I like comic books. I can’t help it. Attribute it to a short attention span or an inability to read more than a handful of words at a time. I don’t know, but I have gained an appreciation for the mix of graphic and story that only comics can offer.
I could go into a long treatise about the history of sequential art and its use in communication and expression in both the arts and literature, but Scott McCloud covered it quite nicely. He also discussed at length the potential of the graphic image in storytelling and I would argue that is precisely why movies tend to do better than books (in profit margins and popularity at any rate).
What intrigues me though in comic books of the past, say, twenty years is the sheer context that writers take on in these works. For many people, myself included about 10 years ago, comic books are nothing more than the superhero/Archie/Peanuts genre that appeared in the newspaper – Sundays in color – and told nice stories with a catchy quippy ending. Comics were like glorified jokes of the “a guy walked into a bar” variety that appealed to (mostly) pre-pubescent boys with dimes in their pockets (well, dollars now).
This changed for me when in college, I had purchased a copy of Maus: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman. I couldn’t put it down. At first, I thought it was inappropriate for someone to write a COMIC book about something as “serious” as the holocaust. But then, I READ it and realized that in some ways, this story could not have been told any more brilliantly and poignantly then in this form. It was just that – brilliant. The idea of imagery combining with story, character, plot, and time to create such a perfect piece of literature – so foreign to me, and yet it made perfect sense. It along with its sequel was a modern day masterpiece in my mind.
From there, I picked up the old Batman books I had seen a hundred times as a kid. I started thinking about all the old literary devices: plot, characterization, time, point-of-view. As an aspiring writer (loose translation: I took a few creative writing classes), I was interested in how this genre was being perceived as a totally legit form of writing – even calling itself “graphic novels” at this point.
But life kind of happened and I didn’t read comics for awhile. I got into the habit of buying books and never starting them.
Coming back to it around 2 years ago, I searched through the Barnes and Noble to find these “graphic novels” in the science fiction and fantasy aisles. Interesting. Once I started, I haven’t been able to stop. Like I said, I’m sure it has mostly to do with my ADD 🙂 (Don’t really have it as far as I know, but these things can happen as you get older and lazier – ahem)
Here are some of the notables I’ve read and what it was that made me keep going back for more:
Ghost World was given to me as a loaner while in Los Angeles. Daniel Clowes is pretty messed up, and the story is painful and delightful at the same time – kinda like life, eh? This book made me realize one thing about comics that you can’t do in “traditional” storytelling. The awkward silence. In one frame, an artist can capture the extreme awkwardness we have all felt and lived through.
Mr. Punch – a very VERY dark story about a young boy’s memories of a Punch and Judy show. I’ve always thought Punch and Judy was disturbing and I’m glad that someone else felt that same way. Neil Gaiman is a genius in and of himself, but this story really stood out well for me. Part memory, part youth, part what-I-did-this-summer, Mr Punch is a story that blurs the sense of history and time with perception and reflection. What we remember isn’t always what happened and vice versa.
Arkham Asylum, a Batman story, but the darkest and deepest – in my humble opinion.
I devoured League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and anxiously waited for the 2nd complete volume to be published (this past Christmas I received the hardback from Jack). Didn’t like what they did to the movie, but that’s hollywood for you.
Watchmen was a great read as well. Aging superheroes and their messed up lives. A great take on the theme, going beyond the spotlight and the “glamour” of heroism, it brings the story home – what makes people dress up in tights and stay awake all night to help total strangers?
Preacher – the entire series given to me as a gift – was the most difficult to read. Not that it kept me from reading the entire series in the blink of an eye (couldnt put them down!). I think I mostly found them difficult because of the way it addressed the questions of existence in a deeply profound and troubling way. It questions the meaning and existence of God and the interaction of man and God in a way that only a comic book could.
Then comes Sandman. Wow. I haven’t finished the series yet, I’m on book 5 now, but this is one of the most imaginative and widest in scope I have ever seen or heard of. It is expansive and epic, age-old stories and characters from a diverse range of cultures and heritages. Another Neil Gaiman adventure – he is a mastermind.
So there you have the short version (believe it or not).