I’ve been noticing lately that an intimate knowledge of comic books has become less socially embarrassing than it was years ago. In fact, when people find out I read comics, I get the question “Oh, what could you recommend?” The problem is, most of these people have never read a comic before, and I better than anyone realize it’s a daunting task to become familiar with years of mythology and general character histories. So if someone asked you to recommend a first comic or graphic novel, what would you recommend? —Patrick
Back when I managed a comic-book store, I considered myself a missionary of the medium. I took every opportunity I could find to try to convert people, to bring them into the geeky flock, to make them see the light about comics. Granted, I had an ulterior motive back then. But I did (and do) think that comics are a unique vessel for words, art, and ideas, one that benefits from its pulpy roots and outsider status—elements I hope the medium never loses sight of. Accordingly, I always seemed to have better luck luring people into comics using superhero titles, or at least something resembling a superhero title on the surface (as opposed to, say, Maus or Eightball). That might fly in the face of the “comics are for grownups” party line, but honestly, there’s nothing wrong with reveling in—and/or subverting—the trope of super-folks in weird costumes righting wrongs and busting skulls. That said, Alan Moore’s and David Lloyd’s V For Vendetta is the good book I reach for when preaching to the heathens. Moore’s dense, self-loathing Watchmen seemed to turn off as many people as it turned on, at least when I tried to recommend it to newbies. But V For Vendetta’s mix of comfort-food dystopia, muted humanism, bleak poetry, and technical virtuosity is a far more palatable icebreaker, and one that serves equally as an entree into mainstream and underground comics. And the bottom line? In spite of its grim tone and literary air, it’s still got a guy in a cape and a mask kicking ass.
It’s probably not hard to guess that more than a few of us would start with the works of Alan Moore, but I’m going to go in a different direction than Jason. Moore’s From Hell is, I think, the best thing he’s ever written (and yes, that includes Watchmen); it’s dramatic, terrifying, profound, sad, and strange, and like all great novels, it works on a number of levels (mystical allegory, personal psychological drama, horror-thriller, meditation on violence), and it’s as brilliantly constructed as anything I’ve ever seen in the medium. Everything from the characterization to the plot to the dialogue to the never-ending sense of creepiness is Moore at his best, and his artistic collaborator Eddie Campbell is perfectly fitted to telling this grim, dirty, unsettling story of Jack The Ripper. Best of all, its final installment, “Dance Of The Gull-Catchers,” is a nifty meditation on the nature of the medium and a funny, frustrating look at the process of writing the story, almost like an illustrated DVD commentary that made it into the text. It’s well-written enough to appeal to those who are normally fans of literary fiction; it’s got plenty of thrilling and terrifying elements, but never quite sinks into genre storytelling which might alienate non-fans; and its grounding in history is a good hook for people who aren’t especially fond of the comics medium. And its two creators give you a fantastic stepping-off point for those who want to explore further: Moore’s body of work is well-known and includes horror, dystopian science fiction, and some of the greatest superhero fantasy ever written, while Campbell opens the door for more surreal genre stuff like Bacchus, as well as autobiographical indie comics with stuff like the Alec books or the brilliant The Fate Of The Artist. From Hell isn’t just a great comic; it’s a central terminus from which you can catch a ride to everything good in modern comics.
As a lover of comics both mainstream and underground (and both vulgar and sophisticated), I’d steer comics novices to Peter Bagge’s The Bradleys, which collects short strips about a “typical” ‘80s suburban New Jersey family, and in particular the proto-slacker eldest son Buddy Bradley, who went on to become Bagge’s primary protagonist over the next two decades. The pieces in The Bradleys are broadly satirical and funny, marked by Bagge’s rubbery art style and a sarcastic tone that should appeal immediately to anyone with a prior awareness of The Simpsons or Looney Tunes. They’re also good stories, full of sharp observations about the impossible expectations that govern the dynamics of a nuclear family, as well as the way a good used Yardbirds record can make a crappy day better. I’ve got nothing (much) against superheroes, but Bagge can be a good gateway drug to Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Seth, Chester Brown, R. Crumb, and other comics artists who remember the medium’s populist origins, while striving to express something simultaneously personal and universal.
Let me put in a great place to start for mainstream superhero comics, just because I’m afraid if I don’t, nobody else will. I’m a huge fan of a title called Ultimate Spider-Man, which began in 2000. Written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by the ever-reliable Mark Bagley, it was an attempt to hit the restart button on Spider-Man in an alternate universe where he’s still a teenager who just discovered his powers. It’s reverent, up to a point, to the classic comics by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and others, but powered by Bagley’s kinetic art, Bendis’ inimitable gift for snappy dialogue and for squeezing poignancy beneath even the sharpest wisecrack. It takes zero previous knowledge of superheroes and nothing more than appreciation of page-turning, emotionally rich storytelling to love the title. It’s still running, by the way, and though Bagley has left for other projects, it remains one of the most satisfying titles out there, making a case each month for superhero stories’ continued relevance in the 21st century.
True story: before he went utterly insane, Frank Miller used to write some damn good comics. Some of those are too immersed in continuity (like his terrific work on Daredevil) to be immediately accessible; and The Dark Knight Returns, possibly his best known (and best) graphic novel, is as much a response to familiar iconography as it is a creation of it, which makes it a little daunting for those who don’t know much about Batman beyond what they’ve seen in the movies. The less said about Miller’s later work, the better. Still, when he’s on his game, he writes gripping, character-driven action books, and for my money, the best way to give somebody a taste of what comics can do without making it too much of an “eat your vegetables” moment is to give them Batman: Year One. It’s short, really more of a graphic novella, that tells the story of Bruce Wayne’s early days as a crime-fighter in Gotham, from his first disastrous night on the streets to his burgeoning friendship with Jim Gordon. Odds are, the book won’t hold a ton of surprises for anyone familiar with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, but the story still feels fresh, and Wayne and Gordon have rarely been better written then they are here. Best of all, it’s a great way to show someone that comics can be taken seriously without having to actually argue about it; David Mazzucchelli’s art is direct and understated, and Miller takes an inherently ridiculous concept (grief-stricken millionaire learns kung-fu, dresses like flying rodent to beat up muggers) and gives it dignity and weight. It’s superheroes for grown-ups, and what could be cooler than that?
Boy, this is a tough one. So many roads down which comics go; so many entrance ramps onto those roads. I don’t think there’s a single trunk line or superhighway from which they all diverge. So I’ll suggest Astro City: Life In The Big City, the first volume collecting Kurt Busiek’s sublime reinvention of the superhero genre. Leaving behind decades of arcane, increasingly burdensome continuity, and taking a gently postmodern yet ardently loving approach to the form, Busiek creates a city of heroes with backstories known to all the characters… but not yet to us. He’s able to explore the Superman type through his shining, upright character Samaritan, without having to drag around all the associations with which Superman inevitably arrives. In the very first issue, Busiek cuts through all the crap with a simple evocation of one of superherodom’s most appealing fantasies—flight—while at the same time asking whether the job of superhero is too high a price to pay for such archetypal power. By starting afresh yet still paying homage to the in medias res mythological structure of the superhero comic, Busiek can reveal the enduring wonder that draws us to the genre, make it smart and modern, yet avoid the crushing weight of history. After Astro City, superheroes seem neither terminally silly nor impossibly obscure. They seem like characters about which good stories can be told. And isn’t that the key that opens the world of comics entire?
To be honest, Patrick, I don’t even know where to start with your question. Comics aren’t a one-size-fits all proposition anymore than anything else is. To me, your question sounds a lot like “What clothes would you recommend someone wear?” Well, that depends on the person, doesn’t it? I’d probably want to figure out their tastes in film and books, and tailor a suggestion from there. For younger readers or fantasy fans, I’d suggest Jeff Smith’s Bone, which cleverly starts with simple Disney designs and Looney Tunes slapstick and draws readers slowly into a terrific, complex, dreamlike fantasy plot. (The whole series is available as a single fat graphic novel at this point.) For someone looking to get into superheroes—and perhaps someone who liked Heroes, Sex And The City, or both—I might suggest the Luna brothers’ stand-alone graphic novel Ultra, a modern story that mixes the kick-ass dynamism of people-with-powers action with the personal, character-driven focus of a good novel. Someone who likes mindfuck movies or quirky indie comedies might like Gene Luen Yang’s The Eternal Smile, a recent anthology featuring vastly divergent art by Derek Kirk Kim over three brilliant, gem-like little stories about people who turn out not to be what they seem, in worlds that are similarly illusory. I’d point a fan of personal, sophisticated adult drama at Mark Kalesniko’s Mail Order Bride, a riveting story about a Chinese woman who comes to Canada to marry a lonely, desperate native, in a relationship of convenience that leads them both in destructive directions. If someone was interested in culture, history, and current events, and thought comics were dumb picturebooks for kids, I’d suggest Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang: A Journey In North Korea, a fascinating little travelogue by an animator who spent months working in Korea, followed constantly by minders and idealogues who’ve drunk Kim Jong Il’s Kool-Aid. And on and on and on. Any time you’re trying to ease someone into a new medium, you run the risk of them tasting the first sample and saying “Yuck, if it’s all like this, I’m stopping right now.” So I can’t think of a single book I’d recommend wholeheartedly to anyone without checking into their palate at length first.