This article originally appeared on the CultureCritic website on the 20th and 21st of June 2011.
You can find it here and here.
As part of our CultureCritic Guides series, we're inviting some of the best arts writers and bloggers we can find to give us a Guest Guide, introducing their particular area of cultural expertise. For our second installment we're taking on comics, or should that be graphic novels...?
Joel Janiurek runs the monthly Islington Comic Forum and the Islington Comics blog. He was introduced to the genre by a neighbour at an impressionably young age, and has been avidly reading since. While, as he points out, attempting to define why comics are great is akin to explaining the allure of film or literature, he has given it a go for us in this two-part guide. Part One is a brilliant overview of the (relatively) young medium, with Joel's top five comics that best exemplify everything that is unique, innovative and smart about the genre...
Words: Joel Janiurek
I like comics. Maybe because it's still a young medium and so still fairly disrespectful. And, stating the obvious, words and pictures when combined (in just the right way) to tell a story can do lots of really cool stuff.
I work in a library, and thanks to my comic geekery I'm now running a book group called the Islington Comic Forum. Once a month a big bunch of nice people who're interested in comics come to North Library, Islington and we all sit around and talk in a pleasantly ramshackle way about what we like/don't like/love about various aspects of comic books (not just 'who would win in a fight between Superman and Spiderman'... most of the time). It's good fun. More info on that here.
With things going well, I thought I'd devise something to help to promote the comic stock we have at the library. There are a lot of comics out there, and for people who haven't been immersed in them it can be daunting and very easy to take wrong turnings and get lost (in a bad way). I figured people would like somewhere to go to for a little helping hand, someplace to get a brief write-up on what any specific comic was about – beyond a simple spoiler-full regurgitation of the plot – with suggestions about other comics of the same general ilk that they might also enjoy. And so the Islington Comics Blog was born.
Five Smart, Cool and Awesome Must-Read Comic Books
1. The Filth
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Chris Weston
If there is anyone out there who still believes comic books are a bit beneath them, well, there's nothing I can do to help you. For everyone else, this is a good place to start. An insane journey through all the dirtiest aspects of the world around you (death, loneliness, garbage, pornography, decay, etc.) – it's called The Filth for a reason – this is a book that will drag you through the trash, and leave you feeling cleansed and revitalized by the time you come out the other side (like aversion therapy in book form). Devised and written by the evil super-genius Grant Morrison and probably one of my favourite artists ever, Chris Weston, it's a beautiful work of staggering greatness that also features a talking, pissed-off monkey.
- The Invisibles / Grant Morrison
- No Hero / Warren Ellis
- Transmetropolitan / Warren Ellis
2. Scott Pilgrim
By Brian Lee O'Malley
This is one of my favourite things ever. Maybe because for a while in my early twenties I basically was Scott Pilgrim (and I say that with an equal amount of shame and pride). But, hell, even if for someone who has never known the joys of playing in a band, growing up stupid and falling in love, this still has everything to recommend it. The story is a joyful rollercoaster of thrills and jokes (and the jokes are really good), with every character feeling so fully human and independently alive, it is as if they have walked in from somewhere outside the page. But that's not all. The best part is that throughout all seven books (presented in small, fun-manga-size), the language of comics, how they work and the information (emotional and otherwise) they can contain, is stretched to the limit and reinvented several times over. I'll say it again: joyful rollercoaster.
- Lost at Sea / Bryan Lee O'Malley
- I Kill Giants / Joe Kelly
- The Umbrella Academy / Gerard Way
3. Asterios Polyp
By David Mazzucchelli
This might be one of the best books ever to illustrate the many innovations a comic can make – in terms of colouring, text, speech balloons and panel construction – yet it never feels like an empty formal exercise. Every smart and awesome thing it does is wielded for and welded into the strength and power of the nimble-footed storytelling. Following the exploits of a stuffed-shirt architect called Asterios Polyp, it is philosophical and profound, with light and breezy artwork that envolopes the mind with sunshine, romance and astrology.
- Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth / Chris Ware
- Logicomix / Apostolos Doxiadis & Christos Papadimitriou
- Batman: Year One / Frank Miller
Written by Garth Ennis
Art by Jacen Burrows
The Walking Dead (helped along no doubt by the recent TV series adaptation) is the big zombie-horror comic success of the moment, but for my twisted tastes, Crossed (by the writer of the notorious Preacher) offers much more smartness, coolness and downright awsomeness in its depiction of what happens when civilization collapses and everything goes to hell. Technically speaking, it is not a zombie comic, it is about something much worse, but all the survival-horror tropes are present and correct, albeit represented in fresh, new, awful ways. Be warned, this comic is probably not for everybody. Reading it is essentially like agreeing to undergo a traumatic event, and I couldn't shake the images from my head after it was done. But sometimes it's good to be scared.
- The Walking Dead / Robert Kirkman
- Preacher / Garth Ennis
- Alan Moore's The Courtyard / Alan Moore
By Craig Thompson
The polar opposite to Crossed, Blankets feels as soft and precious as a snowflake falling onto the tip of your nose. This is a delicate retracing of the first fubbling steps of romance that will melt your insides into mush. With artwork that blurs the boundaries between the real world and the emotional states of the characters in the comic, it is a vaguely surreal, dream-like masterwork that will leave you bewitched and spellbound.
- Stitches / David Small
- Fun Home / Alison Bechdel
- Black Hole / Charles Burns
Top Five Superhero Comics That Are Well Worth Reading (Even If You're All Grown-Up Now)
1. Black Summer / No Hero
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Juan Jose Ryp
From the twisted minds of Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp comes two unconnected stories, both about vigilantism and what it means to operate outside and above the law. No Hero looks at how far people would go to obtain superpowers, while Black Summer deals with the fall-out when a superhero decides to kill the President of the USA. With hardcore violence, shocking plot twists, explosive artwork and brazen ideas, these books will leave you open-mouthed.
- Gravel / Warren Ellis and Mike Wolfer
- Elektra: Assassin / Frank Miller
- Irredeemable / Mark Wald
2. The Umbrella Academy
Written by Gerard Way
Art by Gabriel Bá
For folks who like surreal flourishes and quippy fun. The issue titles of the first volume should tell you everything you need to know: 'The Day The Eiffel Tower Went Berserk', 'We Only See Each Other At Weddings And Funerals', 'Baby, I'll Be Your Frankenstein', 'Brothers And Sisters, I Am An Atomic Bomb', for example. With a superhero family of misfits and lunatics battling the forces of evil, and each other (mostly each other), The Umbrella Academy is like drinking several cans of Coke all at once.
- Powers / Brian Michael Bendis
- Chew / John Layman
- The Goon / Eric Powell
3. The Ultimates
Written by Mark Millar
Art by Bryan Hitch
Possibly the best mainstream superhero comic ever produced, The Ultimates is the re-booted, up-to-date, action-packed, seriously cool incarnation of Marvel's famous superhero team The Avengers. Comprised of Iron Man, Thor, The Wasp, Giant Man, The Hulk and Captain America, it's a no-frills vision of archetypical heroes living the dream, and taking out the bad guys. With widescreen action sequences, believable characters and solid story construction, this is a complete bombastic joy from start to finish.
- Nemesis / Mark Millar
- Kick-Ass / Mark Millar
- The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century / Frank Miller
4. Ex Machina
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Art by Tony Harris
Twin worlds collide – in this case, superheroes and politicians – in a very modern comic detailing the trials and tribulations of Major Mitchell Hundred of New York City, once known as 'The Great Machine', and the world's first and only superhero. Told in a broadly realistic fashion, Ex Machina takes place over the Hundred's four-year term, as he takes on threats both supernatural and supermundane. The story teases itself out bit-by-bit, and this is a deftly told superhero comic unafraid to push further and deeper than those that have gone before.
- Y: The Last Man / Brian K. Vaughan
- DMZ / Brian Wood
- The Authority / Warren Ellis
5. Top 10
Written by Alan Moore
Art by Gene Ha and Zander Cannon
Finally. I couldn't leave without at least one Alan Moore comic book. Although possibly best known for writing such dark and epic moody tales as Watchmen, V for Vendetta and From Hell, he does have a light and bouncy funny side, which finds one of its best proponents in this book. What happens when you cross superheroes with Hill Street Blues? A crazy, multifaceted city where absolutely everybody, from taxi drivers to politicians, has a superpower – and some poor cops with the thankless task of policing it all. With no deeper message or themes holding it down, this is a wickedly enjoyable comic that is over much too soon.
- Tom Strong / Alan Moore
- Promethea / Alan Moore
- Gotham Central / Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker
Which term do you prefer to use, 'graphic novels' or 'comics'?
I don't think it matters much, but if I had to I'd opt for comics, because, well – that's what they are called and you don't really need to dress them up with fussy labels. Pretty much everything that everyone says here is worth reading.
The term 'graphic novel' relies on the idea of the novel to define itself, and would anyone describe films as 'moving novels' or plays as 'physical films'? There are lots of things that novels can do that comics can't, but also vice versa. The one that springs to mind is that comics are much better at staying silent, they can show you something without having to comment on it.
Film adaptations of comics often incur the wrath of fans. Do you have any thoughts on why they fail to translate?
Obviously there are lots of different reasons why films turn out rubbish, but (as someone much smarter than me first pointed out) films are about management of time (how long a scene lasts, how long to hold that close-up etc.), while comics are about management of space (where things go on the page and so on), so they're not really that compatible/translatable. The difficulty lies in the fact that comics look a lot like storyboards – so I guess film makers get confused and think that everything is already there for them: all they need to do is film the panels and everything will turn out fine. Stating the obvious, anything that's good and worth spending time on tends to make the best of all the strengths (and weaknesses) of its chosen medium. Just because something is a good table, it doesn't mean it's going to be a good chair, and so on.
Can you recommend any good adaptations or shame any truly awful ones?
There's a small subset of adaptations made by the people who wrote the original comics, and they are all pretty great: Akira, Ghost World, When The Wind Blows, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. They know when to go their own way and do their own thing – which is what makes them interesting and worth watching. Otherwise, if an adaptation is exactly the same then why not just read the comic? The best example of that would be Sin City, which is the most faithful adaptation I think I've ever seen anywhere – but felt totally pointless.
Biggest disappointment: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. What would have been better is if Bryan Lee O'Malley and Edgar Wright had joined forces to make something totally new that worked better within the confines of a film, but then obviously it is really hard to get original films made nowadays that aren't based on a pre-existing 'property'.
What is more important, the drawings or the words?
In the best comics the two will always work in harmony – so much so that it's difficult to prize them apart. But there can be interesting exceptions where one can elevate the other. For my tastes, the artwork in the book The Rabbi's Cat (by Joann Sfar) is really rubbish, but it fits the story perfectly, and although I hated it at the start, by the end I wouldn't have had it any other way. Same with some Alan Moore stuff. A Small Killing looks awful and gaudy, but it really sets the mood and atmosphere and fits the story just right. xkcd has the worst artwork ever (just stick people), but still manages to be utterly amazing. It can work the other way, where amazingly brilliant artwork can take over, and mask how shallow the writing is.
What do you think comics can do that other mediums can't?
Maybe because they tell stories one panel at a time, comics are good at capturing single moments. And they can hold a seond in time, for you to ponder over for as long as you like. Comics are really good at the interplay between words and pictures, but if there's one thing that all really good comics understand, it is how to combine both in order to create a meaning larger or greater than either one could achieve on it own. A section from the end of Garth Ennis' run on The Punisher MAX series sticks in my head: a guy sitting in a bar watching the TV with a poem running over the top, it's just amazing. Going back to what I said before about how comics are about space management, that might contain the answer I'm trying to capture... Comics present a story in a way where, at every point, its future and its past are just next door. Some authors know how to make really good use of that. The Tale of One Bad Rat pulls you along you from one panel to the next in a way that's almost frightening.
All comments welcome.