It’s 2020, and the world economy is now totally based on comic books. Nations rise and fall with ticket sales. Conventions pop up, demand statehood, and then evaporate on Monday. In every major city, families of 4 are living under the ruined pilot of ABC’s Inhumans while the wealthy demand someone, anyone tell them what a “M.O.D.O.K” is and how much it costs.
As a non-comic fan, you might very well feel left out of the conversation being screamed across social media outlets everywhere. It’s okay, we at Comic Book Herald are finally here to help you.
But we will not demand your conversion. Oh no. Instead, we will take the most common criticisms on Reddit and Goodreads, then turn them into strawmen so we might answer with recommendations.
Fear not. The world gets easier from here.
“Comics are too dark and serious”
Half Past Danger by Stephen Mooney
Given the way the comics industry lionizes books like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen (editors note: Yeah, these are totally inside my 10 favorites of all time!), it’s easy to imagine that this two-fisted, grim-and-gritty approach is all the medium has to offer. On the contrary! There’s an entire universe of fun, light-hearted fare that will satisfy readers of any age.
Take Half Past Danger. Mix the camp delight of Indiana Jones and his tireless fight against Nazis, and blend in the child-like wonder (and danger) of Jurassic Park. This spot-on revival of WW-II era pulp manages to focus on the fun of the genre rather than the wistful nostalgia of an age gone by. In short, it’s the perfect guilty pleasure.
“Graphic Novels aren’t really ‘novels.’”
The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips
Brubaker and Phillips are one of the best creative teams going in comics. The two have found a niche for themselves, creating faithful new editions to the Noir catalog of the 30s and 70s. This makes their output more of a mixture of Spillane and Mort, or Leonard and Kidd rather than Lee and Kirby.
And that’s perfectly evident here, in this self-contained story. Based largely on true events, The Fade Out focuses on the seedy underbelly of post-WWII Hollywood. There are salacious parties, murders in scenic locations, and whispers of the mob everywhere. All this plus the whispers of the Black List to come.
More specifically, it’s a crime drama about Charlie Parish — screenwriter, alcoholic, vet with PTSD — who has woken from his latest bender to find himself in bed with a dead starlet. From there, the story falls down a commentary spiral on subjects like Pearl Harbor, substance abuse, the change of the studio system and the ascension of advertising and marketing.
But what really sells this book is its characters. Each feels lived in, grounded, and as real as the lost soul they’re probably based on. They fit spectacularly into the world Brubaker and Phillips have recreated for them. Best of all, the entire story fits in one single book.
“They’re just about Superheroes, right?”
Phonogram by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie
Have you ever been so moved by a piece of music that it was as if the song took you somewhere? That’s the conceit of this brilliant book by Gillen and McKelvie. The two tell a story about how music quite literally is magic. A transformative force coming from somewhere beyond our world that can be harnessed and focused to do great and terrible things.
From there, the conceit spirals outward, creating a world in which a cursed boy searches for his lost Goddess in a world rendered out of Britpop and glam ballads.
Which, you know, is big. But even that pales in comparison to the real draw of the book: the overpowering and seductive love these two creators have for music. Sometimes we’ll see this, creators who are so incredibly passionate about something that it’s as if they must create something out of it, as they have no more room left in their body for more. Phonogram feels very much like that. And I can think of worse things than being swept away in Gillen and McKelvie’s infectious love of music.
“Comic books are a commitment”
Blacksad by Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido
As I’ve already posted elsewhere, Blacksad is an incredible achievement in comics. The illustrations are incredible, the stories meaningful, and the overall world a perfect mixture of fun and dangerous.
But the reason why Blacksad belongs on this list is because of its episodic nature. Each story follows John Blacksad, the titular tomcat PI, as he navigates an unseemly, noir version of the Disney universe. Each story jumps a little further in time, which means that while they connect, you can read them in nearly any order and with any amount of downtime between and still come away satisfied. Or you could read the entire series in a day, as I tend to do.
“Comics are all fluff”
We3 by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely
WARNING: This book makes Watership Down look like Runaway Ralph.
The comics industry has historically been the realm of the weirdo, the subversive, and the provocateur. And this frequently makes comic books themselves into vessels of unexpected social commentary, using big, flashy, non-threating characters to hash out huge, entangled problems in our day to day lives. And even as the medium itself transitions into the dominant culture, the creation of the books is still largely left to those weirdos.
I don’t think any other series captures that wide gulf between “unique message” and “wide reach” quite the way Morrison and Quitely do. I’ll need three sentences to explain.
We3 is the story of three bio-engineered weapons hidden in the guise of a dog (“Bandit,”) a cat (“Tinker,”) and a rabbit (“Pirate.”) And on the surface level, the story is a careful balancing act between classic kids cartoons, anime, blockbuster-grade city destruction, and our real-world fears of America’s military-industrial complex. But under that is a tale of trying to find love, family, and purpose when everything is violence. A gutsy work that uses wounded soldiers and foster animals as a single metaphor for our times.
It’s not the most experimental comic, and it’s not nearly the most out-there concept that Morrison and Quitely have devised. But its ability to absolutely break my heart shows the unique potential that the medium holds.
“Comics are just about far-fetched super-battles”
Giant Days by John Allison & Whitney Cogar
It’s said that good news can never wait. That it’s too impatient a thing that can never come at a bad time (unlike “bad news” which cannot come at a good time and refuses to ever leave.)
Giant Days, with its story about four college freshman finding friendship in the girl’s dorm, is irresistibly good. It is an uproarious tale, perfectly capturing the swirling haze of sleep deprivation, slacking off, cramming, and joyous anxiety that is college. That first taste of adulthood that someone, anyone, should have stopped us all from taking.
The artwork is filled with simple primary and secondary tones that bring a straight-forwardness to the panels, while the saturation is dialed up to “hallucinogenic fever” to capture the manic pocket existence of youth away from home.
Most compelling of all, however, is how the book manages the unique trick of being “authentic and relatable” without coming off as dated or preachy. In that sense, it’s tempting to look at this book as a friendship, albeit a very one-way one. It offers experiences, encourages changes, shares jokes… best of all, no cities get destroyed (although perhaps the world ends once or twice, as its prone to do at that age.)
“Comics are all the same.”
The Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius
When Frank Herbert wrote the book Dune, he blew the doors off the spiritual implications of science fiction. It bound the whole second wave of the “New Age,” the kind obsessed with grey aliens and having sex in pyramids, and flung that nonsense onto a faraway planet where it evolved, undisturbed until it gave us enormous space worms.
And that is child’s play as compared to The Incal. (Which is to say the first one with Moebius’ original coloring, and not one of the five sequels or prequels made later or the reissue with the sacrilegious modern coloring.)
Jodorowsky and Moebius had intended for this book to be a movie before Star Wars: A New Hope came out. Taking a look at it now, it still seems nearly impossible to film. And yet, this book’s mixture of psychedelia, cosmic religion, and ancient alien cultures filled with ritual and ruins has become the de facto template for Hollywood these days. (The Fifth Element? Avatar? Elysium? All “borrowed” heavily from this book.)
The whole thing is a gorgeous head trip filled with space trolls, space 1%, and a space president who moves his consciousness between bodies to give the illusion of democracy.
It’s wild, and you need to read it.
“I don’t see myself in comics”
Love and Rockets by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez
For 30 years, Love and Rockets have been the most consistently excellent work anywhere. Anywhere. It is surprising and daring. It is funny and dangerous. And it is one of the most insightful series I’ve ever read, weaving together stories of women of color, working-poor communities, LGBTQ anxiety, Latin folklore and myth, African-American romance, punk music, car culture, and what it means to be alive in this country.
Each arc focuses on one or more of these things, fusing empathy with critique and then adding just enough of that desperate humor you find in outsider culture to make it all work.
The series is not for everyone, not by a damn sight. But if you don’t see yourself anywhere in media, this book is probably where you’re waiting.
“I don’t ‘get’ comics.”
Astro City by Kurt Busiek
Jumping into a long-running series can feel like trying to catch-up on 60, 70, 80 years of publication history. That’s a daunting task for anyone.
For those of you who have been turned away by continuity, I present to you Astro City.
Kurt Busiek’s absolute classic is a loving homage to classic comics, but it starts from absolute scratch. There aren’t decades of history, no inside jokes or oblique references, just a universe that took all of the best parts of Marvel and DC and built something totally new with them. One filled with analogs of favorite characters who, now stripped of context, become understandable in a new light.
But most importantly, Astro City is, at its heart, a love letter to what makes comics great, written by one of its absolute masters. You can feel Busiek’s passion and insight into the medium in every one of his character-forward stories. And the draw is apparent for fans of any experience level.
And as a bonus, the one-shot entitled The Nearness of You is high in the running for the title of “best single issue in the history of comics.” The short story displays a side of comic books rarely attempted and seldom successful: a grief-stricken, vulnerable, and poignantly human sort of comic that makes you forget about the capes and focus solely on the people struggling beneath them. The story is available in Astro City – Vol 2 – Confession and should be required reading for everyone.