The blending trend of mixing and matching elements from different genres to tell a story is not limited to novels. Visual media are often the perfect way to tell a blended story, and while TV and movies get a lot of attention, comic book and graphic novels have been genre-blending for a long time.
The storytelling technique of comics really blends the best of the written and visual worlds, allowing the creators to (literally) illustrate scenes that a novelist can only describe. But you still get to keep some of that imaginative work that happens when you read novels – filling in the details in your head that are only inked on the page with soundtracks and special effects and how the character sounds in your head. It also is a format that allows you to proceed at your own pace, lingering over panels and pages that catch your fancy, whipping through scenes that somehow manage to convey movement and action through pen and ink.
There are so many great genreblended comics out there that I’m only going to highlight a few that I enjoy. You will notice a lot of crime and mystery blends in the list, as the episodic nature of comics lends itself well to that genre wherein the characters can solve crime after crime but the worldbuilding only has to be done once. But I should probably address the whole superhero thing first: what genre are superhero comics? Fantasy? SF? Both? I think some are obviously fantasy, if they contain magic (Dr. Strange) but comics usually go to great lengths to give an origin story that is science-based (bit by a spider, genetic mutation, billionaire inventor) so I’m generally going to go with SF. But even outside of the superhero category, blends galore can be found.
Saga (SF/Romance/Fantasy) by Brian K. Vaughn (writer) and Fiona Staples (illus.)
Alana and Marko are two soldiers from opposite sides of a galactic war who fall in love and go on the run in this first volume of an ongoing series. Alana comes from the tech-advanced Landfall Coalition, and Marko is from Wreath, Landfall’s moon, where his people have magical abilities. Their close orbit meant that destroying one of the worlds would end up destroying the other, so the war was outsourced and spread to the rest of the galaxy. Alana and Marko met and fell in love when Alana was a prison guard at the POW facility where Marko was being held. She helps him escape and whoosh — adventure and romance ensues, soon with baby in tow. While it works as a poignant love story and an indictment of prejudice, trippy visuals and clever dialogue make this Romeo & Juliet space opera a lot of fun as well.
First Book: Saga, Vol. 1
Batman (Crime/SF/Horror) created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane
The fact that the character of Batman first appeared in the pages of Detective Comics (#27) should prove that Batman is firmly anchored by his mystery roots. Vigilante he may be, but Bruce Wayne/Batman is obsessed with justice and catching criminals. The series in its long, LONG run (and spinoffs) does incorporate a lot of other elements as well, from high concept tech that pushes into the SF realms to creepy horror from some of the villains that Batman faces.
First Book to hand to a new reader: Batman: The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb (writer) and Tim Sale (illus.)
Watchmen (Mystery/SF) by Alan Moore (writer) and Dave Gibbons (illus.)
I can’t believe there might be someone who hasn’t read Watchmen yet. One of the core titles for any graphic novel collection, Watchmen combines the SF of superhero comics with a mystery plot. It kicks off with the murder of a former costumed superhero once known as The Comedian. Rorschach, another costumed crime-fighter (of the vigilante variety) decides to investigate the crime, leading him back to The Comedian’s former partners in crime fighting. It was made into a movie, but really you should just read the book. The only graphic novel to ever win a Hugo award.
First (and only book): Watchmen
Fables (Fantasy, Romance, Spy, Historical) by Bill Willingham (author) and various illustrators
Fairytale characters, exiled from their storybook home countries and exiled to live in our world. Before the TV show Once Upon a Time, there was Fables. The premise gives this ongoing series a solid fantasy base, but since its launch in 2002, the series has told stories that include murder mysteries, spy thrillers, romantic arcs and trips to the past. Start with Legends in Exile, which introduces the main characters and their situation living in NYC and has the Big Bad Wolf investigate the apparent murder of Rose Red. Seriously, this series is inventive, clever, and lots of fun.
First Book: Fables: Legends in Exile
Sandman (Fantasy/Horror) by Neil Gaiman (writer) and various illustrators
The writings of Neil Gaiman have always shown that fantasy and horror are two genres that share a paper-thin border. His landmark series starring Morpheus, the god of dreams is one of the few graphic novels that I will always have on my bookshelf, through dozens of moves and brutal weeding excursions. In the first series, Dream has been imprisoned. Now he is out and trying to reclaim various objects of his power and rebuild his kingdom. With jaunts to hell, monsters, and occult references throughout, the series has a dark, brooding tone that flips between horror and fantasy. Sandman had a wide variety of artists throughout its run (and I admit I enjoyed some more than others) but that changeable look actually suits the series about the lord of Dreams.
First Book: The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes
Hellboy (and spinoff BPRD) (Horror/Fantasy/Crime) by Mike Mignola and various illustrators
I adore Hellboy. A demon summoned by Nazi’s during WWII, he was recovered and raised by Professor Trevor Bruttenholm, who formed the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) and tried to raise Hellboy as a normal (if huge, horned and red-skinned boy). The kind upbringing meant that Hellboy never manifested a demonic nature, although he is a bit of a grump. As part of BPRD, Hellboy helps investigate crimes with occult ties. The movies, especially the first one, are also aces.
First Book: Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction
Transmetropolitan (SF/Crime) by Warren Ellis (author) and Derrick Robertson (illus.)
Back when cyberpunk was still a thing (it still is, of course, but we don’t call it that anymore), this series starring Spider Jerusalem came on the scene. Set a couple of hundred years in the future, Spider had been living in self-imposed (drug-bingeing) exile, sick of the consumerism and degradation of society in the City. Late on a book contract, he comes back to the City to take up his hated job as an investigative journalist. In his first story about a group of humans who are trying to use cosmetic surgery to become aliens, Spider soon uncovers a government plot. Violent, funny and bizarre.
First Book: Transmetropolitan, Vol. 1: Back on the Street
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Historical/SF/Fanatsy/Crime) by Alan Moore and various artists
In 1898 London, Mina Murray is recruited by British Intelligence and tasked with assembling a team of individuals with extraordinary talents in order to protect the realm. She recruits Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain, Dr. Jekyll and the Invisible Man. Creator Alan Moore, after the seriously dark projects of Watchmen and V for Vendetta, seems to have gone for more of a fun romp with this series. The team faces off against threats from the empire from such foes as Fu Manchu, but my favorite bits are when Mina is assembling the team and the detailed backstory we get for each team member.
First Book: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Vol. 1)
Locke & Key (Horror/Fantasy/Crime) by Joe Hill (author) and Gabriel Rodriguez (illus.)
In an act of seemingly random violence, two teens brutally murder the patriarch of the Locke family. In the aftermath, the rest of the family move to a small New England town to live in the family’s ancestral home, Keyhouse. The house is not what it seems, the murder was not so random and I’m not going to tell you any more. It’s hard to make a truly scary comic – something about the static images being less scary than movies but also not as scary as images completely in your head as in books. But this is good and scary.
First Book: Locke & Key, Vol. 1: Welcome to Lovecraft
Middleman (Mystery/SF) by Javier Grillo-Marxuach (writer) and Les McClaine (illus.)
I first encountered The Middleman through the thoroughly awesome and tragically short-lived TV series. I love how it mixed super-secret spy shenanigans with SF elements like android receptionists, genetically engineered killer gorillas (clue: there are banana peels at the crime scene) and gadgets galore. Wendy Watson is a mild-mannered artist whose sangfroid under pressure gets her recruited as the sidekick of the Middleman, “fighting evil so you don’t have to”. Yes, it is super silly. Yes it is super fun.
First Book: The Middleman – Volume 1 – The Secret Recruitment Ultimatum
Chew (Mystery/SF/Fantasy) by John Layman (writer) and Rob Guillory (illus.)
In a near-future where poultry is illegal after a devastating pandemic of bird flu,Tony Chu is a detective who can get psychic impressions from what he eats (including people). As the series opens Tony becomes an investigating agent for the FDA. Paired with fellow cibopath Mason Savoy, the two investigate the case of a missing health inspector whose finger was found in a fast-food hamburger. The truly bizarre premise is executed brilliantly in this series, which is hilarious and gross in equal measure.
First Book: Chew Volume 1: Tasters Choice
Powers (Mystery/SF) by Brian Michael Bendis (writer) and Michael Avon Oeming (illus.)
One of the best combos of superheroes and crime, Powers is set in a world with superheroes. The series is about two Chicago Police Department detectives, Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim, in department devoted to cases that involve “powers” (people with superpowers). In the first book, Walker meets his new partner Pilgrim as they investigate the murder of a popular superhero named Retro Girl. As the investigation goes on Deena finds out her new partner was once a superhero called Diamond who became a cop after losing his powers. As each story arc presents a crime, it also gives the reader more background on the world of the series and the superheroes and how hard it is to investigate crime in a world of superheroes. This is being made into a TV series, which is exciting, but apparently it is exclusive to Playstation owners, which is not. Boo.
First Book: Powers Volume 1: Who Killed Retro Girl?