Comic books, or graphic novels if you prefer, have come a long way since the simple, innocent days of Superman leaping tall buildings in a single bound. It seems there’s a new superhero movies coming out every time you turn around, and reading comics themselves isn’t just kid stuff any more-a generation of comics readers has come of age, and they’re picking up the new issues of their favorite serials on their lunch break from Wall Street
jobs, or teaching the medium in university classes. You grew up; is it any surprise that comics grew up with you?
Suddenly you can have the best of both worlds; read comics and still feel sophisticated. Yes, it’s possible to enjoy a superhero story and still get sucked in by writing and art you’d be proud to keep on your bookshelf or coffee table next to something in the more traditional canon. Maybe you’ve always wanted to get in on the fun, but it’s hard to go into a new hobby blindly, especially since one look around any decent comics shop reveals how spoiled the consumer is for choice. If your last brush with comics was reading one of your buddies’ beat-up old “Spider-Man” books at Boy Scout camp, no worries. Here’s a primer on the best comics for today’s novice reader, but not just any novice reader-a smart adult who’s ready to read comics as literature, to have his mind challenged… and some good superhero action on the side is perfectly welcome, too.
(1) “Understanding Comics” by Scott McCloud
An instructional guide to the medium told in comics form itself, resulting in the friendliest book about art you’ll ever read. This book is not a history, nor an overview or analysis of any specific texts, but a comprehensive discussion of the grammar of comics, how we read them, a breakdown of how an artist or writer uses the building blocks of comics to tell the story-the sort of primer that’s easy to find for film or traditional 2D art or writing, but which in the comics world stands more or less alone.
McCloud may be writing about sequential art, but understanding the basis of this art form will also give the reader a deeper understanding of any other form, be it painting or music or dance. On this basis, “Understanding Comics” is a valuable addition to the library of anyone with an interest in aesthetics, even if another page of graphic storytelling never crosses your field of vision again.
(2) “Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Once it’s time to crack the spine of some serious storytelling, there is no better first stop than the “Citizen Kane” of comics, “Watchmen”. Arguably the best-written book in the business, and regularly appearing on any serious selection of the finest works in the medium, “Watchmen” turned the traditional superhero story on its ear and challenged the world’s perceptions of what a comic could be.
To describe the story in reductive terms is already to do it a disservice before we begin. It’s about costumed heroes, yes, but Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, Silk Spectre and Nite Owl (and the rest) carry with them far more psychological and personal drama than whiz-bang action. Set in an alternate vision of the 80s with a deeply troubling nuclear scenario unfolding, “Watchmen” deftly trades off between tense storytelling and extended moments of close character study to build a distinctive world and an unforgettable cast.
The book merits close study, as every piece of seemingly superfluous information manages to connect to everything else; indeed, numerous unofficial annotations of the work have arisen to help readers catch every reference, every piece of foreshadowing, every sign that Moore’s mind works with the organization of a supercomputer; a prop in the background of a panel in Chapter II may take on new significance once we’ve read Chapter IV.
The details will follow, but it’s the writing that will get you hooked on “Watchmen”, a beautiful, literate prose style simultaneously at home among superhero comics and serious literature. A must-read by any measure.
(3) “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” by Frank Miller
At long last we dip into familiar territory-an established superhero that the whole world has heard of. But this isn’t your father’s Batman. Miller’s seminal work not only redefined Batman in ways that stand true today, but influenced the films based on the Caped Crusader’s adventures, from Tim Burton’s dark 1989 tale to the recent blockbuster “Batman Begins”.
“The Dark Knight Returns” heralded the age of the gritty, brooding Batman. Miller intertwines narration from not only our hero, but his new Robin, the aging tough cop Commissioner Gordon, the players of the bizarre media circus that Gotham has become and finally even Superman to spin the story of a strange, hellish world facing crises beyond the scope of any ordinary-or extraordinary-man. At the time, it was most noted for bringing a serious edge to a character that most remembered from the light comic 1960s television series. Today it is still looked on as a paragon of hard-hitting comics writing for more mature readers.
(4) “Maus” by Art Spiegelman
A longtime favorite of college lecturers and any selection of literature dealing with the Holocaust, “Maus” is the tale not only of the author’s father’s experiences during the war, but the author coming to terms with his father and himself. The book’s simple technique of drawing Jews as mice and Germans as cats is hardly the most complex device, although easily the most discussed element of the text-but the story holds up even without the animal metaphor, as a story about a family bearing witness to untold horrors, and a solid example of just how sophisticated a story one can tell in a medium so often dismissed as light entertainment.
(5) “Bone” by Jeff Smith
Light entertainment has its place, of course, and Jeff Smith’s “Bone” deserves a nod as the best place to go for it. The full saga stretches around 1300 pages and yet reads with the effortless pace of a walk down a country road. Smith creates simple, lovable characters and draws them in a pleasing style in basic black-and-white cartoons that marry the cute, childlike fun of comics to a full, engaging, even epic story of the kind that bedtimes used to be made of. “Bone” is regularly compared to the finest works of everyone from Walt Disney to JRR Tolkien to Chuck Jones, and the disarmingly uncomplicated setup slides beautifully into higher-level, even mythical structure without losing its footing. “Bone” is a perfect read for outside on a summer day, whether you’re fourteen or forty; for parents, it’s something you can truly share with your kids.
So how can you go wrong?
The notion of comic books as literature is no longer a new thing, but widespread acceptance of the idea has yet to come. But comics combine literary and artistic techniques into one medium; with strong visuals and sharp writing, why shouldn’t the art form assert itself? Use these initial suggestions of the graphic novel at its best, and expand your horizons into a wide range of great works for sophisticated readers. Whether your bent is drama or romance or noir or (of course) superheroes, there are some quality comic books waiting for you. Take a chance on comics. They’re even better than you remember.