A vastly underappreciated artistic and narrative medium, comics have long been a passion of mine. Many people tend to dismiss comics as lowbrow and juvenile, but in fact comics are a complicated format that can express ideas, create characters, address issues, and tell stories in ways unmatched by other forms, such as prose and film. Because comics are both textual and visual ("words and pictures," as Pekar points out above), they can explore the rich ground upon which these two means of expression collide.
In February of 2008, I was asked to be a guest on WS Radio's weekly show, "Comic Book Talk Radio." Jeff Miner, the host of the show, is a huge fan of comics, and his topic for that particular show was "Are Comics Literature?" You can hear the interview by visiting www.wsradio.com and finding the February 7, 2008, episode of "Comic Book Talk Radio," or you can simply click on the link below:
What I've tried to do below is to list some of my favorite titles with brief descriptions. I have many more comics and graphic novel recommendations for interested readers; find me on Goodreads for other great titles to check out.
David B., Epileptic
With this work, French comic book artist David B. (Beauchard) has created one of the most complex and captivating works in the medium; it is an epic work about his family and their struggles to deal with his older brother's epilepsy. In the process of telling this story, however, David B. extends the narrative backwards to explore the history of his parents, his grandparents, and even his country. At the same time, he shows his development as an artist and the motivation behind his art, which is tied up with the anger, helplessness, fear, and loss he feels about his brother's condition. Along with Craig Thompson's Blankets, David B. shows how effective comic books can be as a vehicle for personal expression. These works also stand out because they show how this medium is particularly well-suited for exploring the nature of art and how at its core it is the struggle of an individual to make sense of his world. Epileptic is a lushly illustrated book where every panel is deep and expressive, and it stands as one of the most important entries in autobiography, comic book or otherwise.
Carl Barks, Uncle Scrooge Adventures (various volumes)
Carl Barks was an anonymous creator for Walt Disney comics through the 40's and 50's (the only name that appeared on any Disney comics was Walt's), but he was later recognized--and deservedly so--by fans of the brilliant work he did on Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck. Barks's comics are wonderfully drawn and written, with sharp characterization and satire. His best works were the longer adventure stories where Donald and his nephews--Huey, Dewey, and Louie--accompanied Scrooge to fantastic places, usually in search of treasure.
Lynda Barry, The! Greatest! of! Marlys!, and One Hundred Demons
To me, Barry is the supreme chronicler of childhood; very few writers have captured the language, moods, humor, and difficulties as truthfully as she has. The! Greatest! of! Marlys! collects the best strips from Barry's sizeable body of work, much of which is now out of print. All in all, a great collection. One Hundred Demons is Barry's best work. Several years ago, her work appeared on Salon.com where she did a series of online strips, each one featuring a single "demon" from her past. This book collects the best of those (about twenty or so), and together they form a brilliantly funny and moving autobiography of one of the most interesting cartoonists working today. There's even a helpful primer at the end of the book in which Barry instructs readers in using a Chinese inkstone, the medium that she used to create these stories.
Alison Bechdel, Fun Home
Bechdel, author and artist of "Dykes to Watch Out For," has delivered an amazing memoir in Fun Home. It's a brilliant, moving account of her relationship with her father, a closeted homosexual, as well as the story of her own coming-out. What's most effective and moving about Bechdel's story is that she doesn't attempt to provide answers to the complex relationships she presents; her story is much more about the search and the ambiguity that the search reveals.
Chester Brown, The Playboy, I Never Liked You, and Louis Riel
Brown is a Canadian comic book artist who continues to be an important figure in independent comics. The Playboy is a stunning and incredibly frank autobiographical story about Brown's discovery of Playboy magazine as an adolescent, and the lasting impact it had on his life (particularly in his relationships with women). I Never Liked You is another autobiographical story from Brown's youth, focusing on his relationships with various girls that he knew. There's a real understated elegance to both the words and art, and readers of this might be surprised by how utterly absorbed they become by these characters. I Never Liked You is also about the power and curse of language and silence. Louis Riel is a departure of sorts for Brown; instead of autobiography, the book is a historical biography of the titular anti-hero, a legendary rebel in Canadian history. At the same time, however, this book is very much Brown's: he plays with the truth by fictionalizing certain facts (and lets us know where); employs a distinctive illustrative style (inspired by Harold Gray's work on "Little Orphan Annie"); explores issues of authority, religious devotion, and madness (key themes in earlier works); and weaves a thoroughly engaging narrative.
Charles Burns, Black Hole
Burns's lone graphic novel--Black Hole--is without a doubt his masterpiece. The story, which originally appeared in twelve individual issues released sporadically from 1995-2004, was recently collected in a gorgeously designed hardcover. Set in early-1970s Washington state and uniting Burns's favorite themes of teen alienation and disease, Black Hole follows a group of teens who have contracted an oddly disfiguring, sexually transmitted virus. In Burns's hands, this set-up becomes a way to examine the volatility and horrors of youth. Each page of this book--which is certainly one of the best graphic novels ever published--is a stunning visual treat, full of evocative imagery that deepens the characters, mood, and ideas.
Ernie Bushmiller, Nancy
Bushmiller was one of the greats of classic comics, and Nancy was his masterpiece; you could learn everything there is to learn about the comic strip and how it works by studying its form and design. Kudos to the good people at Fantagraphics, which is releasing a series of the complete dailies.
Dan Clowes, Ghost World, David Boring, and The Death Ray
Clowes is one of my favorite comic book artists, and his work keeps getting more and more interesting. In Ghost World--which was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated (for screenplay) movie--Clowes tells the story of Enid and Rebecca, two girls who drift more or less aimlessly through their hometown, trying to find some purpose. This is one of the most poignant and effective depictions of Gen-X angst that I've read or seen. David Boring follows the strange and sad adventures of the title character, a nineteen-year-old security guard and blank slate whose pursuit of his feminine ideal is also a subtle meditation on the nature of comics and narrative. The Death-Ray provides a hilarious look at what would happen if a sullen, alienated teen actually got superpowers--and a death ray. "With great power comes great responsibility"? Not in Clowes's world.
Darwyn Cooke (with Dave Stewart), DC: The New Frontier, Volumes 1 & 2
Cooke is my new favorite artist; he's got a gorgeous retro style that perfectly captures the time period depicted in these books--the 1940s & 1950s. The story covers the "changing of the guard" as heroes of the JSA made way for those of the JLA. In this sweeping adventure, however, we see them all pull together to stop a force that threatens to destroy the world (well, what else would they join forces for?). Cooke's writing is every bit as sharp as his line, and he's supposed to be doing a new "Spirit" series (based on the famous Will Eisner character) in 2006. Again, it seems like a perfect match of style and story.
Howard Cruse, Stuck Rubber Baby
This is a magnificent work that tells the story of Toland Polk, a young man whose realization that he is gay and his subsequent coming out are overlaid with his efforts to help African-Americans during the civil rights struggle in 1960's Alabama. This is a political tale, to be sure, but it is one that never fails to capture the humanity of its characters. Cruse's dense, richly detailed and shaded artistic style adds power to his story as well.
EC Comics, Various Titles (Two-Fisted Tales, Frontline Combat, Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt, Weird Science, Shock SuspenStories, Crime SuspenStories)
William Gaines, owner and publisher of EC (Entertaining Comics), presided over some of the most innovative, well-written, and disturbing comics in pre-Comics Code America. His roster of talent was impressive and included Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood, Will Elder, Jack Kamen, Jack Davis, Al Feldstein, and many others. EC dominated the comics market, so the other publishers worked against him by supporting the Comics Code, essentially ending Gaines's reign. Later, however, EC would publish Harvey Kurtzman's brainchild, MAD Magazine, which in turn would influence a number of underground comics artists--including R. Crumb--and leave its imprint on the current state of alternative and independent comics.
Will Eisner, Comics and Sequential Art, The Spirit, A Contract with God, To the Heart of the Storm
Will Eisner has been involved with the comic book industry since its inception, and along with Jack Kirby and Harvey Kurtzman, he is one of the most influential forces in the history of the medium. Comics and Sequential Art is, bar none, the best discussion of how comic book visuals create meaning. The late Eisner was a pioneer of comic book art, and in this book he covers such topics as imagery, timing, panel size and shape, layout, and a host of other visual elements that are unique to this very sophisticated medium. As far as his own comics go, The Spirit introduced bold new methods of visual storytelling, while A Contract with God introduced the term "graphic novel" and To the Heart of the Storm helped introduce the possibilities that the medium offered for autobiography.
Warren Ellis and John Cassady. Planetary (4 Volumes)
These three volumes, All Over the World, The Fourth Man, and Leaving the 20th Century, are the first two collections of the ongoing series. The story centers around the Planetary team, three skilled individuals whose job it is to uncover the "secret history" of the planet. In the world of Planetary, this history is really the history of popular culture. Though a knowledge of comics, pulp fiction, and B-movies certainly enhances one's enjoyment of this series, it is by no means necessary.
Neil Gaiman (writer) and various artists, the complete Sandman (10 trade paperback volumes)
I don't think it is an overstatement to say that Neil Gaiman's Sandman is one of the greatest works of literature produced this century. Delving into and fusing various cultural myths, Shakespeare, pop culture, and many other elements, Sandman is an extraordinary body of work that can be read, reread, and enjoyed many times over. The main character is Dream (Morpheus) of the Endless (his siblings Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium, and Destruction. Very briefly, these volumes tell of Dream's trials, his rule of his kingdom, and his eventual abdication of that kingdom. However, such a brief description completely undermines the subtle treasures--both textual and visual--that await readers of these works.
Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Love and Rockets
Rolling Stone calls Love and Rockets "American fiction's best kept secret," and that assessment is spot-on. For over thirty years now, Los Bros Hernandez (Jaime and Gilbert) have been creating richly characterized and deeply felt stories about a stunningly original and varied cast of characters. Jaime's stories follow the lives and loves of several characters in and around LA, while Gilbert's characters live in a village named "Palomar" somewhere in Central America. There are way too many titles that represent L&R to list here; instead, interested readers should check out this "Love and Rockets Guide" at Fantagraphics.com. The Hernandez brothers have been following these characters for a long, long time, and as they have, those characters have aged and changed in ways impossible to chronicle in any other medium. What's more, Jaime & Gilbert show how truly unique a storytelling medium comic books can be. With this form, they are able to age their characters, deepen their characterizations, and go back to earlier points in their grand narrative to tell "hidden" stories. Discovering and exploring the world of Love and Rockets is a one-of-a-kind literary experience; nothing like it exists in any other medium.
George Herriman, Krazy Kat
Krazy Kat must really be read to be understood--and even then... Superficially, the story is about Krazy Kat, who loves Ignatz Mouse, who hurls bricks at Krazy's head, and action which is interpreted by Krazy as a sign of affection. More than this, however, Herriman plays word games, makes visual puns, and introduces a whole host of characters that provide subtle and surreal commentary on life. Before they went out of business in the 1990s, Eclipse Comics had begun to rerelease Herriman's seminal strip; more recently, Fantagraphics Books has taken up where Eclipse left off by releasing beautifully designed (by Chris Ware) collections of two-year runs.
Walt Kelly, Pogo
Pogo is commonly regarded as one of the supreme creations of comic art in the 20th century. Set in the Okeefenokee Swamp, Pogo chronicles the daily intrigues of the creatures who live there. Aside from his pioneering work in voice and dialect, Kelly created witty and sharp social satire. His critical eye reached its zenith during the 50's (collected, for the most part, in Volume 10), when he used his strip to critique McCarthyism and the witch hunts.
Jack Kirby, The Marvel Age of Comics
There simply isn't enough room here to do justice to "King" Kirby, who has exerted more influence over the visual language of mainstream comics than any other person in the history of the medium. His work introduced a new kind of visual dynamism through more varied perspectives that "opened up" the page. With Joe Simon, he created Captain American in the 1940s, and with Stan Lee, he reinvigorated the mainstream by creating the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men, Spider-man (with Steve Ditko), Iron Man, the Avengers, Thor, etc. This period--the early 1960s--is known as the beginning of the Silver Age of comics, and it represents one of the most creatively fecund periods in the history of the medium.
Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale, Batman: The Long Halloween and A Superman for All Seasons
Long Halloween (and its sequel, Dark Victory) is a fantastic Batman story where he must confront all of his main villains in his search for a killer. In Superman, Loeb and Sale deliver a moving retelling of Superman's origin. It is broken into four parts, each one corresponding with a season and told from the perspective of a character close to Superman.
David Mazzucchelli, Asterios Polyp
Mazzucchelli, who's probably best known for his illustration work on Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One (both written by Frank Miller), has come out with an extraordinary graphic novel that's visually dynamic and thematically rich. The book is about the titular hero, a famous architect who loses everything (almost) at the beginning when a comet strikes his apartment. From that point forward, the narrative splits in two, one path following Asterios as he wanders into small-town America and the other delving into his past. The genius of Mazzucchelli's book is the way that he uses visuals as a narrative device, depicting his characters' changing moods and situations in various--sometimes contrasting--artistic styles.
Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland
These gorgeous, oversized, one-page comics appeared in newspapers in the early part of this century, and they are stunning in terms of their lushness and imagination. The "story" of each is quite simple. The bulk of each page documents some fantastic situation that Little Nemo encounters, only to have him wake up from his dream in the final panel. Even though the basic set up remains the same, McCay was able to make each page unique. Some of the most beautiful artwork in comics history.
Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics. This book is a must-have reference for anyone interested in the medium of comics. McCloud's brilliance is that he uses the comic format to explain it; that is, Understanding Comics is a graphic novel that explicates and deconstructs its very own format. It also gives lucid coverage to this very complex storytelling form.
Frank Miller, Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, Daredevil: Born Again, Daredevil Visionaries, Vol. II, Elektra Assassin, and Daredevil: Love & War
Two classic Batman books, Year One and Dark Knight Returns came out in the 1980s and are largely responsible for the maturation of many mainstream titles. They present a grittier version of the Dark Knight, and their influence continues to be felt; Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy borrows heavily from these two books. Miller actually burst onto the scene before Batman, however, with his work on Daredevil, first as an artist and then as a writer. His Daredevil stories introduced a new level of psychological complexity to superhero comics. They also introduced his character Elektra, a lethal female ninja (and onetime Daredevil love interest). These collections represent Miller's best work with these characters. The last book is a two-in-one combing Miller & Bill Sienkiewicz's Elektra: Assassin and Daredevil: Love & War. Sienkiewicz's surreal, idiosyncratic style is every bit as engaging as the narratives themselves.
Alan Moore, Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, Batman: The Killing Joke, Watchmen, Saga of the Swamp Thing (6 trade paperback volumes), and From Hell
It's hard to say too much about Alan Moore, who led the charge for mainstream comics "growing up" with his writing in the 1980s. In 1986, Moore wrote a two-part story that takes place ten years after Superman's death and explains how the Man of Steel met his end. It's a marvelous story in which Moore pays tribute to the various characters in the Superman mythos, and it all ends in a perfectly satisfying way. In The Killing Joke, Moore delivers a taut, balanced story that explains better than anything else the twisted, symbiotic relationship between Batman and the Joker. Plus, the ending is completely unexpected, and actually a little sweet. Watchmen is a landmark achievement in American comic books, and everyone who has written superhero comics since its publication owes something to his (re)vision. In this book, Moore both deconstructs and reinvents the superhero mythos in one fell swoop. Along the way, he makes some pointed social commentary, provides brilliant architectural design of pages, and inserts imaginative "bridges" between the various chapters. Issues 20 - 64 of Swamp Thing represent, to me, one of the most stunning achievements in modern comics. These issues were authored by Moore during the 80's, and his time represented no less than a revolution in horror--and mainstream--comics, demonstrating just how literate the oft-maligned form could be. What is more, the illustration work by Stephen Bissette, John Totleben (who also worked with more on the very excellent Miracleman series), and Rick Veitch set new standards for comic book art. The story centers around Swamp Thing, an elemental whose path crosses (and recrosses) with the supernatural as he searches to understand his identity and destiny. All of these issues (with the exception of #20) have been collected in six trade paperbacks, which should be a part of any comic collection.
More recently, Moore and artist Eddie Campbell took on the legend of Jack the Ripper. From Hell is a magnificent, brilliant historical fiction about that killer, and while the story has been culled from various historical sources and previously written materials on the Ripper (all of which are discussed in very helpful endnotes), Moore and Campbell have created a new and powerful addition to both Ripper lore and graphic novels and, for that matter, literature in general.
Grant Morrison, Animal Man, All-Star Superman
Morrison is one of the most prolific writers working in the mainstream today. He did stints on all of the above titles and really took them to another level. His work on Animal Man in the 80s and 90s was especially interesting as he took the comic into bold metafictional and deconstructionist territory. Morrison's most recent masterpiece is the 12-issue All-Star Superman (drawn by Frank Quitely, his most interesting illustrator), collected in two graphic novels. He's also had memorable runs on JLA, X-Men, and Batman, and Doom Patrol. In addition, he's created his own titles, too: WE3, The Invisibles, The Filth, and Flex Mentallo.
In 1976, Cleveland denizen Harvey Pekar created the landmark autobiographical series American Splendor, which details the minutiae of his daily life and redefined autobiography for comics (and beyond). His stories--all drawn by other artists, including R. Crumb--show that "ordinary" life is filled with drama, struggle, and heroism. Many collections are available; check out my reviews on Goodreads for individual books.
Joe Sacco, Palestine & Safe Area Gorazde
Sacco's work stands as a testament to what all journalism is: interpretive, subjective, and compelling. In Palestine, Sacco recounts the struggle between Palestinians and Israelis in the Mideast, and in Safe Area Gorazde, Sacco recreates the time he spent in Eastern Bosnia during the Balkan War. Like the so-called New Journalists of the 1960s, Sacco has reinvigorated journalism to show not only that this kind of writing is subjective and expressive, but also that subjectivity and expressionism can reveal a different kind of truth than the charade of objective writing. Given his subject matter, Sacco joins the ranks of writers like Michael Herr and Tim O'Brien, who have used a "postmodern" sensibility to reveal war in unique and startling ways.
Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis
Satrapi is a powerful voice in women's comics--and women's literature in general. Her book recounts her childhood in Iran and her adolescence in Europe, and she proves herself to be an accomplished artist and a sharp observer of her surrounding culture. All in all, a superb book that should not be missed.
Charles Schultz, Peanuts
There are many collections available on Schultz's work, but for my money the best collections are of those strips that appeared before the mid-1980's. During the earlier part of Schultz's career, Snoopy and the gang provided big laughs and great commentary about family and society. Fantagraphics has recently begun to release the complete Peanuts; this ambitious and worthwhile project is expected to run over twenty volumes.
Steven Seagle, It's a Bird
Seagle's book is a fascinating study of Superman in the guise of autobiography. Seagle, the main character, is offered the job of writing Superman, but his hesitation (caused in part by his deep fears about a hereditary illness) bring on illuminating insights about one of our most enduring cultural icons.
Seth, It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken
It's a Good Life is a fluid, understated story of Seth's quest to track down information about an old, obscure artist named Kalo. Seth tells his story in a gorgeous two-color format that gives it an antiquated look that perfectly fits with the writer/narrator's obsession with the past.
Art Spiegelman, Maus I, Maus II, and In the Shadow of No Towers, Breakdowns
Many people credit Spiegelman (and rightfully so) with calling much-needed attention to the comic book format. What Spiegelman has done with these two volumes (the second of which won the Pulitzer Prize), is tell two large, related narratives. The first is of his father's life in Poland as a Jew during World War II, his time at Auschwitz, and his survival during the days immediately following the war; the second story is of Spiegelman's uneasy relationship with his father. There are so many aspects to these books that it is impossible to even gloss over them here, so I won't even try. I will say, however, that in my opinion this is one of the most important literary works to emerge this century. More recently, Spiegelman turned his craft to the 9/11 attacks in In the Shadow of No Towers. As a New Yorker who was present at ground zero on September 11, 2001, he was traumatized more than most by the attacks, and he filtered that trauma into a series of amazing one-page comics that originally appeared in Europe and have been collected here for the first time. The book also includes an essay about how, after the attacks, he immersed himself in classic comic strips. Their influence is evident in the pages he created. A big, stunning book. Finally, in 2008, Pantheon reissued the long-out-of-print-and-very hard-to-find Breakdowns, an early collection of Spiegelman pieces, many of which are experimental stories that deconstruct the comics medium. This collection includes the original, three-page "Maus" (which was the basis for Spiegelman's later Maus) as well as a new autobiographical story entitled "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!"
James Sturm, James Sturm's America: God, Gold, and Golems
Sturm's specialty is to unearth those rich yet obscure footnotes of American history that shed light on our country and its people. in his book, James Sturm's America, he collects three previously-published works: The Revival (a Hawthornesque story about a pioneer family at a religous revival), Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight (a tragedy set in a small mining town), and The Golem's Mighty Swing (a longer piece--previously published as a graphic novel--about the Stars of David, a traveling Jewish baseball team from the 1920s). Together, these stories provide an interesting and pointed glimpse of our country's past...and present. Sturm's artwork is deceptively simple in this challenging and thoroughly engaging work.
Craig Thompson, Blankets
This book has been raking in all kinds of awards, and with good reason. It is an excellent work of comic art and autobiography, all wrapped into one meaty, 500+ page package. Thompson traces his childhood, confused adolescence, and first love with care and insight. He is also a master craftsman, employing an impressionistic yet always sure line that underscores his story's themes relating to the importance of art in his life. Along with David B.'s Epileptic, this is one of the very best works of literature to come out in the last several years.
Adrian Tomine, Sleepwalk and Other Stories, Summer Blonde, and Shortcomings
Sleepwalk and Summer Blonde collect stories from several issues of Tomine's Optic Nerve series, and the stories here depict characters, situations, and conflicts with a clarity and minimalism reminiscent of Raymond Carver's fiction. Tomine's artwork is clean and unforced, and his storytelling ability gets stronger and stronger with each story. The second collects his comic's later issues, where he works to develop longer, more involved narratives. Shortcomings represents Tomine's first attempt to tell a graphic-novel length story, and it's a remarkable tale of race and romantic entanglements. As these books show, Tomine is a great storyteller who has a very well-developed sense of character-driven fiction.
Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth
Ware is arguably the most brilliant and innovative comic book artist working today, as evidenced by this book, which collects the saga of Jimmy Corrigan from his ACME Novelty Library comic book series. The story follows Jimmy Corrigan, a pathetic loser who is going to meet his father for the first time. The story also moves backward in time to tell the history of Corrigan's family and draw parallels between his ancestors and him. Though leisurely paced, each page is a carefully designed and crafted masterpiece. Some have criticized Ware's work as being mean-spirited, and it certainly is that. However, it's that sharp and acerbic worldview that gives his work its real edge. That, and Ware's obsessive--almost psychotically so--attention to detail. This is simply one of the most important works of comic art ever published.