Superheroes after Birdman

[This post originally appeared on Hazel & Wren, and it might still be viewable there with the accompanying images.]

A superhero movie won Best Picture at the Oscars! And while I don’t know if I’d personally rate Birdman as film of the year, it’s become one of only two superhero movies I’d recommend to strangers on the internet (the other being 1999’s Mystery Men).

But where do you turn once Birdman ends? Where else can you get that fractured, bizarre, taciturn-but-hopeful tone filtered through superheroics in a slightly meta way? Look no further. Here are six comics that do what Birdman does, oftentimes doing it better.

img690It’s a Bird (Steven Seagle, Teddy Kristiansen; Vertigo)
It’s a Bird is a semi-autobiographical account of a comic writer’s struggle to discover the point of superhero fiction. Offered the chance to write Superman, Steven wonders if adventurous power fantasy has a place in a world where his family is struggling with a genetic disorder. His ponderings take the form of short vignettes, each meditating on a different theme and each rendered in a different style by Kristiansen. Some sections don’t hold up too well (particularly a stream-of-consciousness section that seems to imitate slam poetry), but the narrator’s emotional journey rings true, and Kristiansen’s painterly virtuosity shines.

It’s a Bird was issued as a hardcover original graphic novel in 2005 and is still in print.

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img689I Kill Giants (Joe Kelly, JM Ken Niimura; Image Comics)
Part of Birdman’s success comes from the juxtaposition of the mundane struggles of Riggan Thomson as he prepares his play with the imagined glory of his past; in the end, this seeming contradiction is resolved, and the characters find glory in their messy, everyday existence. I Kill Giantsshares this juxtaposition and resolution, but the imaginary vistas, rendered in Niimura’s thick and flowing brushstrokes, put Riggan Thomson’s flights of maybe-fantasy to shame. The stakes, both in human terms and how they’re portrayed, feel much higher than those of Birdman, and I Kill Giants shows an actualized inner life that is powerful, terrifying, and deeply empathetic.

I Kill Giants was originally published as 7 issues in 2008 and 2009. It has been reissued in multiple collected editions.

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img692Hawkeye (Matt Fraction, David Aja, Annie Wu, et al.; Marvel Comics)
Despite being the least explicitly meta book on this list, Hawkeye shares a certain tender, bruised masculinity with the men of Birdman. (Depending on your tastes, that may or may not be a good thing.) Additionally, Clint Barton shares a strained but hopeful relationship with his ward, Kate Bishop that reflects the Riggan/Sam relationship. The amazing, time-dilating establishing panels by David Aja rival the single-shot conceit of the film. Add in a penchant for one-liners, persistent consequences to violence, and dudes in the buff, and you’ve basically ticked all the same boxes as Birdman does.

Hawkeye was published in 22 monthly issues from 2012 to 2015 and is also available in paperback and hardcover collected editions.

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img686Enigma (Peter Milligan, Duncan Fegredo; Vertigo)
Speaking of tender, bruised masculinity, Engima offers it up in spades. When Michael Smith discovers that his favorite childhood superhero might be real, his flagging sex drive returns, even if is desire migrates from his girlfriend to the mysterious Enigma. Setting out on a cross-country trip, Michael questions his sexuality, his memory, and the existence of free will. This superhero existentialist parable is brought to jagged life by Fegredo’s Klimtian compositions. His frantic lines are filled by Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh’s earthy palette, and the world that results is, at least at first, muddy and hard to get ahold of. Then come the splashes of color: flying lizards, childhood comic books, and miraculous powers.

Engima was originally published in 1993, but it’s been recently reissued in a new trade paperback.

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img691Herbie (Richard Hughes as Shane O’Shea, Ogden Whitney; ACG)
But let’s cut the pretty-guy navel-gazing, huh? Herbie Popnecker demands recognition. According to his parents, he’s a fat little nothing. In actuality, with the help of an arsenal of lollipops, he’s a flying, time-traveling, invulnerable hero. He’s teamed up with Dracula, the Green Lama, Napoleon Bonaparte, and John F. Kennedy. He helps everyone (even if it’s begrudgingly). He breaks hearts, and he breaks the fourth wall. To top it all off, his verbal patterns inspired Watchmen’s Rorschach, and you can trace a direct line from him to Christian Bale’s Batman and Michael Keaton’s Birdman.

Herbie originally appeared in Forgotten Worlds and Herbie comics from 1958 to 1967. His appearances have been collected in three volumes of Herbie Archives by Dark Horse Comics.

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img687The Ti-Girls (Jaime Hernandez; Fantagraphics)
Lots of dudes, huh? Dudes make most of the decisions in Birdman, and even though Emma Stone’s Sam ends up being justified in asking her dad to get on social media, the movie still ends with Riggan taking flight on his own, leaving Sam to look up at him. This is not the case with the Ti-Girls, though. In Hernandez’s world, all women are born with “the gift” of superheroics. Men must acquire them through magic or technology. While this could easily serve as a tagline for a typical HBO show or Vertigo or Image comic, Hernandez doesn’t actually reveal the girls-only nature of superpowers until over halfway through the story. Instead, as he always does, Hernandez lets the characters tell the story. The Ti-Girls, disbanded years ago, reconvene to help a woman find her children. They vary in age, power, ethnicity, and outlook, but their faith in each other and their methods helps them prevail. It sounds schmaltzy and pandering, but Hernandez handles it deftly, never letting themes overpower the vast range of personalities of the nearly all-female cast of heroes and villains.

The Ti-Girls originally appeared in Love & Rockets: New Stories issues 1 and 2 in 2008 and 2009. Their stories have been collected in God & Science: Return of the Ti-Girls.

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In looking back through what I’ve read, I couldn’t find or recall a superhero comic written by a woman that felt like it matched up with Birdman‘s themes. (There are, of course, dozens of books by women that are out-and-out better than Birdman, though.) How about it, comic literati? Any superhero books by women that tap into the same reservoir?

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