A Beginner’s Guide To Comics
A colleague at work was asking me the other day about comics – he was interested in the form, but hadn’t really read anything except Watchmen (with which he’d not been vastly impressed, which makes sense for someone who’d not read anything else in the form), and wanted to know what would be good to read, preferably not involving superheroes.
I thought this might be a useful thing to post, then – I’m going to suggest five ‘first graphic novels’, along with suggestions of what to read if you enjoy them. I’m going to try to keep to stuff that could be read by a beginner and be enjoyed without any explanation (I remember when the people at Comics Should Be Good asked for suggestions along those lines a few years ago, it was filled up with people suggesting that X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills should be placed on a university curriculum, and not realising how ridiculous they seemed). Much of what I read in comics is, in fact, pap – disposable superhero stuff that’s briefly entertaining but not worth bothering with – this is meant to be a list of quality stuff only. There will be *one* superhero title, because covering comics without any superheroes at all seems a ludicrous proposition, but that’s it.
Each of these five would appeal to a very different audience, though they’re all ones I enjoy myself.
Jaka’s Story by Dave Sim & Gerhard
This is volume five of Sim’s 6000-page epic story Cerebus, but this one, more than any of the other volumes, can be read on its own. Sim’s work is now very controversial, because of his… unusual views (read “he appears to be suffering from a long-term, severe, untreated mental illness”), and many, many people refuse to read his work purely because of his views. But at the time this was published, Sim was widely regarded as one of the very best comic creators around (when Todd McFarlane wanted some guest writers for his new comic at that time, the four he chose were Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller and Sim, and that was the company Sim was placed in before his illness started affecting his public persona.)
Jaka’s Story is quite simply the most emotionally affecting story I’ve ever read in any format – with a very small cast and only a few ‘sets’ (it would make a great play) it shows a love triangle and the breakup of a marriage, and is about the difference between people’s inner lives and the perception of them by others. I wrote a very long essay on this a couple of years ago on my old blog, and could write a book on just this story, but here’s a brief excerpt of that post:
Much like the works of Shaw or Ibsen, each of these characters more or less stands for an idea. Unlike Shaw, at least, the characters still work as characters. Jaka’s Story is a true tragedy in a way that very few people have managed in the last century. There are no truly ‘good’ characters in the story, but nor are there any truly bad ones – they’re all motivated by mostly selfish motives, but try their best to be decent within their own moral framework. Pud, the character who is motivated by thoughts that are at best disturbing and at worst comes very close to committing rape, is also the only character who doesn’t end up causing huge amounts of damage to everyone else’s life. Conversely, Mrs Thatcher is (or appears to be) motivated by a firm moral and ethical code, but this allows her to commit acts that no-one but a fanatic could possibly condone (it is no surprise that Sim now finds her the most sympathetic character in the text). Cerebus is motivated solely by his own drives, but even he finds it impossible to cause any harm to Rick, and it is his desire to help that leads him to be away during the denouement, and thus unable to save them.
None of these characters are ‘sympathetic’ in the classic sense of only doing good or decent things, but I can identify with all of them, from Mrs Thatcher letting her morals destroy others’ lives, to Pud Withers trying his best to behave like a decent person but with no outlet for a sex drive that leads him into ever-more-dangerous fantasy territory. All the characters are, objectively, horrible people when judged on the basis of their actions, but they are no more so than I am, or most of my friends.
If you liked this, try the rest of Cerebus, obviously, to start with. In his early years Sim was hugely influenced by Barry Windsor-Smith’s work on Conan and Steve Gerber’s Howard The Duck, but at this point his peers were people like Rick Veitch (whose dream comics he references in several other Cerebus collections). Sim also influenced Canadian comics creators like Chester Brown (Ed The Happy Clown, Louis Riel) and indie people like Eddie Campbell (who I’ll talk about later) and Jeff Smith (whose Bone is hugely rated). His work was also an influence on Eastman and Laird in their early Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stories.
From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell is a docudrama black & white comic about the Jack The Ripper murders. Exhaustively researched (pretty much every panel is annotated in the appendix) but at the same time makes no pretence of being ‘the truth’, and in fact goes a long way out of its way to demolish the very idea of one single truth. The historical facts, and the plot Moore spins round them, are merely a hook on which to hang Moore’s ideas about reality, the ‘psychogeography’ of Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd, the work of WIlliam Blake, Freemasonry, the psychopathology of serial killers, the nature of time, and whatever else. Fascinating, disturbing, provocative material.
If you liked this, try Moore and Campbell have one more collaborative work – A Disease Of Language, which is very much like this would have been if the plot had been stripped out, and is one of my very favourite comics of all time. Moore pretty much redefined comics writing single-handedly, and a list of his works could easily do double duty as a first draft of the comics ‘canon’, but the ones that are closest to this (in very different ways) are probably V For Vendetta, League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Promethea. Campbell, meanwhile, is best known for his (excellent) autobiographical ‘Alec’ stories (about to be reprinted in one gigantic hardcover) and his take on the Greek myths, Bacchus, which will be getting the same treatment next year.
If, on the other hand, you want more black-and-white comics about true life Victorian events, there’s Chester Brown’s Louis Riel and Dave Sim and Gerhard’s Melmoth (the follow-up to Jaka’s Story, the sixth Cerebus trade is the story of Oscar Wilde’s death, as told through his friends’ letters).
The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman and various artists. Gaiman’s series Sandman was the most acclaimed comic of the late eighties and early nineties. There’s recently been a backlash against it, but at its best it was *almost* as good as its reputation, and the backlash is more against its fans (who tend to be rather heavily-made-up young women who like Buffy, and who are therefore regarded as The Enemy by many of the nerdy men who make up comics fandom) than against any real shortcomings in the series itself. A dark fantasy epic, but influenced far more by Lord Dunsany, C.S. Lewis and Lewis Carrol than by Tolkein or his imitators, Sandman is one of those landmarks of the medium that everyone needs some passing familiarity with in order to talk intelligently about any comic since it came out. The Doll’s House is the second volume of Sandman, and the first one where Gaiman has really found his feet and knows what he’s doing.
If you liked this, then try after reading the rest of Sandman, your first port of call should be the classic run on Swamp Thing by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totelben and Rick Veitch. The early issues of Sandman are influenced by this to an utterly absurd degree – Gaiman’s comics career has essentially been built on redoing one or two things Alan Moore did first, but doing them very well. Sandman was also influenced by, and an influence on, the early issues of Swamp Thing spin-off Hellblazer (John Constantine, a character from both these series, occasionally appears in Sandman). You could also try Gaiman’s Books Of Magic, a series set in the magical corner of the DC universe and featuring Constantine among others. After that, you might want to venture into the other long-running series in DC’s Vertigo imprint, like Preacher, Transmetropolitan and Fables, all of which are very different to this but appeal to the same kind of audience.
All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant
In which the best writer working in mainstream comics today, and either the best or second-best artist, show everyone exactly why Superman was important and matters. This is an ‘out-of-continuity’ story, that can be read by anyone who knows who Superman, Lex Luthor and Lois Lane are from any popular media, without any more information, and is essentially a retelling of ‘the myth of Superman’ in the way we retell the myths of Robin Hood or King Arthur. If the human race survives the next hundred years, this will be the version of Superman that survives and is remembered.
If you liked this, try Morrison and Quitely’s other collaborations are all good, especially We3 (an animal rights story which is part Incredible Journey part Terminator). If you want more Morrison superheroics, his Seven Soldiers Of Victory and 52 (in collaboration with several other writers) are logical places to go after this, as is his run on JLA. On the other hand if you want more of the ideas expressed in here, the best place to look is Morrison’s non-superhero (or borderline-superhero) work – Animal Man and The Invisiblesespecially, but also Seaguy.
Morrison’s version of Superman owes most to the late 1950s/early 1960s stories that can be found in the Showcase Presents: Superman series – these are stories explicitly aimed at children, and very simplistic, but they have a charm and imagination missing from many modern comics. Once you’ve read those (but *not* before) try Alan Moore’s Superman stories (all of which are in a collection called something like The DC Universe Stories Of Alan Moore – it’s been printed under a couple of different names) but especially Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?, which is also available on its own. And once you’ve read those, try Moore’s work (with Rick Veitch and others) on Supreme, Moore’s own take on those 50s stories.
And Alice In Sunderland by Bryan Talbot is a stunning tour de force, a discursory essay, much more structured than it appears, on subjects as diverse as the city of Sunderland, the Alice books, George Formby and the history of British kids’ comics. A deeply personal work, part history lesson, part collage, part love letter to his adopted home, this is one of my very favourite comics and shows what can still be done in the medium.
If you liked this, try Talbot’s other work is also good – his Adventures Of Luther Arkwright and The Tale Of One Bad Rat are both worth reading, as (to a lesser extent) is his work as purely an artist in series like Sandman and Nemesis The Warlock.
If you want more discursive non-fiction essay comics with a very similar flavour to this, Eddie Campbell’s The Fate Of The Artist could almost be this book’s twin, and is equally essential. Dave Sim’s current series, Glamourpuss, has a lot of the flavour of this as well, and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics was an obvious influence on parts of this. And you will almost certainly like Rick Veitch’s dream comics series Rare Bit Fiends, the first volume of which, Rabid Eye, very nearly made this list.
And five other comics that nearly made the list but didn’t, for one reason or another:
When The Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs – a touching tale about the aftermath of nuclear war, as seen through the eyes of two rather dim but well-intentioned elderly people.
A Contract With God by Will Eisner. The first comic ever to be called a ‘graphic novel’, Eisner’s writing is dated a bit (though bits such as “Shall not God also be so obliged?” still pack a powerful punch) but he invented almost every bit of modern western comics visual vocabulary that wasn’t invented by Jack Kirby, and was one of the first to see that you could do more than just kids’ entertainment with the comic format.
The Fourth World stories by Jack Kirby – an acquired taste, these are like the free jazz of four-colour superhero epics. Read this after Seven Soldiers if you liked that.
Any collection of any 2000AD stories from 1977 to 1993 – all of these have dated hugely, but this British weekly science fiction comic is where modern mainstream comics were invented – wildly inventive, exciting and over-the-top, pick up any of these (Zenith, Halo Jones, Skizz, Nemesis The Warlock, Slaine, ABC Warriors, Judge Dredd, Big Dave, etc ad infinitum) and you’ll find the prototypes for stuff that was hailed as groundbreaking when the same people started doing it in US comics a few years later.
The Great Outdoor Fight by Chris Onstad, which shows what webcomics are capable of – his Achewood is the most exciting, interesting thing in webcomics today.
And of course more suggestions are welcome in the comments…