I never read comic books as a kid, or any other period of my life, but now I’m reading all these comic book blogs and it looks kinda like fun. I think I’d like to start reading them, but I don’t know where to begin. So any advice for someone who is interested in comic books but doesn’t have any familiarity with them?
This is a good question to ask, and the reason it’s a good question to ask is because so many people have answered it completely incorrectly.
At this point I have honestly lost count of the number of comics lists that suggest that someone brand new to comics start with, say, Jack Kirby’s New Gods. Or Walt Simonson’s Thor.1 Or the Fantagraphics Complete Peanuts. Or, god forbid, Herbie the Fat fucking Fury, a comic hardcover that will set back a prospective reader sixty bucks Canadian for a measly 224 pages of kitsch that relies desperately on people saying how awesome it is.2
Or they’ll recommend something safe, like “you should read Sandman.” Or Watchmen, or Transmetropolitan, or [insert critically acclaimed comic by the Usual Suspects here]. Now, sure. These are great comics. But I’m not going to say “this is how you should get started with comics.” Watchmen should be nobody’s first comics read. Sandman has an impenetrable first volume. And Transmet is a commitment – not that Spider Jerusalem isn’t worth the ride, but I’m not going to introduce somebody to comics with it.
And seriously, don’t even get me fucking started on people who recommend ninety-nine percent of current superhero comics to anybody. This includes DC comics’ marketing board, who trumpeted godawful motherfucking Identity Crisis as a gateway comic.
No: if I’m gonna recommend how to get someone into comics, I’m going to follow three rules.
1.) It has to stand alone on its own merit. No encyclopedic collections of comic strips. (Bye-bye, Fantagraphics Popeye reprints!) No “standout volumes in a larger series.” (So long, Sandman: Dream Country!) No “this is the best story by X about Z, which came from the middle of his run.” (Nuts to you, Ed Brubaker Captain America!) No “it’s a good start but you have to read the rest of it.” (Fare thee well, Preacher!) No books which derive their entertainment value from referential humour (see ya, NextWave!). First volumes of an ongoing can make it through so long as they’re not just introductory stories for the sake of being introductory stories (no dice, Y The Last Man!) or not self-contained (nuh-uh, Monster and Akira!). And I have to toss out Elephantmen: Wounded Animals just because it’s so in media res without reading Hip Flask first. And losing Elephantmen sucks balls. But I want to make an actually helpful list here.
2.) It has to deliver good value for money. Presumably you will be buying these comics. Therefore I, in my role as helpful voice of sage wisdom, do not want to assist comic companies in ripping you off. That is Dan Didio’s job. You might not like some of what I recommend – this is inevitable – but hopefully if you end up not liking it, you won’t have spent too much. (Therefore: no Nexus hardcovers.)
3.) It has to be fucking great. By my standards, of course. Others may vary, but they have forgotten that I am right and they are wrong.
And so, we commence. I’ll include a saleslink for your convenience. (I’m not gonna do the “hey click here and help me get money from Amazon” thing, either. I’m recommending these on merit alone, insofar as I think they have it.)
1.) Bone by Jeff Smith. Okay, I know what I said about value for money and I know that even at Amazon.ca this costs thirty-five dollars, but consider three things.
Firstly, it is 1300 pages long, so really that’s kind of a ludicrously awesome value. Secondly, Bone is the single best comic of the past twenty years. (And you can make an argument for longer, I think.) Bone is quite simply perfect. It’s The Lord of the Rings meets Pogo with cute little cartoon dudes as the protagonists, great slapstick and more accessible to kids – but sacrificing none of the epic drama, adventure, and thrills. And thirdly, even if you don’t like it, you can give it to some little kid whose mother you want to like you, and that little kid will become a reader. It is a given. Because that is how good Bone is. If you look at every volume I recommend with suspicion and you decide to read only one: get Bone. I am listing it first for a reason.
2.) Criminal, Volume 1: Coward by Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips. Every volume of Criminal is good, but for me it’s that first volume that’s the best, because Leo (the titular coward) is still the most compelling character Brubaker and Philips have brought to life. Some people blame Alan Moore for the rise of narration in comics: me, I just say “it’s because all the comics writers these days came out of crime fiction.” But Brubaker’s narration, unlike much of it, is spot on and pitch-perfect.
3.) Asterix in Britain AND/OR Obelix and Co. by Goscinny and Uderzo. These two books are probably the best entry points into Asterix specifically and the cartoonier style of bandes dessinee more generally. The best Asterix books come from the “early middle” and “late middle” periods: Britain is probably the cleverest of the former’s pure comic inventiveness and insane gag-per-panel ratio, whereas Obelix is exemplary of the latter period’s skillful satirical writing style and expansive worldbuilding. Which you prefer is really a matter of taste; both are simply great books, masterful examples of comedic storytelling.
(A sidenote: some readers may, upon further examination into bandes dessinee, find themselves appalled by what often appears to be blatant racism in the earlier works. What can be said about it is this: the leading lights of French comics, when they received complaints about the portrayal of minorities in their comics, responded by doing research and trying to portray minorities as intelligent characters in their own right rather than stereotypes: the Chinese in Tintin in Tibet and South American Indians in The Seven Crystal Balls bear practically no relation to the offensive cliches in Tintin In America and The Blue Lotus, and Goscinny and Uderzo’s most notable black character – the lookout on the pirate crew – rapidly evolved from a “yassah”-spouting cariacature into arguably the most intelligent member of the pirates, despite his appearance never changing as such. I understand that for some, this might still be a dealbreaker, and I can respect that. But if you think you can handle a few offensive one-off gags in the early books, I highly recommend you give them a try.)
4.) War Stories, Vol. 1 by Garth Ennis and others. Garth Ennis gets a lot of flack from people who don’t like that he tends to enjoy taking the piss out of superheroes, and superhero fans, and superhero tropes. (Personally, I love his superhero stuff, but that’s me.) What most of these people don’t know is that Ennis is probably the best war comics writer working today bar none; the War Stories collections of the oversized one-shots he did for Vertigo are, for my money, the best war comics published since Joe Kubert was at his creative peak. I’d also argue that Ennis is probably the single most talented writer working in comics today: you might not like his penchant for dick jokes, but there isn’t a single writer who’s better with dialogue, character and plot than Ennis, not a one who can write more emotionally devastating scenes at the drop of a hat. War Stories is Ennis playing it mostly straight, with nary a dick joke to be seen, and the results are brutally good.
5.) Pyongyang by Guy DeLisle. DeLisle’s knack for communicationg for the essential weirdness of North Korean society, combined with his skill as a cartoonist for conveying that weirdness in a simple yet expressive style, comes together to make one of the essential modern docu-comics.
6.) I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and J.M. Ken Nimura. A sad, triumphant story that isn’t what you think it’s about until you get to the end and realize what it’s really all about. Kelly’s plot arc makes the progression of the story poignant rather than gimmicky, and Nimura’s art is gorgeous in a way that’s really kind of unique.
7.) Death: The High Cost of Living by Neil Gaiman and Chris Bachalo. It’s a wonderful standalone story that requires no further knowledge whatsoever of the Sandman mythos to enjoy, and despite what one might expect from the early 90s, it’s not dated at all. It’s just a wonderful little fairytale with a sad, honest core to it.3 Warning: the followup Death: The Time of Your Life is eminently skippable.
9.) Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life by Bryan O’ Malley. Scott Pilgrim has been talked up by every comics writer alive, so let’s just say this: the hype is entirely justified.
10.) The Doom Patrol, vol. 1 by Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani. If you’re wondering if you are the sort of person who might like goofy 60s-style superheroics, then this is probably the best way to find out. The early days of The Doom Patrol are some of the best superhero comics ever made – so good that they’ve inspired literally dozens of tepid, horrific knockoffs. (Plus a pretty brilliant Grant Morrison re-imagining, but I am not recommending that to a newb.)
11.) Maus by Art Spiegelman. This won a Pulitzer. It won a Pulitzer for a reason: it’s really, really fucking great.
12.) All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. I’m kind of stretching my rules a bit to include this, because there’s a second volume as well, but fuck it: if you’re going to “start reading comics” then you should read a really fucking great Superman story pretty much right off the bat, because modern comics essentially exist as they are today because of Superman, and this was pretty much one of the all-time classics the moment it hit the stands. Morrison and Quitely are just working on a whole different level for this comic, even by their own pretty damn high standards: the level of sheer thought that went into this is evident in every single panel and even the gaps in between.
13.) Ocean by Warren Ellis and Chris Sprouse. Warren Ellis is one of those writers who’s frustratingly brilliant in the sense that he has approximately seventy billion awesome ideas a second but often the expression of those ideas can be less than satisfying: a story that’s too long here, one that’s too short here, another unfortunate stab at trying to make an “everything goes to shit” plot work there, and so on. But Ellis is on more often than he isn’t. Ocean is one of Ellis’ best shorter-form works: a wicked-cool science-fiction adventure with guns and space and aliens who might not be aliens and action out the ass. It’s one of the best ways to introduce yourself to one of the best writers in the business.
14.) The Big Book of Barry Ween, Boy Genius by Judd Winick. Winick attracts more than his fair share of haters, mostly for a run of superhero comics that have sometimes been less than inspired, and occasionally for his outspoken advocacy on certain issues he considers important (which offends fanboys who really just want to see Batman punch a guy and not have to deal with icky real-world thingies). However, all of those fanboys who say he’s never done anything great are full of shit, because Barry Ween is a fucking great comic book: clever and heartfelt and real, and given that it’s a book about a twelve-year-old genius with a pottymouth and a lightsaber, all the more amazing for that.
15. When The Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs. “Yeah, so, you know that children’s book, the one about the snowman that comes to life and plays with the little boy and they go meet Santa? Yeah, the guy who did that also did this book about this cute British couple who manage to survive a nuclear war and then gradually die of radiation poisoning. It’s, like, this crazy commentary on people’s trust of authority and why it’s sometimes misplaced, and it is totally fucking mindblowing, maaaaaaan.”
16.) Light Brigade by Peter Tomasi and Peter Snejberg. This flew under a lot of people’s radar when it came out and it really shouldn’t have: it’s a slam-bang adventure, with World War Two G.I.s facing off against evil angels in a BATTLE TO THE DEATH FOR THE WHOLE DAMN WORLD. It’s great fun. I think there are books that are technically better than this one, to be sure, but I also think the occasional sloppiness gives it a certain sort of roguish charm, and I really like that.
17.) The Complete Adventures of The Big Guy And Rusty The Boy Robot by Geof Darrow and Frank Miller. They say “complete adventures,” but that was sadly only “two issues.” Darrow’s hyperdetailed art combined with Frank Miller at his most hilariously bombastic (All Star Batman is like a sedate cup of coffee next to Big Guy and Rusty) combine together for the Japanese monster movie they never made but probably should have made at some point, which is to say the best giant monster movie of all time. Except it is a comic book.4
18.) Queen and Country, The Definitive Collection vol. 1 by Greg Rucka and others. Awesome balls-out female action lead, check. Tightly plotted espionage stories with excellent character work and fantastic artwork, check. British people, check. Yep, this one has everything you need for superlative comics, and it’s a huge bargain.
19.) Blankets by Craig Thompson. This is really just a remarkable book in so many ways that I have trouble explaining it, but suffice it to say that Thompson wrote what he wanted to express: a narrative that conveys the essential feeling of what it’s like to sleep next to somebody for the first time. It’s 592 pages (!) and it never drags, not for a second. Just a brilliant, brilliant piece of work.
20.) The Cowboy Wally Show by Kyle Baker. Baker’s gone on to do much more artistically courageous and adventurous work: King David, Nat Turner, et cetera. And the time that Cowboy Wally spent out of print gave it a cachet as “funniest comic of all time” that it might not quite deserve, if we’re being honest. That having been said, this is stll a very fucking funny comic book, even if quite a few of its gags have since been ripped off by lesser writers, and the second and third sequences of the book – Sands of Blood and the Hamlet-production-in-the-jailhouse – are some of the most brilliant comic short pieces I’ve ever read.
- Here’s some controversy for you: Walt Simonson’s Thor doesn’t hold up as entertainment. As critically brilliant rexamination of the Norse mythos in a superheroic setting, sure. But – and I realize mine is definitely the minority opinion here – it feels dated as entertainment goes and hasn’t aged well, and certainly isn’t anywhere near as much fun as his Fantastic Four run still is today. [↩]
- I don’t mind Herbie, honestly, but come on: you’re not going to sit down and read Herbie for a two-hour stretch. You’ll read it in little chunks, because that is as much as anyone can take. It is like the chocolate chili truffle of comic books. Only freaks want more than one every once in a while. [↩]
- Well, except for the Vanilla Ice cameo. But even that kind of works. Because he’s back with his brand new edition. [↩]
- I still sometimes bug my friends who have read it with “Ice cream cone… was eating ice cream connnne…” [↩]