My favorite comic book from the last few years is an ongoing epic about warring alien planets and star-crossed lovers on the run. Called Saga, it has everything you'd expect from a good space opera, including plenty of sex and lots of violence. But there are also spaceships that grow like trees, aliens with analog televisions for heads, and a talking cat that knows when you're lying. It's Star Wars on LSD, and it's amazing.
Science fiction has seen a resurgence of late thanks in large part to Hollywood. Some of the top-grossing movies from the last two years include a story about an astronaut trapped in space and a mind-bending tale about wormholes, not to mention the best Marvel movie in years. And games are making the shift too, with huge, heralded new franchises like Titanfall and Destiny both launching this year. Even the classic Civilization has moved into space.
These experiences can be awe-inspiring, thanks to ridiculously expensive special effects that give us a glimpse of what the future could look like. But the same thing that makes these movies and games so great can also hold them back: when it costs millions of dollars to make something, companies want to minimize the risk. And often that means playing it safe.
It's the reason why Destiny's fascinating and beautiful world was wrapped around a repetitive and often dull game. It's also why comic book sci-fi continues to be so great: without the restraints of a budget or technology, creators are free to create whatever they like. (Sci-fi novels can be great too, but they don't have that same visual punch that comes from seeing a really well-designed spaceship or cool-looking alien species.)
Saga, created by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples, is perhaps the best example of this. While its basic structure is what you'd expect from an epic sci-fi tale, it's also one of the weirdest things you'll ever read. The more conventional set-up, which is essentially Romeo and Juliet in space, lets the series get away with some of its crazier elements. The main characters are pretty normal people, except for the fact that some have ram-like horns and others are horribly mutilated apparitions. And Vaughan, who has also worked as a writer in both film and television, seems to revel in the fact that he can do whatever he pleases with Saga. "If anything, I started writing the series out of frustration with what I couldn't do in any other media," he says.
"I started writing the series out of frustration with what I couldn't do in any other media."
Saga is far from the only example. Another Vaughan series, The Private Eye created with artist Marco Martin, envisions a strange future where the internet doesn't exist, yet people are even more obsessed with privacy than they are now. Trees, from Warren Ellis and Jason Howard, takes place on a future version of Earth where unexplained, towering alien artifacts have appeared all over the world. These structures do nothing (at least so far), yet their effect on the population is immense. Meanwhile, the newly launched ODY-C from Matt Fraction and Christian Ward is a psychedelic, space opera take on the story of Odysseus, with art that looks ripped from a 1970s album cover. "It just gets crazier from here," the creators promise at the end of the first issue.
Those are just a few examples, and they're all very different. They're also able to tackle elements of their stories in ways that movies or games just can't, whether it's due to budgets, audience, or technology. In ODY-C, for instance, there's a spaceship where the cockpit resembles a giant pink womb. The Vertigo series FBP takes place in a world where the laws of physics change and shift just like the weather. And in Universe, a brand new series from Spanish writer and artist Albert Monteys, a corporation travels back in time so that it can trademark the building blocks of life. Imagine the special effects budget you'd need to pull some of that stuff off. Video games are getting closer, as something like the ambitious No Man's Sky can be built by a handful of people, but in comics all you need is one talented artist to pull it off.
And it's more than just the technology and science. While a director as big as Ridley Scott claims his biblical epic Exodus could only be made if it starred famous white actors, these comics feature characters from basically every race, gender, and background — and they're in important roles, not just in the background. Trees has several prominent trans characters, and the most badass fighters in Saga are moms. In ODY-C, all of the characters have literally been gender-swapped, so that all of the important people from Odysseus' life are now women. In the most recent issue of The Woods, a great series about a bunch of high school students mysteriously transported to an alien planet, a gay black kid is on the cover.
Creative freedom leads to some amazing sci-fi
What ties many of these books together is that few of them are published by Marvel or DC, the two big companies in comics (the exception being Vertigo, a DC offshoot that specializes in crazier fare like FBP). Some are self-published online, others come from smaller companies, but the vast majority come from Image Comics. Image's most important characteristic is that each series is owned by its creators, not the publisher. This has led to breakout hits like Spawn and The Walking Dead, and it turns out that creative freedom leads to some amazing sci-fi. Saga is the biggest name, winning the Eisner awards for Best Writer and Best Continuing Series in both 2013 and 2014, but new series like ODY-C and the upcoming Bitch Planet have generated plenty of interest. Whereas big-budget productions usually need to worry about what will work with an audience, a creator-owned comic is free to try brand new things.
"If you're curious what kinds of sci-fi movies and shows Hollywood will be making in 10 or 15 years," says Vaughan, "I'd look at what Image is publishing today."