Comics: a beginners guide

Listen! This is important. Maybe.

The large number of superhero films being made at the moment is not some reflection of the spirit of the times -- where the uncertainties of the war on terror make us cling to very clear definitions of right and wrong. At least, I don’t think so. I believe superheroes have always had a grip on the public imagination, and are an age-old way of portraying the battle of good and evil, and exactly what ‘good’ and ‘evil’ means. The only thing that has changed recently is that technology has made it easier to depict such outlandish characters, and make them convincing. That said, most superhero films have fallen far short of the complexity and brilliance of superhero stories told in almost 80 years of comic-books. This is an attempt to point out some of those stories that deserve more attention. The world of comicbooks can be a daunting place for those who know little about it. When you walk into a specialist store, you may be overwhelmed by the amount of titles on offer. I certainly was. How do you know what is good and what isn’t? How can you ensure you are not wasting your time? After five years of being a comics freak, this is my list of where to start. If you have found yourself enjoying tv shows like Buffy, Alias, Heroes, Doctor Who or 24, or the superhero action summer blockbusters, you may find something below that tickles your fancy. I think you’ll be surprised at how good some of this stuff is.

Here commences the guide!

FIRST: Education. A little knowledge about how the medium has evolved is useful and may be of interest. These books were revolutionary in their day, and profoundly affected the writers and artists that came after. They still make for great reading now.

1) Essential X-Men, Vol. 2. Chris Claremont writer, John Byrne artist.
This title appeared at the end of the 70s, and quickly became a bestseller. This particular volume contains *the* classic X-Men stories: the Dark Phoenix saga and Days Of Future Past. It also contains the work of one of the finest artists to have worked in comics, John Byrne. Overall, the series continued the Marvel revolution began by Lee, Kirby and Ditko, where extraordinary, epic events were experienced by regular people trying to learn how to be heroes. Here for the first time the civil rights theme is pushed to the forefront: The different visions of Professor X and Magneto is clarified. Also the team are more diverse, with strong female characters (Storm, Shadowcat, Mystique), as well as people from very different backgrounds: Nightcrawler is German and Catholic, Colossus is Russian and (kinda) communist. Seeing how these different people come together and become a team is one of the joys of the series.

2) Daredevil Visionaries: Frank Miller Vol. 2. Frank Miller writer/artist.
While the X-Men title was selling like hot cakes in the early 80s, another quieter revolution was occurring at Marvel. Daredevil had originally been a dashing rogue -- Adam Ant in spandex. Then Frank Miller came along and injected a lot of noir grit (and a Japanese samurai flavour) into the title. Characters became complex and conflicted, the style more cinematic, and the setting -- New York -- was evoked more strongly. It almost becomes a character in itself. All of this would be co-opted and become the mainstream way of doing comics. But before Frank Miller, superheroes stories remained an essentially juvenile pleasure. This volume is where Miller really takes the reigns, and introduces one of the greatest female characters in the history of pop culture -- Elektra. Her fight with Bullseye is another classic Marvel moment, which (like Dark Phoenix) gets referenced over and over.

SECOND: A little superhero deconstruction. The late 80s saw two revolutionary works hit the stands, which stripped superheroes of all their glamour and imagined them as real people living in the real world. The impact they have had can be detected in *every* superhero title that has come after. Trust.

3) The Dark Knight Returns. Frank Miller writer/artist.
Frank Miller had been doing his thing for years before dropping this bombshell: gothic noir cityscapes; urban decay and corruption; cinematic action; and most importantly, pummeling his heroes until they break down and are reduced to their essentials, which often means angry, desperate and very very violent psychos. But applying the formula to Batman, one of the most well known characters in comics, really turned everyone’s heads. The character was transformed from the greatest do-good detective in the world, into an anti-hero empathising with Two-Face and beating up Superman. I strongly suspect the sequel to the Dark Knight film will use this graphic novel as its template, and that in itself should justify a look through.

A little extra: you can clearly see how Frank Miller built up to the Dark Knight Returns on Daredevil: Born Again with David Mazzucchelli on pencils. The writer and artist teamed up again for Batman: Year One, a new origin story that influenced the Batman Begins film. The Batman stories of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, particularly Haunted Knight, are also worth a look, being directly inspired by Miller’s work on the character.

4) Watchmen. Alan Moore writer, Dave Gibbons artist.
So much has already been written about this book that I don’t quite know where to start. Yes, it does imagine superheroes as real people who, for various reasons, don masks and fight crime. Yes, it has really BIG themes. But it is also a book that awards very close re-reading, so that you pick up the wild experimentation with the form of the comic strip. Look at the way things are framed, the recurring symbols and images, and the way words work with pictures to achieve effects that are impossible in any other medium. It really is a must read for anyone wanting to understand the potential of the form. Lets hope the upcoming film doesn’t cock it up too badly...

A little extra: Almost everything Alan Moore has written is worth reading -- V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing, From Hell, Lost Girls, Promethea...

THIRD: Saw the films and want a little more? These three titles are all better than the films they inspired. Notice that Batman doesn’t appear here. That is because The Dark Knight has been one of the few films where the portrayal of the superhero has matched the complexity and adult sensibilities found in comicbooks. It was awesome, and so are the following.

5) Ultimate Spider-Man: Ultimate Collection Vol. 1. Brian Michael Bendis writer, Mark Bagley artist.
This series began in 2000 as part of the ‘Ultimate’ project, where the Marvel heavyweights were re-imagined for the 21st century. Peter Parker is back in school, and has to deal with being a superhero all over again. And thank God for that. While the ‘real’ Spiderman title is swamped by a ludicrous amount of backstory and terrible attempts to make sense of it, in the Ultimate universe, Spiderman is the way he should be -- a teenage hero for teenagers. Although the superheroics are marvelously entertaining, particularly Spidey’s banter during the fights, it is the school-yard drama that is often the most gripping. Through Peter’s internal monologue, Bendis constructs a well rounded, troubled and deeply sympathetic character. A very funny, very resonant, and very polished book. The best Spiderman out there. And just wait till you reach issue #13!

More of the same: teeny Marvel comes no better than the Runaways series by Brian K. Vaugan and Adrian Alphona, about a group of kids who discover their parents are supervillains. Very witty and charming. Fans of the OC take note.

6) Iron Man: Extremis. Warren Ellis writer, Adi Granov artist.
A lot of the resent feature film was based on this six-issue series. The updated origin story was lifted from here, and the artist went on to work on concept designs for the armour on screen. And while this doesn’t have Robert Downey Jr. in it, it tells a better tale, and also, incredibly, packs more of a punch than the Transformers snoozefest that made up the film’s finale. What makes the book a must read is an interview Tony Stark gives to a John Pilger-a-like in the first issue, where the fundamentals of his character, and his conflicts, are laid bare. Difficult to find dialogue of the same quality anywhere else on the small and big screen. Brilliant stuff.

More of the same: Warren Ellis has never really written a bad comic, check out Nextwave with Stuart Immonen and Transmetropolitan with Darick Robertson, where his humour and wackiness come to the fore.

7) Astonishing X-Men: Gifted. Joss Whedon writer, John Cassaday artist
I give the first volume here, but really you should read all four, because the series as a whole is truly astonishing. Buffy genius Joss Whedon, with little experience of the medium, comes to write one of the greatest X-Men arcs of all time. Some of the ideas made it onto the third X-Men film, but really this is a different animal. Really great dialogue, some wonderful takes on established characters, and a story which is twice as epic as any space-opera on screen. A lot of the credit must go to John Cassaday, who manages to draw both awesome spaceships, robots and aliens, and realistic expressions on the character’s faces (the hardest thing for an artist to do). A landmark achievement from every angle.

More of the same: Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men has recently come out in giant trade paperbacks. Events directly lead into the beginning of Astonishing X-Men. Slightly zanier and left-field, but one of the best works from a consistently brilliant writer.

FOURTH: further reading. The problem with indie comics is that there is a lot of choice, more experimentation, and titles targeted at particular niche audiences. In all, it becomes very difficult to tell whether something is good or not, especially if you work as I did, by trial and error. Here, I’m being safe and have focused on the rising stars of the industry.

8) Girls series. The Luna Brothers writer/artists.
This is very much in the tradition of Lost, where regular people are caught up in extraordinary events, and have to react to them. I think this is better overall, however. The level of characterization is about the same, but its wtf?! moments are bigger and more crazy. The story is well paced, and crucially, has a timely ending. What makes the series particularly interesting is the central idea, which is symbolically rich and allows for interesting questions to be asked, and also the cinematic artwork, which uses changing focus to great effect.

If you liked this, you may also like Suburban Glamour by Jamie McKelvie, which has a similar drawing style, and features English teenagers confronting the world of Faerie. Very enjoyable, it its own small way.

9) Queen and Country series. Greg Rucka writer, various artists.
This is a spy series set in England, and does remind one of Spooks a bit. Although the action is gripping, the office drama and the character interaction is what is most interesting. Also overturns convention by having a female spy as the central character, which is still virtually unheard of in tv and film land. Oh, well there is Alias...

If you like spy thrillers, also worth checking out the brilliant Sleeper by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips for the gritty, noir approach; and Losers by Andy Diggle and Jock, for lighter action fare. Jason Bourne has *nothing* on these guys...

10) Hellboy series. Mike Mignola writer/artist.
The films were overpraised, I think, mainly because critics were still in awe over Pan’s Labyrinth. Guillermo del Toro did not capture the particular magic of the comicbook series. Granted, it is hard to do so, as so much of that magic lies in Mignola’s artwork, which anchors the story in a very particular magical realist mood, owing a lot to fairy tales as well as fantasy authors like Moorcock and Leiber. There wasn’t enough of that in the film. Also, the hardboiled hero in the comics became too much of a kook. So for the authentic Hellboy experience, go for the comics. They are a real treat.

For fantasy fans, lookout for the Red Sonja series by Michael Avon Oeming and Mel Rubi, which (incredibly) makes the bootylicious she-devil into a kind of feminist icon; Slaine: The Horned God by Pat Mills and Simon Bisley, where the barbarian hero is also a feminist champion (what is going on?); and finally the Fables series by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham, which has popular fairy tale characters living in exile in New York, and where (you guessed it!) the ladies usually come up on top.

11) Goldfish. Brian Michael Bendis writer/artist.
I have already gushed enough about this graphic novel (see note below), so I’ll say very little here. If you liked the wit and complexity of his writing on Ultimate Spiderman, you *must* check out Bendis’s indie noir/crime, of which Goldfish is the best; and also his early work for Marvel: Alias (nothing to do with the show) and Daredevil.

Noir fans will have a field day when they dive into the world of comics, as many top creators began their careers in this genre. Frank Miller’s work has always involved noir tropes, and his first straight up noir work ‘Sin City’ is excellent. For fans of the Wire, there is the fantastic police procedural Gotham Central, by writers Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka and artist Michael Lark. Brubaker has recently began a new crime series called Criminal, which I haven’t read, but have heard is amazing

12) Kabuki series. David Mack writer/artist.
The influence of Frank Miller on the writing is very evident, but that is no bad thing. What makes the series particularly exiting is the artistic talent behind it. In the first black and white collection, Mack’s style shifts along with the events it portrays. In the second collection, prose switches to poetry, and pencils switch to painting and collage. Truly extraordinary stuff.

If you like this series, you really must check out Elektra: Assassin, by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz, a writer and artist that have had a massive influence on David Mack’s work.

13) The Nightly News. Jonathan Hickman writer/artist.
Reading this about half a year ago reignited my faith in comics. Hickman introduces graphic design ideas onto the comics page, radically altering the form of the comic book. This perfectly complements the story, which is a scathing attack on how the media operates. There is a Chomsky quote in the front, and as the back cover says: it’s Network meets Fight Club. So you get the picture. The extras and notes make for great reading, and lead to a closer understanding of Hickman’s ideas and method. Overall: a major new talent.

This is still pretty cutting edge stuff. One thing that comes close is Supermarket, by Brian Wood and Kristian Donaldson, which has a similar graphic design look, and also addresses issues of corruption in modern society. Some of Wood’s ideas mirror the work he has done designing the Grand Theft Auto series for Rockstar games, so if you liked that...

To sum up, this is a very incomplete list. I’ve made no mention of grand masters like Neil Gaiman (Sandman) and Garth Ennis (Preacher), maybe because I don’t like them so much. It is in someways quite a personal list, particularly the indie comics section, where an awful lot of more literary graphic novels are left out to make room for the pulpy stuff. The particular pleasure I derive from these books is seeing how trashy genre stories -- noir, horror, sci-fi, fantasy -- can be used intelligently to explore a wide range of complex themes. You get both your cheap thrills and deeper intellectual pleasures in this sidelined medium. And in my opinion, many of the above books easily triumph over a lot of the genre guff you see on tv and film. So have a go. Wade into the murky waters and see what you’ll find. If you like something, look at the guy who wrote it and see who they work with and who they recommend. There’s a lot of fun to be had out there...

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