I posed the question on Twitter today if any of my followers had never read a comic book or graphic novel, and I got enough responses for me to justify what is sure to become a rambling and multi-tangent post.
So, I figure by this point and with the prevalence of spandex superheroes in the cultural consciousness, if you haven’t read a comic book yet it is because that stuff just doesn’t appeal to you. That stuff being impossibly proportioned people flitting about the sky in spandex blasting each other with laser beams. Which is perfectly understandable. One of my favorite (comic) writers, Warren Ellis, describes the current dominance of that one sub-genre as walking into a book store and finding nothing but romance novels…about nurses. And some people just don’t want to read about nurses in torrid love affairs. (While the rest of us are probably perverts who do.)
However, I could be completely wrong in this assumption. If I am, then stop reading after this short list of really, really good starter superhero fiction:
- Batman: Year One (DC)
- Batman: The Long Halloween (DC)
- The Ultimates, vol 1 (Marvel)
- Invincible (Image)
- All-Star Superman (DC)
- Runaways (Marvel)
- Astonishing X-Men (Marvel)
- Watchmen (DC)
- The Authority, vol 1 (DC/Wildstorm)
Yes, I’m avoiding the more complex/self-referential bits like Sandman, Kingdom Come, Swamp Thing, Dark Knight Returns, Superman: Red Son, Sleeper, Planetary and amazing on-going books like Thor, New/Dark Avengers, Captain America, Powers, et al. Again, we’re looking at starter books here.
Still with me? Yes? Good.
Then on to the non-spandex wankery.
A few ground rules first, I figure. The books that I’m going to post below all have two things in common.
First: a lack of any kind of traditional super hero. You aren’t going to find people with capes and cowls and logos on their chests. But, that’s not to say there won’t be stories about people with extraordinary abilities. Sure, Jesse Custer from Preacher may be able to make you do his will by invoking the Voice, but he’s not a super hero.
Second: They are all self-contained books. You don’t need to have read anything else to get what’s going on in them. They are what they are, and you can pick up and go from page one.
The Crime Books
The idea is simple. A man appears with a brief case. Inside is a gun, 100 bullets of untraceable ammunition, and proof that some one in your past has wronged you. Now, the question is, do you act on this information knowing that you will never be prosecuted, or do you close the case and push it away, accepting your fate. The idea is simple, but what spawns out of it is the greatest crime epic in the history of comics.
A series that deals with a single criminal in each volume. The book explores questions of guilt and innocence, the things that drive people to commit crimes, and where all of this intersects with very real characters.
I’m grouping these two together because of their writer, Brian Michael Bendis. He’s basically the creative rudder at Marvel Comics right now. And he got his start with these wonderfully dense, but minimal crime stories. The dialogue is the focus here. Wonderfully written conversations between characters spill out onto the pages in a completely natural way.
A tightly gridded process comic about a recently transferred detective who finds himself in a town that is quite possibly the maddest place in the world, and most assuredly out to kill him. Think Monk, but on recreational ketamine.
The Big Epics
I’m not sure why it took a drunken Irishman to write the quintessential ode to the American cowboy mythos, but it sure enough happened. Preacher deals with a Texas preacher, on the cusp of losing his faith that becomes possessed by a creature called Genesis, who sends him on a man hunt to find God. Along the way the titular preacher comes across the love of his life, a hundred year old vampire, the Saint of Killers, and a society that guards the secrets of Christianity.
Hunter S Thompson a thousand years in the future. That’s the easiest way to describe this scifi assault on the reader’s mind. Full of screeds and rants and drugs and the possibilities of the future, the thing that will shock you most about Transmet is how completely the simple, sad moments will tear through you.
Y the Last Man
An unknown plague has swept across the world, killing all the male mammals save for Yorick and his pet monkey. That’s the set up for what is one of the most lauded comics in recent memory. A book so good, in fact, that the creator and writer now writes for Lost.
The Walking Dead
The only on-going book on this list, which means I can’t tell you that it isn’t going to drop off in quality. But I can tell you that the story so far has been amazing. The story revolves around a sheriff in a coma who awakes to find the dead have risen and his family is missing. Violent, gritty, depressing and moving, this is the best zombie story out there.
There are 1,001 people on the Global Frequency, and each of them does something better than anyone else on the planet. Each issue of this short-live series tells the story of how those people use their abilities to save the world. Every chapter is completely different from the last, save it the quality and originality of the story telling.
The story of three government test animals on the run from their creators. A rabbit, a cat and a dog, all blended with cutting edge weapon tech. One of the most moving books I’ve ever read from two of the best in the business. If you read this and don’t get misty when you think “Gud dog” you’re not fucking human.
I don’t really go for books like Blankets and Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. I see why they are good examples of comics as a medium, they just don’t appeal to my love of serialization. They feel bloated. You may like them, but I can’t recommend things that I don’t enjoy myself.
Thanks for sticking around, let me know if you’ve got any questions/comments/suggestions.