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…

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42 Responses to A Beginner’s Guide To Comics

  1. Debi Linton says:

    It poses an interesting conumdrum: when Joe Non-comic-reader asks for an intro to comics, is he actually asking for an intro to the medium, as you appear to have deduced, for to the Superhero genre? In many cases, I assume it’s the medium, but I never see people asking for “five essential” movies/novels/TV shows as an ‘intro’ to the media; it’s always about the genre.

    Well, not outside pretentious Hotlists.

    Anyway.
    I’m disappointed by the lack of Christian Gossett here. I think his work is vitally important to the comic medium in terms of defining what it can do.

    I’d also like to see BKV on this list: starting with Y: The Last Man, which I think is a good example of how comics can be used to tell one really long, very complex story that nevertheless follows a defined plotline and has a definitive ending.

    And given my recent abandonment of the franchise, I want to support your neglect of Fables, but despite Willingham’s occasional problems with women, it’s a very popular and easy to get into series, and I’d probably still suggest it for the comic beginner.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Well, my work colleague specifically said he was interested in the medium rather than the genre, and so I wrote this with his request in mind…

      I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read anything by Gossett – I’ll rectify this at once.

      I’ve only read a few things by Vaughan, and he’s good, but to my mind not *as* good as those listed. I was debating whether to include either Y or 100 Bullets (which seems to appeal to a similar audience) but they didn’t *quite* make it…

      And I didn’t include Fables in the main list because it’s so problematic (says the man who included Dave Sim… ) but it *is* in the ‘if you like Sandman, then try…’ bit…

      But yes, those would definitely work as starter comics too…

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  3. pillock says:

    Off the top of my head, comics I have found some success in giving to beginners:

    Messner-Loebs’ Flash, from just before “Takeoff” to “Nobody Dies” — because often beginners don’t really care if it is superheroes, because they’re expecting superheroes…and I don’t think the average person really does look down on superheroes, in fact I think they’re very much inclined to like ’em. So just give ’em something that’s “like this, but good”, and that’s an eye-opener right there.

    Maus.

    Lloyd Llewellan, then the rest of Eightball…tickle those old Mad reflexes…

    Watchmen, under the strict instructions to read it stoned.

    Locas.

    Understanding Comics.

    V For Vendetta.

    Sandman: Season Of Mists.

    Hmm, not sure what I’d add to the list now…Rare Bit Fiends, absolutely…

    Must think on’t!

  4. pillock says:

    “Batman: Year One” would probably work quite well.

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  6. pillock says:

    Although, needless to say, I like your list.

  7. Moored says:

    I believe From Hell will be as problematic as Watchmen for a new reader. While there are obviously differences in why it would be problematic(Watchmen requires that you have a good amount of superhero knowledge already, so that you actually get the how’s and why’s of deconstruction, while From Hell is kind of Moore’s attempt at putting all of the Jack Ripper myths in one narrative, sometimes being silly but at all times requiring you to spot the connections), I wouldn’t recommend either to a newcomer. I kind of feel the same way about All Star Superman as well. To some degree, you have to be in love with Superman to appreciate it.

    Its a great list though, and I really think WE3, Animal Man and V for Vendetta would be great introductions to the medium. How about manga. Urasawa?

    • I read From Hell without having read any other Ripper work and thoroughly enjoyed it twice. Once by itself, once reading the footnotes in parallell.

    • Prankster says:

      I agree about From Hell–it is a VERY daunting work, even if it doesn’t require knowledge of intricate superhero continuity to appreciate. I feel like it makes use of a lot of elements of comics storytelling that might be off-putting or confusing to people who aren’t totally familiar with the medium. Plus, the art is a turn-off for a lot of people. But of course, it depends on the tastes of the person to whom you’re giving it.

      As for All-Star Superman, it’s true that someone who’s familiar with Superman’s history is probably going to get more out of it, but in a sense it also functions as a pure, distilled dose of all the best Superman comics, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with experiencing them in this form first. And possibly never again. (I mean, I enjoy the raw imagination of Silver Age Superman comics too, but as actual stories to enjoy they’re pretty stupid. I don’t think it’s blasphemous to assert that Morrison did these tropes better–the older comics just laid the groundwork.) I’d say the same for “Supreme”, too, by the way, which is a terrific comic for kids. Again, a sophisticated (?) comics reader will “get” all the references, but it can also be enjoyed on its own merits as a fun, weird, tightly told superhero story.

  8. pillock says:

    Good Lord, I’ve completely missed the set-up for this, haven’t I?

    More thinking required…

  9. Neil Walton says:

    I think it depends on how old the person you want to introduce to comics is. Also, we in the UK do not get to see much of the European comic work.
    For children I would start them on Asterix, Dandy, Beano, Tin Tin and then move on to Superheroes and Manga as they get older.
    Teenagers and Adults should read Maus, I think it should be in every school. As the Teen reader gets older, rather than drop comics all together, wean away from Superheoes with 200AD, Vertigo and Oni comics. When I was reading comics, Oni rarely did Super hero stuff and put out good stories covering lots of different genres.
    With graphic novels, I agree with Cerebus and Sandman. I would use V for Vendetta rather than Watchmen; Lone Wolf and Cub or Akira to introduce people to Manga; and finally Maus as it cannot be praised enough. I have not read Palestine or the other comics based on real life conflicts but I have heard good things about them and would recommend them as well.

    • Prankster says:

      Maus is obviously great, but…I question the idea that it should be anyone’s first comic. As with From Hell above, it’s the kind of thing that’s clearly important and that shows what a great medium comics can be, but it’s one thing to impress the literati who might be disdainful of comics, and another simply to get someone hooked. The latter requires something a little more fun and accessible, I think–it doesn’t have to be a pinnacle of great literature.

      Likewise, I think some of the classic comics “canon” is somewhat disproportionately dark ‘n’ gritty, and that’s not necessarily the thing that’s going to pull people in. If someone had never read comics and were given Maus and From Hell, or even Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, they’d probably come away thinking comics are all a nonstop orgy of brutal violence and inhumanity.

      • Prankster says:

        To add: In Scott McCloud’s “Zot!” (which is probably a serious contender itself, particularly since it transitions from goofy superhero action to keenly observed slice-of-life stories) there’s a scene where this one really serious comics geek drags his girlfriend into a comic store. She immediately picks up “Tales of the Beanworld”, which she thinks looks funny, and the geek gets all upset and steers her away from it towards The Dark Knight Returns, because that’s a SERIOUS comic for SERIOUS people.

        …So yeah, I think even well-meaning comic geeks can fall into that trap sometimes. They’re so busy trying to justify comics as SERIOUS LITERATURE that they forget the “fun” aspect.

  10. pillock says:

    Maus has additional virtues besides just being, well, really good. People have heard of it, people know it’s well-thought-of, and the material comes across as both familiar and important to many, many, many readers. All of which wouldn’t be worth much if it wasn’t as excellent as it is…but it is, so it all comes together for the new reader of comics.

  11. I got my mum into comics throught Jaka’s Story.

    The only thing I’d add to the list would be Cages, which seems to work very well on non-comics readers I’ve tried it on.

  12. Wesley says:

    Three things to remember when introducing people to comics:

    1. Everyone has different tastes. The same five books will not work for everybody.

    2. Don’t give them any superhero book unless they specifically want to try one. If you’re introducing someone to a new medium it’s best not to reinforce any stereotypes they might have… and, although most people are happy to see one or two superhero movies a year, the world outside the comic shop subculture is not overwhelmingly interested in the genre.

    Actually, it’s probably best not to use any Marvel or DC comics, even the Vertigo books; even the non-superhero books seem to have a potentially offputting superhero aesthetic to them (if that makes sense to anyone but me).

    3. Some novels are more advanced than others. So are some comics. It’s a terrible idea to give Moby-Dick to your average high school student (not that this stops some English teachers). Similarly, although Chris Ware is brilliant, I’d hesitate before giving Jimmy Corrigan to a total comics novice; it’s too big and too information-dense.

    A few more books that might work for a lot of people:

    Cathy Malkasian, Percy Gloom. Malkasian apparently works in animation; her first graphic novel flows really well and would be an easy entry for a comics newbie.

    Kevin Huizenga, Curses. Huizenga is known for occasional formal experimentation, but it would still be pretty accessible for a new comics reader.

    Peter Blegvad, The Book of Leviathan. A collection of a weekly newspaper strip that could challenge Dilbert readers’ preconceived notions of what a newspaper strip can do. (More familiar strips like Calvin and Hobbes would work, too… but, on the other hand, they might be too familiar.

    Michael Kupperman, Snake and Bacon’s Cartoon Cabaret. Good for readers who can take densely packed artwork and who like dadaist humor.

    Edward Gorey, Amphigorey. Gorey’s work is halfway between comics and illustrated books, and might be a good pathway into the medium for some.

    Seth, Wimbledon Green. On the surface this may seem to inward-looking for a new comic reader–as though it’s a comic about comics. But it’s really a more universal story about a man with an obsession, and about the deeper longings that lie beneath that obsession.

    • pillock says:

      Huizenga, sure! Foolish of me to miss that one. And Kupperman too!

      The others I’m ashamed to say I don’t know.

      On the other hand, I’d cheerfully assign Moby Dick to a high school class — screw ’em, my father read Robinson Crusoe to me when I was six, and that one doesn’t even have any humour in it. Also, I think you underestimate the appeal of superheroes in comics. Not the quality! But the appeal.

      Gonna say Mouse Guard.

    • Debi Linton says:

      I couldn’t disagree more about #2. It’s acute genre-snobbery – apparently working on the assumptions that:
      a) no one who wishes to read comics wishes to read the most prevelent genre in comics.

      b) the genre itself doesn’t produce worthy stories.

      It also directly contradicts your point 1) – first you say everyone’s going to have different tastes, then you state that these tastes are probably never going to include the superhero narrative.

      There’s a lot of merit in the superhero genre; it’s remained this popular in the medium for a reason, and is popular among the non-comic audience as well; look at the success of the movies, the Superman TV shows and perhaps to a lesser extent, the DCAU and X-men cartoons

      While I wouldn’t give a superhero book to someone who isnt’ interested in those things, to rule them out out of hand is ridiculous.

      • Wesley says:

        The thing is, it isn’t the most prevalent genre in comics. It’s just the most prevalent genre in the insular little world of American comic book shops.

        And while it isn’t impossible to produce good work in the superhero genre–i.e., Watchmen–it has produced less than its fair share of good work.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          How about ‘the most prevalent genre among comics to which readers will have easy access’?

          And as for the latter, I refer you to Sturgeon’s Law. There are enough *good* superhero comics out there that you could read only those and still have enough good reading matter to last a lifetime, just as there are that many good records by white men in their 20s with guitars. And if I was covering the whole of popular music I’d probably put *something* by a white male guitar group in there…

          • Wesley says:

            How about ‘the most prevalent genre among comics to which readers will have easy access’?

            This isn’t really true, either, even if you restrict yourself to English speaking countries. The comics to which people have the easiest access are the ones published in the newspaper every morning. (You might include webcomics, too, inasmuch as they’re free to anyone with internet access… but as much as I like some of them them I wouldn’t count them as “accessible” because no one who isn’t interested is going to seek them out, or know how to find ones they might want to read.)

            Most people will never walk into a comic shop, and comics newbies may find even the Marvel and DC collections in “graphic novels” section of the bookstore offputting.

            Something I should have emphasized when I posted earlier is that the problem with superhero comics (and one reason the percentage of good superhero work is weirdly small) is less an inherent problem with the genre than a problem with superhero comics as they exist in our culture. There’s a fairly monolithic aesthetic to superhero comics. This is, I think, because the genre has always been dominated by Marvel, DC, and eventually Image, and all others tend to imitate them. Over the years the genre became inbred and the “superhero aesthetic” grew increasingly exaggerated. It’s an aesthetic that outsiders are likely to find ugly and maybe a bit sleazy.

            Speaking of inbreeding, superhero comics these days depend on astonishingly ornate continuity. (I used to read the Giffen and DeMatties Justice League books when I was in my teens. Years later, in a fit of nostalgia, I checked the Grant Morrison volumes out of the library. They were completely incomprehensible. And I say this as someone who understood The Invisibles.)

            So readers may have easy physical access to superhero comics, but I’m skeptical that very many people outside the direct market comic-shop culture–even if they’re people who enjoyed Heroes or The Dark Knight–are likely to find them “accessible” in any other sense.

            • pillock says:

              To my mind, what you’re identifying there as the problem with the “superhero aesthetic” would be better labelled as the problem with crap. And I absolutely agree, it’s ugly and it’s sleazy, and even when it isn’t it’s hellishly obscure. However I always prefer to name names about it: it is this creator’s fault, it is this editor’s fault, etc. etc., that the work is no good.

              I think for most people, though, there isn’t too much awareness of just how crap it’s all gotten…they would pick up a Batman book based on liking the cartoon, or the recent movies, and if it happened to be good, they would never have cause to think that the superhero culture has become offputting. If the superhero fantasy of power and identity wasn’t accessible, no one would’ve seen The Matrix or Diehard, would they?

              But I do think there’s a problem with reading different forms of comics. Reading strips is easy: it’s just scanning. Longer narratives don’t respond well to scanning, though. I think it was Don Simpson who had a thing about this, when you see someone new to comics reading one, they’re just flipping through the pages, stopping, looking, flipping again…they treat it like a magazine, they treat every panel as its own thing, they don’t connect it all up and they don’t see why they should: to them, that’s how you read these things, you don’t read them like a regular book. To break that, you’ve got to really put some mustard on what they’re seeing, something that makes them accept the form-specific method of reading comics — something to make them care about what’s going to happen, enough that they’re willing to page forward through the story instead of just scanning and sampling it.

              But…hmm…seem to have mislaid my point around here someplace…

        • Debi Linton says:

          Laying aside the subjective issue of what constitutes a ‘good work’, what would you say is the most prevalent genre? Apart from, perhaps, yaoi.

          • Wesley says:

            Humor.

            Try asking random people on the street to name a comic character. Unless you specify a comic book character, I’m guessing more people will come up with Snoopy, Garfield, or Dilbert than Superman or Batman.

  13. pillock says:

    Something pretty much brand-new, but I can think of a few friends who’d probably be quite taken with Asterios Polyp…a bit of Moebius probably wouldn’t go amiss…and maybe I bring up too much the girls I know who devoured Seaguy and My Monkey’s Name Is Jennifer when they were in their teens?

    Wednesday Comics has been really popular with the average joes/janes I know…

    Fair warning: I think I’m just going to keep chiming in, here.

    • Prankster says:

      Ironically, Seaguy is seen as this weird, incomprehensible thing by a lot of established comics (superhero) fans, but kids seem to really love it. “Why, a four-year-old could understand this comic. Bring me a four-year-old, I can’t make heads or tails of it.”

    • Good call on Asterious Polyp – I picked that up recently after reading a Page45 review, and was most impressed.

      Box Office Poison is also very good, in that kind of vein.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Please chime in as much as possible…
      (Incidentally, comment replies seem not to be getting to my email for some reason…)

  14. Prankster says:

    “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.”

    This is sort of true, and at the same time I think it’s not quite fair–while Gaiman’s clearly building on Moore’s blueprint for “nodular” comics storytelling, for instance, I’d argue he’s one of the only writers who actually outdid Moore in this arena. Moore never managed a sustained epic narrative comprised of so many smaller narratives, all of which tied together in the end, to the degree that Gaiman did. The American Gothic storyline in Swamp Thing comes close, but I’d argue that the done-in-ones are more or less disposable, and put aside once the larger storyline comes into focus. Compare that to Sandman: the majority of issues stand alone and tell a satisfying, self-contained story, but when you look at the whole series almost every little piece turns out to have been important. The only other series I can think of that pulled this off was Seven Soldiers, and even that lacks Sandman’s elegance.

  15. The Fourth World stories by Jack Kirby – an acquired taste, these are like the free jazz of four-colour superhero epics.

    I wish I’d said that first! I would suggest the Fantastic Four over the Fourth World for that very reason, but then I’m not too keen on free jazz.

    The one that (in my view) absolutely shouldn’t be on this list is Sandman, which (in my view) just got by on flattering the ‘intelligence’ of its readers. The one that absolutely should be on the list (in my view) is Alec, though as others have said you could make a good case for Maus too.

    You could also make a good case for Understanding Comics, being about comics doesn’t stop it being one.

    If Moebius is to be on there, I’d say go with The Incal.

    On superheroes I consider there to be a big difference between something like All Star Superman (“you know Superman, right?”) and something like Skrull Kill Krew (“you remember the ending of FF No.2, don’t you?”). People in general know what superheroes are, and did even before the crop of movies.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Sandman is horribly overrated, but it stands up better than you remember when you reread it without all that in mind, and almost everyone seems to at least quite like it if they’ve not read more comics…

      • One thing that annoys me about Sandman is its pseudo-literary quality. It sets itself up as being quite fantastical, about dreams etc. But its really just recycles a set of nineteenth century conventions which are nothing to do with the nature of dreams. They’re the equivalent of the frame going misty-edged in films, you don’t dream that way when you’re asleep but we’re all conditioned to think ‘dream’ whenever we see that trope. All that stuff is baggage and cliche by this point, but Sandman dresses it up as a literary heritage. It’s not one, and anyway a literary heritage isn’t what we want for comics anyway.

      • James Graham says:

        I think it is unfair to call Sandman “horribly overrated” – it was a career defining work and that isn’t without justification. But sadly I think that is a suitable description of a lot of Gaiman’s subsequent work. I gave up about halfway through American Gods wondering what the point of it was.

  16. Zom says:

    While I broadly agree with McCloud that combinations of words and pictures are powerful tools for communication and that certain varieties of those combinations – picture books, short newspaper strips, well crafted safety guidance – are relatively easy for most of us to understand, my experience would seem to suggest that reading the complex combinations in evidence in most comic books is actually a skill that needs to be developed. Most of the time the difficulties newcomers to the medium have reported to me aren’t serious – the odd confusion about where to look next, the occasional inability to comprehend a formal device – but what they point to is an underlying workload that can and, again my personal experience would suggest, often does put them off. “I just couldn’t get into it” is something I’ve heard time and time again, and I’m of the opinion that in 90% of cases the problem had nothing to do with the subject matter.

    Of course the other big issue is all the ways in which we, as fans of the medium, are bound to it. Our personal ties, our genre loves, our formal preferences, our familiarity with the way it feels to read a comic book, our history as comic book readers. People have touched on this above when they’ve made reference to All Star Superman requiring a love of the character, but I tend to think the problem is bigger than that, and looks a lot like what booklovers really mean when they say that they love the smell of books, and the atmosphere in bookshops, and the weight of a book in their hands.

    Best way to get people into comics? I have no idea, I suppose there are as many ways as there are people, but it has to be the case that in most instances getting into comics will require getting used to reading comics, which in turn will require reading a lot of comics!

    • Debi Linton says:

      in most instances getting into comics will require getting used to reading comics, which in turn will require reading a lot of comics!

      As a recent (last few years) convert to comics, with many friends who are the same; I’m willing to say quite happily here that, despite what PAD and Marvel say, a very effective way to get into comics and become a money-spending comics addict is through piracy. My £40 a month comic habit started when a friend pointed me at a scanned complete run of Birds of Prey, many of the trades of which I now own. Because of the nature of the Big 2 universes in particular, the best way to start with them seems to be just to jump in feet first.

    • my experience would seem to suggest that reading the complex combinations in evidence in most comic books is actually a skill that needs to be developed.

      An interesting point. True, a lot of the ‘crossover comics’ either weren’t formally innovative or managed to not look it. Maus, for example. Even Watchmen had regular grids and easy-to-follow storytelling, despite all the time dissociation stuff. But the big exception is Chris Ware. Non-comic-readers can flock to his stuff, which is formally quite wild, plus quite cold in tone.

  17. Zom says:

    Hah, yeah, I hadn’t thought about the piracy factor.

    TBH, I’d be very disinclined to suggest that newbies read Watchmen. Again, my experience is that people who don’t have a long history with the superhero genre don’t warm to it, which makes a lot of sense if you think about it. The youthful Moore’s purple prose doesn’t help much, neither.

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