Weekend Reads #74: Hooked on Comics

Weekend Reads is a weekly post in which I discuss a variety of topics and mention the books I plan to read on the weekend. This weekend’s topic:

Comic books

I love comic books and graphic novels. Though I used to read the Archie comics as a kid and read Art Spiegelman’s Maus in middle school, it wasn’t until 2015 that I developed a love for this form of storytelling and started to add them to my book collection.

How it all began

My thanks goes to the online book community because it’s reviews by bloggers and vloggers that sparked my interest in comics. I didn’t know much about comics and didn’t understand some of the industry jargon, like distinguishing between what’s considered a comic book or a graphic novel and figuring out what “trades” refer to, but over time, after watching bookish videos and reading blog posts and articles (like “Graphic Novels 101” in issue #23 of the Diamond Bookshelf magazine), I learned and picked up some tips. Visiting my favorite comic bookshop also helped. The employees were always helpful in explaining things to me and recommending comics and MAKING ME BUY THEM!! (I can only visit when I have money because they always tell me about something I’ll like.)

The comic book that kicked off my love of them back in 2015 was Saga, Vol. 1. It’s a sci-fi/fantasy story by Brian K. Vaughan, illus. by Fiona Staples, about two individuals from warring planets who are in love but are on the run as their respective governments try to capture them and their newborn. This one was recommended to me by book vloggers on YouTube. They often praised the story and artwork so curious, I bought it and was immediately blown away by the art and sucked in by the story.

Thus, my interest in comics was pricked; so on a visit to the comic bookstore, I asked the employees for recommendations for a newbie and, based on my interests, they suggested Rat Queens, Vol. 1 by Kurtis J. Wiebe, illus. by Roc Upchurch, a fantasy story about the adventures of a group of female mercenaries, and The Wicked + The Divine, Vol. 1 by Kieron Gillen, illus. by Jamie McKelvie, a fantasy story about gods incarnated as humans. I enjoyed Rat Queens, which is now one of my favorites, but didn’t enjoy The Wicked + The Divine as much until I reread it earlier this year.

These three comics as well as Infinte Spiral, Vol. 1 by Kristy Cunningham (illus.), a fantasy comic and webcomic about a girl transported to another world, were my first true forays into the form and marked my commitment to it. (You can see my review of all four comics as well as samples of the artwork here.)


Oh, the art! 🙂

Though I enjoy the stories, what draws me to comics are the illustrations. I love art and if I could, I would go back to university to study it. Art is what makes me return to comics and buy a bunch of them that I know I won’t be able to read anytime soon. It was therefore shocking to me when I learned from a recent Bookriot post that some major comic book publishers, such as Marvel, don’t place much emphasis on art or think it’s an important component to readers.

This may be true for some readers, but for those like myself, the art can make or break the story. The Wicked + The Divine is a perfect example of this because my enjoyment of it dropped by the third volume because the artists had changed. Luckily the original artists returned for its fourth volume and my interest again perked up. (I wrote about this in my review of volumes 1-4.)

Rat Queens is another example. I enjoyed the story and loved Roc Upchurch’s illustrations in the first volume, however, Upchurch was removed from the comic’s creative team due to a domestic violence case halfway through the second volume and Stjepan Sejic took over. However, I didn’t like Sejic illustrations much and have been procrastinating on continuing the series ever since. I believe the art is as influential as the storytelling in comics and when the two work great together, the story has a greater impact.


Recommendations

I’m always on the lookout for more comics to read. I tend to shy away from superhero comics simply because I do not know where to start with those. But last year a coworker loaned me a few of his, one of which became a favorite — Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar, illus. by Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett, — which made me realize that I did myself a disservice by avoiding superhero comics. Since then, I’ve started to buy and add more of them to my TBR, especially those that are focused on characters I’ve always been curious about, like the Joker and Batman.

Speaking of adding comics to my TBR, this post is inspired by a recent NPR article that lists 100 favorite comics and graphic novels. They compiled the list by first requesting recommendations from its readers (I recommended Saga and Monstress and a few others) then assembled a team of critics and creators to shorten the list of 7,000 nominations to just 100.

My intention with this post was just to share which of the 100 comics I’ll add to my TBR; instead it blossomed into a post about my love of comics. But I’m back on track now. The following are the comics I’ve selected from NPR’s list that I’d love to read. I’ll include in italics the summaries posted alongside each comic in the NPR post.

Graphic novels

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (illus.)

Nimona unfolds like a flower, growing from a lighthearted tale about an irrepressible girl with mysterious powers who worms her way into a gig as sidekick to her town’s designated villain into something much richer and deeper. Noelle Stevenson’s spritely line work gives the story even more lift, building a world where temp agencies handle evil-sidekick gigs and fantasy-armored bad guys plot to attack modern-looking city skylines with genetically modified dragons.

Watchmen by Alan Moore, illus. by Dave Gibbons

Everything you’ve heard about this graphic novel, first published as a 12-issue series in 1986 and 1987, is true. It broke the ground; it changed the game. There is a reason people still press it into the hands of those who’ve never read a comic before. Alan Moore’s jaundiced deconstruction of the American superhero — “What if they were horny, insecure sociopaths?”— is showing its age, given that it continues to inspire hordes of lesser, grim-and-gritty imitators. But Dave Gibbons’ art, laid out in that meticulous, nine-panel grid, still works astonishingly well, whether he is capturing the intimate (a fleeting facial expression during a couple’s argument) or the cosmic (a crystalline clockwork castle rising out of the red dust of Mars).

Daytripper by Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon (illus.)

The book’s subject — the way death retroactively imposes a shape on a person’s life — belies the sense of hope that saturates every panel of this expressive and poignant story by Brazilian twin brothers Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba. Chapter after chapter, we meet an obituary writer at different ages and follow him through some of the most important days of his life, and every one of those days — incongruously, magically — ends in his death. With each death, we read the obituary he would have written for himself, which does not come close to capturing the rich imagery, emotional nuance and lyrical language of the chapter we’ve just read. But that is the point: The merciless way death forces us to reduce lives to narrative arcs, to turn a person’s existence into story beats and act breaks. Daytripper is the product of a clear-eyed perspective — the kind that only emerges once death isn’t something feared, denied or raged against, but confronted. And embraced.

Through The Woods by Emily Carroll (illus.)

“It came from the woods. Most strange things do.” Emily Carroll’s book of short stories is horror, yes – but it’s the psychological horror of isolation and alienation, not the pulpy, visceral horror of the slaughterhouse floor. We’re left disturbed, discomfited and unsettled by her stories, but also beguiled, because Carroll is so thoroughly in control of the comics medium. Her captions and dialogue curl and bend around her characters like sinister tendrils, drawing our eye across the page and into the shadows that lurk under the bed or down the hallway or just outside the front door. Her colors can blaze or cool to serve her narrative, and her lettering slyly underscores every shift in mood. Beautifully creepy stuff.

Here by Richard McGuire (illus.)

Reading reviews of comics gets frustrating when the writer focuses solely on critiquing the story, ignoring that comics can only exist in the space where text and art come together. It’s great, then, when a comic like Here comes along, because it forces critics and readers alike to engage with the potent narrative power of the wordless comics page. Here’s conceit: We look at one corner of a room. No — not merely look at — we truly see it, because Richard McGuire shows us that same tiny patch of real estate over thousands of years, from the distant past to the far future, overlaid — literally — with selected mundane moments of the life that happen in and around that space in the meantime: births, deaths, parties, arguments. That narrow focus produces a work that is both hugely expansive and quietly, thoroughly mind-blowing.

How To Be Happy by Eleanor Davis (illus.)

When a very recent work is nominated in the popular vote, the judges feel it incumbent upon them to really interrogate it — to ensure that it justified its presence on the final list. That said, Eleanor Davis’ 2015 collection of comics short stories sailed through that process with unanimous, enthusiastic consent. Davis writes and draws surreal, deeply funky comics about people who find themselves in a funk. “Find the stories that help you comprehend the incomprehensible,” one of her characters says. “Find the stories that make you stronger.” Her art expresses both raw emotion and the stringent denial of it; she carves out a place that is both deeply felt yet coolly introspective. She also avails herself of widely different styles, using color — or the lack of it — perfectly matched to the narrative mood.

A Contract With God: And Other Tenement Stories by Will Eisner (illus.)

Comics nerds are a nitpicky, combative lot, so whenever Will Eisner’s collection of comics short stories gets called “the first graphic novel,” the “um, actually”s descend like so many neck-bearded locusts to remind everyone about Rodolphe Topffer and Lynd Ward and to point out that it’s not a novel, it’s a collection of stories. So let’s put it this way: Eisner’s 1978 A Contract With God is widely regarded as the first modern graphic novel. But it’s not on this list because it was first, it’s on this list because it remains one of the most beloved. Eisner sets his stories in and around a Lower East Side tenement building very like the one he grew up in, and it shows. He imbues each story with an elegiac quality reminiscent of the fables of Sholom Alecheim, replete with a fabulist’s gift for distilling the world’s morass into tidy morality plays. Moody, moving and darkly beautiful, this work helped the wider world accept the notion that comics can tell stories of any kind, the only limit being the vision of their creators.

Series comics

Mouse Guard by David Petersen (illus.)

David Petersen’s Mouse Guard series boasts a rich mythology gorgeous, warmly colored depictions of the natural world vibrantly realized characters and spectacular set pieces featuring bold adventures and narrow escapes. Plus, it stars fuzzy-wuzzy mice with itty-bitty swords and teeny-tiny capes. But it’s Petersen’s meticulous commitment to world building and his determination to fully realize his fanciful conceit — an elite cadre of mice that defend mousedom from threats foreign and domestic — that transport Mouse Guard out of the realm of “funny animal” comics. His characters may have dots for eyes and cute ears, but he invests them with a sense of purpose and nobility. These are rodents with gravitas.

Manga

Lone Wolf & Cub by Kazuo Koike, illus. by Goseki Kojima

Fans of Japanese cinema will find a lot to like in Lone Wolf and Cub, the epic story of a falsely disgraced warrior who hits the road with his toddler son in a quest to find and kill the powerful clan that framed him and killed his wife. (And in fact, these darkly cinematic comics have been adapted as movies in Japan.) Famous for its deep research and accurate representation of Japan’s Edo period, Lone Wolf and Cub is 7,000 pages (yep, 7,000 pages) of sprawling samurai adventure — and one bad*** baby.

Graphic Nonfiction

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi (illus.)

Marjane Satrapi’s curvaceous but spare black-and-white artwork is the perfect complement to this lyrical, mournful tale of growing up in Iran during and after the Islamic revolution of 1979. Ten-year-old Marji struggles with wearing the veil, yet wants to be a prophet when she grows up. But as revolution and war turn her world upside down, she becomes increasingly rebellious (a chapter about new high-tops and a contraband Kim Wilde tape is a particular standout). Satrapi uses her own story as a backbone to tell the larger story of her family and of Iran itself, its rich culture and oppressive politics.

March by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illus. Nate Powell

Congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis tells his life story in the National Book Award-winning March, scripted by Andrew Aydin and expressively illustrated by Nate Powell. Lewis is the last person alive to have spoken at the 1963 March on Washington, and he offers a ground-level view of the civil rights struggle, packed with sympathetic but unsparing portraits of the movement’s movers and shakers. Modeled on a comic that inspired Lewis himself — 1958’s Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story — this is required reading for everyone who has only seen those years in old news footage. And everyone else, too.

Your Black Friend by Ben Passmore (illus.)

Ben Passmore’s slim, 11-page mini-comic is an open letter, written in the second person, consisting of a litany of gentle admonitions for well-meaning but racially tone-deaf white people: “Your black friend hates that you slide into ‘black’ presentations thoughtlessly. He feels like you’re mocking him, but knows that you are totally unaware of this … Your black friend wishes you would play more than Beyonce. There are more black performers than Beyonce and he’s worried you don’t know that.” That last sentiment is matched to a panel in which a clueless white guy sings along to “Formation,” while his black friend shoots a hilariously weary side-eye at the reader. Your Black Friend is by far the shortest comic to make this list, but there is nothing slight about it. Beneath its sardonic tone lies a truth that is urgent, sincere and deeply affecting.

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud (illus.)

Scott McCloud’s masterpiece is perhaps the nerdiest, most joyous, most enthusiastic treatise ever written. McCloud wants you to understand that the medium of comics is wholly unique, and it deserves respect. So McCloud’s cartoony avatar walks the reader through the sundry techniques and theories, the craft of comics — or in his words, sequential art. There are moments of excess here — McCloud’s passion for defining systems causes him to make the occasional distinction without a difference — but it is a worthy passion and produces a book that remains a comprehensive, authoritative and hugely useful tool for getting newbies to give comics a shot.

Fantasy and Science Fiction

Elfquest by Wendy Pini (illus.) and Richard Pini

Elfquest is kind of a legend in the comics industry — it is one of the first creator-owned comics, and it has been running in one form or another since 1978. Also, the adventures of Cutter, Skywise and the Wolfriders (and their amazing hairdos) are absurdly addictive; Wendy Pini’s Tom of Finland-meets-Margaret Keane art and the fervid, earnest scripts she wrote with her husband, Richard, will keep you pinned to the page, far into the night.

The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, illus. by Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III, and Sam Kieth

Neil Gaiman is America’s favorite nerd these days, but back in the late ’80s, he was mostly known for fringe titles like Black Orchid and, well, writing a quickie biography of Duran Duran. And then he pitched DC Comics the idea of reviving an old character, the Sandman, and making him something completely new: A pale, tormented, goth-tacular Lord of the Dreaming who is rebuilding his kingdom after 70 years of occult captivity. Soapy, dramatic, mythic, gorgeous and sometimes terrifying, Sandman is the comic that fluttered the hearts of a million baby fans. (Plus, Death is adorable.)

Superheroes

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, illus. by Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley

This is it: Frank Miller’s 1986 magnum opus, the gold standard against which all Batman stories will forever be judged, for better or worse. Miller’s tale of an aged Caped Crusader coming out of retirement to fight a new breed of criminal was deliberately set outside DC’s continuity, which gave Miller lots of room to play. The result is big and operatic (think Rambo meets Wagner’s Ring Cycle). But it’s also grim and gritty and helped usher in an era of dark, brooding heroes that remains the default superhero mode. It became such a hit both in and outside comics circles that readers of in-continuity Batman hungered to bring the book’s dark vision of future Batman an in-canon reality, voting by phone to kill off Robin in 1988.

Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates, illus. Brian Stelfreeze

The announcement that Marvel contracted Ta-Nehisi Coates to write a Black Panther series was cause for excitement in and out of comics circles. (The fact that he was to be paired with veteran artist Brian Stelfreeze didn’t hurt — although that excitement may not have spread beyond comics nerds.) The task Coates set for himself was a tough one: He had to pick up the pieces following Marvel’s latest Secret Wars crossover event, establish a new status quo and then go on to tell a compelling story. Coates is a longtime comics fan, but this was his debut effort in the medium. The result is dense — prose writers who come to comics tend to load up their word balloons to the bursting point — but offers a fresh take: He explores Black Panther the king, not the hero, forced to make a series of unpopular choices that turn his people against him. Chewy, resonant stuff.

Ms. Marvel by Adrian Alphona, illus. G. Willow Wilson

Obviously, our judge G. Willow Wilson recused herself from this part of the debate. But there’s no question about it: Readers (and the rest of the judges) love Wilson’s version of Ms. Marvel. Kamala Khan was an ordinary Muslim teenager in Jersey City — and a Captain Marvel fangirl — when an alien mist turned her into a shape-shifting superhero. Now, she has to balance school, friends and her loving-but-overprotective family, while saving the world. And like any kid, she doesn’t always get it right. Ms. Marvel is a marvel — sensitively written, gorgeously drawn and, for a part-alien superhero, always achingly real.

Saga of the Swamp Thing by Alan Moore, illus. by Steve R. Bissette and John Totleben

Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson created Swamp Thing for DC Comics in 1972, a muck-monster who owed a lot to Marvel’s similarly swampy Man-Thing created the year before. But Alan Moore’s tenure on the character, beginning in 1984, redefined the character in a fundamental and groundbreaking way, turning him into arguably the most powerful hero in the DC Universe, albeit one shot through with the darkest elements of gothic horror. Penciler Stephen Bissette and inker John Totleben’s images seemed to float in that darkness, imbuing Moore’s literally epic tale (Swampy visits both Hell and outer space) with a sense of dread and foreboding, even when that tale involved Swamp Thing communing with Evil itself … by walking into its giant fingernail. Yeah, look, you really have to read it.

Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. by Warren Ellis, illus. by Stuart Immonen

“It’s like Shakespeare! But with lots more punching! It’s like Goethe! But with lots more crushing!” Okay, well, no, but you have to admit that the Marvel Z-listers who make up the Nextwave team have a way better theme song than any other superheroes. This is Warren Ellis at his silliest and most joyful, complemented by Stuart Immonen’s gorgeously angular line work. It’s an over-the-top parody of the Marvel universe, the antidote to grim ‘n’ gritty and the perfect book to press into the hands of anyone who says they hate superheroes.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North, illus. by Erica Henderson

Eats nuts! Kicks butts! Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s revival of an obscure ’90s Marvel comic relief character is pure joy on paper. Computer science student Doreen Green has a secret superpower: She can talk to squirrels. Also, she has a tail. With college roommate Nancy and sidekicks Koi Boi and Chipmunk Hunk, Doreen uses a combination of tail tricks, computer savvy and irrepressible cheer to beat up pretty much every baddie who comes her way. (Also, you’ll have to squint, but North’s jokey footnotes are not to be missed.)

Hellboy by Mike Mignola

There is no one like Mike Mignola — his thick, angular, shadowy lines are instantly recognizable, almost like a silent movie in comic form. And Hellboy is a singular creation, a good-natured demon (who smells like roasted peanuts) brought to Earth as a baby by Nazi occultists during World War II and then raised as a normal boy by a kindly professor. So, just an everyday kid, then. Mignola’s dry humor plays beautifully against Hellboy’s fantastical adventures, and there is a LOT to explore in the universe he has created over decades of writing and drawing.

All Ages

Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier (illus.)

Our judges had a hard time picking just one Raina Telgemeier book, but eventually we settled on the gorgeous, heart-tugging Ghosts. Cat and her family move to the beach town of Bahia de la Luna in the hopes that the air there will be better for her little sister Maya, who has cystic fibrosis. The town turns out to be full of gentle ghosts, and Maya wants nothing more than to meet one — but Cat can’t face even the idea of death.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (illus.)

Gene Luen Yang’s much-praised 2006 book contains three stories — a retelling of the legend of the Chinese Monkey King, a tale of a second-generation child of Chinese immigrants attempting to navigate a white suburban school and a story about a white boy embarrassed by his visiting Chinese cousin. The disparate narratives link up in surprising, revelatory ways, and along the way, Yang interrogates the sundry many Asian stereotypes that Western culture has absorbed and tracks how his characters confront them. The result is an intriguing mashup that borrows from sources as disparate as Fu Manchu stories, political cartoons, John Hughes movies, Marvel comics and cheesy sitcoms to show characters pushing through self-hatred to craft their own identities.

Bone by Jeff Smith (illus.)

Inspired by cartoons like Pogo and Carl Barks’ work for Disney, Jeff Smith’s gentle, multiple-award-winning epic follows cousins Fone Bone, scheming Phoney Bone and goofy Smiley Bone — strange little large-nosed cartoon critters — who get run out of their hometown when one of Phoney’s plots goes wrong. They go on a Tolkienesque odyssey, eventually ending up in a mysterious valley threatened by the dark Lord of the Locusts. Smith began drawing Fone and his cousins when he was only 5 years old — and this is, in fact, a great comic to start your little readers on.

And that’s all folks!
If you have any comic book recommendations, please share them below.
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11 thoughts on “Weekend Reads #74: Hooked on Comics

  1. Nimona and Through the Woods are two of my absolute faves 💕 So many recs here I will have to check since of the out! Have you read The Gigantic Beard that was Evil? It’s a good ‘un.

    Like

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