handy pop culture mixtape of recommendations, provided a reader has a proper guide to decipher some of it.
For many readers, Casanova is a tough read at first, but if they're willing to let the comic take them where it's going and do more work than the average superhero reader does, then they're in for a rewarding, life-changing experience.
- Danny Djeljosevic
1. King City
We tried really hard not to double up on creators, hence why you only see one Morrison story and one Alan Moore story on the list, but it seemed almost criminal to not include King City, despite already having Prophet on here.
Everything I said up there about depth in Prophet holds true for King City, and then some.
You get the captions and off-hand comments about many of the strange goings-on of King City, like in Prophet, but while Prophet is a pretty serious science fiction story, King City is littered with jokes, puns, and sight gags, and if you say you caught them all on your first read, you are a dirty liar. Graham has said that he puts gags in the background to make King City fun to draw, but I don't know that he realized that it also makes it a load of fun.
That's why, despite the fact that we weren't really wanting to rank these, I think it outranks Prophet on density; it's so easy to find yourself playing a game of “Where's Waldo?” on every page, uncovering clue after clue that transforms King City into far more than just a setting.
When I was buying King City in single issues, I would save it and read it on a day when I wasn't planning to read anything else. I'd learned after issue 5 or so that all it would do is sour the rest of the comics I'd bought for the week; Graham does more in a page or two than many others do in a full issue.
I'd probably spend a half an hour or so on my first read through of an issue; then I'd put it down, go do something else for a while, and come back to it again.
Like a gourmet meal, King City is something that you need to let digest, and that whole time you're digesting, you're also champing at the bit to tear into any leftovers once you know you have room for them.
It's a story about a boy, his cat, and some friends, yet I've read the collected edition well over a dozen times by now, and I keep finding something new to love about it.