The other day, I sent my friend AO this email:
i have an idea. it’s for the robot blog. i want you to tell me how to begin my comic book/graphic novel education and then i want to blog our email or chat exchanges about them. i think it would be entertaining, at least for us.
Today, he replied thusly.
I like your idea. It means I get to talk about comic books with someone. I should be frank with you at the beginning: I do not qualify for true geek status. I just enjoy the hell out of comics. So I’m sure there are plenty of Important Comic Book Things that I’m simply not aware of. This is only really a problem in hero comics, though, which are all ruled by the capricious god Continuity.
A few things:
1. I’m not much of a Golden Age guy. I grew up in the Modern Age, and that’s what I likes. I’ll know a bit about the Bronze and even the Silver Age more or less because you have to know the origins of quite a few characters. But the Golden Age and before is a mess, and a lot of the stuff doesn’t make much sense. Sure, you’ve got Superman and Captain America and a lot of great characters coming out of that time, but frankly more than half of it is crazy and contradictory.
The whole period is a hodge-podge: there were a lot of competing companies like Timely and Fawcett; artists and writers were changed by publishers on a whim or quit over perceived insults; the story-telling was single-issue, which to me gave everything an unsatisfactory sitcom-type plotting; novelty was prized, so new characters were tossed into the mix nearly every issue, most never to return; a hell of a lot of the books were western, horror or noir, none of which has ever been my bag.
It isn’t until the 60s when all those companies (or more properly, the properties of these companies) began to collapse into Marvel and DC that things started to get good in my opinion. The notions of a shared reality for the characters and of storytelling through multi-issue arcs that then became part of the canon history for the characters (which then demanded a respect for continuity — sort of) really were revolutionary back then. Before, artists did not have to respect what the creators or previous artists had done with a character, largely because of the single-issue storytelling, so you got things like multiple origin stories and the totally ridiculous Superman situation where he had different powers at a different levels from issue to issue.
2. I’m a superhero guy. When we’re talking true graphic novels, my tastes range a little wider, but for the most part I like somebody to get a power in some preposterous manner and then go kick some ass. For instance, I keep intending to read Persepolis, but then the next installment of The Boys shows up and I read that instead.
3. I’m a Marvel guy. You might wonder about this after you see the list below, but I am generally not a DC or independent fan. As a kid I read a few DC books and found them to be strange and fantastical. In contrast Marvel was much more grounded and plausible (which actually is kind of true). I was a serious child, and I demanded some realism from my comic books that depicted mutants saving the world from aliens, damn it!
So from me you’re going to get a lot of Marvel superhero stuff from the very late 70s to the 80s and a little beyond. But I don’t really know shit about, say, Martian Manhunter because he’s DC and I don’t know shit about the Punisher because he’s just a guy with guns and a personality disorder.
Anyway, to it:
This is all off the top of my head. Just stuff I’ve liked. Most of these are trade paperbacks rather than graphic novels.
Watchmen. You really can’t go wrong. There is no order to this list, so you needn’t read this before others. I might suggest, though, that as far as Alan Moore goes, you jump ahead to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1 and read Watchmen later. League is much more satisfying from a storytelling standpoint for my money. Also, after you read League, go find one of the fan sites that provides annotations. Read it again and boggle at the density not just of the whole work, but of each panel. When you get to Watchmen, you might want to read it with some Frank Miller Batman (I believe by law no list of comics can be compiled without including Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns).
The Sandman. I’ve only gotten through the first two collections, but it really is good. Not so big on the art, and occasionally the writing is bit thin and/or on-the-nose but it’s very well conceived by Gaiman. This comic and Constantine are the books that started to turn me around on supernaturally-themed stuff.
Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. Or anything by Chris Ware, really. But this is great. In Jimmy Corrigan, I firmly believe that Chris Ware is trying to destroy you, but in the gentlest way possible.
Planetary. It used to be England and Scotland gave us mathematicians and physicists. Now they give us some really good comic book writers. Planetary is a Watchmen-style takedown of superhero tropes, but it’s quite a bit more fun, I think, because it’s a little playful, it takes aim at specific characters from other comics and it exists within it’s own larger reality shared across a few titles.
Y: The Last Man. Irish McWhiskey got me into this and I’m glad he did. Really well told story. The art is good, and stays out of the way of the action. A good post-apocalypse story (or quasi-apocalypse rather) crossed with a twist on the sole survivor story. I shouldn’t say it, but I found the dénouement slightly unsatisfactory. Absolutely worth your time though.
The Essential Incredible Hulk. I just love the Incredible Hulk. So that’s why that’s here. It will give you an idea of the storytelling of the era. You can watch Stan Lee start to shake off the last vestiges of Golden Age conventions. As it progresses, it’ll give you an idea of the writer’s dilemma in keeping open-ended characters fresh while respecting continuity, which really means negotiating fan expectations. It’s too bad the letters pages of these old comics aren’t reproduced. They were much more polite and restrained than today’s web forums, but the emotion amongst the True Believers is the same. Those geeks could get furious. Anyway, just an era before the concept of the reboot. (If you want to see a modern comic reboot, read the first 12 issues of The Avengers, which features the return of Captain America, and then read The Ultimates, which I had low expectations of, and which turned out to be quite good.)
Anyway, the Hulk: In a sign o’ the times, you’ll get to see the Hulk fight Commies; you’ll get to see Stan Lee struggle with the immutable laws of physics (as you know, the Hulk can travel by leaping great distances. Inexplicably, in some early stories, the Hulk is capable of directional flight after leaping. That will not be the only thing you notice that is, well, stupid); the Hulk gets stronger over the years for no real reason; the Hulk faces wacky situations! Like the time when the Hulk transformed… but kept Bruce Banner’s regular head! And then he had to wear a Hulk helmet for protection! Oh, Stan Lee, is there anything your pen can’t do?
Basically a look at some classic Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, and the evolution that happens during the transition to new writers & artists.
To be honest, pretty much any Marvel Essentials you find will give you the same experience, excepting Dr. Strange, because it’s bad, and Captain America, because Captain America is unlike any other Marvel character. (I will contradict something I said earlier a bit: Reading a little Post-WWII Captain America and/or Avengers with Watchmen might be good, since it’s not just the dark and gritty Frank Miller thing that Moore is breaking down, it’s the naivety of the idealism of the hero comics that preceded the 70s turn toward darker storytelling.)
So feel free to substitute Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, or your current favorite, Iron Man. If you go with Iron Man, let me know when you get to some Fin Fang Foom appearances. If I were allowed to write the screenplay for IM3, I would do it for free as long as the studio was contractually obligated to let me have at least two Fin Fang Foom scenes, one of which would be a fight scene of no less than 10 minutes. I would not be ashamed to weep openly at this during the premier.
Secret Wars. The apotheosis of the imprint-wide crossover event (literally — the main antagonist is an omnipotent cosmic being!). Guest shots, team-ups, etc had been done before, but when Marvel decided to throw all the best heroes, all their damnedest villains, along with (significantly) some bit-players and scrubs into one story they really did change things. This series was a fucking revelation to me as a kid.
The story was told in the individual titles and in Secret Wars stand-alone limited series. It unfolded over an entire year I think. It had every big-time badass in the Marvel Universe. It took the time to showcase quite a few also-rans, who actually turned out to be interesting. It was the origin point for new characters (you will now know where the great Spider-Man bad guy Venom comes from). And it rehabbed an old FF villain, first into a credible threat, and then into a sympathetic character and finally into a hero. As a bonus, this is also an introduction to retconning and an example of a retcon done right.
Plus the Hulk holds up an entire fucking mountain range to save all the good guys (ok, ok, The Thing and a few others help, but it was mostly Hulk.)
This is a geek argument waiting to happen, but Secret Wars is the reason crossover events occur. It was well done and sold like penicillin outside Tommy Lee’s bedroom door. While it sometimes will seem hokey from the vantage point of 25 years later, it is way better than almost all other crossovers. We can contrast the whole thing to Crisis on Infinite Earths which was DC’s attempt at a full-scale crossover around the same time. In my opinion, not well done and also a huge example of the downside of retcon and the unfortunate legacy DC had from the Golden Age.
I’ve gotta stop here. I haven’t done any work for, like, two hours, sitting here thinking about comics. I hope you find out you love comics, because they’re fucking great. And I don’t really have anyone to talk to about them. I should have taken time to organize these thoughts a bit; I hope this long, meandering message hasn’t turned you off your original idea!
I can’t wait until you’ve read some of this stuff.
So this is the beginning of an occasional series, in which I read one of AO’s suggestions, and then we chat about it, and I blog the chats. I’m also making AO a contributor to this blog, so be prepared for even more occasional awesomeness.
I can not even begin to communicate the level of my excitement.