Other Story Forms: Comics

A panel from Beautiful Darkness

It all started for me when I was a librarian at the Queens Public Library in the early 90s. Shortly after I arrived, I was charged with starting and curating a comics and graphic novel collection. I hadn’t grown up reading comics and was a complete newbie. The library entrusted me with a budget of a few hundred dollars, which I took to a comic book shop (can’t remember which one now, or even which borough it was in). When I told the guy at the desk that I needed to start a collection for a public library, well his face lit up like Christmas. My only limit was that I could only buy bound books (actual comics are too ephemeral for public library use). He got out a big cardboard box and filled it with the basics from DC, Marvel, Vertigo, Dark Horse, Image and others. 

Curating a collection means you have to read it, or as much of it as possible. I’ve been reading comics ever since. While I appreciate DC and Marvel, the classic superhero comics don’t really light my fire (I prefer the movies as my superhero delivery medium). What really turned me on were the darker, quirkier graphic novels like V for Vendetta, Sin City, Watchmen, Maus. These are the comics I would later go on to buy for my own personal bookshelf.

Like genre writing, comics are often pooh poohed as a literary form, but they have so much to offer! If you love the lush visual stimulation of movies and also love reading, comics are the best of both worlds. Yet they are very much their own thing. They are a variety of story telling experience that shouldn’t be neglected. While it is important for writers to learn guidelines about plot beats and characterization. The greater the variety of storytelling experiences you engage in, the deeper your intrinsic understanding of story will be, and it will pay off in your writing.

There are a million million comics out there, and a million websites and blogs to tell you about them.* Here is my idiosyncratic list of the best comics I read over the last year (many of them borrowed from my local library, so not necessarily published recently – the Austin Public Librarymaintains excellent comics collections for both adults and Kids, BTW).

First:

If you’re curious about comics, but feel like you can’t quite connect with the form, a good place to start is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Written in 1993, it is still a relevant and passionate primer for medium.

Saga

Series:

Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fionna Staples. Vaughn also wrote Y: The Last Man. This one has me hook line and sinker. It’s a sci fi soap opera in the best way. At the core it tackles issues of relationships and family.

East of West by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta. Apocalyptic (as in the Book of Revelation) religious themes set in a science fictional weird west. Volume 1 was an excellent beginning, the following volumes are a little uneven in their pacing. The large cast of characters can make it hard to connect to emotionally, but when it hits its stride it’s brilliant. 

Pretty Deadly by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios. Another weird western about love, both twisted and true, and sacrifice.

Big Questions

Stand alones:

Big Questions by Anders Nilsen. A flock of small birds trying to make sense of a strange event. Very post modern in the literary sense. Beautiful minimalist artwork. Here’s a NYT article about the book.

Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann. A miniature world rendered in beautiful watercolor that is both violent and poignant. It captures the darkness and light touch of true fairytales perfectly.

Trillium by Jeff Lemire. I found this one challenging but worth it. Some sections are intentionally formatted upside down or progress backwards through time as truly star-crossed lovers travel through time, space, and alternate universes.

The Wrenchies by Farel Dalrymple. I found the artwork arresting and the characters fascinating. Ultimately, the story failed for me. It had too many ideas, which made the plot hard to follow and required too many characters, so that I couldn’t connect with the core of the story. Still, so much potential! I will read more by Dalrymple.

reMIND

Some things for younger readers:

Stuff of Legend by Mike Raicht. This is a little dark in places, but the whole family fell in love with the characters and the world.

Cardboard by Doug TenNapel. We’ve been reading the very productive TenNapel‘s books for years. He’s the creator of Earthworm Jim, Tommysaurus Rex, Ghostopolis, Bad Island… Cardboard is one of his bests IMHO.

reMIND by Jason Brubaker. Talking cats, and evil lizard king ruling an underwater kingdom. Great stuff! This comes as a gorgeous hardbound two volume set or you can read it for free on his website!

Monster on the Hill by rob Harrell. Adorable characters, lovely story. Great for younger kids.

Marzi by Marzena Sowa. A memoir in comic book form.  Marzena shows us what her childhood in Poland was like during the end of communism there. Beautifully told with lots of history
Clan Apis by Jay Hosler. A good story with real science about bees written by a biology professor.

The Wrenchies

* Criminally omitted from this post is the fact that the web is bursting with amazing web comics, only a fraction of which get bound into physical books. They deserve a post of their own, but since I have no idea when I might get around to writing such post, check out io9’s list of Best New Web Comics of 2014, or their 17 Fantastic Completed Web Comics to Binge Read.

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