Pajiba's Guide to What's Good For You / Seth Freilich
Guides | March 14, 2007 | Comments ()
[Author’s Introductory Note:I just wanna warn you up front that this sumbitch is ridiculously long — I just couldn’t shut up as I was writing it. I’m talking over 9,000 words long. So just know what you’re getting into here, and if you do happen to read your way through the whole thing, don’t blame me when you realize doing so wasted away hours of your life.]
If you’ll indulge me, I’m going to step outside the bounds of my usual television realm for this Guide. I have always been, and likely always will be, both a nerd and a geek (for a clarification of the difference, please see our own Dan Carlson’s definition); sometimes of the “chic” variety, and sometimes of the “you’re ridiculous” variety. I’ve come to grips with this and fully accept it, as I’ve been this way for a long time. Exemplary evidence to prove the point: I was a massive band geek and theater fag in high school; I was a physics major in college, I’ve worked for NASA, and I still love math, physics and astrophysics; my all-time favorite book (which I’m not naming, only because I’ll probably give it a proper Pajiba discussion somewhere down the line) has won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, which are “nerd book” awards; “Quantum Leap,” despite some obvious and glaring flaws, remains my all-time favorite TV show; I not only have a favorite physicist (Richard Feynman), but have more than once been engaged in serious colloquial debates about whether Newton or Einstein was the better physicist and more important to math, physics and science in general (I will always come down on the Newton side of that argument); and I have nerd art hanging on my walls, including an original cel from “The Simpsons,” reproductions of comic art, and two massive original painting/collages from a Neil Gaiman/Dave McKean graphic novel. Yes Mildred, I’m a grade-A geek.
But perhaps the biggest thing which allows me to be a card-carrying member of the nerd and geek club (aside from the fact that I have, honest to god, a laminated “Official Identification — Astrophysicist” card in my wallet) is that I’ve been a comic book collector for a long time (I’ve even been, twice, to the nerd haven and geek mecca that is the San Diego Comic-Con). I can remember buying my first comics when I was still living in Philly as a wee lad — my mother would send me to the corner store to buy her a pack of smokes, and she’d give me a little extra cash to pick up some comics from the lonely metal-spinny-rack standing in the store’s corner (as for why the store clerk allowed a six-year-old to buy smokes — well, that’s Philly for you). In my teen years, I gained access to the bank account with my Bar Mizvah money, despite my parents’ mandate that it was to remain “hands off,” and spent a vast amount on comic books. In my late-teen years, I used to make weekly treks to the local book store, purchasing one or two comics while stashing up to a dozen more in the back of my coat or in a book bag (sorry, Walden Books). And to this day, I still get a monthly catalogue from Westfield Comics, listing all the new comics that will be coming out, and always flip through to see what’s out there, although I don’t order or read nearly as much as I used to.
In fact, these days I’ve generally moved beyond loose comics, instead preferring to collect graphic novels (or trade paperbacks, or whatever the hell you want to call them). This is mainly for two reasons. First, my memory is utter shit. So by the time a new issue comes out, I’ve often forgotten the details of most of what happened in last month’s issue — and if the issues aren’t coming out every month, forget about it. So I much prefer to read my comics in one big chunk (and sometimes, after sampling something and knowing I’ll like it, I’ll wait until the entire run is out in trades before sitting down and digesting the whole thing). Second, it’s easier to keep and store the graphic novels. With comics, you generally need the long-white comic boxes, and if you really care about your comics, you have to put each one in a little baggy with a board behind it. It’s unwieldy, and there’s no way to make those comic boxes look good. While I have a few stashed away in a closet here, most of my comic boxes remain in the basement of my parents’ home. Graphic novels, however, can be displayed on a bookshelf, along with all my more “appropriate” reading materials, proudly advertising my geekdom to all who care (and because I’ve long ago given up on the notion of preserving them in pristine condition, I don’t care if this means they get a little beat up or get too much light or any such nonsense).
Now I don’t know where most of the Pajiba staff falls on the comics scale, although I do know that we at least cover both ends of the spectrum — I know Dan is at least sometimes a fan of the form, although not so much with the superheroes, and on the other side of things, I know that Dustin pretty much loathes all things comics. I suspect that the Pajiba readership similarly falls all over the place, and it’s with that in mind that I present this Guide.
In particular, I’m catering this discussion to those folks who generally wouldn’t touch a comic book for fear that it would shrink their sexuality and re-virginate them. My goal here is to discuss some comics/graphic novels that I think most Pajiba readers would enjoy, if only they gave themselves the opportunity. So this is not intended to be any “best of” list, although many of these frequently appear on such lists. If you generally trust my opinion and judgments (and how can you not, seeing as how I’m always right?!), go pick one of these up, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. And if not, well, that’s what the comments section is for. And similarly, feel free to add selections you think I’ve missed — I certainly haven’t read everything that’s out there, and I don’t read as much of the independent stuff as I would like, so many of my choices may tend more towards the “obvious” side, so I’m sure there are plenty of additions that can be made.
One last note before we get into this. Of the nine items on my list, some are collected in a single volume, but several are much longer series (and two of those series are still being written). In the case of the latter, I’ve recommended a single collected volume as a jumping-off point, and in all but one instance that recommendation is the first volume in the series. Although there’s one exception to all of this, which I’ll get to when I get to it.
Honorable Mentions: There are a few things that aren’t part of my list proper, but deserve honorable mentions. The first is Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. This graphic novel collects the four-issue comic published in the late ’80s, one that’s widely recognized as a seminal superhero comic book. It’s also largely responsible for the grittier/darker tone towards realism that many comics took in the ’90s, and in combination with Miller’s Batman: Year One it was a creative preamble to both the Tim Burton Batman flicks and the current Christopher Nolan series. The reason it gets an honorable mention instead of an actual home on the list is that I decided to avoid the standard “superhero” fare. There’s one superhero book (if you want to call it that) that simply had to be included on the list, but aside from that, I tried to ignore the superhero genre entirely. I made this decision because: 1) it’s a harder to convince someone to pick up a superhero comic; 2) frankly, since my teen years, I don’t follow or read the superheroes so much anymore (and while there are certain things I’ll still pick up now and again, it’s generally because of a specific writer more than because of the star of the book); and 3) in many instances, the best superhero stories require some general understanding or appreciation of superhero comics in general and/or specific understanding of the history leading up to that particular story.
Three more honorable mentions go to A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories, Blankets, and Black Hole. The first, A Contract with God, was written and drawn by Will Eisner in the late ’70s. Eisner is widely considered one of the most important and seminal comic creators and, in fact, one of the biggest set of awards in the industry carries his name. While there are several Eisner works that could be included as honorary mentions, I’m going with A Contract with God mainly because it is widely considered by many to be the granddaddy of the graphic novel. It consists of four short stories set in 1930s New York, all taking place within the same tenement building. And the only reason I include it up here rather than down in the list is that, to my embarrassment, I still haven’t managed to read it yet and, thus, can’t give it a personal recommendation. But everything I’ve heard suggests it’s worthy of inclusion here, and when I do get to it in my “to read” pile, I’ll be able to tell you for sure. The same goes for Blankets and Black Hole. The first was published in 2003 and is a memoir of the author’s younger life with his evangelical family, as well as a story of his first love. The winner of several awards (including one of those Eisners), it’s widely heralded as a modern classic. Black Hole, meanwhile, is a collection of a 12-comic series published between 1995 and 2005, and its story focuses on some kids in the ’70s who come down with a disease that causes various physical mutations. While not necessarily as well known or critically acclaimed as Blankets, those I know who have read Black Hole have done nothing but heap praise upon it and it seems to be one of those things that currently carries a fair amount of “hipster cred.” Both Blankets and Black Hole are also stuck in my ever-growing “to read” stack, but I suspect that many Pajiba lovers would find them worth the time, which is why I mention them here.
The final set of honorable mentions actually goes to a category of graphic novels, including Ghost World, American Splendor, Road to Perdition, and A History of Violence. You no doubt recognize these titles from their relatively recent film adaptations, and it’s precisely for this reason that I am leaving such works off my list. These films were all relatively faithful adaptations, in tone if not in substance. And for these, or any other movie which you may have enjoyed and which was based on a comic or graphic novel (like last year’s V for Vendetta or 2005’s Sin City) I’ll just say that you should put any prejudice against comics aside and check out the original work to see where the flick came from (it’s really the same thing as reading a book which was the basis for a movie you liked, if only you can get over the fact that you’re reading a geeky comic).
And now, finally, let’s get to the list proper.
Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. This may be the most obvious choice on my list, and it’s also the one exception to my “no superheroes” rule, although it’s certainly not a superhero tale in the way that Spider-Man or Superman is. Watchmen was originally published as a 12-part comic in 1986-‘87, and it focuses on an alternate version of the United States where superheroes took the form of more realistic costumed vigilantes, though most are now retired. The murder of one of their own leads Rorschach, a costumed avenger of questionable ethics and mental stability, to start talking to some of the other golden-age heroes, which ends up leading the story into a deftly woven plot about issues of, among other things, weapons proliferation and impending apocalypse, a possible attempt to murder all former costumed heroes, distrust of authority, and possible alien invasions. And while it all sounds very comic-booky, one of the groundbreaking elements of Watchmen is that it is quite heavily steeped in realism. Actions have very real consequences, and the characters have very believable concerns and conditions, leading them to not always make the “right” or “proper” decision. Unlike most comic book villains at that time, who generally acted out of a grandiose megalomania, this story’s villain is a character who truly believes he’s acting for a greater good, and that it’s simply a matter of the ends justifying the means.
Now, it’s fair to say that at least some of the praise heaped upon Watchmen comes from people having an appreciation for how groundbreaking it was in terms of the decades of superhero comics that came before it. For example, Moore made the rare (at that time) decision to not use any “thought bubbles,” instead using more cinematic and literary methods of allowing the reader to understand what was going on in his characters’ heads. Similarly, the story is significantly more multilayered than most comics had previously been — both figuratively (in terms of the meaning behind the story being told) and literally (oftentimes, the dialogue or text of a given scene bares no direct relation to the action and images being show, though they are metaphorically related).
But one needn’t have any knowledge of or appreciation for the comic form to take a great deal away from Watchmen. This book shares quite a few of the stylistic, creative and artistic elements that many of us Pajiba folk love in our movies and TV — the author and artist have a strong point of view and sense of purpose, and they masterfully weave together a potpourri of elements in ways that you don’t always expect or see coming. Hell, a few years ago, Time even included Watchmen in its list of the 100 best English-language novels post-1923 (and I believe it was the only comic work to appear on the list). Not that I think Time is the arbiter of what good taste or good literature is, mind you. But if they’re willing to consider Watchmen a great novel, why shouldn’t you?
The Invisibles, by Grant Morrison and a variety of artists. Truthfully, there are days when I think Grant Morrison is a fucking genius, and there are days when I think he is absolutely batshit crazy. And I repeatedly went back and forth between these two trains of thought while reading The Invisibles, a collection of seven trade paperbacks containing what was originally a 59-issue comic series broken up into three volumes. The story is incredibly dense and often hard to follow. In fact, after reading it, I immediately purchased a “reader’s guide” and worked my way through much of the series for a second time to get a better grasp on things. And now, several years removed from those readings, I have to confess that a great many of the details are absolutely forgotten (which is more due to my piss-poor memory than anything else).
But on its most basic level, The Invisibles is a story about a small group of people who appear to be a cross between a terrorist cell and full-blown anarchists, but who are actually part of the larger Invisible College, a group out to save all of space and time against various forces hoping to do wrong (particularly the Archons of Outer Church). But this is a gross oversimplification. It’s also about time travel and alien abduction, and metaphysics and things that you and your friends might talk about when you’re heavily tripping. The earlier part of the series is also a much smarter, more interesting and better executed version of The Matrix; in fact, Morrison has made no bones about his belief that the Wachowskis flat-out stole shit from him, although he thinks they botched the hell out of it all with the second and third flick (and he ain’t alone on that one!): “It’s not some baffling ‘coincidence’ that so much of The Matrix is plot-by-plot, detail-by-detail, image-by-image, lifted from ‘Invisibles,’ so there shouldn’t be much controversy. The Wachowskis nicked ‘The Invisibles’ and everyone in the know is well aware of this fact but of course they’re unlikely to come out and say it.” (You can read more of Morrison’s thoughts on the matter, along with plenty of other thoughts, over in the Suicide Girls’ 2005 interview.)
Anyway, the only possible place to start with this series is really with the first trade paperback, Say You Want a Revolution, which collects the first eight issues. It provides an introduction to some of the main characters (including the wonderful King Mob) and themes that appear throughout the series via two main stories: one about the induction of a young British punk into the Invisibles, and the other about the Invisibles heading back in time to the French Revolution while also fighting a modern-day demon.
I’ll leave this long-winded write-up with an equally long-winded comment from Morrison about some of what The Invisibles is about, courtesy of that reader’s guide I mentioned (Anarchy for the Masses: The Disinformation Guide to The Invisibles):
[The woman with the baby is] just a representation. She’s as real as any representation might be. She’s at the interface where on one side is the Invisible College, which is a microscopic, atomic, folded-up superstring universe, and on the other side there’s the supercontext. The interference point of the supercontext is using the elements of the Outer Church as an antibiotic. The interference point where the Outer Church touches human consciousness manifests itself as all human fears. All the fears that have come bleeding out of human consciousness, which is the individual sovereign self consciousness. The Outer Church, when you first touch it, first appears as our worst nightmares, death camps, atomic destruction, hopeless people, mutated horrors, no hope for humanity. It’s the end. And then you go a little further in and there’s monstrous insect flea things doing their droppings in cities that you recognize. And suddenly you’re deep inside and there’s I/YOU cubes and the whole kind of surgical ambience, the nightmarish Clive Barker scalpel world. And deeper and deeper until you’re at the altar of all control, where there’s no hope and nothing needs interpretation, it is what it is. And the other world interpenetrates with it, which creates the soils in which the little larva grows and learns its tricks. It’s the world of the supercontext, of ultimate freedom, ultimate possibility. Where that touches human consciousness we experience it as the Invisible College, which is a place of learning, magic, wonder. The place we go in dreams, where we feel most at home.
As I said, there are days when I think Grant Morrison is a fucking genius, and there are days when I think he is absolutely bat-shit crazy.
Y: The Last Man, by Brian K. Vaughan (words) and Pia Guerra (pencils). On page one of the first issue of this comic, the series’ storyline is boiled down to one simple frame:
“All of the men are dead.” Some unknown plague has killed not just all the men, but every male mammal on the planet. Except for Yorick Brown (the titular last man) and his pet capuchin monkey Ampersand (the only other living male mammal, so far as we know). The story takes off from there, showing us what happens as the women of the world work to rebuild a new No Boys society. We see how these things are playing out, in large part, by following Yorick as he travels across, first, the country, and later, the whole world (his main goal is to get to Australia where his girlfriend happens to be). Turns out, of course, that many parts of the new No Boys society are quite hostile to the last man — for example, the newly formed gang, Daughters of the Amazon, have decided that this is the next logical step in societal evolution, and they welcome the opportunity to kill any remaining Y-chromosomes (and they take things seriously enough that they each burn off their left breast, which is just a waste of a good breast). But luckily, Yorick doesn’t have to go it alone, as he not only has Ampersand with him, but the mysterious Agent 355 and a geneticist who has been doing some illegal cloning work.
The point of this story isn’t to suggest that society is incapable of functioning without men. It’s more about the fact that any society is suddenly going to have problems when almost half the population up and croaks. And the story also isn’t a male fantasy tale, i.e., “If I was the last man on earth I would so be getting laid all the time.” In fact, very early on Yorick tells his mom that he’s all about restarting the human race, but only with his girlfriend. Not to mention the fact that Yorick is kind of a nerd (he does magic, loves pop culture and sci-fi, etc.), so many women might even stay true to the “not even if you were the last man on Earth” sentiment.
Just to give you one taste of what things are like in the No Boys society, Yorick’s mom is a Congresswoman, and she explains one aspect of the new political landscape while they both dodge bullets from some very pissed off Republican women:
There are only thirteen females in the Senate and sixty in the House…and almost three-fourths of us are Democrats. A few of the wives of dead Republicans think we’re trying to eliminate the two-party system just because we’re not giving them their husbands’ seats.
This leads to an eventual show-down between the Republican wives and Yorick’s mom (along with a Democratic Senator), after the wives take a hostage:
Brown (Yorick’s mom): Ladies, this is Representative Jennifer Brown. I’m here with Senator Cavanaugh. We’re not armed. We’d like to work this out peacefully … so why don’t you release your hostage?
Stahl (one of the hostage-takers): Certainly … as soon as you stop holding Congress hostage and let us finish the jobs our husbands started!
Brown: You’re David Stahl’s wife, right? Ms. Stahl, I’m afraid that won’t be possible.
Stahl: And why the hell not?
Brown: Because we’re politicians, not royalty.
Stahl: Representative Brown, in the history of Congress, forty-five widows have attempted to succeed their late husbands —
Brown: — and not one of them failed. Right, I’ve heard that factoid, too. But with respect, I think you’re forgetting that all of those women were democratically elected.
Stahl: Really? What about your friend?
Senator Cavanaugh: When Jerry died in 2000, I … I was appointed Senator.
Brown: Yes, but … but even that had to be done by an elected official!
Stahl: A governor! And ninety per cent of them are dead now! What are we supposed to do … let our husbands’ seats remain empty forever? Honestly, do you people have any idea what’s going on outside Washington? Looting and mass suicide and … and cannibalism, for God’s sake! Our constituencies need leadership.
Brown: I understand that, Ms. Stahl, and we do intend to hold special elections … when the time is right. Until then, you can do more good in your communities than you could inside the Capitol!
For my tastes, that one scene (the conclusion of which I’ll leave unmentioned) is better than anything we have yet to get from the similarly apocalyptic “Jericho.” The whole series is handled like this — generally not taking sides, but just trying to show how things might play out. And it does so with a style of writing and pacing that’s very cinematic. For example, the first issue is basically a series of snapshots starting a half-hour before all the men went bye-bye, jumping forward a few minutes at a time, up to the big moment. It’s all very fluid, despite the time-jumps, and it feels like the first half-hour of a good flick of TV show. Which is why it’s not surprising that New Line optioned Y two years ago (and Vaughan himself, just last week, talked about the fact that he was working on the script, which gives one hope that it may do the series some justice, should an actual movie ever come to light).
Anyway, this is one of the series I mentioned that’s still ongoing, although Vaughan’s intention has always been to end it with issue 60, which should come out before the end of this year. In the meantime, the best place for you to start is right at the beginning with volume one, Unmanned. It’s a quick read, and if you like it, you’ll like the later volumes even more, as it’s been improving with time (Vaughan himself has said he dislikes much of what he did early on, when he was a mere 25).
I’ll give the last word on Y to our own Dan Carlson, who wrote about volumes four and five of the series in a What Pajiba’s Reading column last year:
Each story arc goes down fast and hot as a shot of whiskey, as Vaughan mixes rapid action, taut suspense, quirky humor, and devastating heartbreak to create an engrossing and completely feasible postapocalyptic vision. Y: The Last Man elevates the medium to a true art form.
Bone by Jeff Smith. Bone is the least “serious” of the comics on my list, insofar as it’s not only the most intentionally funny, but its illustration is very cartoony and it’s specifically geared to “all ages.” But that’s not to say that it’s a kid’s book, or that it is any less fantastic than the other things on this list, ‘cause it ain’t. The one-sentence, oversimplified summary of Bone’s story is that it’s about three cousins (Fone Bone, Phony Bone, and Smiley Bone) who get kicked out of their village (Boneville) and eventually end up in a strange valley, where they inadvertently become a key part in the epic battle between the big-bad Lord of the Locusts and the humans (and certain other critters). The story plays out over 55 issues, which were published throughout the ’90s (and all the way into 2004). It has since been collected in a variety of formats — there are nine black-and-white trade paperback volumes, a massive one-volume collection (I have a beautiful limited edition version of that volume, which comes in at a whopping 1,332 pages), and a new set of colorized trade paperback volumes that are currently being published.
Smith and Bone have won a slew of awards, including 10 of the aforementioned Eisners (and 11 Harvey Awards, the other big industry honor), and the accolades are all well-deserved. While the art and writing appear very simple in their style and presentation, Smith has actually created an incredibly rich and dense world, with characters and situations that arem’t as one-dimensional as they first appear. Over time, what started as a simple “journey” story turns into an epic Hero’s tale, only to end right where it started (though the characters, themselves, have surely changed). And the glue that holds it all together is the humor. Sometimes the humor is of the “Oh, that’s cute” variety, sometimes it’s witty as hell, and other times it’s just laugh-out-loud hysterical. One of my favorite bits has always been from an early scene where two rat creatures (which are big, mean, hairy … umm … rat creatures) are trying to settle a domestic dispute so they can get to eating the just-captured Fone Bone:
Rat Creature 1: Please, comrade! I just want to chop him up for the stew!
Rat Creature 2: And that’s another thing! I’m tired of stew! I want to put him in a crust and bake a light fluffy quiche!
Rat Creature 1: QUICHE?! What kind of food is that for a monster to eat?!
Of course, reproducing the dialogue alone simply doesn’t do Bone justice — the beauty of the series is how well Smith uses the comic form to his advantage, knowing when to let his wonderful art speak without words, or how to best mix the two together, to amplify the overall tone and impact of what’s going on:
As with most of the other series here, the best way to start is really with Volume 1: Out from Boneville, which you can get in either color or black and white (and the color versions are quite gorgeous — despite owning almost every loose issue of the comic, plus the one-volume hardback, I’ve often been tempted to start collecting the colorized version as well). And at the risk of suddenly seeming like a shill for Time, I’m going to steal my conclusion from a 2004 Time article on Bone, when it called the comic one of the 10 best of the year:
Combining the instant gratification of strong cartooning with the deep engagement of epic storytelling and the universal appeal of humor, Jeff Smith’s Bone has become the best all-ages graphic novel yet published. While older readers will tune into such themes as the folly of blind fanaticism and the corrupting nature of power, the younger set will simply thrill to the adventure and delight at the huge cast of characters. Hardly a folly anymore, Bone now deserves to go from hipster cult item to mainstream literary success.
Fables, by Bill Willingham (writer) and, for the most part, Mark Buckingham (penciller). As with most of the items on this list, Fables starts with a relatively simple premise: Many of the characters we know and love from various fables and stories now happen to live, in relative secrecy, in New York City. Long ago, they all lived in their own little various realms, but they’ve fled into exile over the centuries after a big baddy (generally referred to as the Emperor or the Adversary) conquered all of their homelands (and they chose our happy little realm of Earth because, so far, it seems to be the one place that the Adversary isn’t interested in getting his mitts on). So now they live in modern-day NYC amongst the “mundanes” (i.e., you and me), living as a secret community they’ve dubbed “Fabletown.” While the mayor of Fabletown is King Cole, things are really run by his deputy, Snow White. She’s several centuries divorced from Prince Charming (who’s also divorced from his subsequent wives, Briar Rose [a.k.a. Sleeping Beauty] and Cinderella), and she’s a cold-hearted gal who never wants to hear any reference to her “tawdry little adventure with those seven dwarves.”
But wait, you might say, what of the fable characters who can’t so easily blend in with human society? Well, that goes to their “most vital law: no fable shall, by action or inaction, cause our magical nature to become known to the mundane world.” Fables that aren’t able to blend in with the human-folk are thus sent to a hidden farm, located far from prying eyes. But some non-humanesque fables are able to avoid this option through enchantments and concealing glamours. For example, Fabletown’s sheriff is Bigby Wolf, who used to be known as the Big Bad Wolf. But thanks to an old witch’s enchantment, he can now make himself look human.
But wait again, you might say, how can a “bad guy” like
the Big Bad Bigby Wolf live with the good folk? Well centuries ago, when the fables were all still “fresh off the boat,” their newly formed community wasn’t terribly cohesive, and was at risk of falling apart. To avoid this, a general amnesty was granted to all folks, “good” or “bad,” wiping out all crimes, debts and grievances to that point. So Bigby Wolf got himself a clean slate, which is why he can now exist peacefully in Fabletown — as the lawman, no less. In fact, one of the Three Little Pigs often stays on Bigby’s couch, much to Wolf’s chagrin, whenever he runs off from the upstate farm for the non-human fables (he’s stuck there because he is, after all, a big, fat talking pig, though he says: “I’m a sophisticated pig and I belong in the city”).
While there’s an obvious sense of fun and frivolity to the above description, it should be noted that the series is also very adult in tone, language and content. For example, Prince Charming is a scumbag who uses his wiles and charm to get a diner waitress to buy him his meal, bang him long and hard, and then give him money and a place to stay for a couple of days. Similarly, the characters have adapted to our modern verbiage, and while Fabletown isn’t exactly “Deadwood,” there are more f-bombs than you might be used to in your comics. And the stories can also be quite dark. For example, the first volume of Fables, Legends in Exile, collects the first five issues of the series and the volume’s story arc involves the possible murder of Snow White’s sister, Rose Red, after her apartment is found absolutely doused in blood (enough blood that Showtime’s “Dexter” would be kept quite entertained and busy).
But again, there is fun and humor in the series, often in addressing the difficulties of these fabled characters being stuck in a modern world. Take, for example, the following exchange, when Cinderella asks Pinocchio why he continues to show up at an annual gathering despite never having a good time:
Pinocchio: Because, sooner or later, that blue fairy, who turned me into a real boy, is going to show her face at one of these things, and I’m going to kick her pretty azure ass.
Cinderella: Why? I thought you wanted to become a real boy?
Pinocchio: Of course I did. But who knew I’d have to stay a boy forever? The ditzy bitch interpreted my wish too literally. I’m over three centuries old and I still haven’t gone through puberty. I want to grow up, I want my balls to drop, and I want to get laid.
All of these elements combine into a series of stories that are smart, funny, rich and hard to put down. You should definitely start with the first volume of the series (the above-mentioned Legends in Exile) as it serves as an excellent introduction to the world. And if you like it, there are many more volumes out there to keep you going — in fact, this is the one other series still actively being published and, unlike Y, there isn’t even a planned ending point to the series (as far as I know).
Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud. This is a bit different from most the other things on my list, insofar as it’s not a story but, instead, is a discussion of the art and power of comics. In the 215-page book, McCloud uses the comic form to discuss, among other things, what comics are and how to define them, to talk about various visual media and how they affect visual and mental perception, and the unique things the comic format can do, as opposed to film and books. As a whole, the book is a smart introduction to how comics work and what the form is capable of doing, in terms of visualization, playing with time, framing action, taking advantage of things left off the page and/or out of the frames, etc. And actually, the one-page introduction to the book itself sums it all up pretty well:
Understanding Comics is surprisingly smart and dense in terms of the information included, offering a rich and thought-provoking landscape in a way that makes you laugh while you’re being educated. Yet McCloud masterfully uses the format of the book to break all of this down in a way that is very simple and easy to follow. The art is very basic and simplistic when the discussion calls for it, but McCloud has the talent to also create more rich and “complex” images when necessary. The following spread is just one example of how he utilizes different types of imagery to exemplify what’s being discussed:
This first book of what has become a trilogy (he followed Understanding Comics with Reinventing Comics and the recent Making Comics) is certainly something that comic fans and aficionados will enjoy. As Matt Groening’s blurb on the book’s back cover says:
If you’ve ever felt bad about wasting your life reading comics, then check out Scott McCloud’s classic book immediately. You still might feel you’ve wasted your life, but you’ll know why, and you’ll be proud.
However, it’s not solely written for the comics folk. Rather, it something anyone can enjoy, as long as you’re type of person who enjoys smart and cleverly written analysis (though, again, this isn’t in the least bit boring, despite many people equating “analysis” with “bored to fucking tears”). Most of the Pajiba readership (though certainly not all!), seems to be relatively smart people who enjoy engaging in intellectual discourse, and that’s precisely the type of person who will love this book.
Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children, by Dave Louapre (“writes stories”) and Dan Sweetman (“draws pictures of things”). I debated with myself about including this on the list for a couple of reasons. First, it’s almost a cheat to classify the series as a comic — while it was published in the same format as other comics, by a little indy comic company, it’s not like any of the other things on this list. That is, there are no frames, no word balloons, no ongoing storylines, etc. Instead, it’s really a collection of illustrated short stories. It’s much more akin to Edward Gorey, both in style and execution, only with significantly more than one sentence per image.
The second reason I debated including this is because it’s a bit harder to get your hands on — everything else on this list is very easy to find and most, if not all of them, are just a few clicks away on Amazon. And a quick search shows me that you can actually get Beautiful Stories off Amazon as well, but only as loose issues from third parties. The reason for this is partially due to the fact that the 30-issue series (plus a few extra bits) has never been published in any complete trade-paperback form (and as a result, even my own collection is incomplete, as there is one lone issue I have yet to track down). According to Wikipedia, Loupre is working to get a collection published, but it sounds like there are some rough waters out there.
In any event, I ultimately decided to keep this on the list. Sure, it may not be easy to find, and no, it doesn’t match the same “format” as the other comics, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was published as a comic and that the series is something I suspect many Pajiba readers would love. So there you go.
As I mentioned, Beautiful Stories is a collection of sometimes dark and often twisted illustrated stories. The stories are generally self-contained, although the first issue’s tale was sequelized in issue 13 (and then made into a trilogy with a new story included in a special trade paperback collecting all three of them). As for the subject matter, there’s no consistent theme, and the stories tend to be all over the place. For example, that first story, “A Cotton Candy Autopsy,” describes itself as being about “a gang of desperate clowns on a joyride. Along the way they find brutality, madness, death, and love.” Then there’s the story about what Death does with a day off. Or the one where a merry-go-round up and quits the carnival. Or the one that offers insight into the lives of lemmings.
Actually, let’s take a look at that one, “By the Light of the Screaming Moon” (issue nine). The night of their junior prom, Jack and Mary Beaumont are sat down by their parents, for what they are afraid is going to be a talk about the facts of life. Here’s an example of a two-page spread, plus some of the dialogue from this and the next page, just to give you a taste of what I’m talking about here in terms of style and layout:
Their father clapped his hands. “Mary, Jack,” he said, “we are lemmings.” Jack and Mary sighed with relief. They knew they were lemmings. They’d seen pictures of other lemmings and made the connection long ago. “And as such,” he continued, “we are subject to certain undeniable instincts — instincts as old as our forefathers, and as powerful as life itself. Instincts that guide and control our destinies, that signal and call us to courses of action. …”
Jack and Mary slouched in their evening wear. They felt the facts of life coming on. It had to be a facts of life speech because so far it made no sense.
“What your father is so pathetically trying to say, kids,” Mrs. Beaumont interrupted, “is that tomorrow, at the Founders Day picnic, we’re all leaping to our deaths from the cliffs above the shore. The entire town. That’s about the gist of it. That’s what your dad meant by ‘instinct.’ It’s something we have to do to preserve the species. We’re at what they call a ‘peak population period,’ which means there’s too many of us, not enough food, not enough housing, blah blah blah.”
“By the Light” is a surprisingly touching story about the confusion and feeling of being out of place that all teens intimately experience. Well that, and about lemmings jumping off a cliff.
And finally, let me mention what is probably my favorite of the stories, issue 25’s “Legion of Ogs.” It’s essentially a tale of one cavemen couple, Og and Zola, going over to the cave of Thag and Ann, their neighbors, for dinner. Og and Zola are your “typical” cavemen, while Thag and Ann are a bit more advanced (Thag is an artist who gathers instead of hunting: “Some of the hunters talk about him when we go out to kill. They say ‘Thag will not throw thpear, because Thag is thpecial.’”). Needless to say, the couples don’t get along so well, and it all makes for a very entertaining night, at least for the reader:
“I think we ought to just call it an evening,” Thag sighed heavily. “I mean, nothing personal, Og, Zola … but you’re the two biggest morons I’ve ever met in my life, and I’m beginning to get depressed about the future of our kind. So, why don’t you go back to your cave and go to sleep, or rut, or throw rocks at each other. I don’t care what you do, just leave, please.”
“What is moron?” asked Zola. Thag slapped his head and said nothing.
“A moron,” Amy explained, slowly, deliberately, “is the same as a very smart person, except totally different.”
“Ahh,” Zola nodded. “Thank you. Do you hear what she says, Og? We are morons.”
“Yes,” Og nodded. “We are morons, big and strong.”
“And smart,” Zola added.
“And smart,” Og repeated. “Big, strong, smart morons!”
These stories are, themselves, big, strong, smart stories. And twisted. And funny. And creative as hell. And fucking bizarre.
The Sandman, by Neil Gaiman and many artists. The Sandman is my favorite run of comics ever, and will likely always remain so. In fact, I will eventually own almost three full versions of it — I have about 75 percent of the original loose issues, I’ve got a full hardback collection of the series, and I’m currently collecting the in-production four volume “Absolute” version of the series, a gorgeous, oversized version of the collection that contains corrected colors, additional material, etc. (it’s like the Criterion Collection version).
The story presented throughout the series’ 75-issue run (not to mention the various offshoot comics and graphic novels, and even a “real” book, some penned by Gaiman as well, but most written by others), is incredibly rich and dense — I’ve probably read the whole series three or four times, and I still pick up new things each time I read it. The series tells the story of Dream, who is also referred to as Morpheus and a host of other names. He’s a member of the Endless, seven siblings who are sort of anthropomorphisms of the things for which they are named (or which are named for them, depending on your interpretation). Those siblings include Destiny, Death, Dream, Desire, Despair, Delirium and a brother who has “quit” the family and his job. While they’re immortal, they are most assuredly not gods, and they are quite capable of dying (this may seem to go against the notion that they’re immortal but, trust me, it does not).
Dream is a moody and somber dude, a pasty white-skinned fellow with a big ol’ shock of black hair and a generally dour mood. He holds dominion over The Dreaming, which is the realm where all people and creatures go while they’re asleep and, well, dreaming. The story of The Sandman, when taken on its whole, is Dream’s story, and Gaiman has described it, when asked to do so in 25 words or less, thusly: “The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.” Of course, the devil’s in the details, and The Sandman is thick with the details. As with many of Gaiman’s works, both of the comic variety and the more “standard” written word, The Sandman is also largely and fundamentally about the power of storytelling and mythology and legend, the strength in words and beliefs. Throughout the stories told in The Sandman, we see how the strength and power of stories manifests, how it can be manipulated (or how the stories themselves manipulate others), and all the wonder and misery wrapped up in the essence of creativity.
Seven of the 10 volumes that make up The Sandman tell mostly self-contained story arcs, though there are plenty of little things that flow throughout the whole series, and every arc has repercussions felt throughout the later stories. Some of these arcs are shaped like horror, others like fantasy, and at least one is ostensibly a road trip story (wherein Dream and one of his sisters set out to find their missing brother). There are also three other volumes that contain something more akin to short stories — various single-issue narratives that may share some broad thematic brotherhood but are otherwise independent (though, again, not always without ramification to the larger story of the series). In some of the larger story arcs, and in many of these single-issue stories, the character of Dream plays a much smaller part than one would typically expect for the “star” of a series. For example, volume three of the series, Dream Country, contains four separate stories. Dream doesn’t appear in one story at all, and only appears on two pages of another. This is one of the brilliant aspects of the comic, how Gaiman (and his publishers) allowed the character to take a back seat where the story didn’t call for his immediate involvement. It allows for the development of a truly rich world where many different characters and ideas are explored and developed through what ultimately becomes an intricately rich and layered story.
This is the one series I mentioned in my intro where I probably would not recommend starting with the first volume, although there is certainly nothing wrong with doing so. That volume — Preludes & Nocturnes — reprints the series’ first eight issues, and tells first of Dream’s 72-year imprisonment on Earth and then of his quest to rebuild his kingdom and regain possession of some items lost to him during that time. It’s certainly a fine introduction to the character, and contains many elements and themes that reverberate throughout the series. It also contains two of what are probably the more popular issues from the whole run: “24 Hours,” a gruesome tale of the horrors that take place in a diner over a 24-hour period, said horrors caused by a madman who is in the possession of a powerful item belonging to Dream; and “The Sound of Her Wings,” in which we first meet Dream’s big sister, Death, and start to get a deeper understanding into what Dream’s really all about.
Despite the above comments, I think this volume is one of the weakest parts of the series as a whole. The larger story arc is a fairly straightforward quest (hero needs to find three items, hero goes after first item, hero goes after second item, hero goes after third item). More importantly, you can tell that Gaiman is actively trying to figure out what the larger purpose is for the series, where he’s going to go with it and what he’s going to do with it all. Again, no reason you can’t start here, but if I’m going to recommend one volume to really sell you on the series, I’d rather go with one from a bit later on, when Gaiman had his feet under him and things were really going full steam. As I looked over my collection, I almost went with volume four, A Season of Mists, which presents a very accessible story and happens to be my personal favorite volume. In a nutshell, a family meeting ends up forcing Dream to take a trip to Hell, where he’s given the domain’s key (Lucifer decides he’s had enough, so he packs his things up and leaves). Most of the rest of the story focuses on Dream deciding what to do with the key, particularly in light of the fact that various gods and entities have come to him seeking the key (and with it, control of Hell).
You can’t go wrong starting with that volume either, but for my money, the best place to start, to really see what the series can do, is with volume three, Dream Country, the collection of four stories I mentioned earlier. Because there are four separate stories that aren’t part of any multi-issue story arc, you get a broader feel for the kinds of things Gaiman is capable of doing with the series. You get to experience three different artistic takes on the series (two stories are drawn by the same artist). You get to read the brilliant story where Gaiman takes on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream — an issue that won the prestigious World Fantasy Award in 1991 for Best Short Fiction, an outcome that outraged so many people that the rules were changed so that no comic book would ever again take home a World Fantasy Award. And it also contains “A Dream of a Thousand Cats,” which is the first issue of The Sandman I ever purchased (on a total lark). As the title might suggest, it’s a story about cats. But it’s really a story about the power of dreams, and it’s told with rich text and beautiful art, both of which are utterly gripping. As this is the issue that roped me into becoming the Sandman junkie I am today, I don’t see any way that I could suggest some other volume as the starting point for anyone else out there looking for something new and wonderful. In fact, I’ve turned quite a few people onto this series, all through this volume — and one of those people is someone whom I consider to be both the coolest and smartest person I know. If The Sandman is good enough for her, it’s most assuredly good enough for you lot.
Maus, by Art Spiegelman. Maus is, quite simply, amazing. The two-volume, Pulitzer Prize-winning story combines two tales — one of the author’s relationship with his father, the other of his father’s survival as a Polish Jew in Hitler’s Europe (including a stint in Auschwitz). Both stories are richly interwoven as the narrative jumps back and forth between the two, but the most striking aspect of Maus, aside from it being a comic, is Spiegelman’s choice to depict the characters as animals. He does this in broad strokes, by ethnicity and nationality — so Jews are mice, Germans are cats, Poles are pigs, Brits are fish, etc. The brilliance of this decision is that it boils the story down, in seeming contradiction, to its human essence.
Maus wasn’t the first thing I ever read about the Holocaust, as there had been some boiled-down paragraphs in a history textbook or two. But as my family was fortunate enough to be out of Europe long before World War II (if my name isn’t a giveaway, I’m a
mouse Jew), Maus was my first “personal” encounter with the tragedy and horror of it all. As a story presented via a first-person narrative through Spiegelman’s father’s own words, the whole thing is intimate in a way unlike any other Holocaust-related book or movie I’ve ever encountered. For example, Vladek (Spiegelman’s father) was on a train ride through Poland in 1938, and the train had just passed a Nazi flag flying in a town center. Vladek notes that this “was the first time I saw, with my own eyes, the swastika,” and the following page captures the conversation that followed:
In one page, with just a handful of words and some animal cartoons, Spiegelman is able to completely relay the flavor and experience of what people where thinking and feeling at that moment. And the whole book is like this. I found the following blurb from Umberto Eco, most assuredly a better writer than I, which sums Maus up quite well:
Maus is a book that cannot be put down, truly, even to sleep. When two of the mice speak of love, you are moved, when they suffer, you weep. Slowly through this little tale comprised of suffering, humor and life’s daily trials, you are captivated by the language of an old Eastern European family, and drawn into the gentle and mesmerizing rhythm, and when you finish Maus, you are unhappy to have left that magical world.
It truly is a compelling read. In fact, in writing this Guide, I of course went back to the various works I have discussed, flipping through them and rereading certain portions. When I picked up Maus, I suddenly found myself reading it from the beginning and, once again, unable to put it down. As I finish writing this Guide, I’m currently halfway through yet another rereading of Maus, and while there are other things I should probably do instead, once I have uploaded this piece I will almost certainly return to my couch to pick up where I left off.
While you can purchase the two volumes of Maus separately, the best way to go is simply to get The Complete Maus, a nice edition collecting both original volumes. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television columnist. He’s written far too much to have any energy left for a pithy one-liner here, so just sod off and leave a comment or something.
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