Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Guest Post | Ryan of Battle Hymns Considers Comic Books for Fantasy Fans

Without a shadow of a doubt, Battle Hymns is one of the very best blogs I've started reading in the last year. Ryan's been going a fair while longer than that, I should say - indeed, he started out in January of 2010, same as me! - but since I first came across Battle Hymns, I haven't been able to stay away.
Not least because Ryan loves a lot of the same things I love: progressive metal - ie. Opeth - fantasy fiction, and comic books, too. He's the reason I read Sweet Tooth, and countless other series besides. So when I asked him if he might be interested in contributing to The Speculative Scotsman in my absence, I was really hoping he'd review a graphic novel for you.
But boy, did he go above and beyond the call of duty. Good man! :)

Battle Hymns is brilliant, and if you aren't subscribed to it already, you should be. Enough said.

Below, Ryan considers what comic books fantasy fans might find to their liking, and I would second his every selection... except Orc Stain, and only then because I haven't read it yet.

I love comics. When done well, they're a glorious medium of unfettered possibilities. With pictures. Awesome pictures.
Wait, a "glorious medium of unfettered possibilities"? Sounds familiar! Sounds like... fantasy!
Damn right. Comics, like our well loved fantasy fiction, is a creative medium where lots of amazing things can and will happen. So maybe you're a comic lover, maybe you're a comic liker, or maybe you want to read comics but don't know where the fuck to begin (hint: not with Marvel or DC)...well, I'm gonna make it easy for you. I'll list some popular fantasy sub-genres and some awesome comics that fall under those categories. 
This little sub-genre is really popular these days, and I gotta admit, the aesthetic is pretty cool. Goggles are sweet. Tesla is a bad-ass. And air-ships are a combination of both; sweet and bad-ass.

There's not a lot of steampunky comics out there that are good. Too many feature busty, scantily clad babes running around in leather. Maybe that is cool if you are a 13 year old boy, but we are focusing on good comics. Good story, good art. The one to go with here is Captain Swing by comic-writing mad genius Warren Ellis.

This one has all the hallmarks of a good steampunk tale. You've got an Victorian England copper chasing down the murderous Spring-Heeled Jack. There's also some battling air pirates, guns with electric bullets, hidden lairs, and of course, goggles. Can't forget those.

Ellis is capable of writing an exciting story, and he does so here. Lots of twists, some great action, and some fun dialog. The art by Raulo Caceres is quite good too. He really captures the steampunk look and feel here. A very solid choice if you are looking for a steampunk fix.

Urban Fantasy
Even though I warned against comics from DC or Marvel earlier, there are of course a few exceptions to that rule. Batwoman is one of those exceptions. This one is exceptionally good, and the fact that the writers have taken an urban fantasy-esque approach to the comic is a big reason why it is so good. 
There's no better urban setting than Gotham City, and Kate Kane/Batwoman, who's been don't ask-don't telled out of the Marines, can hang with the best of the leading ladies of urban fantasy... she's even got the tats! 

The graphic novel to get your hands on is Batwoman: Elegy. It's written by Greg Rucka who has a history of writing fantastic female leads. In Elegy Batwoman battles the supernatural baddies of Gotham. There's a crime syndicate led by a creepy crime lord named Alice who quotes Lewis Carroll and wants to poison all of Gotham, not to mention a cult of shape-shifters.

Though the writing in Batwoman: Elegy is top notch, the art sorta steals the show [Agreed - Niall]. J.H. Williams III is definitely on the very tippy-top tier of comics artists, and he flexes his artistic muscles like a 'roided out body builder here. He switches up styles depending on what is going on in the story, and delivers some great double page splashes that will please the eye. All around a great comic. You can't go wrong here.

Thanks to stuff like The Road and I Am Legend this is another sub-genre that lots of fantasy lovers, myself included, enjoy. I like thinking about the end of the world... its a pretty interesting idea to speculate about. This also happens to be a pretty popular theme in comics. One of my all-time favorite series Y: The Last Man deals with a world where all the men, except one, have suddenly died. Though I could easily suggest that comic here I'm gonna go for a current title which fits the bill: Jeff Lemire's Sweet Tooth.


(But you should read Y: The Last Man too!)  

In Sweet Tooth, a mysterious plague has hit the Earth and has devastated the population. The sickness began about the same time that newborns started being born as strange animal/human hybrids. That's where we meet Gus, a young hybrid who finds himself alone in the woods after his father dies of the sickness. Gus soon meets Jeppard, a dangeous drifter who promises to help Gus find his way across the devastated American landscape to the fabled hybrid sanctuary.

Sweet Tooth stands out for having an incredible emotional impact, it has nearly brought me to tears on a few occasions... this one will punch you right in the feelings! [Ow, my feelings... - Niall] Lemire writes characters that are complex and wonderfully developed, they'll stick in your head long after you're done reading. This is easily one of my top three ongoing comics; I've been following it in single issues but the first four trades are available and get better and better as the story goes on.


Okay, horror isn't so much a sub-genre as it is it's very own beast, but I'm still gonna mention it here primarily because one of our modern horror masters, and one of my favorite authors, Joe Hill writes an amazing horror comic called Locke & Key that ranks among the very best stuff on the shelf. 
The Locke family has recently relocated to Lovecraft, Massachusetts after their father was brutally murdered by a couple of his former students at the family summer home. Needing a change of scenery in a big way, the mother Nina, and three children, Ty aged 17, Kinsey who's 15, and Bode, age 5, move into the Locke family ancestral manse. What begins as a look at a grieving family soon turns macabre as the youngest Locke boy discovers the key to a mysterious door that can work some spectral magic, and a well that houses a vile spirit bent on doing harm to the Lockes.

Apparently there's a bunch of magical keys hidden around the house that give the holder special abilities. These keys and their powers are slowly revealed, and help build tension while adding a mysterious magic element to the story.
I find that I'm rarely scared by works of horror, but Hill delivers some insanely terrifying and anxiety laden moments in Locke & Key. There were times when I found it impossible to stop reading because the story is so good. There's currently 4 out of an eventual 6 trades available, and I have had to force myself to work through them slowly so that I'm not pulling my hair out waiting for the last two volumes. [Good god man, get out of my head! - Niall] This is fantastic stuff, and should not be missed.

Other Fantasy Comics You'll Love
These ones don't quite fit under a sub-genre label, but are fantasy through and through and you don't want to miss them.
Orc Stain: Imagine a world where orcs are the top of the food chain, and orc penises, aka "gronch", are the main currency. That's the world of Orc Stain and it is a wonderful one to get lost in. James Stokoe writes, draws, inks, colors and letters this bad boy and it is beautiful to look at, and wonderfully written. One of the most creative and beautiful things I've ever laid eyes on. 
Planetary: This is another Warren Ellis-penned comic, and in my opinion, the best comic series ever written. This one is a cool science/fantasy/metahuman mash up with an incredibly compelling story, interesting characters and great art. Planetary is a must read for any comic fan. 
Hellboy: This is an incredibly popular title, and for good reason. Mike Mignola has blended Lovecraftian elements into real life myth... with some Nazis mixed in for good measure. [But of course! - Niall] The result is one of the most enduring comics of all time. Hellyboy exudes atmosphere and is another title that you'll find on most every comic lover's shelf. If you haven't already explored Hellboy, you should.
Like the world of fantasy, there's many wonderful comics out there, I'm discovering more and more each day. If you find yourself exhausting this list or looking for more hot tips, stop by my blog Battle Hymns or hit me up with an email. Happy reading!


Happy reading indeed. As the man says, or is slightly too polite to, there's an awful lot of other equally awesome stuff over at Battle Hymns, so if you haven't made a habit of visiting Ryan's blog before, what better time to check it out than now?
Thanks again, mate!

So. What's coming up on The Speculative Scotsman tomorrow? Well riddle me this, dear readers: what's blue, and gold, and anonymous all over?


  1. Thanks for all the kind words Niall! It's an honor and a pleasure to be able to be even a microscopic part of The Speculative Scotsman as its long been one of my favorite blogs.

    Oh, and read Orc Stain! You'll thank me.

  2. This article is excellent! I'm a long-time fantasy fan but fairly new to the world of comics. This has really given me a great starting point. Thanks!

  3. Great work, Ryan. I have so many comics I need to read, it's insane, but at least I have direction now. :)

  4. Samantha- Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it! I hope you enjoy the comic reading you have ahead of you!

    Bryce- Thank you sir! I too have an insane amount of comics, so I can understand the feeling. I need to dedicate like a month of my life to nothing but reading...

  5. Wow, what a creative way to combine the worlds of fantasy and graphic novels/comics! I've stepped away from graphic novels for a while now but your view of Locke & Key makes me want to re-visit the medium. A very well done post that was so great to read!

  6. Thanks Anon- Locke & Key is truly fantastic and I hope you enjoy it. Hill's writing one of the very best comics on the shelf.