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Comics 101: Recommended Reading for Sequential-Art Newbies

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(Originally posted at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat.)

Recently I was asked by All Too Flat extended family member Dov to recommend comics to him. He’s a complete newbie who got hooked on Bruce Jones’s current (excellent) Incredible Hulk run due to the 25-cent promotional issue Marvel offered during the release of the film, and wanted to know what else he might dig. I wrote him a long message, just recommending a whole bunch of my favorites, and it occurred to me that this is the sort of thing I should put up on the old blog, too. Hopefully the choices will illustrate that there really is something for everyone in comics today. And I’m not doing this as Team Comix boosterism, honestly–I just feel like otherwise media-savvy people who don’t read comics are driving down the art highway on only three wheels.

Here, then, are some of my favorites, all of which should be available at Amazon. Any one of them is a great way to start your comics-reading career.

We’ll begin with some of the current crop of ongoing superhero monthlies:

NEW X-MEN w: Grant Morrison a: various–This is the best ongoing superhero series around, and maybe even ever. The hardcover collection of the first 12 issues or so is fantastic, but it’s also available in smaller softcover editions (the first of which is called E is for Extinction). Morrison is a real visionary, very Burroughs or Pynchon or Dick. His ideas are just huge.

DAREDEVIL w: Brian Bendis a: Alex Maleev–another fantastic superhero comic, close in spirit and execution to the current Hulk series. Very pulp stories, with beautiful art; Bendis probably has the best ear for dialogue in comics today. Lots of collections of this creative team’s run are available; the first is called Underboss.

ALIAS w: Brian Bendis a: Michael Gaydos–Bendis also writes this very dark look at the underbelly of the Marvel superheroes. It’s a mature-readers book that’s actually mature, which is saying something. Gaydos’s art hooks you like nobody’s business. It’s about a private detective who used to be a superhero before some unnamed incident traumatized her. Again, you can find collections of this, the first one of which is I think just called Alias Volume 1.

THE ULTIMATES w: Mark Millar a: Bryan Hitch–an ultra-modern take on the superteam that consists of Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk, this has probably the best art of any superhero book out there and is really unpredictable and large in scope. There’s only one collection to date, but it’s a killer.

Now moving on to altcomix and classic graphic novels:

JIMMY CORRIGAN w/a: Chris Ware–This is the best comic ever made, bar none. It’s about this sad middle-aged man’s journey to meet his father, which runs parallel to his grandfather’s recounting of his own trouble childhood. The art, especially the incredibly complex layouts, is just unbelievable. The Citizen Kane of comics.

DAVID BORING w/a: Dan Clowes–Close in tone to the Coen Bros’ darker movies, or David Lynch’s less over-the-top, this is a strange noir tale about a man’s sexual obsession with a woman during a tense period of terrorist attacks. Clowes’s art has this creepy 1950s feel that works perfectly for the story.

WATCHMEN w: Alan Moore a: Dave Gibbons–Supercomplex, realistic, and incredibly involving story of a group of superheroes whose time is almost at an end. Conspiracies, mysteries, politics, sex–it’s the highwater mark of the genre in many, many ways. Probably my third-favorite comic ever (after Jimmy Corrigan and…)

THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS w/a: Frank Miller–My favorite comic. Batman returns from retirement to a world that doesn’t want him anymore but needs him more than ever. Incredible art, searing satire, heroism on the grandest scale. This book is a juggernaut. The old saw is that if Watchmen performed the autopsy on the superhero genre, Dark Knight is its brass-band funeral. It’s awesome.

FROM HELL w: Alan Moore a: Eddie Campbell–The movie version was okay, but it was the equivalent of making a movie of Hamlet that consisted of Hamlet and Laertes training for the duel at the end. The book, on the other hand, is this hugely complex examination of the Jack the Ripper killings, Victorian England, Freemasonry, patriarchy vs. feminism, the occult, and god knows what else. This will really challenge you.

SIN CITY w/a: Frank Miller–beautiful black-and-white comic noir about a huge loser’s quest to avenge his lost love. Miller’s art is rarely better than it is in this, and the story’s got an almost primal momentum. Another favorite.

ARKHAM ASYLUM w: Grant Morrison a: Dave McKean–another genuinely beautiful book, this one is painted and uses remarkable collage techniques. It’s a psychological horror story about Batman entering into the insane asylum where most of his big villains are kept. A really chilling examination of abnormal psychology, again rife with the kind of huge occult-influenced symbolism that Morrison specializes in.

HEY, WAIT… w/a: Jason–Translated from Norwegian, this book uses cute-animal characters to tell a really painful story about loss, grief, and regret. This guy’s one of the best on the scene, and this story will haunt you.

THE FRANK BOOK w/a: Jim Woodring–Essentially they’re the creepiest, scariest cute-animal stories ever. Frank is this sort of cross between a cat and a beaver and a mouse and a bear, who wanders around this hallucinogenic dreamscape getting into adventures and being pursued by various miscreants. If you like twisted children’s stuff like Willy Wonka, this will appeal to you. Woodring’s a hell of a cartoonist and has imagined his whole own cosmology with this book. Some of the material is available in much cheaper (but smaller) softcover editions.

BLANKETS w/a: Craig Thompson–I talk about this all the time on the blog, but to recap, it’s a coming-of-age autobiography involving the parallel finding and losing of first love and religious faith. Elegantly illustrated and stirringly told. Damn, it’s good. And sweet.

DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL w/a: Phoebe Gloeckner–Another one I talk about a lot. This is a combination thinly-veiled autobiography written in journal form with autobio comix and illustrations, telling the story of the brilliant but deeply troubled teenager Minnie Goetze as she navigates the free-wheeling San Franciscan 70’s. I challenge you not to be deeply moved by this book.

Each gets my full recommendation. Happy reading!

Sean T. Collins has not yet seen the film version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He blogs at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat, where this post originally appeared.

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About Sean T. Collins

  • http://oakhaus.blogspot.com/ Bill Sherman

    A great starter list, Sean, though I’m not as enamored of the Ultimates as you. I’m sure you’ve heard that Morrison will soon be jumping from Marvel and New X-Men to do an exclusive contract for DC, dammitall!

    I’m currently working my way through The Frank Book, and that stuff is just plain mind-boggling in one big volume.

  • http://www.well.com/~srhodes Steve Rhodes

    Phoebe Gloeckner‘s work is really amazing. I saw her read at Modern Times in San Francisco earlier this year.

    If you can find a copy of the Millenium Whole Earth Catalog, there is a flip cartoon by Jim Woodring.

    I have a bunch of comic/graphic books I need to write up.

  • http://grace.evergreen.edu/~winmat04 Matt Winchell

    Your list is pretty good, but missing some of my favourites. Namely, “Blackhole” by Charles Burns, “I Never Liked You” by Chester Brown, and James Kochalka’s “Sketchbook Diaries”.

    Also, Jason has a new comic out from Fantagraphics that is supposed to be amazing. A murder mystery of sorts.