I don’t think it’s any surprise that I love reading comic books. I read them as a kid, stopped reading, returned in the 80s, stopped, and then returned towards the end of the last century. I haven’t stopped yet, and I don’t currently plan on it.
I’m always frustrated when people are dismissive of comics. A lot of that has stopped, as geek culture had become more pervasive and more acceptable, but I still run into people who think that comic books are only four-colored, spandex-clad superheroes. They are so much more these days. Now, don’t get me wrong…I love superheroes. I am reading more superhero comics than anything else. But there’s so much more in comics than just that.
Here, then, is a list of five comics that you may not be reading, and only some of them deal with superheroes. If you’re open to new things, give them a try.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
I have been absolutely captivated by this comic since issue 1. It takes place in a world where fictional characters live and rub elbows together. So Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, Mr. Hyde, Mina Murray (from Dracula), and Allan Quartermain are secret agents working for the British Empire, which seems to span the world.
As much as enjoy Volume 1, with Dr. Fu Manchu and Professor Moriarty, Volume 2, which deals with The War of the Worlds, is by far my favorite story, with one of the most shocking ways for someone to die ever, I think. There’s also a stand-alone book, The Black Dossier, and volume 3, consisting of a series of graphic novels, called Century.
If you’re a fan of Victorian fiction, the early volumes are fantastic. Other books have explored more recent fiction, including Harry Potter, James Bond, and so on. This storyline is well worth reading. Don’t ask about the movie, though. Oy.
Usagi Yojimbo – Stan Sakai
This is a comic that almost shouldn’t work. It’s a black and white comic based on traditional Japanese comics and legends, and the main character is an anthropomorphic rabbit. It’s been coming out since 1987, and it’s still fresh and interesting.
This is primarily due to the fantastic artwork and storytelling abilities of Stan Sakai, the book’s stand-out writer/artist. His clean linework and extraordinary detail work makes this comic come alive, and he does an extraordinary job of keeping track of all of his minor characters, locations, and subplots. Characters grow and change, and characters evolve over time, showing hidden depths and three-dimensionality.
I buy this series in graphic novel format, so I get the stories in big chunks. I find I prefer it this way, but I enjoyed it immensely when I was reading the individual issues. I just came to the conclusion that I was just returning the individual issues and buying the collected books.
Fables – Bill Willingham & Various Artists
Long before “Once Upon a Time” started on ABC, Fables was rocking the Fairy Tale world. In this series, the Fables (characters from fiction and fairy tales) inhabit two main locations – Fabletown in Manhattan and the Farm in upstate New York. They’ve fled to our world from their individual worlds because of an invading Adversary.
In Fabletown, Old King Cole is mayor, and Snow White is the assistant mayor and the real power behind thr throne. Prince Charming, having seduced Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella at various times, maintains a fantastic lifestyle. Bigby Wolf, having repented from trying to do away with the Three Little Pigs and Red Riding Hood, is now the Sherriff.
The characters go through great growth, and their relationships change and grow. Villains become heroes. Heroes become villains, and everyone learns that they are more than they were in their original stories. I mean, how can you not love a story in which Cinderella is the most badass secret agent in the world? The relationships between the Fables, the identity of the Adversary, and the ultimate fight with this self-styled Emperor were what everyone thought would be the overall story…but then the series continued and maintained its excellence! Kudos to the creators.
Castle Waiting – Linda Medley
Okay, I love fairy tales. So it’s not surprising that a second fairy-tale series has snuck onto my list. Linda Medley weaves the story of Jain, a pregnant woman fleeing her husband (who isn’t the father), with the lives of the fantasy characters inhabiting a largely abandoned castle. This castle is the one that Sleeping Beauty slept in years ago, but she hasn’t been back since she left with her Prince. Her ladies in waiting, now very old women, are still waiting for her return, along with a series of other characters who have moved in. These characters include the plague doctor Dr. Fell (from “I do not love thee, Dr. Fell”), Simple Simon, the Three Little Pigs, and more.
The book has had a sporadic publishing schedule, and it’s currently on hiatus…which means it’s the perfect time to catch up with what’s happening! Go out, collect it, and read it.
Astro City – Kurt Busiek & Brent Anderson, with covers by Alex Ross
Okay, so here’s the superhero book I’m putting on the list. Kurt Busiek just understands what makes superheroes iconic and great, and he shows it off in this wonderful book. The characters aren’t quite the characters you know and love. The Furst Family isn’t quite the Fantastic Four. The Samaritan isn’t quite Superman. Winged Victory isn’t quite Wonder Woman. The Confessor and Altar Boy aren’t quite Batman & Robin. And…well…you get the idea. The point is, by not telling stories about these characters, Busiek’s able to tell fantastic stories about these characters!
The funny thing is, even though the focus of the comic is superheroes, it’s not really a comic about superheroes. It’s a comic about what it would be like to live in a world where superheroes existed. People love superheroes, fear them, get hurt by them, hurt them, and sometimes become them. One of my favorite issues is “Shining Armor, in which a Superman-like hero named Atomicus is constantly being barraged by Irene Meriwether, a woman who loves him and her attempts to reveal his secret identity. He goes to unbelievable lengths to protect his identity, but she, not realizing how much it was driving him away, persists, until she succeeds. He then leaves, possibly forever. It’s a poignant look at the Superman/Lois Lane relationship, in which she suspected he was Clark Kent, and constantly tried to prove it. What would that do? the story asks. To Irene, it’s a game and a challenge…to Atomicus, it’s deadly serious and terrifying. Once he loses the secrecy of his identity, he decides he doesn’t want any part of humanity, and he leaves Earth.
Try Astro City. You may never look at superhero comics the same way again.
Two I Didn’t Include
I want to mention two books that I thought about including on this list but chose not to: Elfquest and The Sandman. In both cases, one reason I didn’t include them is that they’re pretty much concluded. Sure, some one-shots come out now and then, but the main story seems to be finished. I wanted to offer books that give the chance to read a story which continues to evolve.
Elfquest, by Wendy and Richard Pini, was one of the first really adult comic books I read. It ‘s bloody, violent, has sexual overtones…and scenes at times, although nothing too shocking is ever visible. The main characters are elves who live on the World of Two Moons (later called Abode). They live not in a world of medieval castles and beauty, but in the harsh reality of a primitive world of tribal cultures and superstition. As a result, many humans they meet hate and fear elves, and the story begins with a simple quest to survive. Once the series main characters, primarily a group of elves called the Wolfriders, are introduced and established, the true quest begins…a quest to figure out what their ancestors were doing ,bringing them to this terrible world. Later volumes involve even more grand and sweeping quests and their consequences, for good and ill.
This book is pretty unique in that you can read it all online for free. No, I’m not talking about torrenting it or anything. Go to http://www.elfquest.com (warning…it’s a pretty bad site with sound, ridiculous animated cursors, erc.) They have uploaded every comic they’ve ever done, pretty much.
Sandman, written by Neil Gaiman with various artists, is a pretty unique animal. You can almost point to it as the moment where the walls between geekdom and the rest of the world truly began crumbling. It made reading comics hip and edgy, and it showed a way to bridge the gap between superhero comics and horror comics which ultimately led to DC Comics spinning off its Vertigo imprint, of which it was the flagship title.
In Sandman, if you’ve somehow not been exposed, the Sandman is Morpheus, the Prince of Dreams and Lord of Stories. After suffering imprisonment at the hands of a mortal, Morpheus begins to experience change and a sort of humanization. Along the way, however, he touches some aspects of the DC Comics universe, influences Shakespeare, humiliates Lucifer, and rubs elbows with all manner of beings, mortal and immortal.
There simply is no other series like The Sandman. I’m glad and sad it ended at the same time. I wouldn’t want it to just continue and become stale, but I can’t help but feel that the Prince of Stories could come back for another run.
Is there a series I’ve left out that you think is an inexcusable omission? Heavens knows I’ve left out a zillion worthy series. Did I name a series you think shouldn’t be on my list? Let us know.