Appreciating Comics 101


For a number of reasons, the time has come for me to make a list of good reads in the world of contemporary storytelling comics. Each of the books below I highly recommend and most are widely available in libraries if you don't want to fork out the cash in your search for autodidactism.

There are a few notables missing from my list, but I don't like Harvey Pekar or R. Crumb and if you think that makes me a terrible person then I have nothing to lose by calling you rude names. I do like Will Eisner, sure, but I haven't read a book of his yet that I feel anyone has to read. I'm still looking. (Hey! Buy me Contract with God for Coast Guard Day!)

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
    This book caught me off guard. Yes, awards, blah blah blah, but I didn't expect its innovation of form or depth of characterization. It's a book any minority -- whether racial or religious or toenailular -- should take as a model. Not that this book could be imitated safely, but it's a good one to add to the ol' cistern. (more)

Halo And Sprocket: Welcome To Humanity by Kerry Callen
    This group of short stories will make you laugh. Guaranteed. (more)

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
    This is certainly my least favorite book in this set, but I think it's cinematic manner of telling a story may represent a coming trend in comics and if not terrific, the story is still no slouch. Also, being the longest Caldecott winner ever must count for something. (more)

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware
    Chris Ware is now the comic artist of choice for art and literary snobs throughout the anglosphere. I don't know that flavor-of-the-monthing someone is good for their soul, but no doubt: Jimmy Corrigan is one of the most heartbreaking books you will ever read.

    A great thing about grabbing this book is that it will give you several comics-based educations at once. You will learn about the ironic look at classic comic forms of the past. You will learn about how to get funny little cartoon characters to bleed pathos. You will get a glance at the sort of flavor the altcomics scene has been shouting for a while.

    But mostly, you will read a great book.

    And when you're done, the Ware-edited issue of McSweeney's is a great primer in what's up in the altcomics scene. (Which is good since, though I like altcomics, not much of them made this list.)

Bone by Jeff Smith
    Bone! Holy smokes, have you read this? This book stormed into a comics world it did not belong in and slowly took the place over. If you want to oblige me to call something the Harry Potter of comics, this is my choice (although I would resent you forcing me to do that). This is one to read with the kids, folks. Brilliant. Hilarious, exciting, fun. Go buy it. (And, speaking of Coast Guard Day, I don't have a copy to read to my kids, so, you know.... The links right up there....)

Maus by Art Spiegelman
    This is the obvious choice, the Pulitzer-winner that shows up on every list. But it deserves its place in eternal sunshine. Spiegelman stabbed through everything we thought we knew and showed we had been wrapped in opaque curtains and their was a beautiful world outside.

    Welcome to that world.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
    I've been reading more Satrapi lately, but this first book is where it all began and an excellent place to start. Welcome to Iran in the Seventies. Welcome to a young girl's world. Welcome to upheaval and change and, perhaps, too much growing up. Welcome to literature, comixtyle.

Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross
    I kept the superhero books to two on this list because I'm worried about perpetuating this weird notion many people still have that comics in book form = Superman.

    But there's nothing wrong with Superman and some of the greatest allegories and mythmaking of the Twentieth Century happened in superhero comics.

    This book is broad enough to be its own religion, with enough apocalyptic imagery to scare anyone into faith.

    Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the gang are old. It's been years since they were all that and now they're a bunch of cranky old geezers. But unlike most cranky old geezers, they haven't devolved into stereotypes and gimmicks. Have you noticed this? How most storytellers seem to think we become less human as we age until, finally, we're just a human-shaped joke with a walker? That doesn't happen here. Never have these characters been more real or had more thoroughly felt lives of their own.

    Plus, it still has great action scenes.

Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
    Frank Miller remade Batman and no one's thought to stop thanking him yet.

    Batman, as we're reminded in Christopher Nolan's films, is a myth that speaks deeply to the American soul. Do we want to be Batman? Are we afraid that we already are? Why does Batman speak to us in a way that bypasses rationality and grasps directly onto our primitive selves? I don't know, but this book is evidence that such is the case. Batman. Batman. Batman.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1 by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill
    Okay, okay. I suppose this is technically a superhero book also. It even has that dubious distinction of being made into one of the crappiest movies of this decade's Golden Age of Comic Book Movies. But this is a superhero comic safe for people too cool for superheros.

    One of the delights of this book is ferreting out all the clever literary references. Another is O'Neill's line. Another is the faux period ephemera. Really, the delights are endless.

    I picked this book as my favorite from Alan Moore's entire oeuvre. If you like it, get in line for V for Vendetta (an excellent dystopian novel, made into a much better movie than LXG was), Watchmen (which isn't my favorite, but hey! every other reader on the planet can't be wrong!), and Swamp Thing (which almost singlehandedly made mainstream comics safe for thinking adults).

Blankets by Craig Thompson
    My absolute, all-time, no-questions, rilly-dilly favorite book about adolescent love. It speaks to me more deeply than Romeo and Juliet, for instance. And as if the story isn't good enough, Craig Thompson draws it in a way that makes we weep with jealousy. If I could draw as I wish to draw, I would be Craig Thompson. He can take a single penstroke and make me weep.

The Blue Aspic by Edward Gorey (also available in this collection, which is more readily available)
    Edward Gorey, people! If it hasn't occurred to you that he makes comics, it's time it did! How did I pick this one over all his others? This one wets my eyes. For reasons I'm afraid to analyze.

The Sandman Vol. 7: Brief Lives by Neil Gaiman, Jill Thompson, Vince Locke, Dick Giordano, Danny Vozzo, Todd Klein
    Picking a single Neil Gaiman book for this list was no easy task--even narrowing it down to Sandman didn't speed things up much. I ended up selecting this one because I love its use of the quest form and the way Delirium humanizes Dream. It's an excellent introduction to the world of the Sandman and its mythical weight, and a fine example of perhaps the single most influential comic of the last twenty years.


  1. Funny thing about Hugo Cabret . . .

    Whilst I had no interest in it, there were thousands of copies to be had everywhere. Then you wrote your review for it, and it actually sounded interesting to me. Now I can't find a copy to save my life.

  2. .

    Haha! I'm sure there's a lesson for everyone in there somewhere.

  3. Fuuny thing is I've been really getting into the comic book scene lately. Though I have to say, I got gentlemen because of V and Watchmen and didn't really like it too much. But one that is missing and I fear it is missing because you haven't read it, and hopefully not because you have read it and didn't like it. *gasp*, is the Scott Pilgrim books. Go out and read the first book and then report back to me.

  4. After my friend talked up Watchmen to me as the greatest graphic novel ever, I read it and didn't like it very much (a bit too visually explicit for my tastes).

    I'd love to read The Sandman, but can't ever find volume 1 at the library, and I like to start at the beginning.

    I enjoyed Blankets though it showed a bit more than I'm comfortable with, if I remember correctly. Beautiful art.

  5. .

    I don't blame you for being orderly, although I'm not convinced it's really necessary for Sandman.