With a “special effects budget” that is only dependent on the imagination of the writer, artist, and colorist, comics are the perfect medium for space opera. Before advances in visual effects, comic books and strips were arguably the best places to experience epic stories of swashbuckling heroes, princesses, and extraterrestrials in galaxies far, far away. George Lucas himself wanted to make an adaptation of Alex Raymond’s comic strip Flash Gordon as his second feature film after THX-1138, but legendary Italian director Frederico Fellini had the rights. This compelled him to make his original space opera, Star Wars, and the rest is movie and merchandising history. Decades after the original Star Wars trilogy wrapped, its spirit of adventure survived in the Expanded Universe Dark Horse comics, a sort of homage to the movie’s debt to Flash Gordon as well as other comic books, like the bande dessinee Valerian and Laureline, and the future technology and machines found in the artwork of Jack Kirby.
Even though there are some great (and not so great) comics based on sci-fi franchises, like Star Wars, Serenity, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, all the comics on this list aren’t based on pre-existing media, however. Some of them take place in the shared Marvel and DC Universes, and others have inspired current or future films, but they are all original visions of war, the future, heroism, and cool stuff blowing up brought to life on the comic book page by some of fiction’s greatest creative minds, including Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples, Dave Gibbons, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Moebius, Jim Starlin, and of course, the King of Comics himself, Jack Kirby.
In chronological order, here are the top ten best space opera comics that you should check out.
10. Valerian and Laureline (Dargaud; 1967-2010)
The long running series of Valerian and Laureline bande-dessinees are the perfect hybrid of time-travel science fiction and space opera, with some stories following the dashing pair of spatio-temporal agents to different planets, and others to different eras. The main setting is the 28th century, when Earth is a utopia, space and time travel are just a fact of life, and most of the inhabitants spend their time on leisure activities, not work. Valerian, Laureline, and other spatio-temporal agents protect this peaceful existence from space-time anomalies and other threats. The comics, which were all written by Pierre Christin, drawn by Jean-Claude Mezieres, and colored by Eveline Tranle, began as simple fights between good and evil, but became much more complex as the series progressed and looked into the nature of death, feminism, and democracy, especially its ability to be corrupted and turned into imperialism.
Christin writes Valerian not as a superhero or moral authority, but as kind of goofy, someone stumbling into situations feet first. For example, in the first Valerian story, “The City of Shifting Waters,” he complains about climbing skyscraper stairs in a ruined 1986 New York, and is taken captive by a gang of looters until Laureline saves him. Laureline is definitely the smarter of the pair, even though she sometimes ends up in damsel in distress (which Christin plays for satire of gender roles in later installments). The dynamic between Valerian and Laureline gives the comics a lot of energy to go with Christin’s dense, yet fast moving scripts, Mezieres’ glorious and humorous art, and Tranle’s shrewd color choices.
The Valerian and Laureline comics are truly a joy to read, espousing humanism and cooperation in the face of tyranny and evil through exciting 50 page bites. For a modern reader, they feel like the perfect combination of Star Wars (which was influenced by the comic) and Doctor Who, with space battles, time travel, foot chases, and witty banter galore. You haven’t lived until you’ve witnessed a human/robot fight in Yellowstone National Park with bison peacefully grazing in the background.
9. “Fourth World Saga” (DC Comics; 1970-1974, 1985)
After saying that dialogue bubble filler and carnival barker Stan Lee was the sole creator of the Marvel Universe, and generally treating him like garbage, Jack Kirby jumped ship to DC Comics in 1970. He was basically given a blank check, and after passing on marquee titles like Superman, he became the writer and artist on Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen. From this Z-list title, he launched his famous “Fourth World Saga” and created iconic characters like the New Gods Mister Miracle, Big Barda, and Orion, along with their arch-nemesis Darkseid, who is set to appear in a future Justice League film.
The “Fourth World Saga” spread across the New Gods, Mister Miracle, and Forever People comics, focusing on different inhabitants of the planet New Genesis, which is locked in eternal warfare with the totalitarian Apokolips. New Gods tells the story of Orion, the champion of New Genesis, who goes to Earth to prevent Darkseid from finding the nefarious Anti-Life Equation and wreaking havoc in the universe. It’s biblical in scope and scale, and contains the great twist (almost a decade before Empire Strikes Back) that Darkseid is Orion’s father. Forever People is like American Graffiti with superheroes, as a team of young inhabitants of New Genesis also trying to stop Darkseid and his mortal allies, Intergang, who are led by the new publisher of the Daily Planet. Mister Miracle is about Scott Free, an escape artist from New Genesis, who takes on the mantle of Mister Miracle after his mentor is killed. What makes this comic stand out from the other Fourth World titles is the strong relationship between the physically unimposing Scott and his warrior-wife, Big Barda, who formerly worked for Darkseid’s Female Furies.
Jack Kirby’s purple prose and “hip” slang in the Fourth World books may not have aged well, but few artists have rivaled the power of his figures. From Orion wrestling with Darkseid’s Parademons, to the the Forever People zooming by or Mister Miracle make a death defying escape, Kirby’s art is full of energy, and the punches and holds he draws have real weight behind them. His trademark “Kirby krackle” adds to the otherworldly factor of his work, and complements the outlandish, yet enduring costumes for characters like Orion, the enigmatic Metron, Mister Miracle, and Big Barda.
“The Fourth World Saga” is filled to the brim with imaginative ideas that could take a whole series of articles to describe, and features some of Jack Kirby’s most kinetic pencils. It stands with Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men as one of the greatest comics of the 1970s, and also inspired the DC Animated Universe, as well as modern storylines like Final Crisis.
8. Dreadstar (Epic/First Comics/Malibu; 1980-1991, 1994-1995)
Although he was responsible for killing off the second Robin, Jason Todd, writer/artist Jim Starlin is probably the best known American space opera comics creator. He even wrote and drew a Thanos graphic novel for Marvel as recently as 2016. His greatest original creation is the long running series Dreadstar, a blend of the fantasy, post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, and superhero genres that featured an anthropomorphic cat as a POV character. It was the flagship title of Epic Comics, a creator-owned imprint from Marvel that was a forerunner of DC’s Vertigo, home of classic comics like Sandman, Hellblazer, and Fables.
Dreadstar is both a swashbuckling adventure comic and a meditation on war and religious fundamentalism. The basic setup of the world is that there is war between the authoritarian Monarchy and the Instrumentality, a kind of Spanish Inquisition-meets-Scientology theocratic government with special teleporting technology. Starlin’s drawing of Vanth Dreadstar, the last survivor of the Milky Way galaxy and receiver of a magical weapon, resembles DC Comics’ socially conscious hero Green Arrow, and he renounces violence to be a farmer until the planet of cat people he lives on is destroyed. He then ends up leading a crew of misfits to end the war between the Monarchy and the Instrumentality, and bring a kind of peace to the remaining galaxies – except that he, the cybernetic magician Darklock, the cat person Oedi, and the telepath Willow occasionally work with the Monarchy, as Dreadstar isn’t just a simple good vs evil story.
Jim Starlin’s art has power and energy like Jack Kirby’s work ,although his faces are a little more distinct than the King’s. He also uses colors and angles that give off a trippier vibe, like when Dreadstar and his crew rob a vault, or the Lord Papal is imbued with special abilities by a nefarious higher power. Making the magic more surreal and the scientific elements of Dreadstar clean and more technical reinforces the sprawling comic’s main ideological conflict between the sacred and secular. Unfortunately, the series has never been properly concluded by either Starlin or his replacement writer, Peter David (X-Factor).
7. The Incal (Humanoids;1981-1988)
The Incal is a series of five graphic novels written by Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky and drawn by legendary French artist Moebius. It is considered one of the masterpieces of the comics medium, and follows the rough-and-tumble misadventures of a hard-drinking, prostitute-frequenting P.I. named John DiFool, who comes into possession of the Light Incal, an object of great power. He and his talking pet seagull Deepo go on the run from a variety of factions, including the badass mercenary Metabaron, seeking to take the Incal for themselves while simultaneously embarking on a spiritual journey.
Moebius’ art and Yves Chaland’s colors capture the essence of dystopia in The Incal. Sure, there are cool flying ships and aliens, but also overcrowded public transportation, filthy tunnels, and a president who makes his own cloning into the television event of the season (after reruns of a game show called Piss and Feces). There is a clear distinction between the “glowing” upper class and the “unwashed masses” in power and opportunity. However, Chaland uses irridescent tones any time the Incal speaks to DiFool while trying to break him out of his slumber and into a spiritual awakening. He eventually ends up teaming up with the Metabaron and others in a great battle of good and evil between the Dark and Light Incal.
Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius capture humanity at its most grotesque and most transcendent in The Incal. This is a comic that features an elderly upper class woman seeing a wolf man prostitute, but also a flawed man finding self-realization through something that would be a mere MacGuffin in another creative team’s hand. The Incal has a political and spiritual conscience as well as cool vehicles and gorgeous Moebius cityscapes.
6. Infinity Gauntlet (Marvel; 1991)
One can only hope that the upcoming Avengers Infinity War film is at least as half as epic as writer Jim Starlin and artists George Perez and Ron Lim’s Infinity Gauntlet miniseries. In the story, Thanos, who collected all the Infinity Gems in the Thanos Quest series, puts them in the Infinity Gauntlet and wipes off half the life in the universe to impress his mistress, Death. This half includes the Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Daredevil. Thanos is on a hubristic a rampage for the most of the miniseries, and even defeats such powerhouses as Chaos, Order, and Eternity
Though he left the series after issue 4, Infinity Gauntlet is a testament to George Perez’s mastery of both the superhero team-up and the cosmic epic. He and Lim draw scenes like Thanos becoming one with the universe or the death of the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen with style and ease, providing readers with iconic moments, like when Captain America, leading a troop of battered, beleaguered heroes, tells Thanos that he’ll never win. Infinity Gauntlet is a study in escalation and hubris, with Thanos finally bested by his own insecurity after a roller coaster ride of a series.
Infinity Gauntlet is what Marvel and DC Comics events should aspire to be. The stakes are high and the splash pages are big, yet Starlin, Perez, and Lim leave room for characterization. Infinity Gauntlet provides the climax of the messianic journey of Adam Warlock that began when Starlin created him in the 1970s. Thanos’ final fate is pretty brilliant, and it’s a shame that multiple “Infinity” sequels had to ruin that fantastic ending.