List o’ Love
Ah, Valentine’s Day. Some of us love it, some of us hate it and some really just couldn’t care less. As someone who’s currently in a relationship, Valentine’s Day is mostly sweet to me but it’s hard to forget how much it annoyed and frustrated me when I was single. I don’t think that kind of combative relationship with the holiday is necessary but it can be difficult to stay away from. I remember reading romance novels as a teenager and still read them so I’m a sucker for a good love story. But a good love story doesn’t have to be saccharine sweet. This week here at Graphic Reviews, I wanted to offer my take on graphic novels which incorporate love in some way. The first half of this list features graphic novels with the more traditional couple’s version of love but these incorporate romances that are far from sugary sweet. They show all the ups and downs of relationships with little to no filter and incorporate sex as well as romance. The second half of this list features graphic novels for anyone who is sick to death of romance and needs an infusion of schadenfreude-inducing unhealthy love, the quirks of being single or the love of our friends. If you aren’t in the mood for romance but still need a Valentine’s week read, this is the section for you. Without further ado, here is my list o’ love!
It’s impossible to list graphic novels incorporating romance and NOT mention Saga. This incredible series written by Brian K. Vaughn and illustrated by the amazing Fiona Staples is basically Romeo and Juliet in space (with aliens!) if Romeo and Juliet didn’t tragically (read: moronically) cause their own downfalls. Alana and Marko come from two different sides of a violent and epic war that has been going on between their races and despite all the odds, fell in love with each other, secretly got married and had a baby. Viewed as an abomination by both sides, Alana and Marko just want to be able to live in peace and raise their child but star-crossed lovers never have it easy.
What makes Saga great is that Alana and Marko’s relationship is challenged both from outside forces and from within. They each come from different cultures (with one having a history of oppressing the other) and despite loving one another, neither is perfect or even always makes the right choices. They struggle to make choices that will help provide for their daughter Hazel and keep her safe from those who wish her harm. But sometimes they act selfishly and have to pay for their mistakes. It’s an epic space adventure that’s beautifully illustrated and never once allows your heartbeat to slow down. If you haven’t read this series already, pick it up immediately!
Alex + Ada
Alex + Ada is more traditional science fiction, taking place in the near-ish future when android servants have become both mainstream and yet AI continues to be taboo. It is written by Jonathan Luna and Sara Vaughan and illustrated by Jonathan Luna. While many people use androids as servants, a previous android gone mad has created a near rabid fear of artificial intelligence such that any known AI risks being ripped apart by mobs. After a rather harsh break-up, a young man named Alex is given an android by his grandmother who hopes that having a companion will make him happy again. All androids come with a program that prevents them from thinking for themselves despite an innate ability to do so if freed. Throughout the series, Alex struggles with the question of whether to free his android Ada and what that would mean for both of them as doing so is not only highly taboo but even illegal. Alex’s struggle to understand androids and Ada in particular leads him to delve into the issue of artificial intelligence and put a face on what most considered “just robots.”
Without spoiling too much, Alex + Ada is not only an exploration of human versus artificial intelligence, it’s an exploration of a taboo relationship and the limits that we put on relationships. When your partner has no choice but to agree or do whatever you say, is it really a relationship? And how fulfilling can that be? Even outside of Alex and Ada, the relationships that the other people in the story have with androids in general is challenged throughout the series. While the romance itself is not as strong as in some of the other series on this list, Alex + Ada does an excellent job of exploring the power struggle of relationships in general.
Sex Criminals, written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Chip Zdarsky, is a bit of an oddball when it comes to graphic novel romances but it’s one of the best I’ve ever read. The story centers around a librarian named Suzie and an actor named Jon who happen to meet each other at a party and hit it off. It’s not until they get each others’ clothes off that they discover a rather remarkable fact: both of them have the ability to freeze time when they orgasm. Each discovered this ability earlier in their lives and has never (until now) met another person with the ability. When Suzie’s library is in danger of being shut down, the two decide to use their talents to rob banks in order to get the money to save the library.
If this sounds silly and over the top, it is, but it’s also brilliant. Sex Criminals has one the healthiest outlooks on sex that I’ve seen in any novel, graphic or otherwise. Suzie and Jon run into a number of people, all with different sexual proclivities and all of whom are understood to have perfectly healthy desires for all that they be unusual. The relationship between the two main characters also feels intensely real. It’s a constant roller coaster as these two strangers adjust to having each other in their lives and deal with all the foibles that come with letting another person into your life like that. It’s no Disney fairy tale but it’s all the more compelling for that. If you can handle frank sexual discussion and a lot of nudity and sexual content, Sex Criminals is a must read.
Written and illustrated by Liz Prince (creator of the Tomboy graphic memoir), Alone Forever is her self-deprecating collection of comics about being single and the triumphs and pitfalls thereof. From celebrating self-reliance and the ability to be completely independent to her frustration and loathing of OkCupid, nothing captured how I felt about being single better than Alone Forever. If you’re feeling particularly Anti-Valentine’s Day and need a laugh, I’d highly recommend picking up this collection of web comics or checking out really anything by Liz Prince, her humor is always self-deprecating and often dark, two things that I’ve always appreciated.
I will admit to being biased but I will never not recommend Rat Queens. Written by Kurtis Wiebe and illustrated by a team including Roc Upchurch, Stjepan Sejic, Tess Fowler and Owen Gieni, it’s an unusual choice for a graphic novel on this list, but I promise it’s worth it. The story centers on a rambunctious adventuring party known as the Rat Queens in a very D&D-esque setting. Wiebe even described it as “Lord of the Rings meets Bridesmaids” and more than anything else, it’s a raucous, hilarious take on friendship, magic and violence that’s extremely difficult not to love. While each of the four main characters (Hannah, Violet, Dee and Betty respectively as pictured above) has a different background and history, all of them are loyal to each other even when they’re fighting and would give their lives for each other. Even when they have their romances and sexual escapades, the rough and tumble friendship between them remains a focus of the series. This as well as the dark humor and coarse language make it a natural pick for anyone who’s tired of traditional romances and one size fits all stories. If you haven’t read Rat Queens, now is the time!
Batman Adventures: Mad Love
I will admit to being a fan of schadenfreude. Even when I know it may not be healthy, it’s hard not to enjoy a bad romance once in awhile (especially if you’re watching from the outside). And there is no romance more terrible than Harley Quinn and the Joker. Batman: Mad Love is written by Paul Dini and illustrated by Bruce Timm (for those unaware, both men were major creators of the Batman: The Animated Series TV show) and is a one-shot comic that reveals the history of the superhero world’s worst (and yet most compelling) couple. After being kicked out of the hideout by Joker after she annoys him with her desire for his attention, Harley reminsces about the start of her relationship with Joker and becomes determined to take out Batman to prove her love to the Clown Prince of Crime. Things don’t exactly go according to plan and the comic shows the serious dangers of loving someone like Joker.
Mad Love is written as an expansion of a children’s TV show so naturally it isn’t as violent as other Harley/Joker stories can be. But I think Dini and Timm have a better handle than anyone on Harley’s dangerous obsession with Joker and the price that she pays for her decision to become involved with him. It has always disturbed me when anyone romanticizes the relationship between Harley and Joker as it is the very definition of unhealthy. Joker is 100% abusive towards Harley but her obsession won’t allow her to let go of something that is only endangering her wellbeing. If you need a reason to be happy about being single, one look at this relationship will make you happy to be headed in the other direction. Not to mention amused and feeling sorry for Harley. The reason we all love her is that we’ve all had that crazy, mad love and it’s impossible not to at least feel for her, despite her mistakes. Or perhaps because of them. Either way, Mad Love is well worth a read!
Regardless of your feelings on the holiday, this week is a perfect time to pick up a graphic novel and enjoy a little escapism. Whether your tastes run to love stories or the polar opposite, there’s something for everyone in this list and I hope you enjoy any that you end up picking up! And if you have other suggestions or want to discuss my picks, leave me comments below! – Cait