Monday, July 04, 2005

The 10 Comics that kept me reading

I was lucky, I think, to start my entry into comics after The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was in theaters. The couple of X-Men floppies I had bought (Claremont's Extraordinary X-Men, I think) were lackluster to say the least, but seeing Moore's graphic novel on the stands at Borders (a comic book? about classic literary characters fighting evil? that rewarded the readers' knowledge of 19th century literature? a comic book?) was the spark I needed to dig deeper into what the comics world offered. These ten books broadened my understanding of what modern comics are, and I think that without them I wouldn't have fallen in love with the medium.
(In no particular order):

10. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill
It's bloody. Gruesome. Has the reader first meet Allan Quatermain whacked out on opium in Cairo. I had no idea that comics could be like this. There are better books out there; better Alan Moore books in fact. But nothing yet has compared with that first shock and thrill and delighted surprise I experienced when reading League. In my limited experience, I thought I knew what comic books were. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen showed me that I had no idea.

9. Astro City by Kurt Busiek & Brent E. Anderson, covers by Alex Ross
I think there's a collective idea in American culture of what the superhero story should be. Comic book readers, superhero fans, the wider non-comics culture -- we all share this idea, this collective imagining of flying men and women in masks and capes, of tall skyscrapers, of science fiction and civic duty melded together into a tale at once fantastic and familiar. Sure, superheroes are suppossed to be "gritty" and realistic these days, but that's because the genre is being subverted, just as all popular genres are subverted after the conventions become stale. But Astro City. Astro City is that collective idea. It's the superhero comic that seems to have always existed, the comic we've all had in our imaginations. Is it too much to say that Astro City is like the Platonic ideal of superhero comics? Yeah, maybe that's too much. But Astro City is what I imagined superhero comics to be, and yet at the same time, it's more than I'd ever imagined.

8. Battle Royale by Koushun Takami and Masayuki Taguchi
I can't say this is some great, genre-defining, literary masterpiece. I can't even say it makes a lot of sense (the plot holes are ridiculously huge). But I can say this comic is so addictive, so utterly depraved, so freakin' awesome that I can't stop reading it. I'm a bit of a sucker for graphic violence, and Battle Royale is to graphic violence what Willy Wonka's chocolate factory is to candy. I'm a little embarrassed (and also a little disturbed) that I like this comic so much. But it's like getting shot up with adrenalin, reading this comic. Or like smoking crack. I haven't decided yet, but I can't put it down long enough to find out.

7. Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
My first dip into the independent "comix" waters, and I expected cynical gen-x humor, a critique of modern suburban society, and swear words and nudity. Instead, I cried a little, recognized myself in the characters, thought about a friend whom I've kinda drifted away from, not because of any falling-out between us, just because she and I are slowly turning into different people, and realized that I really do love comics. Also, I laughed like hell.

6. Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
I've always loved Batman. On t.v., in the movies. The Bruce Timm Batman animated series, the live-action Adam West cornball 1960s show. The Tim Burton films. But never the comics. I had never read a Batman comic. And since Batman had kind of faded after the horrible Schumacher movies, I had sorta lost touch with him. But then I actually got into comics, and I figured I should read Batman, because I'd always loved the character. And, of course, I didn't know where to start. So I picked up Year One 'cause I had heard Miller's name before and knew he was suppossed to be one of the "greats," and this is how I make decisions on which books to read, plus, with a name like "Year One" it seemed like a good starting point. And then I read Year One. And then I read it again. And now I've read it at least half a dozen times. And I love Batman again.

5. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
So much has been said and written about this book that my insignificant ramblings are pretty unneccesary. It's as good as they say it is. My only regret is that I wasn't reading comics when it first came out. Something this revolutionary in the comics world must have been incredible to witness firsthand. Who knew that all it took was six pages of a comic to blow my mind?

4. Light Brigade by Peter J. Tomasi and Peter Snejbjerg
Maybe it's the Catholic in me, but I'm a sucker for religious imagery. And the image of Longinus, thrusting his spear through the stomach of a fallen angel, who's disguised as a Nazi, during World War II -- well, it was too good for me to pass up a book like this. If anyone's noticing a pattern here in my selections (besides the fact that I like gore), it's that I'm taken by the variety of stories being told in comics. Yeah, there's still an overwhelming emphasis on supers (and I love supers!), but there's so much more; so much that's not spandex and secret identities. And Light Brigade is a DC title -- not Vertigo, not some indie publisher. I do have to note (though this doesn't have anything to do with the quality of the book overall) it was nice to see Christianity treated with respect, and as the good force in the struggle against evil. Even if the theology was unorthodox (to say the least!), it was cool to see one of the great religions of Western Civilization be on the side of the heroes, instead of being essentially irrelevant (as it is in so many of our modern stories), or worse, a force for evil (which, unfortunately, sometimes is the case in a few stories). But that's just gravy. Light Brigade is a creative, entertaining, awesomely drawn adventure, and one of my favorite books.

3. The Losers by Andy Diggle and Jock
Fun. Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun. This book has the best action sequences in comics right now. Jock's art is so utterly perfect for this story of presumed-dead CIA agents on a rogue mission to find out who set them up, that I cry a little inside whenever I find out there's a fill-in artist. Jock is my favorite artist at the moment, and I seriously wish Vertigo would release his covers as full-size posters so I could hang them on my wall. God, this comic is just so damn fun. Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun. And cooler than any one comic has a right to be. If I were trying to get someone into comics who likes action but thinks superheroes are for nerds, this is the comic I'd give them.

2. Thor: Visionaries by Walter Simonson
For a girl who studies Latin in college, it's pretty much a given that I'm going to have a knowledge of and affection for Classical mythology. But truth be told, my heart belongs to the gods of the North. Odin, Freya, Balder, Thor, Valhalla, Ragnarok -- these are the names that stir my heart. That's why the idea of the Norse god of thunder wearing a silly costume and fighting crime in New York has, for the most part, filled me with disgust. In the so-called "realistic" Marvel universe, why would the god Thor even a.) exist and b.) have a secret identity and be a member of the Avengers? Frankly, I always thought Thor as a Marvel superhero was lame and a horrible degredation of a great mythological character. So why do I love Walt Simonson's Thor? Well, for one thing, he got rid of the secret identity/persona of Donald Blake (Odin be praised). But really, I can't explain why this book doesn't enrage me the way virtually all other Thor books do. Maybe it's Simonson's fantastic art. Maybe it's the way that he has DOOM ripple across the page in bold, red letters. Maybe it's some horrible pagan magic he's got working for him. Maybe it's because Simonson uses the mythology, respects it, and treats it with the seriousness it deserves. Or maybe I just like Beta Ray Bill. Honestly, my affection for this book is a total mystery to me.

1. The Ring of the Nibelung Volumes 1 & 2 by P. Craig Russell
Now this is Teutonic mythology! Wagner's Ring cycle is great material for a story, but I was blown away by Russell's art. The layouts, the coloring, the lettering -- this isn't just a story told with words and some nice pictures thrown in, it's a comic, a seemless combination of art and words into a unified whole. Russell does everything right, from his depictions of characters to his pacing. Probably not a book that shows up on a lot of "Top Ten" lists, I'm sure, but if I had to choose just one comic to read for the rest of my life, this would be it.

Why these ten books? For some reason they stuck with me, clung to my imagination and awakened this person inside me I didn't even know existed: a comic book reader.


At 10:25 PM, Blogger Devon Sanders said...

I effin' love 'The Light Brigade!" I reviewed "The Light Brigade" for CHUD about a year ago giving it a five out of a possible five. Two days later, Peter Tomasi sent me an e-mail about the review. Class act and great editor, that guy.

At 9:31 AM, Blogger Johnny Bacardi said...

Damn good list. And if you were going to pick a Batman book to read for the first time, you sure did pick the right one- many think it's the best Batman story ever.

And for hyping The Losers, you have earned my neverending admiration! :)

At 11:59 AM, Blogger Mr. Rice said...

Light Brigade was really good, unhyped, out-of-nowhere comics. Beautiful art and a cool, one-of-a-kind (at the time, at least) story.

And, yeah, the rest of your list kicks ass, too. Except Astro City, which is like a sleeping pill to me.

At 1:46 PM, Blogger The Derelict said...

Actually, the shine of Astro City has worn off a little for me now that I've gotten deeper into comics (I haven't read "The Dark Age" yet, though). But when I first read it (it was literally the second TBP I had ever bought), I was kinda blown away. It felt old-school and new-school at the same time.

Devon --
Very cool about Tomasi! I'm gonna have to go find your CHUD review now. :)

And The Losers can never get enough hype!

At 4:30 PM, Blogger jock said...

late to the party...
thanks a lot for the support guys -

all the very best


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