Comics are not (just) superhero stories
An introductory guide for those who hate tights and capes, but love great stories
Comics is a medium, not a genre. The equating of comics with Superman or Spider-Man is as insulting and wrong as equating all (fiction) books with Twilight or Mills & Boon. Why ignore the plethora of talented, thoughtful creators? Why undermine the work of skilled, brilliant artists and writers to view it as a genre comprised of its worst - but most popular - elements?
Comics, as was so well put by Neal Adams, is what would happen if you got the world’s greatest writer and the world’s greatest artist to create something together. How could we, as a creative-loving species, not celebrate the offspring of such a coupling?
Consider: It’s rare, and sometimes worrying, to meet people who don’t enjoy reading books. These books don’t have to be literary classics or smoky philosophical tomes of incomprehensible notions. Books give flight to ideas we didn’t know had grown wings; they create lifelong friends from the dust of our imagination; foster situations and provide moral windows where before were only walls of dogma. From fairy-tales and Lord of the Rings, to Michael Crichton and Thomas Pynchon, words and lines dive and dip to bring forth ideas from one human mind to another.
Comics are books. Instead of using words, creators use visual art to enhance ideas. This isn’t a short-cut for writers, it’s just using art instead of words, to convey the scene.
Of course there are comics - usually very bad comics - where a writer merely provides a chalk outline of story and a carcass of dialogue.
But this is a missed opportunity: Great writers, like Alan Moore, Mike Carey, Lauren Beukes, and others, utilise the art to enhance their story - just as any storyteller does within the given medium, using his or her tools. The point is that comics allow for more or different tools for creators to use.
Liking comics should be the same as liking music
Can you name someone who dislikes music?
Hopefully not. It makes no sense to “dislike music” due its massive variety. There are so many kinds of music that everyone has one or many that they like. This is almost the same for television or film, though we’d be less surprised by people hating “all” of TV, due to how much of it is utter nonsense.
Also, as indicated, many of us are concerned that people dislike (all) books. The point being that these creative mediums - books, films, music - can’t be dismissed in their entirety, since they are comprised of various appealing factors. You need only look beyond the most popular/worst elements.
I don’t see why not liking comic books will be as “weird” as not liking music, or books, or whatever else. That we still need to assert or indicate that we “like” comic books is partially annoying. We don’t usually need people to tell us they like music, we just ask what music they like.
This attitude however is partial testament to the incorrect and myopic view of the comics medium. We should try change that by recognising comics as medium, not a boring, predictable genre.
What you should read
We can do that by reading and recommending books, like the following:
-- Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man. Sharply told, beautifully displayed comic about what happens when every male member of every species dies, except for two.
-- Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen (note the lack of “the”). Beautifully-written, beautifully drawn, profound meditation on what we consider superheroes and the kinds of moral decisions we expect of them.
-- Brian Azzerello and Lee Bermejo’s Lex Luthor: Man of Steel tells a non-canonical story from Superman’s greatest foe. This story’s genius stems from the sympathy elicited because we finally recognise Luthor’s motivations, that comes from caring about humanity and being worried about an all-powerful,unstoppable god.
-- Neil Gaiman, Sam Keith, and Mike Dringenberg’s The Sandman, with genius covers by Dave McKean is Gaiman at his best: brilliant concepts, meets fascinating characters, allowing for some of the world’s best artists to run wild.
-- Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, and Lan Medina’s Fables uses classic fairy-tale characters, like Snow White and the Big Bad Wolf, to tell mature, shocking and thought-provoking stories, set in modern-day Manhattan. Bestiality, war, secrets long-buried are all part of this incredible series.
-- Jamie Delano, John Ridgway and Alfredo Alcala’s John Constantine: Hellblazer (rhymes with “Clementine”, not “seventeen”) takes Alan Moore’s blue-collared warlock from Swamp Thing into his own series. The foul-mouthed, but brilliant English bastard, outwits devils, demons and death, as he makes his way from one misadventure to another.
-- Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s Locke & Key is a beautifully illustrated horror story, in the vein of young adult genre but still retaining the maturity of Hill’s father (novelist Stephen King).
-- John Layman and Rob Guillory’s Chew is a lovingly illustrated, charming, hilarious and dark tale of a detective who is Cibopathic, “which means he gets psychic impressions from whatever he eats”. Expect chewed corpses, cyber-enhanced fighting chickens, post-apocalyptic cults and lots of delicious alien food.
-- Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma’s Morning Glories takes the fear of a new high school, coupled with hormonal teenagers and a conspiracy plot so deep, complex, and terrifying it makes LOST seem cute in comparison.
-- Also by Nick Spencer, but with incredible artist Riley Rossmo, the comic Bedlam examines what happens when a notorious, violent criminal mastermind “reforms” in a town he appears to control.
-- Successful horror writers Scott Snyder and Stephen King both pen the masterful, time-hopping vampire book American Vampire. Illustrated by the brilliant Rafael Albuquerque, expect horror, adventure and anti-heroes amidst blood and the American countryside.
— Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher is a glorious, violent, brutal but brilliant story about what absolute power does - including to God himself. Brilliant characters, beautiful illustration and the hunt - literally - for a God revealed to be a coward makes this an essential read.
-- The best comic series remains for me Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, still available second-hand in hardcover. With artwork that equals Moore’s writing ability, this meditation on life, horror, existence and suffering should be regarded as part of any “literary canon”.