April 10, 2013

Comic starters

This past week one of my students asked me for some comic recommendations. My thoughts...
  • Watchmen - This is the pinnacle of the art form. It's the most complicated, most impressive, most intricate and brilliant graphic novel - and to call it less would be to sell it short - that's been published. With that being said, it's definitely a hard R or even an NC-17. I don't know that this is the one I would recommend as a starter for someone who hasn't been reading comics. On the other hand, it might be a heck of a gateway drug. The story wraps up tidily in twelve issues, and the conclusion will lead to lots of re-reading. More thoughts about the comic here and about the movie here.
  • Locke & Key - This will be one of the few non-superhero comics on my list. It's an effect of my tastes that I tend to mostly read capes comics, so my recommendations tend to be in that milieu, as well. This, one, though is entirely devoid of capes and superpowers. That doesn't mean it's devoid of unreality, though. It's a story of three children trying to protect their world from an evil that has been making appearances in their New England town since - at least - the American Revolution. The artwork is stunningly gorgeous, and the story is so tightly and well written that it is at times a very tense read. It's also a finite series, so you can go in knowing that you'll be able to wrap up the story. At this point we have - supposedly - just one more collection to come. More thoughts and images here.
  • Invincible - Mark Grayson's coming of age superhero story has been running for a hundred-plus issues now and is adding to that total by the month. That can be a bit of a drawback for starting readers: knowing that they'll have a whole lot of catching up to do. Mark's emotions are very well written and realistic as he sees friends die; love blossom, flourish, and fade; even his father turn evil. Along the way Mark becomes the greatest hero that Earth knows. The government comes to rely on him - and to betray him, and the federation of planets (or whatever it's called in this series), does as well. There is a bit of a repetitiveness to the fights with the Viltrumites, and things do get very graphic at times, but it's worth reading through the gruesomeness.
  • Powers - This one's definitely not for the little kids. There are nudes and murders and cursing all over the place. It's another ongoing series with nearly eighty issues - though there have been a coupleof somewhat length hiatuses along the way - that may be a bit intimidating for newbies. (Let me recommend the hardcover collections.) Wonderful story of police procedurals in a superpowered world, one in which non-powers sometimes feel a bit intimidated. There's a lot of darkness around, but there's also one of the most fascinating characters in all of comics with Detective Christian Walker, a former power himself.
  • Ultimate Spider-Man - Another long-running series with about 160 issues so far. Luckily the entirety of the run has been written by Brian Michael Bendis (same writer as Powers, curiously) which has lead to a very consistent and beautifully written tone through the whole run. The teen Peter Parker (and the the nearly pre-teen Miles Morales) was written with great understanding by Bendis, and the tie ins to the other teen heroes of the Ultimate Marvel universe - particularly Kitty Pryde and Johnny Storm - made this the keystone series of the Ultimate Marvel universe. It's also entirely teen-safe, so this might be my opener for a new teen reader.
  • Spider-Man: Blue - There's a lot of heart here, and the artwork is spectacular, possibly Tim Sale's finest work yet. This one's very short - only six issues - and it's largely ground that's been covered in other volumes. Peter Parker was falling love with Gwen Stacey, and this volume does a marvelous job of retelling that time. Plus it's really, really pretty. More thoughts and images here.
  • Fables - I was a little worried that all momentum in this series was being lost after the climax of the homeland war and then the defeat of Mr Dark by the North Wind, but the last volume (Cubs in Toyland) was emotionally brilliant. The first volume is a little weak, introductions being more important than story, but the long-form build-up and eventual execution of the return invasion of the Homelands is spectacular. The series has done a great job of telling multiple stories for more than 120 issues, and the artwork is so, so pretty.
  • Starman - This one's a legacy title for DC, one that tied into the history of the DC universe as well as did just about any other DC title. James Robinson's writing showed that the entirety of the series had been planned from step one, and every step along the way seemed as inevitable as the tides. It's also another wonderfully-drawn series, too. The space arc is a bit off-topic, but the rest is marvelously cohesive. In the long run, this is a tale of family - family by blood, by legacy, by choice, and by accident.
  • Sandman -This one's a family tale, too, but one of a family of the Infinite beings, and particularly of the one who chooses not to be Infinite any more. This is as perfect a seventy-five issues as could be written. The first arc is unpleasant and tied far more into the DC universe than is the rest of the run, but all of the arcs are important as the seeds of the end appear in the very beginning. It's also wonderful that there are many stand-alone issues that are among the series's finest. The artwork changes somewhat frequently because of the stand-alone issues. I find myself in tears every time I read the story's final arc. Wonderful series.
  • DMZ - I can't vouch for the conclusion collections of this one since PLCH seems unwilling to purchase the last two. This adult-themed series sees Matty Roth, the newsman protagonist, dropped into a civil-war-torn Manhattan. In the process, Matty becomes the most (and then the least-) trusted person in the New York DMZ. He learns that every day is a balance of trust, love, honesty, an expediency. It's complicated, and the series does a great job of telling the story of the DMZ from a number of different viewpoints.
  • Superman: Secret Identity - Maybe the most human of all the stories, this tale of a Clark Kent in, supposedly, the real world who finds that he actually has the powers of his famous and fictional namesake, is marvelous and tearful. Plus it's short enough to be read in a single sitting. Tears, man, tears every time. Coincidentally, an article about it appeared today.
  • Planetary - Thirty-seven perfect issues and hundreds of superhero tropes...I can see this one going either way - experienced comic readers will recognize lots of those tropes, but newbies might want to do the work to read the older stories on which many of these are based. This is a brilliant distillation and synthesis of superhero comics into one brilliant story. Along the way it turns out to be all about family, too. There's darkness along the way, but there's light at the end of the tale.
  • All-Star Superman - From the first page - possibly the most brilliant distillation of any superhero origin ever (parodied here) - to the last, this is a love story to Superman, a modern take on the ridiculous silver-age stories but with loads and loads of heart. I can't recommend most of Grant Morrison's writing, but this twelve-issue story is absolutely brilliant. This is one of the two best Superman stories ever, neither of which are in canon.
  • Supreme: Story of the Year - This one's the other best Superman story ever, even though it's about a Superman analog, not the real deal. This one's less open to newbies than is All-Star and a bit nastier at times. The second half of the collection is more metafiction than I tend to enjoy, but it's very well done.
  • Eternals - It took me a while to come around to John Romita Jr's artwork, but I'm now officially a fan. This one's Romita through and through with a story from Neil Gaiman after inspiration from Jack Kirby, can't get much stronger than that. There's a lot of background before this, but it's all either explained well enough in the story or can be glossed over in the reading. There's a massive, cosmic scope to this, something I tend not to enjoy as a rule in comics but that I absolutely love here. I do wish I could read a bit further, but Gaiman didn't continue beyond this first collection, so whatever.
  • Wolverine: Enemy of the State - Another John Romita Jr bit of artwork here with a very dark story involving two heroes losing their souls and nearly destroying the Marvel universe. This one's brutal and bloody - though highly stylized. It's by far the most interesting Wolverine story that I've read. Tough to explain why this one's impressive, but it certainly is.
  • Astonishing X-Men (the Joss Whedon run) - The X-Men's history is a mess. Dang near every character has been a hero and a villain at different times. Plus they've had dozens of different - often concurrently running - series (Astonishing, Uncanny, Ultimate, Classic, All-New, Giant-Sized, New) - so they're fairly well impossible to follow. Just forget about all that and enjoy this brilliant mixture of the originals (Cyclops, Beast), middle (Kitty Pryde, Colossus), and very new (Danger, Emma Stone) heroes. This one's all over the universe in scope and impressively emotional. The final arc - Unstoppable - is just spectacular, but only because of the steps that lead along the way.
  • Pride of Baghdad - One of the very few non-superhero comics here, this tale of a pride of lions released from the Baghdad zoo during the American invasion is possibly the most heart-wrenching story I've ever read. It's also self-contained, so new readers neadent worry about feeling out of the loop. This one should be required reading for anyone who says comics are for kids - or are stupid - or are juvenile.
  • Batman:  Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader - It's based on a Superman tale, similarly meant to clear the bilges for one of many periodic rewrites, but this one's far more welcoming to new readers than is that Superman version. I feel like a broken record, but I was in tears by the end of this two-issue collection. This hardback collection actually has the two issues in the tale (brilliant) and a couple more issues that aren't related but are just there to flech out the hardback. Read the first two and set the others aside, though.
  • Scott Pilgrim - No superheroes here, just awkward Canadians trying to find love in a video game world. Great exploration of the college-age years trying to move beyond childish things and find your way in the world. It's six black and white volumes (though they're releasing colorized versions), so there's hope for an ending. Plus it's been made into a good movie - great, great source materials, though. More thoughts here.
  • Runaways - Another teen topic here...six teens (a mixed bag racially, motivationally, and perspectivationally) find out that their parents are the worst of the worst villains, and they have to decide what path to take. Sure it's a bit more dramatic than most teens' choices, but it feels very much typical teen. They don't know what adults to trust, and they don't always know which of each other they can trust. Wonderful entree for teen readers - with science fiction, magic, dinosaurs, capes and superheroes, great good and bad.
  • Batgirl: Year One - Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous, painted scenery in this retelling of the Batgirl origins. This might be a good one to recommend for teen, female first timers. There aren't nearly enough superhero comics with strong female protagonists, but this is one of them. Batgirl's a brilliant character in so many of her incarnations (Barbara Gordon in this one).
  • The Dark Knight Returns - Dark, adult, vile, violent, a rough. This one's a futuristic, non-canon (though it's been brought into canon somewhat since) story that colored Batman interpretations for the three decades since it was published. It's a nice, tidy four issues, but it's filled with violence and dirty things, I warn you. Not for the junior readers
  • Superman: Red Son - DC has done a number of Elseworlds titles in which they explore stories that aren't remotely in canon. This one sees Kal-El (Superbaby) landing in Communist Russia and Superman being raised for truth, justice, and the communist way. Great exploration of Superman with that one twist. Speaking of twists, the one at the end left me stunned, mouth agape.
  • Batman: Year One - This retelling of Batman's first year - his successes and far too frequent screw-ups - is told alongside Jim Gordon's first year in Gotham, making for wonderful parallels between two men finding their ways and purposes. This is the polar opposite to Dark Knight Returns, the hopeful but fitful beginning of the story rather than the dark ending. Marvelously human in both men's tales.
  • Batman: The Long Halloween - Set a couple of years further along as the supervillains (Ivy, Penguin, Joker, Riddler, etc) begin to take Gotham over from the gangsters who were the villains in Year One. Every one of the great villains in the greatest rogue's gallery in comic history. This one's another pretty, pretty volume - with twelve tight issues - from Tim Sale and Jeph Loeb, two of the modern masters of comics.
  • Astro City - This one's another series - a bunch of mini-series, really - that takes the usual superhero cliches and tropes and makes them fresh again. They're wonderfully human because many of the stories see the non-superhero denizens of the world and their reactions to the heroes who dominate their world. All of the mini-series can be read individually, but as an entirety they make for a brilliant exploration of what it would be like to see the world populated by people far more powerful than themselves.
  • Justice League (Giffen/DeMatteis run) - Rarely do non-comic readers think of comics as being funny, but this is the most well-written, funny take on the biggest superhero team ever. Instead of having them fight massive, planetary-scale baddies, the writers made them into a United Nations team trying to keep the peace while getting to know each other. It's a light-hearted bit of team building that turned expectations entirely on their heads.

    No comments: