Some people like to use grimdark as a pejorative, an accusation that a story is trying too hard to be serious and edgy. While that can be the case, sometimes you just need a dark story to fit your dark mood. As I see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, I find myself ready to embrace darker, heavier stories again.
What is grimdark? It was coined from the tagline for Warhammer 40,000, “In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war.” Grimdark describes fiction, usually speculative, that is dark, amoral, violent, and often dystopian or anti-utopian. Settings are often bleak. Protagonists and antagonists alike are often morally questionable or bankrupt. Problems are solved in violent, irreversible ways. Content warnings abound.
As the days shorten and the nights elongate, we break out the blankets. We snuggle up with a fire and turn to our bookshelves more than normal. This is the time when I turn to grimdark most, letting the darkness outside find purchase on the pages before me. And there’s no genre of books that captures grimdark quite so well as comics. Prose can pull it off, sure, but letting an inker go ham on blackening a page really immerses me in the darkness. Here are 10 of the absolute best grimdark comics.
Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean
You knew I’d put a Batman comic on here somewhere. In this case, the darkest one I know of, and one that highlights the rogue’s gallery of Gotham City better than any other. Joker and the other villains have taken over Arkham Asylum, and Batman will have to face them and his inner demons to take it back.
Berserk by Kentaro Miura
This long-running manga features a brutal man who wields a sword that is far too big for anyone. Guts is marked, drawing the forces of darkness to him at all times. So he needs his giant sword and his iron hand, and he has earned every one of his many scars.
The Crow by James O’Barr
Is there any book that epitomizes the grimdark comic more than James O’Barr’s The Crow? In a bleak vision of urban America, Eric and his fiancée are gunned down by a street gang. Through the magic of a mysterious crow, Eric returns from the grave. He’s unkillable, has gorgeously emo makeup, and is set on vengeance.
The Goddamned by Jason Aaron, r.m. Guera, and Giulia Brusco
This twisted take on the story of Noah takes place on Earth 1655 years after Eden, but before the flood. The world is violent and lawless, just the sort of place that a vengeful god might wipe clean with a flood. But first, Noah has to survive this apocalyptic landscape.
Insexts by Marguerite Bennett and Ariela Kristantina
Insexts is the story of two Victorian women who suddenly discover the ability to transform into horrifying and rich creatures. These forms come with a price, however, descending them into intertwining worlds of high culture and dark occult forces.
Kill or Be Killed by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Elizabeth Breitweiser
I did say these grimdark comics get basically all of the content warnings, right? In this case, Dylan is a young man struggling with mental illness who attempts suicide. Trapped in a mental institution, he’s approached by a demon who offers him an escape, but only if he kills and kills and kills. Dylan only wants to kill evil people, but people are so complicated, and violence begets violence.
Monster: The Perfect Edition by Naoki Urasawa
This manga is a suspenseful thriller. While it doesn’t take place in a dystopian world, the minds it explores are dystopian, indeed. Dr. Kenzo Tenma has devoted his life to saving lives, no matter who those lives belong to. When childless couples start disappearing and dying, Tenma realizes one of his own patients is behind it, and only he can stop it.
Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Grimdark doesn’t mean the comics have to be ugly, that’s for sure. While none of these comics are, Monstress is one of the most gorgeous comics I’ve ever read. Set in a matriarchal fantasy 1900s Asia, a teenage girl with a mystical connection to a great monster is traumatized by war and trying to survive in a world that wants her dead.
Red Sonja by Gail Simone and Walter Geovani
Red Sonja is a classic of the brutal, high-fantasy comic book genre. They’re all pretty grimdark, and Gail Simone’s run on this book is my favorite. One man has earned Sonja’s respect, and now she must repay him, even if that means joining the ill-fated side in a horrible war. And the other side has Dark Annisia, a foe who might just be Sonja’s equal.
Wolverine: Old Man Logan by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven
This future story was the inspiration for the movie Logan, and boy, is it a grimdark comic. Wolverine is old and dying. He’s given up the fight, particularly since most everyone he ever knew or loved is dead. But when a friend comes asking a favor, he embarks on one last trek across America, one last fight. But this America is much darker than the one we know from the Marvel Universe.
Grim enough? Dark enough? If reading this list depresses you just a little, then it’s a good list of grimdark comics. Sometimes you just need that in your reading life. What are some of your favorites that I missed?