Obviously, a great many Topless Robot readers are comics fans. And we’re not just talking about Marvel and DC; there are plenty of Roboteers well versed in the more independent comic alternatives to grown men gadding about in tights (not that there’s anything wrong with them). This list is not for you. This list is for the non-comics readers who frequent TR, and for those comics fans who maybe haven’t looked much beyond the offerings of Marvel and DC. And it’s for those fans who might’ve read the Scott Pilgrim books so often they can recite them from memory, or have spent hours discussing Mike Mignola and debating why The Amazing Screw-On Head is better than Hellboy.
This list is of nine under-the-radar indie comics titles that may have fallen through the cracks of
your consciousness. Some of these you may have heard of and dismissed,
or just never gotten around to checking out in the first place. Or maybe you’ve never heard of them. It
doesn’t matter why you haven’t read them, but if you read Topless Robot, you totally should. So
take a chance and read on for nine reasonable obscure indies that are
worthy of your obsession and devotion.
9) The Muppet Show
Kicking off this list is Roger Langridge’s stellar re-envisioning of The Muppet Show from Boom Studios. Perfectly replicating the feel of the classic series, Langridge has singlehandedly brought back the magic of the Muppets. His comic is a tribute to the work of Jim Henson, Frank Oz, et al, and the joy that leaps from every panel transports readers to a simpler time when all that mattered in life was whether or not Fozzie was going to bomb on stage. The past decade hasn’t been to kind to The Muppets (the nadir of which was a 2005 Pizza Hut commercial in which Miss Piggy inadvertently promotes cannibalism), but Kermit and the gang are poised for a comeback with the help of puppet lover Jason Segal. If his Muppet movie comes anywhere close to the genius of Langridge’s comic work, the characters will finally regain some of their past glory. Unlike most of the entries included here, Boom’s Muppet books are easily obtainable. In other words, there’s really no reason for you not to be reading them. Don’t be a jaded bastard and dismiss this comic as strictly kids stuff. This is thrilling reading regardless of your age. Jim Henson would have been proud of Langridge’s work here. I can’t think of any finer tribute than that.
8) The Fart Party
Like a lot of her peers, Julia Wertz has developed a following by writing autobiographical indie comics that are heavy on the self-deprecation. But what differentiates her work from that of the hundreds of other cartoonists roaming the streets of Brooklyn is a sincerity and self-awareness that is genuine as opposed to careful image/brand-building self-indulgence. Her most recent work, the memoir Drinking at the Movies, is a Cliffs Notes style overview of her life so far. For a more detailed look at her daily experiences, pick up The Fart Party. As the above video points out, the comic doesn’t really feature much farting or partying and instead focuses on Wertz’s attempts to manage a career on her own terms while also navigating relationship and health problems. Her wit and breezy illustrations make The Fart Party read like the anti-Cathy — tales of a smart, strong single woman who faces every challenge on her own terms, without needing to scream “ACK.” Awesome yet irrelevant trivia: Wertz named her work studio Pizza Island.
7) Everything Dies
After exploring relationship issues in his webcomic series Bellen, Philadelphia-based artist Box Brown recently turned his attentions to grander topics in Everything Dies. First released this March, the ongoing title explores the impact that religion has upon our society — for better or worse. Brown’s visual style is a mixture of Chris Ware, Charles Schulz and The Family Circus’ Bil Keane (which is oddly fitting given the religious themes that permeate that newspaper standard). But instead of opting for preachniess or cutesy sentiment like Circus does, Everything Dies features thought-provoking examinations of everything from a contemporary re-telling of the story of Job to Brown’s own funeral plans. Smart and often funny without being disrespectful, the comic is an illuminating examination of how and why people believe.
6) Optic Nerve
My first exposure to the work of Adrian Tomine was in Tower Records’ old giveaway magazine Pulse. His slice-of-life comics in the rag were always infused with a knowing insight about the world. This wisdom spilled equally over into his comic, Optic Nerve. Originally self-published in 1991, the book’s subject matter — usually angst and cultural identity — is consistently compelling. Given Tomine’s naturalistic storytelling and art, it’s surprising that as of yet Optic Nerve hasn’t made the jump to TV or movies. If there’s a criticism to be lobbied in Tomine’s direction it is that his work is often uncomfortably realistic. This is best demonstrated in his Shortcomings graphic novel (compiled from three Optic Nerve issues) which chronicles the often painful experiences of Ben, a twentysomething who is trying to find himself. His generally assholish behavior makes him one of the most unlikable protagonists in recent memor, and also one whose actions hit too close to home. Many readers found their own mistakes reflected in Ben’s self-serving behavior. This type of realism is ugly, but it is infused with a sense of genuine honesty that is becoming increasingly rare in any form of literature.
5) Rusty Brown
If you’ve noticed, for the most part this list is devoid of such names as Bryan Lee O’Malley, Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, etc. that was a conscious choice, as the aforementioned folks all have fairly well-established fanbases and are probably already familiar to you. The same is probably true of Chris Ware, but his ongoing Rusty Brown strip is such a cautionary tale for nerds that it demands mentioning here. Published sporadically in his Acme Novelty Library anthology, Rusty Brown tells the story of the titular manchild. Not so much caught up in a state of arrested development as having never developed much in the first place, Brown spends his life obsessing over things like Supergirl Megos and Kermit the Frog. As the story has progressed, readers have gotten some insight into why Rusty is so fucked up (mainly bad parenting and poor socialization). These reasons don’t forgive his increasingly pervy behavior, but at least they illustrate how he isn’t purely to blame for his actions. The main lesson that the story Ware is trying to convey is how debilitating nostalgia can be. As a grown man who collects action figures and writes about the very things Ware is commenting on, my initial reaction is to dismiss him as a misguided elitist and run off to play with my Hugo, Man of a Thousand Faces doll. But I don’t think Ware is decrying being a collector in and of itself, but instead warning those with geeky tendencies that their interests can spiral out of control and consume their lives. Brown’s experiences in the strip demonstrate this firsthand. The Eels song “Whatever Happened to Soy Bomb?” is about a guy who spends his days collecting Josie and the Pussycats lunchboxes and wondering about pop culture has-beens. Eventually, he realizes that life is short and he’s been wasting his life on meaningless bullshit. This is essentially the story of Rusty Brown, and of countless others like him (hell, maybe even myself). Apart from being ironic and meta, raising these sorts of issues in a comic like Ware does is an inspired way to get across a message that is worth pondering.
4) Action Figure
Literally drawing from his own experiences as an illustrator for Hasbro (where he created box art for the Transformers and G.I. Joe toy lines), Richard Marcej created the comic Action Figure for his Baboon Books imprint in 2006. The book presents a somewhat fictionalized look back at his days working for the toy giant, all the while walking the tightrope between commerce and artistic integrity. Packed with insights on what it is like to work for a toy giant, Action Figure is a bit tough to track down. But like discovering a short-packed figure after months of hunting, it is well worth any effort you might expend to find it.
3) Bad Asses
Mark Todd’s zine/graphic novel hybrid Bad Asses bills itself as “a ton of drawings of bad ass guys and girls and rides.” Which basically means that readers are treated to hilarious caricatures of Robocop, Debbie Harry, Scooby-Doo’s Mystery Machine and every other pop culture bad ass from the past 30 years. Todd’s cartoony visuals are the main selling point here, although his brief insights on each of the book’s 65 entries are where the humor really shines through (before reading this it never even occurred to me that Kermit the Frog is a victim of domestic violence). And I don’t know about you, but there aren’t nearly enough tomes in my personal library whose pages feature everyone from Dolemite to the Kraken from the original Clash of the Titans.
Anyone who has ever blown off real world responsibilities in favor of spending hours in front of the Xbox can relate to Arlo, a recovering videogame junkie whose experiences are chronicled in Robin Enrico’s Controller. The mini-comic is a funny (and at times pensive) rumination on how gaming can easily overtake your life and drain your wallet. By no means is this a bleak affair like the aforementioned Rusty Brown. Enrico wisely makes Arlo a lovable character who is well-adjusted, has had sex and generally knows that moderation is the key to a happy life. Well, that and the occasional game of Ms. Pac-Man. In a move worthy of an “Impressive Acts of Nerdiness” tag, Controller was designed to look like an old Nintendo cartridge, complete with a black and red slipcover. Such attention to nerd detail is worth applauding.
1) Incredible Change Bots
Jeffrey Brown honed his skills with a series of autobiographical comics that painfully detailed several failed relationships. The gentle humor on display in those largely pathos-driven books is replaced with huge laughs, along with plenty of nostalgia, in his 2007 Transformers spoof Incredible Change Bots. Unlike its inspiration there is nothing more than meets the eye with these robots because they keep their ineptitude front and center. The book details the battle between the good Awesomebots and the malevolent Fantasticons that ensues when they bring their fight to Earth. When not squaring off against each other, both groups of robots spend plenty of time bickering amongst themselves. In lieu of Optimus Prime style heroics, the best you’ll get out of Awesomebot leader Big Rig is a lecture and some pouting (so I suppose he’s more like Rodimus Prime then). The above trailer is a primer on the world of the Incredible Change Bots. A sequel is set for release early next year. However, at this point there are no plans for an animated series — which seems like the next likely step for the robot mayhem-infused saga. Adult Swim, take note.
Chris Cummins is a pop culture writer and Archie comics historian who has contributed to The Robot's Voice, Den of Geek US, Philebrity, Geekadelphia, Uproxx, and Unicorn Booty. He is the co-producer and co-host of Nerd Nite Philadelphia, and is regularly involved in producing and hosting New York Super Week events. In 2014, Chris began Sci-Fi Explosion, a mix of live performance, trivia and funny clips celebrating the weirdest in science fiction that regularly travels around the United States. He wrote the introductions to the compilations Archie's Favorite Comics From The Vault and (with Paul Castiglia) Archie's Favorite High School Stories. You can find Chris on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.