Comic books are for kids. A Serious Writer won’t read them, won’t waste their time on a medium so bereft of cultural significance. A Serious Writer reads Dostoyevsky and Hemmingway, not Miller and Claremont. Stories are told in words, not in pictures. Unless you’re five years old and reading “See Spot Run” of course.
Well, I read comic books. I grew up reading them. And it’s been heartening to me to see the genre grow in respect over the years, to turn from a children’s pastime into a serious literary pursuit (although I’m sure there’s a million “Serious Writers” out there who would roll their eyes and scoff at the notion). But fuck Serious Writers. Seriously. A comic book won the Pulitzer Prize. If that ain’t Serious Writing, I’m not sure what is.
Of course, the euphemism game is being played now to lend gravitas to the medium, which kinda disappoints me. We don’t call them “comic books’ anymore, we call them “graphic novels”. Anything I can say about euphemisms has been said better before, so I’ll just leave you with George on that one. But given the great writing found in the comics field nowadays, I guess anything that gets more respect and makes Serious Writers less worried about reading or creating them can’t be all bad.
All that said, this is a list of comic books… sorry, graphic novels, that I think anyone with a dim view of the medium (or someone who just loves wonderful stories, brilliantly told) should read. For anyone familiar with the medium, these will be no-brainers, but I’m not writing this for you; you’re already enlightened, so shaddap.
In no particular order:
Akira – Katsuhiro Otomo (author/illustrator). Set in the post-apocalyptic city of Neo-Tokyo, Akira is a sprawling epic that centers around two childhood friends: a brash, loud-mouthed antihero named Kaneda, and his quiet second fiddle Tetsuo, who, through a series of clandestine government experiments, finds himself the wielder of vast and destructive psychic powers.
The book begins as a slick, cyberpunk style tale, and ends as a dystopian survival story in the shell of Neo-Tokyo’s ruins. Along the way, Otomo explores the issues of friendship and loss, betrayal, isolation, discovery of self and the corrupting influence of power. The artwork is simply stunning – the level of detail in Otomo’s cityscapes (pre and post cataclysm) are mind-blowing, and the storyline is simply vast in scope, dragging us from the gleaming freeways and glowing neon of the Neo-Tokyo biker wars into the utter desperation that follows after the “Akira event”. It’s a love story, it’s an awesome adventure, it’s introspective and self-searching. It’s 100% worth your time.
Do not judge this book by the animated film (if you’ve seen it). Unlike the latter, the book actually makes sense. And by the way, if the rumors are true and Zac Effron has been cast in the live action film, unless he’s been cast as “Random Douchebag who gets his head ‘sploded by Tetsuo #1”, motherfuckers will OFFICALLY pay.
The Crow – J. O’Barr (author/illustrator). The tragic story of a young man, Eric, who returns from the dead after his fiancé is raped and murdered by a gang of thugs. Over the course of a few nights, Eric exacts revenge against the men who wronged him.
The book was written over the course of seven years, originally as a way for O’Barr to deal with the death of his girlfriend at the hands of a drunk driver. It’s bleak, it’s black, it’s thoroughly depressing. The angst positively bleeds off the page, the artwork, while all great, is varied in style (probably owing to the length of time he took drawing it) but it contains some of the best prose you’ll ever read in a comic book (or any other book for that matter)
Despite what came afterwards (the IP has been positively flogged to death, with a series of shitty movies and follow up books that never came close to the original) The Crow stands as a masterpiece, a testimony to the power of rage channeled into positive outlets.
“We shall never forget and never forgive.
And never, ever fear.
Fear is for the enemy.
Fear and bullets.”
Sandman – Neil Gaiman (Gaiman: author/various illustrators). I know there are a million rabid fanboys out there who will bay for my blood at the suggestion (ya, like a million peeps read this blog), but Neil Gaiman is a much better comic book writer than he is a novelist. I’ve read American Gods, I’ve read Smoke and Mirrors, I’ve exposed myself to Coraline (mind out of the gutter, people). Nothing comes close to the work for which Gaiman is best known – the Sandman.
The Sandman, aka Dream is one of the Endless: supernatural beings that have existed since, well, pretty much forever. Along with his siblings Destruction, Delirium, Desire, Despair, Destiny and every goth girl’s favorite postergirl Death, the Endless govern the various realms of human existence. Problem is, Dream is a bit of a twat, and this leads to all sorts of problems including his son’s murder, the abdication of hell’s monarch, and eventually (spoilerrrrrz) the destruction of the dream realm. It’s all pretty fantastic stuff, the book ran for 75 issues, ranging from one-off episodes to long story arcs, but all of them tied back somehow to the notion of dreams.
The artwork (aside from the magnificent covers from the one and only Mr Dave McKean) is patchy, but the art isn’t why you read Sandman. You read it for the story, and you get that in spades. It’s a wonderful, mind-blowing exercise in imagination, at times very funny, other times terribly sad, but virtually always enthralling.
“Every story has got a happy end – you just have to know when you stop telling.”
~ A Storyteller (“Preludes and Nocturnes”)
Batman: Arkham Asylum – Grant Morrison (author) and Dave McKean (illustrator). I’m not a big Batman fan. Where I came from, you picked Marvel or DC, and you read one at the expense of the other. I was a dyed-in-the-wool Marvel boy, and big Bruce and his hang-ups about his poor dead parents never really did it for me, even when I glanced through his pages. Until I read this.
The inmates of Arkham (the prison where all of Gotham’s not-so-super-villains are incarcerated) have broken free and taken over the asylum. They say they’ll kill the hostages unless Batman comes inside. Big B delivers, and finds himself in the middle of a nightmarish exploration of the psyche of his foes, intertwined with the twisted tale of the asylum’s creator, Amadeus Arkham and the Batman’s own black past. Visually, the book is simply stunning – nobody can hold a candle to Dave McKean, and Morrison manages to tell a story about dangerous insanity without lapsing into cliché (at least, they weren’t clichés back then) or unnecessary brutality.
Anybody who dresses up as a bat and stalks the night is nutty as squirrel shit. AA was the first Batman book I’d read the openly acknowledged the fact. And Morrison’s Joker was scary as hell.
“Beautiful. Blue. Oh.”
~ The Joker.
Watchmen – Alan Moore (author, even though he’ll barely acknowledge it these days) Dave Gibbons (illustrator) and John Higgins (colorist). Watchmen was a 12 issue series set on an alternate earth, telling a story about a defunct group of masked vigilantes and a murderous plot to change the face of our civilization. But unless you’ve been living on Mars with Dr. Manhattan, you already knew that because you’ve seen the movie, right? What you might not know is that Watchmen was touted as the book that redefined the comic book industry, and it’s deserving of every word of that praise. It changed the face of the superhero, made readers question the very concept of it, and told a tale about the fundamental flaws of human nature, alienation, xenophobia, nihilism and government control while clad in spandex and capes. And it pulled it off.
Visually, the book was highly structured: nine panel pages with full page intros, recurring symbolism of clocks and smiley faces, and the color palette was unlike anything being used in the medium at the time. The story of our heroes is intercut with another comic book story “Tales of the Black Freighter”, which is being read at a newsstand by one of the minor characters throughout the main story’s time line. Each issue was book-ended with long excerpts from other fictional works from the comic’s world, which served as background detail and exposition. Reading about the creation of the book is almost as interesting as the book itself.
The subsequent collection and repackaging of the issues of Watchmen was the first time a comic book was marketed as a “graphic novel”. Sadly, contract disputes over Watchmen saw Moore sever his ties with DC and virtually disown the project (you’ll note the recent movie only credited Gibbons in the titles). I’ve read interviews with Moore expressing dismay at the darker, more visceral direction comics took after Watchmen hit the shelves. I’ve read interviews with him saying he wished he’d never written it. Which is kinda sad really.
All that aside however, it’s still a cracking read. Beware the psychic squid!
“I am looking at the stars. They are so far away. And their light takes so long to reach us. All we ever see of stars are their old photographs.”
.bmob a ekil mlaC