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…

Spotify Superheroes

It’s been nearly two weeks since my last weekly playlist, hasn’t it? This needs to be rectified. Some of you may notice a slight theme throughout this week’s playlist

Superman by R.E.M is a song that many, many people arriving at my blog through search engines are looking for. A cover of a 60s track by The Clique, this is a joyous bit of powerpop fun.

Wonder Woman by Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint is not, as Spotify thinks, by the Attractions, but is from the Costello/Toussaint/Impostors album The River In Reverse, an album they recorded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. This is an old Toussaint song from the 70s.

That’s Really Super, Supergirl by XTC is off what is possibly XTC’s most consistent album, Skylarking. Holly loved this one til she realised it really was about, as she put it, “Supergirl’s emo boyfriend”. I love it *because* of that…

“Batman” Theme by Neal Hefti is the 60s TV theme, in an arrangement that has an ocarina solo. Who could ask for more?

Sunshine Superman by Donovan is one of his better singles – a very enjoyable bit of pop-psychedelic 60s nonsense.

Sgt Rock Is Going To Help Me is our second XTC song, but given that they are both one of the best bands ever and bona-fide comic fans (Andy Partridge is a fan of Kubert and Ditko especially) it seems reasonable.
(Incidentally, one of my favourite facts from the About Time series, which I’ve read over the last couple of months, is that “Andrew Partridge of Swindon” was a runner-up in a 1968 ‘Design A Doctor Who Monster’ competition on Blue Peter. )

The Supreme Being Teaches Spider-Man How To Be In Love by The Flaming Lips is from the Spider-Man 3 soundtrack, though I don’t remember it from the film, and quite what Mohammed Ali has to do with anything I don’t know…

Boy Wonder by The Undertones is a classic bit of pop-punk from the late 70s. Annoyingly, Feargal Sharkey, the interestingly-named frontman of the band, went on first to record one of the most cloying, awful singles of the 80s (A Good Heart), and then to become an executive for ‘UK Music’ (the British equivalent of the RIAA). He was great as a teenager, though…

Superman by Benny Goodman is a surprisingly-raw sounding instrumental for the Goodman big band (Goodman usually saved the more dissonant stuff for the small groups). I don’t know any details of the recording, but that sounds very like Cootie Williams on trumpet, and he was only in Goodman’s band in 1940, after leaving Ellington, so we’ll say it’s from then.

Plastic Man by The Kinks is one of those attacks on The Businessman In His Suit And Tie that were so popular in the mid-60s, where rock stars attack people for daring to have jobs and live in suburbia. It’s a fun one though.

Barbara Allen by Lois Lane is a version of the old folk song by a Dutch band. Not my favourite version of the song, but a nice one.

Mr Sandman by The Chordettes is a song you all know. However it sounds stranger than you remember – those backing vocals almost sound sampled, a la I’m Not In Love/Star Me Kitten. Also, the Beach Boys fans among you could note that the ‘my children were raised’ section of Heroes & Villains was ripped off from it. The song definitely shows its age though in the line about “wavy hair like Liberace”…

1952 Vincent Black Lightning by Richard Thompson is a great song. And, well, Black Lightning’s a superhero.

Animal Man by Kim Fowley is as silly as you’d imagine.

And Wolverine Blues by Jelly Roll Morton is a great little track by the man who claimed to have invented jazz…

Best of the Year post

I always have difficulty when it comes to thinking about ‘best of the year’ lists, which most people seem to have no trouble at all with. With the exception of monthly comics, I don’t tend to keep track of what’s ‘now’ and what isn’t, and I often end up discovering things five or ten years after they came out (I bought my first Cerebus phonebook on the day issue 300 came out, though I didn’t realise that til later). So while I’m constantly acquiring new music, it’s for a rather flexible definition of ‘new’ that can include this year (the Passing Strange soundtrack album, That Lucky Old Sun) a couple of years ago (L.E.O.’s Alpacas Orgling, one of my favourite albums of ‘this year’), or decades ago (a compilation of banjo tracks by Uncle Dave Macon), and I don’t really pay attention to which is which. Same goes for books.

So I’m going to do top 5 lists only (because to do a top 10 would be scraping the barrel) for gigs and comics – everything else I can’t be sure what year it came out.

Best Comics Of The Year:

1 All Star Superman #10 by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant.
This may well be the best single issue of a superhero comic ever produced, and it’s certainly the best Superman single issue since Alan Moore’s couple of issues in the mid-80s (and may be better even than them). It encapsulates all the themes not only of this series but of everything Grant Morrison has been working towards in his career, and the script is complemented perfectly by Quitely’s art.

2 Judenhaas by Dave Sim
Sim is my pick for ‘greatest comic creator of all time’. I can think of people who are his equals – but not his betters – at the individual talents he has (Alan Moore as a writer, J.H. Williams as an artist, Todd Klein as a letterer), but nobody who can combine do everything as well as he could – to my mind he even beats both Eisner and Kirby in terms of quality of work.Judenhaas is only a minor work by him, in comparison with, say, Jaka’s Story or Melmoth, but minor Sim beats major everybody else most of the time. I’m uncomfortable with this work, it seems to be ‘Oscar-bait’ – the message that the Holocaust is bad is not a particularly original or insightful one – but it’s executed so well… it also seems completely at odds with Sim’s own expressed views on women, which again brings up the fascinating (in a train-wreck kind of way) question of how *that* artist could also be *that* person.

3 The Amazing Fantastic Mr Leotard by Eddie Campbell and Dan Best
Eddie Campbell, like Sim, is another comic creator whose work I will always buy sight-unseen, because he’s never let me down (though I still don’t have a lot of his early material). The Fate Of The Artist and his collaborations with Alan Moore are among my very favourite comics of all time. This one is a lovely Munchausen-esque, vaguely Fortean story about the nephew of the inventor of the leotard.

4 Achewood – The Great Outdoor Fight by Chris Onstad
A slim volume, but a good representation of a great period in the most artistically interesting webcomic out there.

5 Sandman – Dream Hunters by Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell
Not for Gaiman’s story, which, while competent, has been published before and is also the kind of stuff he can knock off in his sleep. But Russell’s artwork is just gorgeous – I don’t usually buy comics for the art, being more orally/aurally oriented than visually, but this stuff is stunning.

Bubbling under – Comic Book Comics, Batman, Final Crisis, and Glamourpuss

Best gigs of the year
1 Mike Love’s “Beach Boys” – Manchester Apollo
The touring ‘Beach Boys’ have come in for a lot of stick from a lot of people, not least myself , over the years, for doing boring ‘touring jukebox’ sets, often with shoddy musicianship. However, over the last few years they’ve got much better. Their tour in 2004 was superb, but this was phenomenal. Having replaced Mike Kowalski (the worst drummer I’ve ever seen live) with John Cowsill (who had formerly been the band’s second keyboardist) , and added in for the UK tour only Dave Marks (the rhythm guitarist with the Beach Boys on their first three albums) they sounded better and fuller than ever, and did a fifty-two song set, including not only all the hits, but tracks like Forever, Kiss Me Baby, Sail On Sailor and ‘Til I Die. The highlight of the set was a three-song mini acoustic set about Transcendental Meditation, believe it or not. Simply superb.

2 Leonard Cohen – Manchester Opera House
I’ve seen Laughing Len twice this year (once last week at the MEN arena and this one in July). This gig was a very odd experience – a friend of the family had just died, my in-laws (whose tastes run more to Peter, Paul and Mary and contemporary country radio) were visiting and came with us (as did my parents, but they’re both Cohen fans) and the whole thing felt very dreamlike. When my Dad said “Here’s someone you know” and I turned around and Jeremy Paxman was stood behind me in the queue for the bar, I felt like the next thing to happen would be my primary school headmaster riding in on a unicycle or something.
Cohen, surprisingly, has an immense stage presence, owing more to the crooners than to the folkie image he still has to an extent, and his voice has aged very well – huskier and mellower. It was more like watching Tony Bennett than any rock-era musician I’ve seen, and it was quite shocking to think he hadn’t toured in 15 years before that show. If you get a chance, go and see him, but I wish he’d stayed in the smaller venues – the arena gig was just as good, musically, but the MEN is a horrible venue.

3 Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick – The Lowry
Not much to say about this one. Either you like traditional folk music, in which case you know how special a gig this was, or you don’t, in which case you won’t care.

4 Mercy & Grand: The Tom Waits Project – The Lowry
This was a production put on by Opera North, with Gavin Bryars (the composer of Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, Wait’s favourite record, and frequent Brian Eno collaborator) leading a ‘circus band’ (guitar, harmonium, tuba, double bass, woodwinds, accordion, violin, soprano singer if I recall) in a performance of Waits classics along with a couple of pieces by Kurt Weill, some Fellini film music and a couple of old English folk songs. To an extent it was Bryars remaking Waits in his own image – the song selection and choice of other music was clearly chosen to present Waits as part of a particular line of songwriters, and one could have done a very different but equally ‘true’ re-contextualising of Waits’ music by using songs by, say, Ray Charles, Captain Beefheart and Bruce Springsteen. Bryars clearly thinks of Waits in ‘art music’ terms, and that misses a lot of what makes Waits great. But having said that, the musicianship was superlative, Bryars’ arrangements were gorgeous and inventive, and you can’t go wrong with Tom Waits and a bit of Weill, can you?

5 Brian Wilson – Royal Albert Hall
It seems odd to be placing Brian Wilson at number five when Mike Love is at number one, but Wilson’s performance was more expensive, at a worse venue, shorter and had a much less interesting setlist. Since 2002, the interesting material has been steadily removed from Wilson’s sets, replaced by more and more of the earlier surf ‘n’ girls ‘n’ sun music. This isn’t so bad when (as in 2004 and 2007) he’s been premiering full albums of new material in order in the second set – the lighter, frothier, fun stuff sets off more difficult music like Smile very well – but it makes for a show which, while still excellent, is not as good as Brian and his band are clearly capable of.
Brian’s band are still the best I’ve ever seen, and it’s still BRIAN WILSON, and he’s still performing songs like God Only Knows and Heroes And Villains, and if I hadn’t seen this band do some of the very best shows I’ve ever seen in my life I’d have thought this was excellent. But it was like Brian and Mike had swapped setlists.
(Note for Americans – Brian’s US shows this year have been to promote That Lucky Old Sun and have included full performances of that album. None of the criticisms above apply to any show where that is the case…)