By this point, you’d think that people would’ve caught on that comics can be enjoyed by audiences well outside the “Hobbity manchild” descriptor. And that they come in genres other than “sub-Liefeldian troglodytes shoot guns the size of sequoias” and “can boobs even do that?” While the burgeoning popularity of superhero movies and TV shows have certainly helped relax some of the stereotyping, there are always holdouts who speak of comics in the tone of voice usually reserved for toddlers who fingerpaint on the walls with their own leavings.
They’re missing out. Most people wouldn’t refuse to watch movies because some of them are Gigli, after all, and the same logic applies to the comics medium. Chances are, there’s a story whose plot, themes, and/or characters will resonate as comfortable, satisfying, and familiar, whether they love philosophical treatises or memoirs or history or concrete seagulls. The following primer should hopefully yield at least a few reads that pique detractors’ interests.
Note: With one exception, I’ve only included selections contained within one to two volumes. For mithridatization’s sake.
Writer: Jonathan Ames
Artist: Dean Haspiel
Comics on the whole tend to suffer from a dearth of realistic portrayals of mental illness, making novelist and screenwriter Jonathan Ames’ first foray into the medium all the more important. Dynamic, expressive art by Dean Haspiel perfectly punctuates the emotional fluctuations addiction involves.
Writer: Harvey Pekar
Harvey Pekar’s gift for unpretentious, unapologetic observations elevated him from underground writer to literary icon. The self-awareness, earnestness, and honesty beneath his famously curmudgeonly exterior inspires authors from across media – Anthony Bourdain considers him a huge influence, for example – and remains refreshing and relevant even four decades later. Note: Most of the American Splendor volumes are self-contained, so they can be skipped over or read in any order.
Writer: Juan Díaz Canales
Artist: Juanjo Guarnido
Part of the fun in reading these lovingly-crafted hardboiled detective tales is trying to figure out the real-life analogues of the various characters John Blacksad encounters while investigating cases. However, that means peeling your eyes away from Juanjo Guarnido’s animated line work and lush watercolors long enough to read the word balloons. Which shouldn’t be too difficult, given the strong cast and wholly absorbing hardboiled detective tales.
Boxers & Saints
Writer/Artist: Gene Luen Yang
Both volumes of Boxers & Saints explore a different side of the Boxer Rebellion; the first from the vantage point of a young man fully entrenched in the fight to free the Chinese from British colonialism, the second story looks at why one girl finds comfort in the arrival of foreigners and their faith. Through their eyes, the narrative explores the complexities and ramifications of imperialism, and how justice may not always be a black-and-white, all-or-nothing concept.
Writer/Artist: Linda Medley
Familiar fairy tales and fantasy archetypes receive a uniquely subversive upgrade, taking place in the castle Sleeping Beauty abandoned in order to marry her prince. The lonely, the curious, the scared, and the curious are all welcomed and embraced with equal enthusiasm, and they slowly begin to share more and more of themselves as they grow more comfortable with their loving new home. It’s positive, empowering stuff that never goes staggering off into saccharine and unrealistic.
Writer/Artist: Alison Bechdel
Bittersweet and introspective, Alison Bechdel’s memoir candidly discusses the strained relationship with her father, the emotional fallout from his extramarital liaisons with male students and babysitters, his suicide, and her coming to terms with her own lesbian identity. Fun Home is a classroom staple rife with themes familiar to most older adolescents – even if the experiences themselves aren’t universal.
Hark! A Vagrant
Writer/Artist: Kate Beaton
Most readers probably won’t catch all the historical humor unless they come from such an academic background. And that’s what makes Hark! A Vagrant such delirious fun; you’ll start popping open Wikipedia articles left and right to get the full stories of the curious characters and situations Kate Beaton skewers with obvious affection.
For non-history buffs out there, the comedic takedowns of classic literature, cultural quirks, art, and pop culture still make it well worth your time.
Writer: Alejandro Jodorowsky
No one but Moebius could infuse Alejandro Jodorowsky’s groundbreaking sci-fi epic with the vigor and wonder and humanity needed to truly convey the transcendent beauty behind his heady concepts. Many of the ideas and aesthetics from their terminated Dune adaptation eventually grew into one of the most influential comics every published. Neuromancer, The Fifth Element and other beloved works could not have popped into existence without The Incal.
Note: Make sure to pick up the hardcovers with Yves Chaland, Isabelle Beaumeney-Joannet, and Zoran Janjetov’s original colouring if you can. The paperbacks have this ultra-slick, ultra-shadowy look to them that overwhelm Moebius’ nuanced line work and sacrifice some of the dreamlike atmosphere.
Writer: Mat Johnson
Artist: Warren Pleece
Inspired partly by the author’s own experiences, as well as those of Walter White (the Civil Rights activist who headed up the NAACP, not Heisenberg), Incognegro examines American race relations past… and, by extension, present. Pleece’s noir sensibilities add urgency to an undercover investigator’s last case, which could result in his brother’s lynching if he’s found guilty of a white woman’s murder.
The Pulitzer-winning Maus functions as both a harrowing, heart-stopping account of the Holocaust and a family drama between Art Spiegelman and his father. What began as a straightforward account of survival eventually morphed into a reflection on how escalating tragedies and traumas can place heavy tolls on filial relationships.
Writer/Artist: Hope Larson
Perfect for introducing young adult readers to sequential storytelling, Mercury‘s magic realism merges history, romance, and family for an emotional look at how even lives separated by a century and a half share some common elements. Protagonists Asa and Tara will never meet, but the actions of the former will eventually come to heavily influence the latter in an unexpected – though not unwelcome – way.
Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Colleen Doran
The space shuttle Venture disappears completely, its crew members presumed dead – only to land back at Kennedy Space Center with alien technology and an unconscious pilot on board a decade later. Few books, comic or otherwise, so exuberantly convey the sheer romance of space travel and humanity’s inherent lust for both adventure and answers.
Writer/Artist: Jonathan Hickman
Jonathan Hickman’s graphic design background makes his solo projects the most memorable and visually striking entrants in his entire oeuvre. A Venn diagram intersecting storybooks, sequentials, and infographics, they look like nothing else on the shelves. Pax Romana crams time travel, religion, history, and philosophy into a manic mix that almost matches Grant Morrison in its woah-ish-ness.
OK. If I say enough nice things about Hickman, will Feel Better Now finally happen?
Learn about the Iranian Revolution through the perspective of a young girl too young to fully understand the violent milieu around her, but old enough to grasp the dangerous repercussions. Respite in an ostensibly enlightened Europe only yields othering experiences, most nastily from peers who call her a friend despite handling her like a mere curio.
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Jamie McKelvie
Since we’re still a few years away from the Voight-Kampff test, the real test of humanity is whether or not a song (any song) can make a person, like, feel things, man. In the Phonogram universe, music creates literal magic and sparks some engaging discussions about how we relate to what we create and the comforts (and restrictions) the subcultures that spring around them provide.
Pride of Baghdad
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Niko Henrichon
Set during the 2003 Battle of Baghdad, a family of four lions escape the ravaged zoo with survival as their only goal. Although a rapid-fire meditation on geopolitics and war (not to mention a shockwave of sad), it’s certainly easy to enjoy as a straightforward adventure tale.
Writer/Artist: James Turner
James Turner : Literature, History, and Folklore :: Dan Aykroyd : Technobabble. Calling the eponymous hero the Indiana Jones of librarianship may be obvious, but no better description exists. Rex’s pulpy art deco exploits – packed with plenty of references to keep the trivia buffs out there grinning – celebrate what it means to love reading with enthusiastic warmth and humor.
Despite the twisty timeline and sci-fi overtones, Underwater Welder grounds itself in the fully human theme of first-time parent anxiety, following an underwater welder (title drop!) compelled to dive when his pregnant wife needs him most. Jeff Lemire expertly repackages familiar feelings in a deeply moving and unique narrative.
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Dave Gibbons
Some argue that a conversancy in superhero tropes is a necessity in understanding their quintessential deconstruction; they’re not wrong, but such a perspective does tend to ignore the other worthwhile nuggets Watchmen offers. Even for avowed cape haters, the comic can still be appreciated and enjoyed as an alternative history and examination of varying philosophies and psychological profiles.
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Frank Quitely
Because curling up in the fetal position and weeping bitter tears of, “WHY, GOD, WHY?!?!??!” loves company.