Brian Wood is, to put it mildly, a polarizing figure in comics. After an early gig on Generation X, the Brooklyn-based scribe forged his own path away from Big Two superheroes, even making it through a multi-year DC exclusive contract without stepping into the DCU proper. Thanks to a fondness for complex female characters and collaborations with then-rising artists like Becky Cloonan, Ming Doyle and Marian Churchland, Wood gained a reputation as something of an early feminist ally in comics—until allegations of harassment of female comic pros began to surface in 2013, prompting a public response from the writer.
Wood never stopped working, however, and continues to cultivate a passionate fanbase by returning to his most frequent themes: sweeping historical sagas, all-too-believable dystopias and rotating rosters of the most talented artistic collaborators in comics. To honor Wood’s return to Viking lands this week in the new Image title Black Road with frequent collaborator Garry Brown, Paste has ranked the controversial writer’s top ten books.
1 of 10
Artists: Olivier Coipel, Terry Dodson, others
Publisher: Marvel Comics
It's tempting to kick off this list with a cheat, wrapping all of Wood's tenures on Marvel's merry mutants into one overstuffed entry. From the Warren Ellis-approved Generation X to a radicalized Ultimate Comics X-Men to the adjective-less X-Men, Wood's Big Two comfort zone seems to rest squarely with X-gene carriers. It was Wood's final jaunt with an all-female squad of heroes that worked best, though, as the writer showed a knack for weaving in the franchise's infamously complicated continuity (Sublime! Deathstrike!) without requiring readers to have a master's degree in mutant studies. We may never see Brian Wood on a mainstream superhero title again, so it's only fitting to briefly acknowledge what worked.
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Artist: Ming Doyle
Publisher: Image Comics
Mara is more notable as Ming Doyle's first long-form work than as one of Wood's big breakouts, but the creators deserve equal credit for their prescient view of what Image Comics was quickly becoming around 2012/2013. Thanks to the success of The Walking Dead, Image was attracting larger and larger names to tell stories that previously might have ended up under the Vertigo banner. Wood, a recent Vertigo expat himself, brought this unusual mix of consumerist dystopia, emerging superpowers and future sports to Image perhaps too soon to ride the incoming wave of creator-owned success, but Mara remains a solid six-issue high point for Wood and Doyle both.
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Artist: Danijel Zezelj
Publisher: Image Comics
The youngest title on this list, Starve is unmistakably Wood: in an all-too-near dystopian future, cooking shows have evolved into high-stakes arena sports for the entertainment of über-rich patrons, and chef Gavin Cruikshank is determined to restore nobility to his profession. Drenched with apocalyptic murkiness by artist Danijel Zezelj, Starve allows Wood to go to town on rampant consumerism and unchecked capitalism as he has in several other titles that will appear higher up on this list. It remains to be seen if this Image ongoing's slightly goofy core premise has sticking power, but a strong opening arc bodes well for Starve staying on the menu.
4 of 10
7. DV8: Gods and Monsters
Artist: Rebekah Isaacs
Arriving in the final days of WildStorm (R.I.P.), Brian Wood and Rebekah Isaacs' DV8: Gods and Monsters is a compelling meditation on the teens-with-powers premise, using characters even the most diehard '90s fan never expected to see revived. Wood one-ups the original book's characterization of DV8 as not particularly heroic, stranding the squad on an alien planet populated by rudimentary tribes who worship the super-powered young adults as gods. While other heroes know that with great power comes great responsibility, the kids of DV8 fall easily into their deification and take full advantage of their nascent godhood. With exemplary art by Isaacs, DV8: Gods and Monsters stands out as Brian Wood's best—and perhaps most bitter—statement on superheroes to date.
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6. The Massive
Artists: Garry Brown, Kristian Donaldson, others
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Originally conceived as a spiritual successor to DMZ, The Massive is eco-dystopia at its finest. Drawn primarily by Wood's Black Road collaborator Garry Brown, this Dark Horse series unravels the mystery of the titular ocean trawler as a team of environmental activists search for their missing colleagues—and ponder what it means to fight to save a world already given a death sentence. While the book's pacing was sometimes as slow as an ocean liner, The Massive offers one of the most terrifyingly possible apocalyptic futures Wood has ever committed to the comic page.
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5. Conan the Barbarian
Artists: Becky Cloonan, James Harren, Vasilis Lolos, others
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Dark Horse has long shepherded the Conan license, but few writers have made Robert E. Howard's barbarian as vital and accessible as Wood. By focusing on the Cimmerian's younger days, and particularly his volatile relationship with the pirate queen Bêlit, Wood gave readers the foundation of the man who would grow into the conquerer-king role most associated with the name, and did it with assistance from some of the finest ink slingers in the industry. Frequent Wood collaborator Becky Cloonan kicked off the series, and James Harren and Vasilis Lolos, among others, contributed memorable arcs. While Wood's more vulnerable Conan was roundly mocked by many diehard Howardites, the franchise has rarely been as compelling to the wider comic readership.
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Artist: Ryan Kelly
Publisher: Oni Press
Wood's second major indie hit was designed to match the done-in-one format of his first (Demo) but developed along a different path as the character Megan asserted herself as the book's focal point. With each issue set in a different small town, Local follows Megan's coming-of-age, whether she serves as an issue's protagonist or exists in the background of someone else's story. Ryan Kelly, now known best for thrills and chills in books like Cry Havoc, Survivors' Club and Lucifer, works in dense black and white to provide a fully realized world for Megan and Local's other inhabitants. Wood and Kelly would reunite for two other similarly grounded tales: The New York Four and its sequel, The New York Five, but neither reaches the height of this affecting road trip.
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Artists: Davide Gianfelice, Leandro Fernández, others
Wood has called Northlanders his most personal series—doubly odd when you consider that this Viking saga ran concurrent to the NY-set DMZ—and that affection shows in every standalone storyline. Running for fifty issues divided between longer and shorter tales, Northlanders is unusual in that it emphasized the arc over the bigger picture, frequently swapping characters, settings and time periods within Viking-era Europe. In the book's second half, the cover design was even modified to deemphasize the title of the series and highlight the title of each individual arc. Buoyed by an absolute murderer's row of artists including Davide Gianfelice, Declan Shalvey, Marian Churchland and others, Northlanders is the book Wood claimed he could write indefinitely—and so he might, given Black Road's Viking setting.
9 of 10
Artist: Becky Cloonan
Publisher: AiT/Planet Lar/ Vertigo
If Demo's only lasting accomplishment was introducing Becky Cloonan to the world at large, it'd still deserve a top spot on this list, but these two mini-series of standalone stories feature Wood's best-ever explorations of the human condition. Pitched as "realistic" takes on young people dealing with unusual abilities, Demo's one-off issues increasingly focused on human relationships and drama over any supernatural angle. Originally published by AiT/Planet Lar, Demo's continued popularity led the creators to take the rights to Vertigo, who repackaged the Eisner-nominated first series and published a second set of six issues. Demo may not have the scope of Wood's longer-running series, but it frequently accomplishes more in self-contained issues than many books do in full arcs.
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Artists: Riccardo Burchielli, John Paul Leon, others
Wood's personal magnum opus, DMZ is both one of Vertigo's longest-running titles and one of the most quintessentially New York stories the medium has ever seen. Set in a near-future Big Apple quarantined and cordoned off following a second Civil War, DMZ follows embedded journalist Matty Roth as he untangles the complex politics of a Manhattan divided from the rest of the United States. Riccardo Burchielli handled the bulk of art duties with aggressive inking that channeled street art and NYC attitude, and a dream team of fill-ins including Nathan Fox and John Paul Leon assured that no one-off issue dipped in visual quality. While Matty's story was compelling, it was the book's many diversions with other characters—self-styled medic Zee, Triad leader Wilson, the "Central Park Ghosts"—that set DMZ apart as a book capable of blending high-concept world-building with a humanist angle. Despite the horrid condition of the book's five boroughs, Wood, a longtime New Yorker, instills an unshakable hope in the spirit of the city even when things seem grimmest.