When I was a kid my mum would take me and my brothers to our local second-hand bookstore once a week. Mum was clever, so she gave us each two dollars to buy comics (and to buy herself time to browse the new arrivals section), the comics were usually 50 cents a pop, so we’d pool our resources and buy a pile of comics which would take us a mere afternoon to consume, but it was the perfect afternoon. Gradually, we all got older and stopped wanting to buy comics, my brothers shifted into the Star Wars universe and I fell into that deep dark hole that was the Babysitters Club. At some point we stopped thinking of comics as real books.
I managed to get all the way through high school and an English Degree before returning to the world of comics. And boy have things changed! Graphic Literature (aka comics for grownups) now makes up one of the most exciting and dynamic genres around. Thanks to blockbuster films, old-school ensembles are enjoying an overhaul, while the independent scene is putting out some genuinely fantastic and challenging writing, and the artwork on these beauties is in a league of its own. If you’re new to the dazzling world of the literary made visual, welcome, you’re in for a treat. Subgenres abound in the graphic world and finding the illustrated rollick for you can be daunting so I’m going to recommend for you some favourites from four subgenres*: Biographies, Literary Classics, Old School Comics and New School Comics.
Biographies: I can just now hear the rallying cry of first-year humanities students everywhere chanting “Maus, Maus, Maus!” as they tote their new appreciation for the alternative historiographical biography on their shoulders. Look, I’ll say this straight, Art Spiegelman’s Maus is one of the most important graphic biographies around, but you should know it isn’t the ‘be all and end all’ of the form. More to the point, if you stop there, you’ll miss out. My hot tip here is personality driven biographies. My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf is my current squeeze for this subgenre. My Friend Dahmer is about the famous American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, so you know it’s going to get a bit weird. Backderf went to high school with Dahmer and his book provides some pretty sad and telling backstory to a guy who became notorious as one of the most twisted serial killers in history. For bonus points this book is also excellently researched and annotated, which should make any history geek squeal, not to mention that the art is fantastic.
Literary Classics: Before we go further, I’m going to recommend you go Google Gris Grimly, and then buy his books. I bought Grimly’s Frankenstein (adapted from Mary Shelley’s seminal 1818 work) a couple of years ago for the sheer beauty of its illustrations, only to find that this book draws you in with its Burtonesque art and you end up staying for that classical literary goodness. I only wish my fourteen-year-old self could have discovered this version rather than slogging it out with the original. The graphic novel world has really launched itself into adapting classics, from Beowulf to the Scarlet Letter, there are graphic novel adaptations of just about everything on your English 101 reading list. Notable classic adaptations include Pride and Prejudice from Marvel (not that it needed another rehashing) and Classical Comics have done pretty decent adaptations of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Old School Comics: The first comic book series I ever read was The Phantom by Lee Falk. My mum collected them and my brothers and I would sit around for hours reading them. I loved how morally superior The Phantom was, that he didn’t seem to doubt himself, it made sense to me that the hero was always right. Maybe that’s what we love about the old school heroes, that sense of moral clarity. That said, my adult favourite old school series is Alan Moore’s Watchmen, with artwork by Dave Gibbons. One of the wonderful things about this series is that it doesn’t trade off a false sense of moral clarity, it’s gritty and awkward at times and there’s a nice humanness to it that some franchises miss. The art and writing in Watchmen is excellent, and the characters are beautifully nuanced, it really is a worthwhile read.
New School Comics: Finally, we come to my favourite subgenre, which isn’t really a subgenre, I just felt like I needed a way to separate that old world of comics from the new. Basically, new school comics are those graphic novels (or serials) that aren’t necessarily aligned with big superhero brands, making up their own literary reality as they go. It’s my favourite space in the graphic novel world because the new school is where that really weird stuff gets up and running, where there is innovation that makes your toes curl and your brain light up like fireworks on New Year’s Eve. So, without further ado let me present my current comic book obsession, the Hugo Award winning Saga by Brian K. Vaughan with art by Fiona Staples. This is a war-torn, galactic, star-crossed-lovers kind of story, with swords and magic and people with horns, or wings, or a dozen legs. The artwork of Saga is so elaborate and intricate that reading it feels like eating cake, but for your eyes, while the writing is unbelievably expansive. Vaughan has created a universe that seems impossible, it has everything and it shouldn’t work but it does, and he’s thrown it into stark relief with an impeccable, flawed, impossibly compelling romance that makes you have the kind of emotions that lead to compulsive knuckle cracking. Go. Read. It. Oh, but don’t read it near kids, there’s a lot of adult content in there.
Elaenor is a book nerd who believes that you can’t replace a book with a Hollywood movie…but you can replace one with a BBC mini-series.