Hollywood has had a long modern love affair with the “realistic” superhero. M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass — and its older siblings, Split and Unbreakable — are just one part of a trend, ranging from adaptations like Kick-Ass to original works like Super.
But if Hollywood picks up on a trend in superhero stories, you know that comics found it first. If you’re looking for more perspectives on the “realistic” superhero story after watching Glass, here are six comic books to check out. For your convenience, we’ve listed them from most literally realistic (no superpowers) to more conceptually realistic.
Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.
You probably guessed this one. The hyper-violent tale of Dave Lizewski’s career as a vigilante put Mark Millar on the cinematic map when it was adapted to the big screen in 2010.
“There’s never been a superhero comic set in the real world [before Kick-Ass],” Mark Millar insisted to the Independent in 2010. “Watchmen begins in the real world, but by page 20 there’s still a giant blue guy walking around.”
Kick-Ass isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but if you wanted less introspection and more grindhouse-style violence from Glass, pick up a copy of Kick-Ass.
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons never intended their “realistic” take on superhero history to be considered better or more legitimate than the more fantastic worlds that inspired it. Watchmen was to reflect superheroes, not replace them, contrary to the book’s modern status as one of the comics non-comics readers are most likely to have read.
Still, the book stands as the urtext of superheroes stories that consider how the existence of costumed vigilantes would warp human society. There is no conversation about “realism” in superhero comics without talking about Watchmen. Grab a digital copy here.
Ex Machina (2004)
Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris
When a story asks what it would be like if a few people developed superpowers, the answer is usually “it would be a major turning point in history.” Ex Machina takes that answer and roots it in an actual historical turning point.
After New York City civil engineer Mitchell Hundred gained the ability to control any complex machine with his voice, he spent a year as the world’s first superhero, but retired in order to run for Mayor of New York. And Vaughan and Harris put his campaign in the 2001 election year, which held its primary on Sept. 11. After donning his costume a final time to divert United Flight 175 from its path, saving the south tower of the World Trade Center and hundreds of lives, Hundred was elected to office.
Told somewhat non-linearly, Ex Machina carefully lays out the trials of Hundred’s year as a superhero and the dangerous origin of his powers, with plenty of Vaughan’s characteristic twists, cliffhangers and reveals. But it also takes a look at the politics of New York City and the security concerns of the post-9/11 FBI and CIA with a positively minute attention to detail. And the entire thing is available on Comixology Unlimited.
Dan Slott, various artists
Yes, reader, She-Hulk is set in Marvel Comics’ main universe. It’s not exactly a “realistic superhero” type setting (although Punisher and Daredevil fans might have a case to argue). But what makes Dan Slott’s series so memorable is the fascinating scenarios it draws from applying the mundane concerns of the real world to the fantastic reality of Marvel Comics.
She-Hulk is about the superhero legal system. In one early arc, Doctor Strange summons the ghost of a murder victim so he can identify his murderer from the stand — which just means that our hero Jennifer Walters (She-Hulk) has to find a way to establish that a dead person has the right to be heard in a court of law.
Later on, Spider-Man sues Jonah Jameson for libel. Find it on Marvel Unlimited or Comixology.
Gotham Central (2002)
Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker, Michael Lark
Whereas She-Hulk is a comedic legal procedural in a superhero universe, Gotham Central is something similar — and once you say it out loud, shockingly obvious. It’s a hard-boiled police procedural set in the most crime-ridden city in the DC Comics Universe, Gotham.
Arguably, Gotham Central inspired the similarly-named television show, Gotham, but there’s one major difference between them: The comic is set in the thick of 2002 Batman continuity. Batman’s full Rogues’ Gallery is in play, as is the caped crusader himself, although he appears exceedingly sparingly. The focus here is all on the Major Crimes Unit, in their day-to-day detective work and their day-to-day dramas as one of the only units in the GCPD that isn’t dirty.
Check out the series on Comixology.
The Authority (1999)
Warren Ellis, Bryan Hitch
On the face of it, there is nothing “realistic” about Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s Wildstorm Comics superteam, the Authority. Two of its characters are essentially reincarnating gods in mortal form; another’s sobriquet is “the God of Cities;” another simply calls himself Apollo, and he’s not exactly wrong.
But the concept of the Authority is one that pushes the superhero idea towards a realism — one of emotion and characterization, rather than basic sci-fi elements. Ellis’ run on The Authority took the realistic stance that if a group of astronomically powerful people came together based on a shared commitment to saving the world from external existential threats — they would probably decide to start saving humanity from itself as well.
They would probably execute genocidal human despots and welcome refugees onto their massive dimension-sliding spaceship until it was safe for them to return home. Because the Authority can, and there’s very little anyone who doesn’t like it can do to stop them.
And what if a group that self-selected for people with strong ethics didn’t slide the world into a totalitarian dystopia? What if, instead of the world being run by a defacto capitalist oligarchy of the few — it was run by a de facto nigh-omnipotent oligarchy of the moral?
It probably wouldn’t be any worse, The Authority suggests. Pick up The Authority Vol. 1 on Comixology or at your local shop.