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Frank Quitely/DC Comics
Frank Quitely/DC Comics

The 25 Most Interesting Comics of 2014

Frank Quitely/DC Comics
Frank Quitely/DC Comics

Around this time of year I like to list what I would consider the most notable, unique and all around best comics, webcomics, and graphic novels of the year. It’s really hard to be all-inclusive, so I had to limit myself to a Top 25. If you have some favorite comics of the year, talk about them in the comments below!

25. Pearls Before Swine

By Stephan Pastis and Bill Watterson (Yes, that Bill Watterson)
syndicated

No one believed that the mystery guest cartoonist drawing Stephan Pastis’ daily newspaper strip Pearls Before Swine could've possibly been Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson. This summer, the mystery strips ran for three days and comics experts examined the evidence and debated the possibility on social media. It wasn’t until Pastis blogged the whole amazing story of how he coerced the famously reclusive Watterson out of retirement that we all accepted the truth. Watterson’s original artwork was soon auctioned off, raising over $70k for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. (Buy at Amazon.)


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24. Alex + Ada

By Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughan
Image Comics

The description for this series could easily be “What if Stanley Kubrick directed Weird Science?” It's the story of a lonely guy named Alex who receives a gorgeous android named Ada, and it's all drawn in Jonathan Luna's deadpan style. When Alex decides that Ada deserves free will, he helps her unlock a pre-programmed sentience within her A.I. and the series starts to go down some interesting paths.

Image Comics has put out too many amazing books to list this year, but Alex + Ada is one that is flying under too many people’s radars. Part will-they-or-won’t-they relationship drama/part commentary on “otherness" and civil rights, Alex + Ada is an engaging examination of what it means to be human and free at a time when true artificial intelligence seems just around the corner. (Buy at Amazon.)

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23. She-Hulk

By Charles Soule, Javier Pulido, Muntsa Vicente and others
Marvel Comics

Charles Soule is a lawyer turned comic book writer, which makes him the perfect guy for She-Hulk, who is a lawyer turned superhero. Working with the art team of Javier Pulido and Muntsa Vicente, he has created one of Marvel’s funniest and most stylish books. Soule’s legal knowledge comes in handy here as the series focuses on Jennifer Walters starting her own firm and taking on cases like Dr. Doom’s son's extradition and Captain America's civil suit. Pulido and Vicente give us a She-Hulk with a contemporary and realistic sense of fashion you don’t often see in superhero comics.

As much fun as this series is, its low sales recently led to cancellation. Hopefully Marvel only did it to get the opportunity to release a new #1 in the near future. (Buy at Amazon.)

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22. Afterlife with Archie

By Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla
Archie Comics

One of the biggest surprises of the year has been how willing Archie Comics (the publisher) has been to take risks. Afterlife With Archie, where Riverdale has been overrun with zombies, really lets them cut loose. This is due in no small part to the stylish artwork of Francesco Francavilla, who approaches this book with a bold use of color and design that looks unlike any Archie Comic that has come before it. He and writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa are taking this material seriously, mixing classic horror elements from the likes of George Romero, H.P. Lovecraft, and the Warren Publishing horror magazines of the 1970s with the core essence of characters like Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. (Buy at Amazon.)

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21. The Love Bunglers

By Jaime Hernandez
Fantagraphics

One of the greatest accomplishments in the history of comics is the rich and emotionally rewarding story that Jaime Hernandez has been telling for over 30 years in the pages of Love & Rockets. It’s one of the best examples of extended long form comics, but what has made it so successful is how Hernandez structures each installment in Maggie Chascarillo's story to be as standalone as possible so new readers can jump in at any point, while also rewarding longtime readers with little callbacks. In The Love Bunglers, Hernandez delivers a big, tear-jerker of a payoff for those longtime readers with what could conceivably serve as a climax to Maggie’s story and her on-again, off-again romance with Ray Dominguez. (Buy at Amazon.)

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20. The Short Con

By Aleks Sennwald and Pete Toms
Study Group Comics

A stand-out this year among some great webcomics on StudyGroupComics.com is The Short Con, a brilliant take on the Hollywood detective drama set in an all-girl orphanage. It follows two partners: Pops, the hot-headed, rule-breaking, lollipop-sucking maverick, and Branwell, the new girl who comes from a good upbringing and writes depressing poetry. They report to the Chief, a hard-nosed nun who keeps a “Rule Jar” and makes the detectives put five cents in whenever they break the rules. As of this writing, their first case together is not yet complete, but hopefully there is a lot more to come because it’s the kind of concept you can see becoming something much bigger than just a webcomic.

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19. Ant Colony

By Michael DeForge
Drawn & Quarterly

Michael DeForge has built a strong body of work in just a few years, between various webcomics and his own print anthology Lose (the sixth issue of which is so good it could easily make this list as well). For those interested in getting into DeForge, there wasn't an accessible, bookstore-friendly graphic novel that you can point new readers to. That is, until Ant Colony came along.

Originally serialized as a webcomic and now collected as a beautiful hardcover, it follows a group of weird-looking but likable ants—a gay couple, a young boy turned prophet, a corrupt cop, and an outcast female “infertile”—who find themselves separated from the colony when war breaks out. Like anything by DeForge it’s downright odd and looks like it takes place on another world, yet it’s so witty and touching that it deserves to be DeForge’s first mainstream hit. (Buy at Amazon.)

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18. The Wrenchies

By Farel Dalrymple
First Second

At first, The Wrenchies seems like post-apocalyptic “Lost Boys” fare that we’ve seen a million times before. But there’s a meta comic-within-a-comic called “The Wrenchies," and other story lines that contribute to this dense, imaginative, and often disturbing book. The layers of subtext and the sheer man hours that Farel Dalrymple has put into drawing this graphic novel (it took him five years) are apparent the more time you spend with it. (Buy at Amazon.)

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17. The Nib

Edited by Matt Bors
Medium.com/thenib

Editorial cartoonist Matt Bors, known for his work in various Alt-weekly publications around the country, was hired in 2013 by Medium to start a new section called The Nib to give a home to non-fiction comics from a variety of politically and socially minded cartoonists. This came at a time when the typical home for such comics—the free alt-weekly—was fading into history.

The Nib burst out of the gate running this year with a daily schedule of different cartoonists publishing comic essays, political cartoons, info graphics, and comics journalism. Bors has assembled a rotating cast of contributors that include people like Tom Tomorrow, Rich Stevens, Erika Moen, Jen Sorenson, Ted Rall, Susie Cagle, Zach Weinersmith, and, of course, Bors himself. In a short amount of time, it has become a respected source for progressive opinion and is now one of the most highly-trafficked comics-related websites on the web.

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16. Transformers vs. G.I. Joe

By Tom Scioli and John Barber
IDW Publishing

It's a great time for licensed property comics and more and more are coming out every month—many boasting quality creative teams. Still, even good creators can be hobbled by the restraints of a licensed brand, and that’s why Transformers vs. G.I. Joe is such an unexpectedly creative and mind-blowing comic.

Tom Scioli is a bit of an oddball who is not the first person you’d expect to see given free rein on a comic like this. His quirky, “naive” outsider-art style may be in vogue with the art-comix crowd, but he is far from what the average G.I. Joe or Transformers fan would want to see in a comic like this. Inspired by the over-the-top layouts of Jim Steranko’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. comics from the 1960s, Scioli loads each issue with some of the most innovative page compositions you’ll see this year. It all looks like it was drawn by a sugared-up twelve-year-old using his toys for model reference, but Scioli makes so many brilliant creative decisions in this delightfully strange read. (Buy at Amazon.)

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15. Nimona

By Noelle Stevenson

Gingerhaze.com

When Nolle Stevenson started her smart and charming webcomic Nimona just two years ago, she was still a college student. By the time she ended it this October, she had won Slate's 2013 Cartoonist Studio Prize for Best Webcomic, was nominated for a Harvey Award, landed a book deal with Harper Collins, and got a job writing a new monthly girl adventure comic for Boom! Studios called Lumberjanes.

Nimona is about a shapeshifting teenage sidekick to a villain and it takes place in some sort of medieval future where knights live in castles but use computers and other modern technology. Nimona’s heart and sense of humor helped build one of the largest and most enthusiastic audiences on the web (the comments section for each page was always very lively). By this time next year, Stevenson will have both Nimona and Lumberjanes in bookstores and is sure to become a major player in the teen comics market. (Buy at Amazon.)

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14. Stray Bullets: Killers

By David Lapham
Image Comics

Stray Bullets fans have been waiting nearly ten years for David Lapham to find his way back to the influential crime comic he self-published from the 1990s until the early 2000s before abandoning it, mid-storyline, due to financial concerns. Thanks to creator-friendly publisher Image Comics, Lapham finally made his return this year, not only completing the unfinished storyline, but also beginning a new one called Killers. Readers were delighted that Lapham hasn't seemed to have missed a beat.

Often, when a creator returns to the thing that first made them famous, we find that the moment has passed and it’s just no longer the same—not so with Stray Bullets. When it first started, the crime genre was all but nonexistent in comics, but today there are a lot to choose from (many influenced by Stray Bullets), yet Lapham is proving he’s still the best. (Buy at Amazon.)

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13. Andre the Giant: The Life and the Legend

By Box Brown
First Second

Cartoon biographies can be wonderful when you get the perfect pairing of artist and subject. That’s what happened in this year’s Andre the Giant, in which Box Brown rendered the professional wrestling legend in Brown's unique style, exaggerating the visuals of his outsized proportions to great effect. This was the first major graphic novel release by Brown, and he does an admirable job sifting through the non-truths and fakery that is standard practice in the world of professional wrestling to present a tragic portrait of this quiet giant, showing him at his most noble and flawed. (Buy at Amazon.)

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12. Through the Woods

By Emily Carroll
Margaret K. McElderry Books

It’s hard to believe Emily Carroll has only been working on comics for a handful of years. In this time, Carroll has become one of the most respected cartoonists to come out of the webcomics world. Her speciality is ethereally creepy, gothic horror, and Through the Woods, her first-ever published book, shows just how she has become a master of this genre. Although she is often praised for pushing the medium of the web by using animation and scrolling effects, reading these stories in print (all but one were newly created for this book) shows that her craftsmanship is masterful no matter the context in which it is presented. (Buy at Amazon.)

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11. Strong Female Protagonist: Book One

By Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag
Top Shelf

This ongoing webcomic, now collected in its first self-published paperback edition (distributed by Top Shelf), hits on some big subjects like social justice and what it really means for a superhero to save the world (and feminism, too). The comic follows Allison, who is the most powerful superhero on earth and publicly retires at age sixteen when she realizes she can help more people by finishing school and learning about how the world works instead of just punching out the same bad guys over and over.

Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag ran a Kickstarter earlier this year to fund the printing of Book One and it was so successful it pulled in nearly eight times their intended goal. The comic’s strong and devoted following knows that this is a rare example of a story that has something fresh and interesting to say about being a superhero. (Buy at Amazon.)

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10. This One Summer

By Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
First Second

Cousins Jillian and Mariko Tamaki first broke into the young adult graphic novel scene with their 2010 hit Skim, and many readers of their sophisticated, literary YA have been hotly anticipating what they would do next. The wait ended this year with this profound coming-of-age story about two young girls, Rose and Windy, whose families vacation every summer in the same beach town. Now the girls are at an age where they’re too old to hang out with their parents but too young to go out and fit in with the local teenagers. They begin to realize that both the adults and the teenagers are dealing with drama that is just beyond the girls’ faculties to understand. The Tamakis perfectly capture that disconcerting feeling of not being able to process the events that are unfolding around you. (Buy at Amazon.)

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9. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

By Roz Chast
Bloomsbury

Roz Chast, best known for her cartoons in The New Yorker, details the final years with her elderly parents in her first graphic novel which was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Awards and a winner of the prestigious Kirkus Award for literary achievement. The responsibilities of an only child taking care of their parents who can no longer take care of themselves is exhaustively told through a series of vignettes that are at times hilarious and at other times depressing. It is an honest account of all the awful decisions that must be made during this difficult period, and readers will find it either relatable or possibly an eye-opening truth that will help them prepare for their own responsibilities to come. It’s an important work and Chast makes it much more entertaining than this subject matter would lead you to expect. (Buy at Amazon.)

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8. Saga

By Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Image Comics

It’s hard to overstate how big of a hit Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ science fiction epic has been. Not only is it a bestseller, but it has also been racking up all the major comics awards for the past two years and feels like it is already inspiring the look and feel of the future of science fiction comics.

An intergalactic Romeo and Juliet meets How I Met Your Mother, Saga is the story of two lovers who have recently become parents (the story is being told to us at some point in the future by their child) and are on the run and caught in the middle of a warring conflict between their two species. With daring content full of graphic sex (often involving robots) and brutal violence, it’s been one of the most addicting monthly reads out there. The first 18 issues have been collected in a giant hardcover released this year which sports the series' second breastfeeding cover, which is sure to catch some eyes when it gets stocked at bookstores this holiday season. (Buy at Amazon.)

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7. The Shadow Hero

By Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
First Second

The year’s most enjoyable superhero comic comes from a publisher that usually doesn’t publish superhero comics and from a writer who almost never writes them. Gene Luan Yang has a number of award-winning graphic novels under his belt that focus on his own Chinese heritage, but this time he brought that interest to the superhero genre by reimagining a long-forgotten Asian-American superhero called The Green Turtle.

Yang and artist Sonny Lieu give the Green Turtle an origin and backstory he never had in his handful of appearances in obscure comics from the 1940s. They take the Chinese immigrant experience and apply it to the classic superhero story in the way Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster applied their Jewish-American heritage to their own creation, Superman. Yang inherently understands what makes a superhero story so inspiring in a way that so many of the writers working in comics today simply do not. (Buy at Amazon.)

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6. How To Be Happy

By Eleanor Davis
Fantagraphics

Eleanor Davis is an illustrator and cartoonist who has been revered by other cartoonists for the past few years but hasn’t quite had the chance to break out into wider recognition—until now. Young cartoonists seem to publish graphic novels these days by collecting shorter comics that were previously published in anthologies and on the web and hope they fit together as a whole. That's what Davis does effectively in How To Be Happy. With tales of a modern day Garden of Eden, strange woodland creatures, teenage lovers, and two sisters facing the death of their father in a post-environmental catastrophe, the individual stories come together thematically around the idea of finding your way. With Davis’ wildly different artistic styles, interspersed with short, sketchy, black and white vignettes, it is a wonderfully designed collection of material showing how very disparate pieces can fit together into a cohesive and meaningful whole. (Buy at Amazon.)

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5. Sex Criminals

By Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
Image Comics

There is no other comic out there quite like Sex Criminals. After its strong debut last year, it now qualifies as a phenomenon with sales big enough to make it a career-defining book for its two creators. Chip Zdarsky has just been announced as the writer for a surprise Howard the Duck revival at Marvel while Matt Fraction, who is already a major star, particularly after his acclaimed run writing Hawkeye, has reached the point with the success of Sex Criminals where he can focus his career on his own crazy ideas (rather than Marvel’s).

A sex-comedy romp about two people who have the ability to stop time whenever they orgasm, Sex Criminals is full of some explicit situations and raunchy jokes the likes of which would never make it past most media censors (in fact, Apple famously stopped permitting Comixology to sell this comic through the iOS storefront back when the Comixology app sold comics that way). Yet, what really makes it work is that it’s a surprisingly honest and refreshing look at male and female sexuality, another thing we don’t see enough in any media. (Buy at Amazon.)

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4. Ms. Marvel

By G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona
Marvel Comics

Marvel made a high profile move to diversify their characters this year by replacing Captain America with an African-American and Thor with a woman, but the real move towards diversity that paved the way for it all this year was the introduction of a new Ms. Marvel—a Muslim, Pakistani-American teenage girl named Kamala Khan. This new Ms. Marvel has been Marvel’s #1 digital comic on Comixology, reaching a new audience and doing it in ways that are outside the traditional means of selling comics.

While those previously mentioned comics were still the product of a mostly white and male creative team, the big difference with Ms. Marvel is the diversity behind the scenes. Spearheaded by editor Sana Amanat and written by G. Willow Wilson, the character of Kamala (who gains shape-changing superpowers due to something involving complicated Marvel continuity) has an authenticity to the way her family life and culture is depicted that is obviously the result of Amanat and Wilson drawing on their own life experiences. The message a book like this sends, not just to young Muslim women, but to all young women of color and ethnicity, is undeniably powerful. (Buy at Amazon.)

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3. Beautiful Darkness

By Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascöet
Drawn & Quarterly

Beautiful Darkness came out early in 2014, but I don’t think I ever stopped thinking about it. The lushly painted artwork by the husband and wife team known as Kerascöet lures you into what seems, at first, like a fanciful children’s story until that facade quickly shatters, turning into a tale of survival that will disturb you over and over until it is done. Set in a forest where a little girl has somehow died, the figments of her imagination—inspired by children’s storybooks—come rushing out of her dying brain and into the woods where they must try to survive the unforgiving weather, deadly insects, wild animals and disease that begins to emanate from the girl’s rotting corpse.

Reminding us how fairy tales today have become sanitized from their morbid, “Grimm” origins, Beautiful Darkness goes far back into that darkness to create something that no parent would ever show their kid. Instead, they’ll find themselves unable to look away and may even laugh despite themselves at each whimsical character’s ridiculously terrible death. (Buy at Amazon.)

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2. Here

By Richard McGuire
Pantheon Books

25 years ago, Richard McGuire created a six-page comic called Here that opened up new possibilities for how you could use the paneled structure of comics to convey time. It told the life story of the corner of one apartment and the events that have happened within that physical space going back hundreds of thousands of years. Now, McGuire has revisited his original concept, expanding it to epic proportions as a 300-page graphic novel, full of double-page, full-color spreads.

Here depicts all the routine events that have occurred in this space back and forth throughout time: annual family photos of the kids, a baseball smashing through the window, a cat prancing across the floor, two Native Americans making love in the woods, a dinosaur trudging across a desolate landscape. Using overlaid panels, he conveys simultaneous events on a single page with a rhythm that is akin to classical music—quiet moments build to a crescendo and back again. If Terrence Malick ever made a comic, it would probably read something like this. (Buy at Amazon.)

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1. The Multiversity: Pax Americana

By Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Nathan Fairbairn
DC Comics

As the most audacious comic of the year, Pax Americana is a visual tour de force by artist Frank Quitely who may be proving that he is one of the greatest living comic book artists, and when he’s working with writer Grant Morrison, they make up one of the great creative partnerships of all time. From the opening scene showing a presidential assassination playing in reverse to the final scene which takes place decades earlier and puts everything that came before it into a new context, this is a challenging superhero comic that requires multiple reads to even begin to get a handle on everything that is going on.

It is part of a larger series by Grant Morrison called The Multiversity, which tours various alternate earths in the DC Universe, yet its connections to that series are subtle. In addition, its central conceit is that it takes Alan Moore’s classic Watchmen, originally intended to star characters from the defunct Charlton Comics, and recasts it with those characters—Blue Beetle, The Question, Peacemaker and more. That inversion of Watchmen alone twists this into something brand new.

It has been years in the making, and Quitely's virtuoso performance is something people will be reading forwards and backwards (characters within the story actually encourage you to do so) for years to come. (Buy at Amazon.)

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Space Goat Publishing
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Comics
These Evil Dead 2 Comics Will Look Groovy on Your Bookshelf
Space Goat Publishing
Space Goat Publishing

Bruce Campbell has been quoted as saying the gallons of fake blood poured into his face during filming of the 1987 cult classic horror film Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn led to a week of red-tinged mucus leaking out of his nostrils. Fortunately, no Campbells were harmed in the making of two new comic collections from Space Goat Productions that are now being funded on Kickstarter. The Evil Dead 2 Omnibus features over 300 pages of stories set in the Necronomicon-plagued universe featured in numerous comic book miniseries; The Art of Evil Dead 2 reveals never-before-seen production art from both the comics and ancillary projects.

The campaign is the latest from Space Goat, the Bellingham, Washington-based company that’s made a cottage (or cabin) industry from products spinning out of the Sam Raimi-directed film, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. In addition to the new collections, the publisher has also issued an Evil Dead 2 coloring book; a comic where Campbell’s demon-fighting hero, Ash Williams, encounters Adolf Hitler; and a forthcoming board game where players can navigate Deadite threats while shaking their head at Ash’s questionable competency. (No matter the iteration, he seems ill-equipped to deal with the threat of his own possessed and lopped-off hand.)

According to Space Goat publisher Shon Bury, licensing the Evil Dead 2 property from rights holders StudioCanal in 2015 has been a buoy in navigating the difficult waters of comic book publishing. (Even Marvel, which rakes in billions through its film franchises, struggles to sell more than 60,000 to 70,000 copies of its most popular monthly titles.) One day into its Kickstarter launch, the Evil Dead titles had reached 50 percent of their $20,000 funding goal.

“It’s definitely our flagship on the publishing side,” Bury tells Mental Floss. “The board game is our top seller in the Evil Dead category, and the coloring book sells really well. They’re our evergreen products.”

The cover to 'The Art of Evil Dead 2' from Space Goat Publishing
Space Goat Publishing

Exploring Ash’s adventures in other media comes with a few caveats. While Space Goat is free to explore the characters and situations portrayed in Evil Dead 2, incorporating ideas from the rest of the series (including 1993’s Army of Darkness or the Starz series Ash vs. Evil Dead) is generally off-limits. And while the StudioCanal rights include a likeness of Campbell, the actor has veto power over how he’s depicted on the page. “For some reason, he doesn’t like the dimple on his chin to be drawn,” Bury says. “But he’s very insistent that the scar on his face from the movie is always there.”

Other actors featured in the film—like Richard Domeier, the future home-shopping host who portrayed “Evil Ed”—may not have granted their likeness rights, but his Deadite character design is part of the deal. “You want to inoculate the owner or licensor of the rights,” Bury says. “So we submit drawings and they might say, ‘No, too close to the actor.’”

That development process is part of what makes up The Art of Evil Dead 2, one-half of Space Goat’s current Kickstarter project that follows a successful Evil Dead 2 board game launch in 2016. The campaigns, Bury says, help target Ash fans with material that might not get enough attention if it were released directly to retailers. “Kickstarter is basically social media. It’s direct engagement, our way of saying to fans, ‘Hey, you’re really going to like this.’”

Bury expects fans to be just as enthused about Evil Dead 2: The Doppelganger Wars, a limited series due for release in 2018 that sees Ash and sidekick Annie Knowby enter the mirror dimension glimpsed at in Evil Dead 2 to discover the true origins of both the demon-summoning Necronomicon and the cult surrounding it. A meeting with H.P. Lovecraft may also be on deck, along with other narratives that would carry the license through the end of the publisher’s current agreement with StudioCanal in late 2019.

Still to be decided: whether Ash will ever encounter the werewolves of The Howling, Space Goat’s latest horror license. “Those conversations have occurred,” Bury says. “It would be a natural. But it’s also challenging because the royalties [for the licenses] double.” 

Digital versions of The Art of Evil Dead 2 and the Evil Dead Omnibus will be available to backers pledging $20 beginning in December. Softcover, hardcover, and Necronomicon slipcase editions ($30 and up) ship in May 2018. The Kickstarter runs through November 25.

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Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images
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History
How Superman Helped Foil the KKK
Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images
Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images

The Klansmen were furious.

Dozens of them had congregated in a nondescript room in Atlanta, shaking cloaked heads at the worrisome news that their sect leader had just shared: An act of gross subterfuge had transpired over the airwaves. Millions of Americans had now become privy to their policies, their rankings, their closely guarded methods of organized hatred.

All of it fodder for some comic book radio show. Their mission had been compromised, sacrificed at the altar of popular culture. Kids, one Klansman sighed. His kids were in the streets playing Superman vs. the Klan. Some of them tied red towels around their necks; others pranced around in white sheets. Their struggle for racial purity had been reduced to a recess role play.

Stetson Kennedy listened, doing his best to give off irate body language. He scowled. He nodded. He railed.

The covert activist waited patiently for the Klan to settle down. When they did, he would call radio journalists Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson, offering the results of his infiltration into the group for public consumption.

He’d also contact Robert Maxwell, producer of the Superman radio serial. Maxwell, eager to aid the humanitarian mission of the Anti-Defamation League, would promptly insert the leaked information into his show’s scripts. In between fisticuffs, his cast would mock the KKK’s infrastructure, and the group’s loathsome attitudes would be rendered impotent by the juvenilia.

The Klan roared, demanding revenge on their traitor. “Show me the rat,” their leader said, “and I’ll show you some action.”

Kennedy cheered, just as they all did.

And when he returned home, his Klan robe would be traded for a cape.

The cover to the first issue of Superman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Kennedy, born in 1916, was an unlikely undercover operative. After a back injury kept him out of World War II, the Jacksonville, Florida native decided he wanted to combat anti-American forces on the home front. With Klan members alleged to have assaulted his family’s black maid when he was a child, the Klan—once again gathering steam in an era of segregation and racial divisiveness—was a favored target.

Having convinced a “Klavern” in Atlanta, Georgia that he shared their bigoted views, Kennedy donned the ominous attire of a Klansman, attended cross burnings, and covertly collected information about the group that he would then share with law enforcement and media. Radio journalist Drew Pearson would read the names and minutes of their meetings on air, exposing their guarded dialogues.

Revealing their closed-door sessions was a blow—one that Kennedy didn’t necessarily have to confine to nonfiction. In 1946, Maxwell, who produced the Superman radio serial broadcast around the country, embraced Kennedy’s idea to contribute to a narrative that had Superman scolding the racial divisiveness of the Klan and airing their dirty laundry to an enraptured audience.

“The law offices, state, county, FBI, House Un-American Activities Committee, they were all sympathetic with the Klan,” Kennedy said later. “The lawmen were, ideologically at least, close with the Klansmen. The court of public opinion was all that was left.”

Ostensibly aimed at children, Superman’s daily radio dramas were often broadcast to assembled nuclear families; one phone poll showed that 35 percent of its audience was composed of adults.

But regardless of whether parents listened, the activist believed the younger demographic was worth attending to. “Even back in the ’40s, they had kids in the Klan, little girls dressed up in Klan robes at the cross burnings," Kennedy said. "I have photos of an infant in a cradle with a complete Klan robe on. It seemed like a good place to do some educating.” 

In “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” a 16-part serial airing in June and July of 1946, Superman opposes an organized group of hatemongers who target one of Jimmy Olsen’s friends. Exploring their network, Clark Kent uncovers their secret meetings and policies before his alter ego socks the “Grand Scorpion” in the jaw. The idea, Kennedy wrote in his account of his work, The Klan Unmasked, was to made a mockery of their overblown vernacular.

When traveling, for example, Klansmen might identify one another by asking if they “knew Mr. Ayak,” an acronym for “Are You a Klansman?” Although Kennedy may not have actually shared their code words on air—a longstanding myth that was debunked in Rick Bowers’s 2012 book, Superman vs. the KKK—their histrionics were perfect for dramatization in the breathless structure of a radio drama. Given shape by actors and sound effects, all the clubhouse tropes of the Klan seemed exceedingly silly.

The cover to the first issue of Superman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Kennedy continued to serve up Klan secrets to Superman, he watched as Klan morale dipped and membership enrollment ebbed. Desperate, the Klan tried calling for a boycott of Kellogg’s, a new sponsor of the show, but racial intolerance was no match for the appetites of post-World War II homes. Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes remained breakfast table staples, and Superman’s battles with the close-minded continued. Emboldened by his success against the Klan, Superman took aim at Communism, a favorite target of the show’s anti-Red star, Bud Collyer.

Kennedy would go on to burden the Klan using proof of uncollected tax liens, and eventually convinced the state of Georgia to revoke their national corporate charter.

Kennedy died in 2011 at the age of 94. While some of his accounts of subterfuge in the Klan later came under fire for being embellished, his bravery in swimming with the sharks of the organization is undeniable. So, too, was his wisdom in utilizing American iconography to suffocate prejudice. Fictional or not, Superman may have done more to stifle the Klan’s postwar momentum than many real people who merely stood by and watched.

Portions of this article were excerpted from Superman vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon by Jake Rossen with permission from Chicago Review Press. Copyright (c) 2008. All Rights Reserved.

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