Bookshelf: Cool Comics, a Totally Subjective List of ~

In this post, Lily of The Travelling Geek Show voiced something I felt a lot myself:

It’s way too easy to get turned off comics.

With superhero comics usurping what comics are in the public consciousness, and most of them being an obtuse, convoluted mountain of backstory and side-references to other books with their own convoluted mountain of backstory, you don’t even need a fandom with an elitism problem and a tiring onslaught of superhero films to feel like you’re standing in front of an impossible barrier of entry to something that ultimately won’t be worth it. This is, of course, a ridiculously unfair portrayal of what comics are, but let’s not kid ourselves, it’s accurate enough to what comics looks like from the outside.

So unless you get some sort of easy intro, like having a friend whose judgement you trust lend you a book, or getting dragged into a good comic book shop where good staff can help you find something, and show you several alternatives to look at (i.e. you need a well-stocked and well-staffed comic book shop), you’re much less likely to even consider giving comics a try.

Lily presents such an easy intro by writing about the comic The Storyteller. (and hopefully many more in the future!) The ever-phenomenal Women Write About Comics are a treasure trove of posts about interesting comics. To make my own small contribution, I’m about to give you intros to comics I think are worth reading, along with an idea of how much of an investment (time, brainspace, and money!) it is to get into at this point. So on we go!

Sandman

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This is at once a no-brainer and also very in need of an intro caveat. Neil Gaiman’s work on Sandman is a fantasy classic, and it deserves it, too. The protagonist is Sandman/Morpheus/Oneiros/Dream/even more names, the personification of all dreams. His siblings are Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Destruction, and Delight/Delirium. The comic beautifully oscillates between matters of the scale you’d expect from such a family, and the personally intimate.

Dream starts out imprisoned by a magician, breaking free, getting his revenge, and getting dreams back in order – and that’s only the start! What does imprisonment do to a character like him? What did the world do in his absence? How will he cope? Rich with allusions of mythology, it’s definitely not your typical story of caped super-dude punching evil super-dude until the problems are declared solved.

Why you should read this: Gaiman mythology vibes, dark fantasy, heaps of interesting characters, the best Death ever, a great Bowie Lucifer, just super good in general.

Approachability: Small early hump, manageable total length. Sandman is a finished series of 10 trade volumes, so you’ll have to start at the beginning, working towards an already established end. But you should read the first two volumes to see if it clicks with you. The first volume doesn’t hit its Gaiman-esque stride until the very end, and it is a bit aimless, trying to find its genre before then. It doesn’t build on previous series bar a few scant mentions early on, but you will benefit from an interest in mythology later.

The Wicked + The Divine

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If you aren’t reading WicDiv, stop what you’re doing and get reading, dammit! Kieron Gillen (writer) and Jamie McKelvie (artist) started this incredibly captivating series on a premise that is both classically mythological and super-contemporary: Every 90 years, gods get incarnated into teenagers. They gain powers, and they die after two years. In 2014, they are pop stars. I can’t tell you how much I love this setup.

The story follows Laura, a devout fan who gets drawn into the closer circles around the Pantheon after she suspects foul play around a God’s premature death, and explores all the consequences that arise: Laura’s ensuing own fame, a group of magic people dealing with losing one of their own, and their situations as gods in general.

Why you should read this: fame as magic on an audience, mortality, suspense, the other great Bowie Lucifer.

Approachability: Super easy right now. While the series is ongoing, it is completely standalone, and it has only just started in June 2014. At the time of writing, there are three trade collections out (The Faust Act, Fandemonium, Commercial Suicide), and the first one makes a perfect taster/entry into the series.

Saga

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It is probably impossible to describe Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ space-fantasy comic Saga without making it sound cheesy, but here it goes: There is war between the peoples of the planet Landfall and its moon Wreath, and it has been going on for so long that it serves as a basis of identity for both parties and their respective galaxy-wide allies. In this war, love blooms between landfallian Alana and Marko from Wreath, and they have a daughter – a living antithesis to everything that makes (moral) sense to both parties. And thus, they are on the run.

Saga impresses me mainly with its fearlessness. The characters, the astute observations on war and what it can do to people, and the nonchalance with which the authors impose change upon their characters. In a comics world in which the continued existence of iconic superheroes must be preserved so much that death’s impermanence has become the matter of jokes, that’s really refreshing. Note: Saga is NSFW as hell, but not porn, which is refreshing as well.

Why you should read this: Epic space opera meets uncomfortable truths about black/white worldviews, characters that will never leave your heart, sex treated well, phenomenal art, there will be no TV series or film treatment.

Approachability: Generally easy. Saga is still ongoing, but the 6th trade (since 2012!) has just been released, so you’ll easily be able to read it all until the next one comes out. It’s also completely standalone, so no prerequisites there. Just start at the beginning. Marrying the space-operatically cheesy with profound matters makes it a surprisingly easy read. Oh, and the art is fabulous!

Watchmen

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Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’ Watchmen also is a classic, and a superhero comic. Or rather, it is a comic about superheroes. Most of the tropes we know about superheroes get dismantled: People who go out by themselves to ‘do justice’ are pretty likely to have a fascist, authoritarian streak, or mental issues, or both. People with actual superpowers would look at the world from such a different perspective to be estranging or frightening. And no government would ever just stand by and let vigilantes run free. Then, one of the few old guard superheroes gets murdered, and one of the last ‘free’ vigilantes won’t let go investigating.

Watchmen also is a rich experiment in comic storytelling mechanics. Moore tried many things you could only do in comics, such as making an issue’s page layouts exactly mirror-symmetrical from start to finish, having a comic story inside a comic, and so on.

Why you should read this: Classic, superheroes done so well they stop being superheroes, experiments.

Approachability: Easy, with caution. While Watchmen is collected in one volume and features its own cast of characters, it is also pretty densely packed and definitely not the smoothest read out there. In that regard, you need barely any prerequisite knowledge and invest neither much money nor shelf space, but it still is a pretty layered affair.

Mignolaverse

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Confession time: My plan when I bought the first Hellboy trade paperback was to just get it for Mignola’s art. Since Duncan Fegredo took over drawing Hellboy in trade #8, I expected to get these first seven issues and that’s that. Boy, was I wrong. By the time I reached #7, Mignola got me so hooked on the world of his bringer-of-the-apocalypse-demon-turned-supernatural-investigator-slash-puncher-of-monsters that I not only continued buying Hellboy after Mignola stopped drawing it, I also bought almost all of the spin-offs and sequels: Hellboy in Mexico, Hellboy and the B.P.R.D., Hellboy in Hell, Abe Sapien, Lobster Johnson, B.P.R.D., B.P.R.D. Vampire, B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth, Witchfinder, Sledgehammer 44, and Frankenstein Underground. I just counted 66 trade collections across them all, and I expect this number to increase.

What’s the draw? Mignola has such a wonderful imagination that I became completely enamored with the world he’s crafted. He is informed by folk tales, mythology, old horror films, and ghost stories, so besides his iconic drawing style, the world has a very specific feel to it that’s unlike anything else. It’s dark, earthy, cosmologically pessimistic like Lovecraft (but quite unlike Lovecraft), apocalyptic in a properly metaphysical end of the world sense, not just driving rusty cars in the stupid desert. And whenever you think you’ve seen it all, around comes another victorian secret society in life-capsule robots, or demons from way back start making new sense, or someone’s mind gets transported back to prehistory, and you can bet your hat he’ll just vomit out at least six new characters you’ll want to know everything about along with it.

Why you should read this: A beautiful world, characters with deep shit(tm) to work out, pulp charm, nazis, occultism, demons, monsters, tentacles, hellboy punches shit with the hand of doom, an actual apocalypse happening.

Approachability: As a whole, barely any. Don’t get me wrong, it’s damn great and I love it to pieces, but there is so much stuff happening, and most of it is interrelated, I’m actually due to reread it all, and keep notes this time. On the positive side, you should be able to pick up any Hellboy trade up to #10 or so, and just dig in – thanks to Mignola’s storytelling’s pulpy roots – and figure it out without much difficulty. Early B.P.R.D. volumes should also be pretty accessible. But the more it is about deep exploration of side characters, or the whole Hell on Earth storyline, the more interrelated everything becomes. Sir Edward Grey Witchfinder is a fairly separate beast, and only three volumes, so that would be more approachable as well.

I won’t lie, though, full immersion is the only thing that does the whole Mignolaverse truly justice. I’m just here to get you to tip your dainty toes into this dark abyssal pool and watch you get drawn under by tentacles.

Patsy Walker aka Hellcat

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Ok, back to happier affairs. I got into this just recently, thanks to Women Write About Comics, and it’s great! Patsy Walker is a character that dates back to 1940s teen comedy/romance comics. She later turned into superheroine Hellcat and appeared around the Avengers and so on. Marvel started this new line of Hellcat comics, written by Kate Leth and drawn by Brittney Williams, as a new entry point to the character. (kind of like the Doctor Who relaunch of 2005.) Here, Patsy had comics written about her life as a teenager, and now greatly resents being recognised for it. She worked as an investigator for She-Hulk, until she had to fire Patsy for financial reasons. Patsy/Hellcat is now trying to launch her own business, a talent agency for people with superpowers.

I really like the merging of her life as Hellcat with her past in romance comics, and the charming way they wrote it into her character. It’s a fairly happy-go-lucky affair, often witty, and rather cartoony overall. I find it eminently readable and can’t wait to get more.

Why you should read this: fun, superhero business without punching until the problem’s solved, too charming to be sold without warning, nice gal-pal-ery, super cute art.

Approachability: THROUGH THE ROOF! It’s a new series for an old (old!) character, meant to make her approachable for new readers, so you get told everything that’s important. It’s also a really young series and there’s just one trade volume out yet. There are some characters from other Marvel comics in there, such as She-Hulk, Howard the Duck, Thor, and Doctor Strange, but there’s zero burden on knowing them in-depth.

Jem and the Holograms

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You better duck because I’m going to gush. Jem and the Holograms is a comic based on an 80s cartoon made primarily to sell toys. It revolves around the band of the same name, made up of four sisters, and their rival band ‘The Misfits’. The Holograms are helped by an advanced AI with a holographic projector that allows shy manager and songwriter Jerrica Benton to front the band in her holographic guise Jem. There’s band enmity drama, there’s romantic drama, and it’s glam and glorious and enthralling as fuck.

What i especially like is that the girls are a wide assortment of personalities, skin colours, and body shapes, while not being just that. The stars of the whole romance affair are (Jem keytarist, tall, slim, pale) Kimber and (Misfits keytarist, short, voluptuous) Stormer. Not only are they the adorablest, they get treated with proper emotional depth, and it’s a welcome change to have the stereotypically supermodel-looking girl be in anguish over her chubby crush being way out of her league.

Why you should read this: Let’s get this out of the way first: Sophie Campbell’s art is blow-your-socks-off amazing, and the perfectest of fits. 80s-glam-pop-nostalgia modernised, genuinely sweet romance, captivating drama, it has friggin’ keytarists, might get into management/label interest vs band interest. Also, Kimber×Stormer.

Approachability: Super easy. The series is ongoing, but there’s just two trade volumes out now, with the third imminent. No knowledge of the cartoon is necessary. So the one thing that could hold you back is that it’s just some comparatively superficial drama (Jem is neither Saga’s big war nor B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth’s apocalypse level of catastrophe) about some girly pop band with some romance on top of it. Yeah, that might be true. But it pulled me in so well that I wouldn’t dare saying it’s any less affecting than Hell on Earth’s >10 volumes of society disintegrating.

Some Shoutouts

Ghost in the Shell & Appleseed

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Both are sci-fi manga by the famous/notorious artist Shirow Masamune. GitS is sold in one collected volume while Appleseed is comprised of four volumes. Say about Shirow and his penchant for cute and scantily clad women what you want, the art is really good, and the stories are not just rich, but pretty dense in their allusions.

Appleseed is the earlier of the two, and concerns itself with an experimental utopian city-state after a big world war rendered wide parts of the world badlands. Young tough badass Deunan Knute and her cyborg lover Briareos get recruited into this utopia, but they soon suspect that this peaceful utopia can’t be maintained peacefully.

GitS on the other hand plays in a highly-networked future where nearly everyone has a brain capable of directly interfacing with worldwide networks. It follows the exploits of public security agent Motoko Kusanagi and explores the nature of self, and how technology influences it.

Both are nice to look at and offer quite some substance behind the pretty, but they tend to let you do most of the work figuring it out. Also, Shirow’s strong leading women can’t escape also being dude eye candy. (Motoko more so than Deunan. Especially early Deunan is believably ripped. But of course I know this only because of a shower scene.)

Mouse Guard

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Mouse Guard is the creation of David Petersen and tells stories from a medieval-era fantasy world populated by mice and other animals. Beginning with two story arcs in fall and winter of 1152 around a circle of oath-bound protector mice, it then branches out into stories set in other years and focussing on other characters.

The art is beautiful and plays a huge part in selling the atmosphere, but is also rough and sparsely coloured ink. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Beatrix Potter mice these are not. Also, the collected volumes run slightly more expensive than other trades, probably due to their custom square format. A quick amazon check had Mouse Guard Fall 1152 at 18 EUR for the paperback (and you really want the 22 EUR hardcover), while Hellboy: The Seed of Destruction runs 15 EUR, and WicDiv: The Faust Act is 10 EUR.

At the time of writing, I own the two first volumes (Fall 1152 and Winter 1152), and expect to expand my Mouse Guard library soon.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

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This is another of Marvel’s newer attempts at making girl/women-friendly comics, and I find it a monstrous hoot. It’s a comic you can give a child, but there’s also more than enough to keep adult-you grinning like an idiot. UBSG is both very silly and utterly charming. Her super power is having the proportionate strength and agility of a squirrel, a big squirrel tail, and she can talk to squirrels. At the start of volume 1, she is starting to study computer science at college. (Because ‘higher education is about bettering yourself, and … I’m Squirrel Girl. I’m not Achieving Consistency Across Distributed Database Systems Girl.’)

Right now, I only have volume 1 of UBSG, that’s why this only gets a shout-out, not an informed recommendation. Needless to say, I sense an influx of squirrels into my comics library in the not-too-distant future.

So, this wraps up nearly 3000 words on comics I like. Hopefully, there was something for you somewhere in there. Any questions? Other input? Write a comment below!

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