It often surprises my friends and correspondents that I’m a relative neophyte when it comes to comics. I mean, I have a working knowledge of the Big Two universes and I tend to get most of the winky-winky in-jokes Marvel sneaks into their big-budget movies, but my nerd knowledge has always trended elsewhere. When I was a kid we didn’t have an awful lot of money, so I never got into the ritual of New Comic Day, and honestly, from my perspective, superhero comics were kind of dumb. Not the ideas, mind you, but even at a young age the writing seemed stilted and silly to me (keep in mind we’re talking Silver Age /Golden Age writing here, with a lot of exposition and far too many thought bubbles). The whole universe seemed so unreal: the dualistic black-and-white morality, the cartoonish criminal plots, and the idea that an ultra-powerful being would have nothing better to do than to foil a purse-stealing. Kid’s stuff, you know? So I just kind of… skipped it, I guess, preferring to mire myself in the mythos of Star Trek for years until Rick Berman pile-drove that franchise so deep in the ground he was casting Morlocks as extras (but that’s a quibble for another day).
That is, until I turned eighteen and moved in with my good friend (and Alan Cross‘ padawan) Brent Chittenden, who knows more about comics than almost anybody I’ve ever met, and whose collection is nothing short of daunting. He introduced me to a whole ream of titles I’d never even heard of: titles that had precious little to do with gamma rays, secondary mutations, or hideously stereotyped ineffectual women screaming for some big blue boy scout to save them from the trumped-up villain du jour. Needless to say, once I got a taste of the kind of grown-up entertainment that was actually waiting for me in the world of comics, I was hooked, and I’d like to share with you my impressions of some of the titles that turned me into a bona-fide fan. This is great food-for-thought for all you comic aficionados out there who tire of constantly defending your reading material as “not just for kids,” or for those who want to turn their friends onto the joy of comics without having to sell them on reading Wolverine’s seventy-six completely separate back stories. (Note: I do not know, nor do I care, if seventy-six is the actual number.)
Let’s get the most obvious out of the way immediately, because it’s a generally held truism that if you’re a comic fan who doesn’t like Sandman, you’re clearly a pod person and must be sponged and purged and, if need be, blasted from the surface of the earth. Neil Gaiman is one of the most prolific writers of our generation, and if his huge body of work outside the comic field doesn’t convince you, his award-winning series detailing the lives and times of the Endless (personifications of human themes and concepts that curiously all begin with the letter “D”) likely will. Gaiman has a unique knack for creating fascinating mythology that roots itself in familiar cultural iconography without ripping off existing stories: rather, he seamlessly weaves his own mythos into the fabric of the human narrative as it’s understood from Boston to Bengal. It’s engaging, immersive, and at times deeply moving. And hey – he even manages to grease his story into the larger DC canon, albeit in a very limited way. This is a must for fantasy fans and people who like their heroes mopey.
I came to Stormwatch around the same time Warren Ellis did – he started writing for the franchise after the series’ crossover with WildC.A.T.s and though I can’t tell you first-hand, apparently the tone changed considerably under Ellis’ pen. I can tell you first-hand that I loved the tone of this title, not to mention everything else about it, and it made me fall in love with Warren Ellis. I know I just finished saying that I don’t like superhero books, but while Stormwatch and its continuation The Authority are technically hero books, they’re also boobs and cursing and OH GOD THE VIOLENCE. That’s not to say I was just looking to be titillated – far from it. Well, not that far. But what really got me was the calibre of stories being told. Gone was the simplistic moralizing of the hero books I’d read before, and with it the blatant jingoism, the heavy-handed American imagery, and everything else I hated. Instead we got characters including a drug-addicted shaman, a woman with machines for blood, a guy who can talk to cities, and gay Superman, all of whom live together on a sentient spaceship, because why not? Their stories were layered and involved, and even though they were ostensibly Earth’s Greatest Heroes or whatever, the characters were deeply flawed and therefore interesting in ways one-dimensional hero tropes rarely are. And the writing was always spectacular: even after Ellis left, he was succeeded by Mark Millar in Volume 2 and Grant Morrison in Volume 3, two more writers who would become favourites of mine. There’s literally nothing bad I can say about this series except “Where is this movie?”
This is maybe the most polarizing choice on my list, especially since I’m saying “hey, you should introduce your friends to comics through these titles.” Preacher is pretty heavy stuff. For the (hopefully) three of you who haven’t read it, here’s the one-sentence gloss: “former preacher Jesse Custer is inhabited by the semi-sentient progeny of an angel and a demon, teams up with his former lover-turned-hitwoman and an Irish vampire to track down God and bring him to justice.” There’s so much story crammed into Preacher‘s nine-volume run, it’s impossible for me to accurately categorize what drew me to the series. I may actually write a whole piece on that another time, but for now, let’s just deal with a few things. First of all, I know it’s violent – sometimes graphically so, sometimes even overly so. I also know it’s deliberately heretical according to religious types, and I won’t deny that as an eighteen year-old just coming to grips with his own belief system the heresy appealed to me. But I take issue with the idea that Preacher is simplistic, or juvenile, or just written to shock. In the grand tradition of our culture’s strongest mythology, the hero Garth Ennis portrays is a character in whom we can all find some value – something to which we might aspire – but who is most definitely not a paragon. In much the same way Ellis did with Stormwatch/The Authority, Ennis paints a picture of moral systems that exist in the grey area I always longed for in the hero books of my youth, and he does so through compelling storytelling that made me feel something stronger than I would have ever expected from a comic book – which, as I said at the beginning of this tome, I dismissed as “kids stuff” for many years. Preacher is a very grown-up story for a very introspective time, and in my opinion it might be one of the best stories ever told. Feel free to tell me all the reasons I’m wrong in the comment section.
What Did We Learn?
So that’s it, folks. That’s why I’m here. I’ll be the first person to admit that I’m not qualified the way some of my esteemed colleagues are to be writing on a website that deals predominantly in comic books, but I hope this article establishes my credentials – if not as an expert, at least as a fan who’s eager to learn more. Next time, I promise, there will be less squishy feeling stuff and more boobs and explosions.
A Final Note
You clever commenters will no doubt have noticed the glaring omission of Alan Moore’s Watchmen from this list. There are two reasons I’ve left it off. First, while Watchmen is undoubtedly a triumph, this list was designed to reflect what got me, personally, into comics. As an adult I can see the layers of meaning and the sheer, dumbfounding depth of the narrative in Watchmen, but at eighteen years old, it just didn’t grab me the way the above titles did. Second: if you’re trying to get a friend into comics and the first thing you hand them is Watchmen, you’re probably the kind of person who would lock your toddler in a closet until she got through at least the first five chapters of Moby Dick: well-intentioned, perhaps, but with a very bent perspective of what constitutes age-appropriate reading. Seriously.
Alex James is a freelance writer who can sometimes be found on stages across Toronto and the world fronting his two-man alt-nerd-folk-rock-comedy duo Nerds With Guitars where he only sometimes writes about comic characters.