By SF Winser
I thought I'd try something different for my 20th Booksquawk review. Here it is. You may have noticed it as that thing with all the words which you are currently reading.
I have recently fallen in love with graphic novels after much flirtation and some early frustration. They are the perfect thing for tired parents who want to get a burst of narrative and art and thought but have to pack as much of that into one experience as possible. Plus, they've still got that tinge of underground cool. This is where writers go to play outside the mainstream. Which means that among the inevitable shit-storm of pretension and failure that comes from a climate of almost-anything-goes, there is some very innovative and interesting and cutting edge stuff on top of also allowing the normal, everyday good reads.
I'd consider myself to be a journeyman in terms of knowledge, but here's a list of some of the stuff I've enjoyed that might help the artform-curious. This is by no means a definitive list. These are not necessarily the top ten best ways to start a Graphic Novel experience. There's not exactly ten, either. And it'll be more like a list of recommended authors, than a list of works. But this is the internet and any list must have at least one superlative and the number 10 in it, or you get eaten by trolls, so I have sold my pretensions of accuracy and stuck to internet convention. These are the (almost) Top, (more than) Ten Graphic Novels for Adults.
Trying a few of these should net you at least one decent read. It's an okay mix of genre, literature and non-fiction. If one doesn't strike you, keep trying. There's gold in that thar artform!
1 – Alan Moore. The mad genius of modern graphic novels has written two of the necessary reads for adults. The first is 'Watchmen' (416 Pg. DC Comics). A superhero book about the flaws and strengths of superheroes. One of the first books to take a critical eye to the genre, Moore and co-creator/Artist Dave Gibbons start with the idea of superheroes and take it to logical conclusions, both good and bad. Moore asks questions about the type of people who would become vigilantes, the political effects of literal superpowers and the effects these have on the people inside the masks. Its themes of morality upheld and imposed are thoroughly and interestingly explored. One of the most beloved characters is a right-wing, obsessed, smelly, violent vigilante. And this is almost a deliberate effect – you are supposed to be seduced by Rorschach's gut-level determination, grit and conviction... So that you a prompted to examine the dangerous ideologies in your own head to which you, also, cling. Even if you are correct in facts, are you also correct in action?
I'd not actually recommend that as a first read to those completely uninitiated into graphic novels. Unless you already have some knowledge of superhero conventions and comic-book history, it'd be like reading Joyce's 'Ulysses' without knowing where Ireland was. Yes, you'd definitely get something out of it, but you'd also miss major amounts of the comment and context. But everyone should, at some point, read 'Watchmen'. Like it or not, it is one of the more influential books of the modern era.
'From Hell' (572 Pg. Top Shelf) is arguably better and more literary. Moore's historical tale of the hunt for Jack the Ripper is well-researched, deep, deep, deep and disturbingly dark. The art is deliberately sketchy and (mostly) black and white. It does have a very relevant but very boring chapter on architecture and occultism, though, that is similar to the hyper-researched stuff Victor Hugo tried to pull in various novels with equally mixed results. It's also satisfyingly long. It's an examination of the motivations of humanity, and the consequences one brutal human being may have had for the entire 20th century.
It is, at heart, a graphic retelling of a serial-killer. Be aware – graphic novels can have graphic content. There's a warning, right there, in the name.
Lovers of literature will probably love his 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' novels (Volume #1, 176 pg. America's Best Comics), too. Again, deep, contextual with a touch of postmodernism and action, but with more intent to simply entertain. Stories of a team of literary characters (Captain Nemo and Dr Jekyll among others) who hunt down deranged supervillains. Full of intertextual references, commentary and jokes.
All of these have been made into movies. Only the 'Watchmen' movie did its source-material any justice at all. If you hated the movies, you'll probably love the books.
2 – Brian K. Vaughan. My favourite. Not always as talented as some on this list, but always striving and interesting. Vaughan's 'Y: The Last Man' (10 Volumes, Vertigo) is one off my favourite sci-fi novels. Not just graphic novels, ALL sci-fi novels. The story of Yorrick, the last man left alive after a mysterious virus kills off everything with a Y chromosome, leaving him alone in a world full of women and female animals. It examines sex, gender, politics and more. It's funny, the artwork is decent and has a truly discussion-worthy ending. One of my favourite, minor aspects of this book is poignant way the characters count off extinctions. Six months since the last shrew male died? They must be extinct, now, because that's the length of their breeding cycle.
His 'Ex Machina' (4 Volumes, incomplete. Wildstorm) about a superhero-turned-politician, and 'Pride of Baghdad' (136 pg, Vertigo) about lions escaping Baghdad zoo during the invasion of Iraq, both show Vaughan's strength as a writer and his obsession with examining politics from unusual angles.
3. Hereward Proops will kill me if I don't mention 'Transmetropolitan' by Warren Ellis (10 Volumes, Vertigo). Or he'll at least shoot me with a bowel-disruptor set to 'Explosive'. Crass, crude, violent and full of sex and drugs and politics, this is a thrill-ride of strange and sci-fi proportions that follows a Hunter S. Thompson style Gonzo journalist from the future, examining life in a far-future cityscape.
The main character, Spider Jerusalem is a visually-striking, drug-addled, truth-obsessed journalist who has no compunction in kneeing buskers in the balls if they annoy him or walking into the middle of a riot if it's the only way to get to the truth.
It's a cynical, deranged, dark and nearly despairing view of the future. The stories are either Spider's examination of a part of the City, or his interaction with it as a person. The best stories meld the two so that his journalism is affected by, and causing ripples in, the fabric of society. They're darkly funny tales but tend to leave you feeling hopeless about the state of the world – in a good way. Like all good sci-fi, they use the future as a pretext to talk about the here-and-now. Mainly the state of democracy in a media-fueled world.
I've just finished these a few hours ago, and enjoyed them very, very much. I am having trouble restraining myself from calling my children 'the filthy assistants'.
Ellis has also created 'Global Frequency', (2 Volumes, Wildstorm) a set of stories that are based on a network of 1001 experts, spread throughout the world, solving problems of a science fiction nature, that allows Ellis to play with sci-fi ideas without character getting in the way. They're also very fun. And he wrote the novel 'Crooked Little Vein', as previously reviewed, and loved, by Paul Fenton.
4. Neil Gaiman. One time runner for Alan Moore, now the darling of fantasy-readers and author of two of the best children's novels of our time ('Coraline' and 'The Graveyard Book'). Bastard. His 'Sandman' (10 Volumes, Vertigo) series is a set of interlinked stories based around dreams and fantasy, with the Sandman - Morpheus, King of Dreams - always at the heart, if not actually on the page.
They're very much products of their time (90's clothing styles are very prevalent) and the attempts to weave in some of the Sandman's deep past in superhero comics don't quite fly for non comic-readers (Though this is a very minor part). But they remain good reads and one of the first attempts to meld western literary techniques into graphic novels and succeed. There are few novels that could pull off the death of the main character several BOOKS before the end and still work. The art is always interesting, the stories are always well-constructed and Gaiman's style as a writer is always very inventive, even when he follows genre conventions and cliches.
Vertigo, Gaiman's publisher, have several spin-off titles that are self sustaining that are often based off a single idea that Gaiman threw out in the middle of a story, or a single character that Gaiman took in an interesting direction, in 'Sandman'. That's the depth of world-building and story that Gaiman manages in these books. The pieces of the grander tale veer from horror to supernatural fantasy to tiny little human stories.
5. Let's do a fun one for 5, huh? Bryan Lee O'Malley's 'Scott Pilgrim' books (6 Volumes, Oni Press) are currently in production as a movie by geek-chic director Edgar Wright. They are hilarious, weird and hip. They revolve around 20-something Canadian no-hoper Scott Pilgrim. Scott is the member of a an alt-rock band, has no job, a girlfriend who is in high-school, and he lives with a gay guy in a basement that only has one bed.
Except, well. There's robots. And psychic vegans. And drummers with bionic arms. Scott 'levels up' when he gets a job, earning exp and skill-points. And Ramona, a hot delivery girl from Amazon.ca literally rollerblades through his dreams because a Hyperspace bypass happens to run through Scott's head.
Scott has to deal with a hot new girlfriend and an obsessed old girlfriend. And he ALSO has to battle new girlfriend Ramona's seven evil ex-boyfriends in video-game style fights around minor Canadian landmarks in order to keep her love. These books are fast, furious and cool. They are like distilled pop-culture for the gamer generation, mixed with manga-influenced art, an indie-comic anything-goes attitude and a wonderful vein of sweetness that runs throughout. There's a lot of humour in the way these otherwise completely normal characters, with everyday worries about love and sex and money suddenly get attacked by ninjas in the street and just accept it as a normal part of life. It's almost like O'Malley has tried to jam underground 'music comix', Japanese Shonen (boy/action) manga and Shoji (Girl/Relationship) manga into one freakish bastard child. And, somehow, against all reason, succeeded.
I love these books – I've read them several times - and the final book of the series isn't even out until later in the year.
6. Shaun Tan. I love Shaun Tan and everything he touches. He is an artist of real skill and insight. He writes stuff that is often surreal, but with a point. And while it's often marketed at younger readers, there's a lot here for adults to enjoy. His 'The Arrival' (128 pg, Arthur A. Levine Books) is a wonderful meditation on immigration that is weird and beautiful and hasn't got a single, understandable word in it. Takes about ten minutes to read. And several days to think about. It's been months since I've last read it, but I can still picture entire panels, quite vividly.
7. Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer for his disturbing, honest works 'Maus' and 'Maus II' (296 pg, Penguin Books). A mix of docu-comic and diary style comic where Spiegelman tells two stories - of his parents through the holocaust, and Spiegelman's attempts to come to terms with his own relationship with his father.
Spiegelman deliberately dehumanises the characters by making the Jews all anthropomorphised mice and the Nazis, cats. This allows him to show graphic and terrible things without total overload, but also allows emotional responses that are more visceral because the circumstances are so unexpected in a cat-and-mouse comic book.
8. Sure is getting testosterone-smellin' in here! Howzabout a female author? 'Persepolis' (352 pg, Pantheon) by Marjane Satrapi is a likewise mix of history and diary. Again, the artwork works because of Satrapi dialing back the detail with a naïve, folk-art style. This is the story of a young girl growing up in Iran. First under the Shah, through the Revolution, then under the Imams. It's innocent and wonderful and sad. There are litanies of disappearances, tortures and riots. And Satrapi simply trying to grow up in a house full of people who just want justice, dammit. And to be left to live their lives. Made into a half-decent French animated movie for adults, too.
9. The big awards in the US for graphic novels and comics are the Eisners. Because Will Eisner was a wonderful artist, storyteller and innovator. He may even have invented the term 'graphic novel'. Eisner's 'Contract with God' trilogy (544 pg, W. W. Norton & Company) is probably one of his best works. Artwork and storytelling blend in a way no-one ever really managed since. It veers between oddly old fashioned and strangely prescient and modern.
Eisner is one of the few (even now) who see panels as tool, not a constraint to be played with and overcome. Even these days, people are trying to remake or reblend the panel structure of graphic storytelling. Eisner just ignored it entirely when it suited him. His pages read with an effortlessness that even the best artists today have trouble matching.
And 'The Contract with God' trilogy is, on top of this, a paean of love to New York/city neighborhoods in general. It's a mix of sometimes interwoven short stories that describe a fictional neighborhood. The people in it. Their struggles. Their history. And, equally, the history of the streets and buildings and neighborhood itself. It deals with love and lust and crime and upheaval and kids in the street and Jewishness and architecture and friendship and politics and social justice. It is a grand and sweeping work by a master – if not THE master – of the craft of graphic storytelling.
10. Let's have a trace of manga, neh? This should be a section, by itself. Manga needs more than one entry, but that's all it's getting here. Osamu Tezuka invented Astroboy, among other things. He was one of the greats of early manga. But his 'Buddha' (Vertical) is one of the best entry points for adults after a deeper read. An epic over 8 volumes, it's the story of Buddha from birth to death. Full of action, thought and some great art. Often a bit odd to the western eye - but well worth the attempt for those after a bit of cultural exploration.
Not 100% historically accurate, but who cares? This is a work of depth by a master.
11. 'The Colour Trilogy'
12. Scott McCloud wrote the (current) definitive works on Graphic Novels. 'Understanding Comics' (224 pg, Harper Paperbacks) And 'Making Comics' (272 pg, Harper Paperbacks). These are a mix of literary criticism, art criticism, theories on artistic expression in general (though graphic novel theories in particular), and how-to books all told in a graphic-novel style. There's a crossover in content between the two – one was written mainly for audiences, the other mainly for artists. But I've read both and found they've been influential both as a reader of graphic novels and as a writer of fiction in general.
Even when I don't agree, or think McCloud is a bit focused or structured, he's always interesting and thought-provoking.
13. Frank Miller's 'Sin City' (7 Volumes, Dark Horse). Miller wrote two of the more influential Batman stories 'Batman: Year One' and 'The Dark Knight Returns' which were almost as influential on the comic-book scene as Moore and Gibbons's 'Watchmen'. But it's his noirish tales of a fictional crime-and-vigilante-ridden city that runs on lust, money and blood that are, to me, more satisfying and more accessible to non-superhero readers. They've also aged better than the other two books. They're like a mixture of Quentin Tarantino and Dashiell Hammett. Almost too cool and brutal for their own good. But it's in the 'Sin City' books that Miller's style as a writer and an artist mesh to the best effect.
14 – Honourable mentions. 'Ghost in the Shell', 'Stitches', 'The Eternal Smile' and 'American Born Chinese' (These two were a close call for top ten), 'Fables', 'Cover Girl', 'We3'