If you immerse yourselves in comic books that fall on the pulpier side of the equation–whether science fictional, crime dramas, or those abounding with superheroes–you’re going to find yourself awash in archetypes. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Mythology has filtered into dozens, if not hundreds of comic books: deities appear in the superhero universes of Marvel and DC, but they also turn up in works as disparate as the bizarre near future of Enki Bilal’s The Nikopol Trilogy and Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine, which riffs extensively on notions of fame and power. Ancient stories can be the stuff around which decidedly modern stories are written. And as comic books, particularly those involving superheroes, become more and more ingrained in our culture, they also become the archetypes around which new stories can coalesce.
Sometimes, this can take the form of riffs on characters from a rival company: Marvel’s Squadron Supreme, who strongly resemble DC’s Justice League, is one example. In the early days of Image Comics, a character named Supreme showed up, who was one of dozens of riffs on Superman to appear in assorted superhero universes. In issues written by Alan Moore, and later Warren Ellis, Supreme took on a more metafictional aspect, taking the character in a memorably different direction in stories that both satisfied on the adventuring level and commented on the tropes associated with superheroes. A different version of that approach could be seen in Ellis and John Cassaday’s Planetary, which incorporated riffs on everything from 1960s Nick Fury to the evolution of the Vertigo line of comics to the Fantastic Four. But homages are only one facet of this approach–the first collected volumes of two new series begin by looking like riffs on concepts that have spawned decades’ worth of comics and adaptations in other media, only to rapidly head in other directions.
The main character of Eric Stephenson and Simon Gane’s They’re Not Like Us is a troubled young woman known for most of the book as Syd. She’s recruited by a mysterious telepath known as The Voice, and ventures to an isolated mansion where she joins a group of other young adults, each possessing similarly uncanny abilities. They’re each known by aliases–Wire, Misery Kid, Blurgirl–the better to slough off their old identities and separate themselves from a hostile world. (“Everyone here is is part of a new way of life, so we assume new identities,” The Voice tells Syd.) If you’ve read any X-Men comics in the last few decades (or seen an adaptation thereof), this is likely a setup that will sound very familiar. And Stephenson himself is no stranger to extended riffs on Silver Age Marvel Comics concepts–his series Nowhere Men involves a subplot in which a group of astronauts find themselves undergoing strange transformations after exposure to a mysterious substance in space, which played out like a memorably unsettling, body-horror-fueled homage to the Fantastic Four.
But as the first volume of They’re Not Like Us progresses, it feels more and more like an upending of a familiar concept as opposed to a retooling of it. Running throughout is a portrait of San Francisco, and the way that the characters at its center use their abilities to steal from some of the city’s residents comes with a vicarious thrill: outcasts taking it out on the gentrifiers, equal parts class war and power fantasy. It’s worth pointing out that the ethics of this are frequently discussed; there’s an intentionally seductive feeling to the wrongness of it all. Over the course of the first collection, Black Holes For the Young, that sense of wrongness becomes higher and higher in the mix: The Voice isn’t a mysterious but kindly mentor as much as he’s a damaged, emotionally stunted man who wears a suit well and is less-than-forthcoming with information that he deems irrelevant. By the end of the first volume, the story becomes less about Syd discovering an oasis from a hostile world and more about her rejecting any easy answers from authority figures, whatever their provenance.
Reading Ales Kot and Matt Taylor’s Wolf, following detective and “street magician” Antoine Wolfe, one might find echoes of a very different long-running comic book. Wolf exists in the space between crime fiction and supernatural horror, with something of a political charge to it–which means that there’s more than a little of DC’s Hellblazer, the comic that followed magician John Constantine as he encountered mysteries and horrors from Thatcher’s England on into the 21st century, in its DNA. (Constantine, as a character, has appeared in both his own continuity and as part of DC’s superhero universe.) That isn’t all, though–Wolf is set in southern California, which means that its milieu also incorporates a host of Los Angeles noir along the way. And there are also differences in their protagonists: John Constantine’s initial appearance was modeled on Sting’s mid-1980s look. Antoine Wolfe, by contrast, is an African-American veteran of the war in Iraq, which puts him at odds with the racist antagonist of the first volume–a grotesquely rich, racist Californian a la Donald Sterling–on a host of levels.
The plot of Wolf’s first volume, Blood and magic., satisfies as both mystery and horror: Wolfe tangles with sinister operators, geek vampires, and the ghosts that follow him around. He’s also tasked with protecting a teenage girl from sinister forces; the end result reads like Ross MacDonald after a cosmic horror bender. Certain scenes and set-pieces could be taken from a host of southern Californian mysteries; others feature the bindings of restless spirits and the arrival of demonic entities onto the scene. Familiarity saturates certain aspects of Wolf, and there’s a sense of Kot exploring the confines of a particular subgenre. But much like his earlier Zero subverted spy narratives and paranoid thrillers, so too is Wolf both eroding certain tropes and throwing in a host of disparate elements.
The first line of narration on the first page of Wolf is telling: “How do you feel about myths?” And for pulp comics created in this decade, those myths can be anything from the tried-and-true deities of a number of pantheons up through 20th century adventurers, detectives, and superheroes. But we’ve also reached a point where that mythology can be bent, reworked, or subverted like any other genre element or trope. In the case of Wolf and They’re Not Like Us, these aren’t superhero stories with pulp science fiction in their DNA–they’re the reverse. It’s the thrill of the familiar blended with the unpredictability of the new, and it makes for an impressively captivating reading experience.