It’s now September, and, with a second season officially in the works, impossible to deny Netflix’s Stranger Things the title of summer’s buzz-worthiest show. In eight episodes, the Duffer Brothers manage to synthesize everything great about ’80s pop entertainment—Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, Marvel, D&D, and synthesizers—without once resorting to empty pastiche. It’s nostalgia with a soul, rare enough in an entertainment landscape that often forgets references do not equal substance. Genuine creeps, solid performances, and an awesome soundtrack make it a genuinely binge-worthy experience.
One that is, sadly, over far too soon—unless you’re willing to venture into a whole universe of readalikes. While original, the series works on common themes: the importance of family, no matter how damaged or dysfunctional; the creeping horror that seems to lurk just beneath the surface of everyday life, whether you’re a teenager or an adult. We’ve all had the feeling something is coming for us; we’ve all felt that no one believes us. Stranger Things taps into that sense of isolation, as well as the feeling of empowerment that comes when =real friends stand by us. We’ve already suggested nine books that capture this same magic; if you’ve burned through those, might we suggest as many graphic novels? It’s a long way to season two.
Wytches, by Scott Snyder, Jock, and Matt Hollingsworth
If you find the Spielberg vibe waters down your enjoyment of the horror, Wytches might be your antidote. Scott Snyder’s book finds the Rook family (Sailor and her parents) in a small, isolated town, having moved to escape scrutiny following the disappearance of Sailor’s bully. Naturally, that’s not the end of it: there are creatures in the woods with a deep interest in the family (non-spoiler-hint: they’re witches). This is darker, more psychological, and maybe a bit more disturbing than the show, but they share themes: lurking horror, damaged families, and teenagers called upon to be strong in the face of disbelief and hostility from the grown-ups.
Joe the Barbarian, by Grant Morrison, Sean Murphy, Dave Stewart, and Todd Klein
In Joe’s world, the gateway into another dimension isn’t a literal portal, but something both more prosaic: Joe’s own Type 1 diabetes. His adventures may or may not be the product of a major hypoglycemic state; he might have been transported to a weird (à la Morrison and Murphy) alternate universe of fantasy and adventure, facing down living versions of his favorite action figures, with only his escaped pet rat at his side…or he might be slowly dying in his house, his single mother having left him alone just this once. Much as in Stranger Things, Joe’s adventures in anther world (maybe) have a very real impact on the people in ours.
Birthright, by Joshua Williamson, Andrei Bressan, Adriano Lucas, and Pat Brosseau
Another book in which our protagonist lacks the support of a strong group of friends, at least in our mundane universe. Mikey is an entirely ordinary kid out playing catch with his dad one sunny afternoon while Mom and his brother is getting ready for a birthday party. Before the day is over, Mikey has gone missing, having run into the woods to retrieve a lost ball and never come back out. Suspicion falls on dad, who is too busy blaming himself to really argue. Mikey returns much later, now fully grown and embittered by his experiences battling evil in a fantasy kingdom. The cute little kid returns as someone much closer to Conan the Barbarian, with mental scars to match the physical ones, and an agenda that is opaque at best. It’s a darker twist on the alternate world fantasy, but there’s a strong emphasis on family, even if this particular one has been damaged to the breaking point by Mikey’s adventures.
Plutona, by Jeff Lemire, Emi Lenox, Jordie Bellaire, and Steve Wands
Jeff Lemire has worked in science fiction and superhero graphic-novel genres, but got his start on the Essex County trilogy, a series of slice-of-life stories set in a rural part of the Canadian southeast. Not unlike Stranger Things, Plutona represents a unique blending of the two gernes: it’s the story of five kids from very different families who discover the body of a dead superhero in the woods. Each kid deals with the discovery in her or his own way, while we also learn about the events that lead to Plutona’s corpse being ignominiously abandoned in the forest.
Wayward, by Jim Zub, Steve Cummings, John Rauch, Tamra Bonvillain, and Marshall Dillon
Teen monster hunting doesn’t have to be limited to the suburbs, nor even to North America. Zub and Cummings’ book takes the fight to Tokyo, where the part-Irish, part-Japanese Rori has gone to live with her estranged mother. There’s a Buffy the Vampire Slayer vibe to Rori’s adventures, as she’s forced to grow into herself and her new home as she’s confronted by distinctly Japanese monsters and ghosts, and slowly brings together a group of friends to help her take on the twisted creatures. If there’s a moral, it’s that monsters come in all shapes and sizes, and need not be limited to western-style conceptions of the creepy and bizarre.
Lumberjanes, by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, Noelle Stevenson, and Brooke A. Allen
This one’s got a very different feel in many ways, but if the friendship between Mike, El, Dustin, and Lucas is your thing, Lumberjanes is a perfect distillation. The book is less scary than funny, and less creepy than charming, but it’s still got plenty of action and a bit of punk-rock verve. Pals Jo, Mal, April, Molly, and Ripley are determined to have an awesome summer at camp while still managing to beat monster butt and deal with a potentially world-ending mystery. The story is wonderfully all-ages without resorting to the juvenile, and might be the perfect chaser if Stranger Things left you emotionally exhausted.
Afterlife with Archie, by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla
No alternate universes in this one, but there’s something extra-creepy about the wholesome, sometimes sickly-sweet Riverdale gang facing a bloody zombie apocalypse. There’s a retro vibe here, too: the Archie universe has always been a bit timeless, harkening back to imagined simpler days. In spite of that pedigree, it doesn’t skimp on the horror elements, and, like Stranger Things, the events are more, not less, disturbing for involving a bang of generally well-meaning teenagers.
Paper Girls, by Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, Matt Wilson, and Jared K. Fletcher
We’ve mentioned this one before, but it’s so perfect that it bears repeating: Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang’s collaboration is itself an homage to Spielberg-style adventures circa the ’80s, but it actually does the show one better: instead of the traditional group of boys facing down aliens and the like, it’s a group of girls with old-school punk-rock style encountering a world of suburban weirdness while delivering newspapers in 1988. These girls are tough, smart, and resourceful.
Bonus: The Dark Phoenix Saga, by Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Mike Collins, and Terry Austin
This one’s less about capturing the tone of the series than about reliving the era. In the very first episode, the bike race that sets the story in motion has a very particular prize: X-Men #134, part of the seminal “Dark Phoenix Saga,” often seen as the high-point of the book’s more than 50-year run. It’s not entirely unrelated to the show’s plot, either, since (spoilers!) the Phoenix is also a mutant with terrifying powers ultimately willing to sacrifice herself to save her friends. It’s not perfect foreshadowing, since the Phoenix is in thrall to her powers and world-endingly evil for most of the story, but it’s still a subtle hint at what’s to come when the gang starts hanging out with Eleven. It’s also a slice of totally bitchin’ ’80s superhero storytelling. For an even deeper dive into the world of Mike, El, and the gang, check out IDW’s Dungeons & Dragons graphic novels, which recreate the feel of the series without the need for DM training.
What comics give you that ’80s nostalgia vibe?