Home > Uncategorized > “Are Comics Cool?” – Discussing the Misnomer of a Trend and Some Recommended Reading

“Are Comics Cool?” – Discussing the Misnomer of a Trend and Some Recommended Reading

An interesting question came up during a conversation last evening with Maeve (mourningdove): are comics cool now?

With the success of “The Dark Knight” and “Iron Man” at movie theaters this Summer as well as recent adaptations such as “The Incredible Hulk” and the “Hellboy” films receiving general praise from audiences and their wallets, it would certainly seem that way. Sure, we still have films like “Wanted” that veer so far off the source material that you wonder why they even bothered maintaining the allusion of it being adapted from a comic, but on the whole there’s been a conscious effort by Hollywood to remain faithful to the portrayal and feel of their printed inspirations.

Some would note that Marvel Comics’ increased involvement in and financing of their own film franchises has played a pivotal role in this movement, and to that I won’t argue. However, it’s worth noting that there are Hollywood producers and distribution companies allowing it to occur unimpeded. Logic should dictate, then, that the comics industry itself is experiencing a Renaissance in terms of mainstream attention and acceptance. In other words, comic books are “cool.”

Speaking as somebody who is in a comic book shop every week, I can tell you in no uncertain terms: comics are not cool.

Don’t get me wrong. The exposure the print media receives from blockbuster films that actually deliver while satisfying both the hardcore fanbase of the source material and the casual filmgoer certainly doesn’t hurt the industry’s bottom line. However, saying that comics themselves have become en vogue and/or have made the mainstream take notice and spend their cash on comics would be a misnomer. Marvel’s increased sales over the last several years can be more directly attributed to its spectacular writing staff (guys like Ed Brubaker and Brian Michael Bendis to name a few) and the efforts of Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada (the company’s public face) drawing old fans back into the fold and taking a swipe from DC’s ever-dwindling market share rather than any boost received from a film like “Iron Man.”

Saying that film adaptations have made comics themselves cool again is like saying the box office success of “10 Things I Hate About You” in 1999 was indicative of a larger appreciation among America’s youth for Shakespeare. I use that simile only for the sake of scale and comparison, lest anybody think that I’m trying to lump comic books in with classic, groundbreaking literature.

It’s a shame, really, because we have films like “The Watchmen” coming out that have everybody excited, and yet most of the people I’ve talked to that aren’t comic fans still haven’t gone out of their way to pick up the trade collection of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ groundbreaking maxi-series. I won’t be one of those annoying fanboys that rails on the laziness of the American public for not reading the source material (an irritating and cliche quirk certainly not exclusive to comic book fandom). However, I do think think that a little nudge and encouragement could open peoples’ eyes to the potential of the medium and, more important than getting them to buy comics, can expose them to some truly great (and fun) work that’s being done.

With that, a few suggested readings.

Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Dave Gibbons
Everybody’s buzzing about the trailer for the film adaptation. While I think that visually some elements are right, such as the detached God-like atomic superman Doctor Manhattan resembling something straight out of my nightmares, I’m still highly skeptical. For the film they chose the same director who brought Frank Miller’s “The 300” to the screen, which could be both a good and bad thing. Some are psyched that he has admitted to using the original comic panels as his storyboards. However, while that works for a storyteller like Frank Miller who writes and draws his comics in such a manner that much of his story is told through visuals alone, it may not work as well for Alan Moore’s narration-heavy Cold War tale of superhero repression and nuclear paranoia. There’s also my growing concern from watching the trailer that the entire movie will, indeed, be in slow motion. Regardless of what ultimately ends up happening with the final film product, you owe it to yourself to read this story. What makes “The Watchmen” so amazing isn’t so much the story that it tells, or its relevance to the Reagan-era arms race and economic turmoil. It’s that despite being written with that specific climate in mind, it’s still relevant, despite the one criticism that’s oft-repeated though rarely thought out: that the book doesn’t hold up and/or dates itself. This simply isn’t true. In fact, right now – with the state our economy is in, the oil crisis, the War on Terror and in Iraq – might be the best time to read it. Don’t wait to set yourself up to be disappointed by the film and/or allow it to give you a diluted impression of the work.
Collections: Watchmen TPB (this and all other recommendations available at a high discount at InStockTrades.com)

Writer: Bill Willingham
Artist: Mark Buckingham, Lan Medina, Steve Leialoha, Craig Hamilton
It’s my opinion that Bill Willingham’s “Fables” is the greatest project ever done involving pre-existing characters and source material. Much of that is owed to Willingham not simply resting on the concept, but combining pre-existing tales with unique traits to build on and create wildly new and inventive characters. Characters such as Deputy Mayor Snow White, grizzled clandestine sheriff Bigby Wolf (the former “Big Bad Wolf”), the womanizing conman Prince Charming, and many more add a layer and depth to this work that you don’t find in many contemporary novels, let alone comics. Oh, and it’s a lot of fun. The series tells the story of fairy tale characters living in secret in “Fabletown” (a neighborhood in New York City that uses magic to mask its true nature from what they refer to as “The Mundane World”) and their neighbors at “The Farm” in Upstate New York that cannot pass for human. The Fables were forced to flee their fantasy homelands several hundred years ago after they were conquered by a mysterious being known simply as “The Adversary,” and since then have struggled to maintain safety and civility in a small community comprised of characters accustomed to whimsical adventures and in some cases fantastically lavish lifestyles. A tall order, to be sure. As wild as it sounds, Willingham’s talent lies not in trying to mask the ludicrous nature of the concept, but in embracing it while somehow also keeping it grounded.
Collections: Vol. 1: Legends in Exile, Vol. 2: Animal Farm, Vol. 3: Storybook Love, Vol. 4: March of the Wooden Soldiers, and many more.

Writer: Greg Rucka
Artist: Too many to mention.
Before becoming and up and comer with comics’ “Big Two” companies, Greg Rucka garnered a reputation as a fantastic espionage scripter with “Queen & Country.” The series revolves around “The Minders,” which are agents operating in the international wing of the British government’s vast intelligence community. Rucka’s plots are beautifully layered and fascinating; giving a gritty and realistic glimpse into the life of agents in the intelligence community while providing complex and addicting espionage tales that rival anything ever done in print. Since the stories and characters are so addicting, I recommend you skip the traditional trade paperbacks and start picking up the lengthier “Definitive Editions” (two of which have been released), which will also save you a ton of money in the long-run.
Collections: Definitive Edition: Volume 1, Definitive Edition: Volume 2

Writer: Mark Millar
Artist: Bryan Hitch
In 2002, Mark Millar re-imagined the classic “Avengers” team in Marvel Comics’ alternate-reality “Ultimate” universe, giving a far more contemporary and realistic view of what would actually happen if super-human beings suddenly started popping up in the real world (spoiler: governments all over the world quickly get involved). All praise that the first two installments of the franchise have received are warranted. If anything, I feel that it gets unfairly left out of conversations involving the great comic stories, simply because it came from a mainstream publisher and features pre-existing Marvel characters (though redesigned and re-imagined). If you loved “Iron Man” and were excited by the news of future “Captain America” and “Thor” movies eventually leading to an “Avengers” film franchise, then you owe it to yourself to read both “The Ultimates” and “The Ultimates 2.” Trust me when I tell you that using Samuel L. Jackson to portray Nick Fury is just the start of how heavily the film installments will borrow from these tales.
Collections: The Ultimates (hardcover collecting Volume 1: Super-Human and Volume 2: Homeland Security), The Ultimates 2 (hardcover collecting Volume 1: Gods & Monsters and Volume 2: Grand Theft America)

Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artist: Brent Anderson
Speaking of Super-Heroes, we get another interesting and different outlook on the genre from Kurt Busiek (“Marvels”). “Astro City” tells the story from the ground up…literally. Tales in the first-person are split between participants in the superhero community and the often awestruck general population whose lives are affected a great deal by the presence of these larger-than-life characters. And it’s the tales told by the “common man” that are the greatest accomplishments of the series, for they not only give more of a sense of what effect the presence of super-powered beings would have on “our” world, but also humanize super-heroes in a way that no other work has done. It’s worth noting that Busiek wrote what I think is one of the single greatest comic stories ever written – “The Nearness of You”, a story about a man who can’t figure out why he cries over a woman that exists only in his mind until ethereal mystic hero “The Hanged Man” shows up with a wild and tragic explanation.
Collections: Local Heroes, Life in the Big City, Confession (which includes “The Nearness of You”), and many more.

Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips
What most casual fans and even many fans of the genre may not know is that there was a period in time wherein the best-selling books were NOT superhero tales. Rather, after World War II and before Stan Lee and Jack Kirby gave birth to the “Silver Age” of comics in the early 1960s, the top-selling books were “pulp” comics focusing on horror and crime stories, the latter of which Ed Brubaker pays homage to in his original series “Criminal.” I find it interesting that so many reviewers have praised this series for its gritty realism, since most of the tales rely on the typical structure of the anti-hero engaging in ridiculous and elaborate revenge fantasies. That’s not a knock on the creative team behind this book, since it’s the whole point of “Criminal.” The fact that so many people don’t get it but still rave about Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips’ work on the book is a testament to their storytelling prowess and the obvious passion they have for the material.
Collections: Coward (Volume 1 of “Criminal”), Lawless (Volume 2 of “Criminal”), Dead & Dying (Volume 3 of “Criminal”)

Writer: James Robinson
Artist: Tony Harris, others
James Robinson’s “Starman” was a series unlike any other released by DC before or after. Although work similar to this (only in the sense that it’s groundbreaking and bucks the trends of the genre) had been published prior in DC’s “Vertigo” line, no other book released in what is supposed to be DC’s main universe continuity was ever able to capture such a realistic feel and tone. Although the series centers around one man’s reluctant acceptance of his fate in inheriting his father’s Golden Age superhero legacy, the book really isn’t about superheroes and their exploits. At its root, it’s a tale about a man who never wanted to grow up being forced to do so, no longer able to hide behind his eccentric and escapist hobbies, and the relationship between fathers and their sons. It also helps that scripter James Robinson wrote the series in a finite manner; progressing towards an ultimate goal and building to a logical conclusion (though it’s not really a miniseries since it had an 80-issue run). “Starman” gets better as it progresses, with the final volume in the collection – “Sins of the Father” – being arguably its best. It deals with the ramifications of the epic battle for Opal City in the series climax (collected in the “Grand Guignol” trade) and includes a great little tale wherein Jack Knight meets Superman, who is curious to pick Jack’s brain about his father Jor-El, who Jack met while traveling the Universe and running into a time-space…okay, it’s a long story. “Starman” is unique amongst all the recommendations I’ve provided, in that I truly feel it has something for everybody: the hardcore fans will appreciate the nods and tribute paid to the Golden Age of comics, while the casual mainstream reader will enjoy it for its ability to tell a superhero tale without coming across as a superhero tale. What’s perhaps most astonishing is that this book was somehow released and survived during a period of time where the comics’ industry was in dire straits, with both the major comic companies and even smaller distributors resorting to cheap (and cheesy) tactics to grab what at the time was a rapidly dwindling market share. However, don’t take that to mean it wins by comparison, as it’s a great read in any era.
Collections: Sins of the Father (Volume 1), Night and Day (Volume 2), Sons of the Father (Volume 10), and many more.

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  1. August 6, 2008 at 4:13 am

    I also liked Neil Gaiman’s adeptation of X-men but for the life of me I can’t remember the title.

    • August 6, 2008 at 4:24 am

      Gaiman never wrote an adaptation of X-Men. Maybe you’re thinking of Marvel 1602 or The Eternals?

      • August 6, 2008 at 4:24 am

        Marvel 1602. And you’re telling me that those characters aren’t the X-men? 😛

      • August 6, 2008 at 4:32 am

        Well, that’s not really an adaptation of X-Men but an adaptation of the Marvel Universe as a whole. There’s X-Men in it, but it really isn’t a book about them.

        The 1602 version of “Peter Parker” constantly trying to have an accident to gain superpowers is one of the greatest running gags in any comic ever.

      • August 6, 2008 at 12:38 pm


      • August 6, 2008 at 12:42 pm

        ^Wait. Fuck. 1602. I was giving a Duck Tour there for a minute.


    • August 6, 2008 at 4:25 am

      To reply to Ellie: Marvel 1602? It’s the only one I can think of off the top of my head that he did

  2. August 6, 2008 at 4:21 am

    As a fan of comics and graphic novels (trying to tell my parents the difference is worse than arguing about my political preferences), I’d agree with you. Comic book *movies* are en vogue now, not the comics themselves.

    Case in point, went into Midtown Comics last week, and I ran into some little lohan clone (‘clonehan’?)was looking at the shelves and saw the Sin City row. she said, and I shit you not “Oh wow, they made comics based on that weird movie!?”

    Five minutes later, Most of the store, workers and customers united, had killed her and ate her, and she tasted like duck, or so I was told >.>

    Now, as to you recommendations, I had just finally read the Watchmen. I’ve wanted to for years but not actually bought it. Then the trailer came out and I decided to get up off my ass and do it. I bought it thursday, finished friday, and am now reading it again. I read a few Starman stories and I’ve also noticed Fables around and I’m probably going to go after them next.

    What is your position on Gaiman’s Sandman? I think that it’s a masterpiece of a series and shows just what you could do with a graphic story.

    Rant over, peace brotha

    • August 6, 2008 at 4:26 am

      Watchman is the comic that got me into comics… I don’t count the $2 Star Trek comics I’d get from my uncle.

      • August 6, 2008 at 4:28 am

        Actually what got me into comics was the Amalgam Series, when DC and Marvel did those crossovers. My Grandmother inexplicable ordered the series for me (including a bunch of random other stories) and I’ve enjoyed most of them since

      • August 6, 2008 at 4:33 am

        Holy shit. Do yourself a favor and never read the “sequel” they tried to do to that event. Awful.

        The Amalgam stuff was very hit or miss in terms of quality, but really really a lot of fun.

    • August 6, 2008 at 4:29 am

      I’ve really just started in on “Sandman” over the past year, and realize now that I should have put a disclaimer somewhere in this entry since folks are invariably going to bring it up.

      My omission of “Sandman” for suggested reading by casual observers isn’t meant to reflect on the quality of the comic itself, since Craig’s right – it’s really damn good. However, I tried to stick to stuff that was effing great while also being accessible. Which, as great as “Sandman” is, I don’t necessarily consider to be nearly as accessible as what I suggested.

      And obviously, your account of the reaction in the store is meant for comedic effect. However, it does bring about a great point, in that the biggest enemy of new people coming in and reading comics are the folks that already read comics. Not for their social awkwardness or any failings in their graces, but because there really are way too many obnoxious, elitist nerds. I’ve had this conversation many times with Bob, the guy who runs Aquilonia Comics in Troy (on Fulton Street between 3rd and 4th – tell ’em Kevin Marshall sent ya) – it’s far more productive and better for everybody to explain to somebody that it was the other way around, and note all the other work that most people don’t even realize was based on comics (like “Road to Perdition”).

      • August 6, 2008 at 4:43 am

        I understand completely about the Sandman series. As much as me and my friends (including one particular Siena professor who I bow to), love Gaiman’s work, it’s not for everyone, especially for people who like the standard bang bang comics.

        About the girl, yeah, we didn’t eat her, although there was a good pause where I think we all shared this one gestalt moment debating whether or not we should. The kids working at the store explained it to her and were really nice and answered most of her questions as best they could.

        Yeah, there were some Amalgam stories which I liked, the Catwoman/Elektra and Daredevil/Deathstroke one-off was good, the JLX (Justice League/Xmen) was god awful. The one that got me was the climax of the series, with Access and the End of Days stuff going on. It was more or less the writers way of telling bickering fans to chill out, they are both good for what they are.

        also, and I swear this is the last you’ll hear from me tonight, I had an experience like Road to Perdition with 300. My Dad and my Uncle (mom’s brother) were watching 300 when it came out on HBO. The moment the giants and shit came out, my uncle couldn’t get it, and I tried to explain that it was based on a comic novel, then fighting with my dad who was trying to explain to me the historical story of the 300.

        ok, I iz done. Night boss

  3. August 6, 2008 at 12:41 pm

    Luckily, I know I’m totally not a die-hard comic fan. I mean, my Mom got me into them, only because she couldn’t stand buying manga. (“The art is ugly. Read this instead.” Maeve gets her first copy of ‘The Darkness,’ among others) But I try and keep up where I can.

    That being said, I have Watchmen (which I haven’t read yet…oh! Maybe I’ll do that today) and I absolutely love Fables. I’ll keep this blog in mind next time I head over to Earthworld. (My Buffy subscriptions are piling up….oops.)

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