Welcome to the first in our series of posts for Guys Read week. Today, Paul Vogt of The Hopeless Gamer joins us to talk about comic books — find out what you’ve been missing and what you can lead your rabid readers to. Your to-read list is guaranteed to expand.
I’m here to talk to you about comic books. I grew up on the things, and they taught me how much fun reading could be. I learned about prejudice (the X-men’s mutants), critical thinking (Batman’s detective skills), and Christ-figures (All of Superman) as a result of reading comic books as a kid. I learned the definition of “uncanny” by the time I made it to third grade. As a media, comic books have followed me since grade school through high school and beyond grad school. All the while, I was maturing as a reader and comics were continuing to evolve as a medium.
Comics are a funny thing. Right now is a fantastic time to be reading comics. There’s a bit of a creative rennasaince in the industry even as book sales seem to diminish on a monthly basis. And then there’s the question of digital publishing. Comics are a unique medium in that they are usually endless serial stories where some have more than 40 years of continuity clogging up their histories. If you go to any superhero or comic, forum you’ll easily find pages and pages of discussions all asking the same question: where can I jump on and start reading comic X? The assumption here is that you have to read all of the Avengers or the Justice League’s enormous backlog of stories in order to catch up and start enjoying the stories being told today. Guess what? You don’t. You can jump in feet first (maybe with some helpful suggestions by yours truly – see below) and start getting a kick out of comics right away.
There are several routes you can take when starting to get into (or returning to) comics. Every Wednesday sees the release of new issues from DC, Marvel, Image, and many other smaller imprints and publishers. These single issues are often referred to as “floppys” and often get “bagged and boarded” by collectors. In other words, you read single comic issues as most people imagine them and then put them into storage. Alternatively, digital comics are quickly growing in popularity as digital distribution models continue to be discussed and developed by the bigger publishers. There are countless apps out there dedicated to making it easier to read comics on your ipad or smartphone.
Ah, but there is a third option, and it’s the option that your humble writer chooses on a regular basis. While you could have boxes and boxes of single issues collecting runs of your favorite titles, or you could jam your phone or tablet full of comic files, I prefer collected issues that resemble a book more than a magazine. I’m sure you’re familiar with graphic novels as a medium, and these are what I’m going to be talking about today. Technically I’m going to be talking about trade paperbacks specifically. The difference is in the formatting of the story. A graphic novel is a book that was put together specifically to be in a collected format and is released in the collected format primarily. A trade paperback (or TPB) is what you get when you combine a series of comics from a singular, or string of singular storylines. These can range from three issues to huge omnibus collections of 25 issues or more.
I wanted to come up with some suggestions for you to try out, but I’m doing my best to steer away from titles and books you might already know about. I could suggest Watchmen, The Walking Dead, Y: The Last Man, or The Dark Knight Returns, but where would the fun be in that? Instead I’ve selected some titles which would probably not be considered ground breaking suggestions from comic readers but would serve as a good introduction to some very broad genres of comics. My aim is also to provide some suggestions that you may actually be able to find somewhere other than on Amazon (such as your local library… maybe!). So without further ado, here are some comics to try out.
by Matt Fraction (writer) and David Aja (artist)
“…Tiger Scratch (Second Stance). Drunken Wasp Sting. Good Fortune Thunder Kick. Brooklyn Headbutt.”
Iron Fist is a classic example of a modern comic writer taking a classic 70’s superhero character and updating him for the 21st century. Iron Fist, also known as Danny Rand, is a living weapon kung fu master of the secret city Kun’Lun. Sounds pretty cheesy, right? I did mention it’s originally from the 70’s, but Fraction, with the help of Aja’s art, has taken the character in a completely new direction. In this relaunch of the title, he does a creative job of imagining a whole backstory to the character spanning centuries. It gives a truly epic feel to the character, and the revelation early on that Danny is the 67th Iron Fist is felt as a true revelation to the reader as much as it is to the character. It’s a street-level action comic right at its heart, and plays like a classy version of the 70’s mystic kung fu flick.
Iron Fist moves at a break-neck pace and ends up feeling a little bit like the original Highlander movie (you’ll have to read it to discovery how). Aja’s art is realistic without being too photographic. Its got just the perfect amount of illustration to really communicate the character’s thoughts and reactions. The story is complete on its own, but it also works as a very nice set-up for the rest of the on-going series and follow-up TPB volumes. Danny faces some tough challenges in this first collection, but hints of more living weapons (something unheard of before Fraction’s reboot of the character) and a tournament to the death just works to amp up the excitement of the series by giving it a real purpose and direction.
Astonishing X-Men Volumes 1 – 4: Gifted, Dangerous, Torn, Unstoppable (Marvel Comics)
by Joss Whedon (writer) and John Cassaday (artist)
The Thing: “Didn’t they come up with a cure for your kind?”
Wolverine: “You got a problem with mutants?”
The Thing: “I meant Canadians.”
General fans of genre television will recognize Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse) while comic fans will equally get their interests piqued when they see John Cassaday’s name. I’ll be honest, I grew up loving the X-Men, but even I will admit that they can be too much for the casual fan to wrap their minds around. With more bizzare plot twists and a cast larger than a Pynchon novel, things can get complicated real quick. Astonishing clears that all away. Whedon knows his X-Men. You don’t need to know anything going into the book, and the chemistry between the team members is still going to be instantly recognizable. If you like any of Whedon’s shows, particularly for the dialogue, you can’t go wrong here.
Of course if it was just a bunch of good dialogue, it wouldn’t be one of my favorite runs of all time. The four volumes of Astonishing X-Men tells a complete story and gives all six team members very full, very satisfying character arcs. The plot focuses around a new villain (and eventually new alien world) that takes all the things that makes the X-Men great and makes them relatable. The character, an alien from a world created for the run, is out to kill all the X-Men since his people received the prophesy that an X-Man will one day destroy their world. Although the plots cover many different areas, there’s always the constant threat of this new alien menace lingering in the background. Cassaday’s redesign of some of the characters, specifically fan favorites like Wolverine, Cyclops, and Beast, are iconic and re-conceptualize the costumes to somehow be both serious and heroic in a classic superhero kind of way. By the time you get to volume 4, Unstoppable, you will be gripped by the story’s climax. You’ll both cheer and get tearful before the end of the story, and you’ll be loving it the whole time. You want a classic superhero team book? You’ll find nothing better than Whedon and Cassaday’s run of Astonishing X-Men.
by Greg Rucka (writer) and J.H. Williams III (artist)
Jake (Batwoman’s Father): “Who were you talking to?”
Kate Kane/Batwoman: “Hmm?”
Jake: “Transcript time oh-four-forty-two hours. Suit GPS puts you just north of Tricorner, at Lake Street. Just after you questioned Rush… Who were you talking to?”
Kate Kane: “That, sir, was the Batman.”
You don’t have to know that Bruce Wayne just returned from the dead (really, he did… sort of) to enjoy this one-shot Batwoman story. Kate Kane, the Batwoman, is possibly my favorite new character to be introduced in comics since I don’t know when. She feels authentic as a character in way that, regrettably, few other female superheroes can express. Sadly she’s such a new character that there really aren’t that many other stories out there with her starring in them, but Elegy offers a high enough degree of story crafting combined with the most talented and creative artist in the biz today that you will come away satisfied. Layouts and story-telling are two things you hear a lot about when talking artists, and J.H. Williams III is pretty much the king of both. Picture the Sunday comics with three to six panel stories per strip. A lot of mainstream comics still follow this formula, but the trailblazers try to tell a story through the use of their panel layout, often ignoring the confines of the box altogether. In Elegy, you get to see a master at work.
That’s not to say that Greg Rucka should be ignored. Rucka is known not only in the comic industry but also for his novels in his ability to tell a mystery. Elegy is really a story arc out of the Detective Comics title (where Batman first appeared way back when), and Rucka’s run on writing Detective is epic in its own right. Again, like the previous two titles, the villain in the story is original and self-contained to the TPB they appear in, and it’s a boon to the storytelling. Rucka can do anything with the villain in his story, especially when you compare her to classic Batman rogues like the Penguin or the Riddler. This freedom adds a natural layer of tension and excitement in the fact that she is much less predictably than the traditional villains. On a totally unrelated note, Rachel Maddow wrote the introduction for Elegy, so that’s gotta count for something, right?
All-Star Superman Volumes 1 and 2 (DC Comics)
by Grant Morrison (writer) and Frank Quitely (artist)
Lex Luthor (to Clark Kent): “You wanted my story ‘The Gospel of Lex’ and now you have it. There’s no deep psychology behind the struggle between Superman and me. It’s all very simple. How would you feel if someone deliberately stood in your way, over and over again?”
A lot of people don’t like Superman. A lot of people just haven’t read All-Star Superman yet. You hear a lot of complaints about how boring Superman stories are because he’s all-powerful. It’s basically the novelist’s equivalent to writing an interesting story where God is the protagonist. I have similar memories of Superman. I loved the Justice League as a kid, but I always liked the Batman side of the story much better than the Superman side. All-Star Superman is the story of Superman summed up in 12 amazing issues. All the distractions of the DC universe are stripped away and what’s left is the core Superman cast and basic dilemna of the Christ-like character. Instead of trying to explore a new angle, Grant Morrison, a modern-day legend in the industry, dives in head-first and tries to discover just how difficult it can be for the Man of Steel to save all of humanity.
Morrison and Quitely are well-known for their collaborations. You can pretty much put money on any random book with both of their names on it being solid gold. To me, All-Star is at the top of this list. It’s the purest form of superhero story-telling out there from any creative team. Where Astonishing X-Men gives the perfect team book, All-Star shows what the best superhero in the world is capable of accomplishing. Each of the 12 issues can be picked up on its own and enjoyed as a complete story, but you can feel the underpinnings of the overall theme shining through. Superman is dying. Superman wants to do as much good for humanity as possible before he dies. Go!
by Alan Moore (writer) and Chris Sprouse (artist)
“This is Tom Strong. Please stay calm everyone…”
It would be downright irresponsible of me to not include an Alan Moore book in a list of comic recommendations. There’s so much to choose from (including the above-mentioned Watchmen) when it comes to Alan Moore, I wanted to stick to something that wasn’t too cerebral, too self-referential or “meta”, and something that could be taken on its own merits as a stand-alone story. Tom Strong also has the benefit of being a book of every genre. It’s basically Alan Moore’s creative playground. In this first hardcover collection you’ve got stories about futuristic Aztecs, parallel worlds, the Old West, super-sentient computers, Disney-style cartoon characters, and of course, Nazis. Tom Strong, the titular character is a super-scientist born and raised on a diet of pure pulp action. He’s a hulking man, but he invents technology like no one else. It’s truly a science fiction book in superhero clothing.
But like all these recommendations, Tom Strong has more to offer than fantastic, complex plots. Tom would be nothing without his family, including his wife, daughter, talking gorilla, and antique robot butler that practically raised him from birth (of course invented by his father). As silly as this all sounds (and you can bet Moore is challenging the reader’s assumptions by including them), each character is fleshed out with great detail. In fact, my only complaint in this first volume is that Tom doesn’t actually get that much screen time compared to the rest of his family. Comics are known for a couple of different subgenres within the overall superhero genre. You’ve got your lone street warriors like Iron First, your teams like the X-Men, but no sampling of comics could be complete without a proper family book. Think the Fantastic Four, and you’re on the right track. Tom Strong offers a lot of fun, original ideas, but at its core it offers a look at a super family trying their best to balance the common good with what’s good for the family.