Every week in 2018, the plan is that my friend Rod is going to ask me some geeky question that will answer in a post. This week is Week #46, and today’s question is one that Rod describes as quite basic–indeed, he wasn’t sure if it was something he’d already asked. But he hasn’t, and so hear we go.
What are some comics I’d recommend to a non-comic reader to get them started?
Rod’s only caveat is that I didn’t have to take current trends into account, in the sense that I didn’t have recommend something starring the Avengers just because the Avengers movies are popular right now. That’s pretty easy, since I don’t actually know that many Avengers comics.
Anyway, I’m going to suggest 10 comics (a number I’ve just chosen), and in answering this, I’m trying to think of stuff that fits a few different criteria
1. Accessible – so not some obscure series that’s never been collected before…so, no Thriller or L.E.G.I.O.N.
2. Approachable – not something that doesn’t require heavy amounts of previous continuity to appreciate…so no Return of Barry Allen, Crisis on Infinite Earths or Kingdom Come. For the similar reasons, I don’t feel completely comfortable recommending Astro City under this category.
3. High Quality – we’re looking for well-written and well-illustrated stories, with a satisfying narrative arc…so no Superman: New Krypton
4. Variety – not just the same comic book style or character over and over again…so not just ten cool Batman stories
5. Familiar – to me, that is. In other words, something that I’ve actually read…so no Walking Dead or American Born Chinese (though I think I actually have read that one, I just don’t remember it at all). This reality will for sure impact the choices available, and how successfully I capture criteria #4, for sure.
6. Enjoyable – to me, again. I’m only picking stuff I actually, legitimately enjoy reading, so in this case, that means no Watchmen, as much as I respect it.
So here are the books that come to mind:
Let’s start far away from superheroes and grim ‘n’ gritty storytelling, and talk about Raina Telgemeier’s Smile. If you’re non-comic reader is a young girl, then this for sure is the book for them. It’s the autobiographical story of young Raina and the personal traumas she endures between 6th and 10th grades, especially following an accident where she severely damages her two front teeth. It’s charming and funny and moving and it won about a million awards and spent nearly five years on the New York Times best seller’s list. So, yeah, quite the success. Telgemeier has done a bunch of other books as well, including Sisters which is a direct follow-up to this one and is nearly as good.
Daredevil: Born Again
And now let’s go full tilt into the grim ‘n’ gritty. This five issue arc by Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli makes heavy use of Christian symbolism to tell the story of the Kingpin systematically unraveling Matt Murdock’s life as revenge for all of Daredevil’s interference in his operations. The story contains numerous moments that are amongst the most iconic ever produced for comics, including the Kingpin’s realization that he may have gone too far: “I have shown him that a man without hope is a man without fear,” making use of Daredevil’s normal epithet. It’s a powerful storyline which while not completely self-contained, does come very close. Only in its last issue with the appearance of Captain America and the Avengers do things lose a bit of their focus, but the quality of the work prior to that is so strong that it makes up for any shortcomings.
Batman: Year One
OK, so I sort of break my own rules here by choosing a second story by the same creative team–Frank Miller & David Mazzuchelli–as the first. But when superhero fans vote on their favorite stories, these two arcs are both regularly in the top five. Batman: Year One is one of about a million retellings of Batman’s origin, but perhaps the most iconic and certainly the most influential since the original. The fact that it is an origin story means that although there are certainly nods to things familiar to Batman fans, the comic takes time to introduce to the reader anything that is essential. Year One features not one but two first person points-of-view, one being Bruce Wayne of course, but the other a youngish Jim Gordon, a good cop who has just come to Gotham City at the same time as a certain billionaire playboy. The twin stories of these two men finding their feet in the corrupt cesspool that is Gotham, and forming their partnership to stand against crime and needless violence, makes compelling…and near inspirational…reading. It makes for a great way to for a new reader to connect to the comic book tales of one of the greatest superhero characters ever.
Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade
Cosmic Adventures is a standalone all-ages miniseries by Landry Q. Walker and the art by Eric Jones. The product of their efforts is a continuity-lite retelling of Supergirl‘s origin that takes the time to show her dealing with all sorts of shenanigans at her middle school, including dark doppelgangers and extra-dimensional principles and alien cats. Its genuinely appropriate for all ages, but does not dumb things down for its audience in any way. So for the reader who is looking for some sort of crossover work that allows them to enjoy the humorous misadventures of a nonetheless cool girl, while introducing them to the world of Silver-Age inspired superheroes, this is the book for them. Admittedly, this is probably a pretty small market, but nonetheless, I highly recommend it. The only downside of this book is that it never had a follow-up, and it might be challenging finding another story that has the same strengths.
Staying with the all-ages theme, but shifting to something that will give a longer reading experience, let’s quickly talk about Bone. I’ve written about this series before, but to summarize, it was a 55 issue epic published over about 13 years starting in 2001, telling the story of three “Bones” (basically, living cartoon creatures) who get lost, meet a valley full of humans, and get involved in a high-stakes adventure featuring princesses, ancient orders, and dragons buried beneath mountains. Imagine if Peanuts or Pogo was a fantasy epic akin to Lord of the Rings, and you get the idea. Cartoonist Jeff Smith knew how to put together action, humor, plot and characterization into an incredibly satisfying blend, which allows a new reader to easily come on board at the beginning, but gives them a lot to dig into if they like what they see.
When one thinks of comics that would be easy jumping-on points for new readers, you don’t normally consider the Legion of Super-Heroes. The story of dozens of futuristic teenaged superheroes from a myriad of planets is often famous for being impenetrable to new readers. But in 2000 & 2001, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning decided to do a soft reboot of the series in order to make to create a easy start point for new readers. The heart of this was the 12 issue long stand-alone series known as Legion Lost, which was about a handful of the characters being stranded in an unknown part of the galaxy. Though this story did not ignore the established history of the Legion, it did not steep itself too deeply in it either. Each issue also gave a spotlight to a different character, allowing the reader to get connected to each figure over the course of the plot. The story featured some very effective twists, and did a great job building up the Legion concept, as well as developing the unfamiliar setting that the heroes found themselves in.
Speaking of strangers in a strange land, let’s talk about The Arrival. This wordless comic by Western Australia’s own Shaun Tan tells the story of a man who must leave his home and his family to make a new life in a foreign land. The setting has a vaguley fantasy overlay, so this new world feels intimidating and scary, like it’s full of terrifying monsters lurking around every corner. Tan uses this unfamiliarity to create a foreboding that effectively mirrors the immigrant experience. Our unnamed hero is made to fear almost everything about his new life–eating, sleeping, shopping, transport…everything…because it all just seems so weird. But as the story progresses and he faces each trial, things go from being daunting to familiar, with our experience as a reader reflecting his as a resident of his new country. It’s a strong piece of work that makes powerful use of composition, layout and illustration style to tell its story, and I include it largely to demonstrate to our theoretical reader how comics can be used to tell a wide variety of types of stories.
JLA: New World Order
My overall greater familiarity with DC over Marvel will definitely influence this list, which is why there aren’t any Avengers stories on it (since I simply don’t know know all that many). But since so many of the comics available out there are superhero stories, I do want our theoretical new reader to get connected into some of the greats. Born Again and Year One both feature well known superheroes, but are almost crime stories more than they are actual superhero tales. Cosmic Adventures is an out-of-continuity tale, and Legion Lost features a bunch of characters isolated from their normal environment which is already a bit separate from the regular DC shared universe. So let’s go with JLA: New Order, which is firmly within the DC universe, but still is a great point for new readers and will hopefully illustrate some great things about what comics can be.
Anyway, after all that, New World Order was the premier arc of a new Justice League series by Grant Morrison and Howard Porter, which after years of the franchise featuring a wide range of second and third-tier heroes, brought DC’s “Big Seven” back under one title. That means the group who had originally founded the Justice League, or their successors: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner), Flash (Wally West), Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter. This opening arc was about a bunch of new heroes who suddenly show up with a more decisive and merciless approach to villainy than the Justice League had usually shown, and how Batman and the rest eventually discover that these guys harbor a dark secret. Morrison and Porter’s accomplishment in this book was to give the reader a wide-screen cinematic experience full of iconic character moments and images, and New World Order is tailor-made for the new readers to come along and get excited at how awesome the Leaguers are.
Green Lantern: Earth One
Speaking of awesome Leaguers, let’s talk about Green Lantern. Even though he’s the original member of the Justice League who’s getting the least amount of love right now in today’s media scene, he’s a great character, and Green Lantern: Earth One is a really good book. Created by husband & wife team of Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko (two talents whose work I’m otherwise unfamiliar with), Green Lantern: Earth One is a nearish-future story about Hal Jordan, who serves aboard a corporate spaceship from Ferris Galactic surveying asteroids for mining potential. In the course of an otherwise routine mission, he comes into possession of the alien power ring and discovers first hand it’s devastating potential. Eventually, he meets other wielders of similar rings, and discovers that the Green Lantern Corp used to keep peace across the galaxy until they were destroyed by the robotic Manhunters. Hal work to see the central power source for the Green Lanterns freed so they can reach their full potential and free the galaxy of the tyranny of the Manhunters.
Green Lantern: Earth One takes the concepts familiar to long-term readers and turns a lot of them upside down, without losing the core concept of heroism and courage that is at the heart of the character. The book has a fairly expansive plot that makes for a satisfying reading experience, even though there is certainly room for a follow up (not yet produced). And the art by Gabriel Hardman has a heavy-inked, scratchy style that gives the images a lot of style without sacrificing clear storytelling.
And as we come to the last entry, I considered a bunch of things that could work, including Superman: Brainiac, Brave and the Bold vol 1: The Lords of Luck, DC: The New Frontier, and the Archie books by Mark Waid. But in the interest of mixing things up a bit more, I’ve gone with something a little bit less well known:
Jamal Igle wrote and drew this oversized hardcover book about a super-powered being who appears to be a pre-teen girl, but is probably much more. The story has some of that adolescent coming-of-age quality to it, with a bit of mystery and a whole lot of smashing giant robots with your fists. It’s a fun book, and an easy entry into comics for those looking for some all-ages adventure. The only down side is that Igle’s crowdfunded second volume is waaaay overdue. He’s still working on it, so I’m holding onto hope, but it’s disappointing that it hasn’t come along yet.
Well, looking over this list, it’s pretty clear that there are large gaps in the sorts of things I’m representing. Mostly, this list is superheroes (and mostly DC at that) with a lot of all-ages adventure thrown in, with a lack of “adult” titles in the crime or horror or even history genre. The fact of the matter is I just don’t read that much of that stuff so it’s hard for me to recommend it. Though I did consider Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson’s original Swamp Thing, but I actually don’t feel like I remember it well enough.