|Miscellaneous||Books about Comics|
Strictly speaking, comic books aren't. Books, I mean. They're magazines. What we call graphic novels, those are books. For my complete rant on this subject, see Comics & Comic Books.
These are what I call comic books - books filled with comics. For the most part, the comics on this list are in my own personal library and I proudly recommend them to those who think "comic book" is and should be a derogatory term. Many of these books, I would argue, are fine works of literature, particularly Cages, Maus, Stuck Rubber Baby, The Tale of One Bad Rat, From Hell, Adolf, Love & Rockets, and Sandman. I could add Bone, Strangers in Paradise, Watchmen, and probably a dozen others. Comics are not, as is often thought, an inherently debased form of literature. Indeed, despite the glut of "slap some issues of some superhero comic together and call it a graphic novel" books on the market, I dare say the percentage of really good comic books (not magazines, mind you, but books like these) is higher than the percentage of worthwhile novels published (after all, when we regard the latter we have to include all the Harlequin romances, for instances).
Since much of my library is currently packed in boxes in a storage locker* and my original version of this web site was lost, this isn't even a complete list of what I have. Since I do not have unlimited resources and like everyone I am guided by my own personal, somewhat idiosyncratic tastes, even when this list is "complete" it cannot be thought of as being a complete list of all the worthwhile comic books.
The list is in two parts. On this page are the Mainstream (or what would be called mainstream in any other medium - in the comics community, "mainstream" usually refers to superheroes) and Crime Stories. A second page carries the lists of Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superheroes (yes, there are some books about superheroes worth reading), Humor (including newspaper strip collections), Miscellaneous, and Books About Comics. (Once I get around to putting descriptions of all of those up I may have to break it into three pages.)
Many of the titles on the lists have links to descriptions, and many of the descriptions contain links to amazon.com for those whose local comic shop doesn't carry "graphic novels," or carries only a few recent superhero comic collections. It seems most comics shops are content to fight each other over the dwindling segment of the population interested - nay, obsessed - with superhero slugfests. In many shops, people who aren't already rabid fans are made to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. There are a few good comics shops, shops that are friendly to "outsiders" and promote books like these, though, and if you know of one, please, try to buy these books there first. They need all the encouragement they can get. I'm well aware, however, that for many people buying these books from a comics shop will be impossible, and for some others, even the idea of stepping inside their local shop (dark, musty, full of garish posters of big-breasted women, manned by clerks with hygiene problems) is distasteful. That's one reason I decided to join Geocities' Amazon Associates program. I hope to eventually have such descriptions for all the books, as well as having more books. Unless otherwise stated, all books are trade paperbacks (indeed, "TPBs" is threatening to replace "graphic novels" as industry shorthand for them), and "paper" in a description (usually in contrast to an also available hardcover) is always intended to mean trade paperback, not the standard mass market size.
Because this list is intended primarily for those outside the comics community who might want to sample a real book with comics in it, I have leaned heavily on those books that would be called "mainstream" in any medium but comics. As I said above, to most people in the comics community, "mainstream" generally means those comics that have the least appeal to any but a very small and shrinking subgroup of humanity deeply interested in the goings-on of costumed characters pummeling each other; in other words, the very opposite of "mainstream."
The categories are a matter of convenience - V for Vendetta is not really a science fiction book, but it does take place in the future, and it's a little too melodramatic for the "Mainstream" category while too far from traditional superheroes to really belong in that one, either. The presence of a "Humor" category in no way implies a lack of humor in the other categories. The "Miscellaneous" category includes some parables that use fantasy elements but aren't really fantasy as its usually understood, plus an anthology of works by many creators, and a history of the world. And of course, "Books About Comics" are just that, including the wonderful Understanding Comics which is an analysis of the medium which is itself in comics form.
So, browse through the list or pick a topic. I'm working on getting an alphabetical list together. In the meantime, within each category the books are presented in an eclectic order that reflects their importance to me (which is related to, but not synonymous with, my opinion of their literary and/or artistic merit).
Books that would be called
in any medium but comics
The other day, a colleague of mine asked me "what book should I read next?" I had recently suggested a series of science fiction novels he had liked, and he wanted to know if I had any other recommendations. I hadn't really read any good science fiction novels lately, which was what I supposed he wanted, so I stumbled around a bit and ended up with a "nothing, really." He was disappointed, and told a fellow elevator rider that I always knew good books to read, which really put the pressure on me. Suddenly, I knew one I could recommend without reservation.
"Cages," I said, "by Dave McKean. It's a comic book, only it's over 500 pages and it's a hardback and it's absolutely wonderful."
He looked nonplussed, which is not an unusual reaction when I recommend a comic to a non-comic buying acquaintance, and obviously stumbled around mentally as I just had verbally before coming up with: "Well, I'm reading a book by Dan Jenkins right now, and it's basically a comic book."
As you might guess, I wanted to scream, but I kept myself calm and said, "Now, see, if you read Cages, you will never use the word 'comic book' in that sense again."
There are no superheroes here, no funny costumes, no one-dimensional characters, no mad scientists bent on world domination. Twenty years ago, that alone would have made this book stand out, but thankfully we have made some progress in the last couple of decades (though you wouldn't know it from my colleague's comment), and the same could be said for all the works on this page, and many more.
Still, Cages stands out even in this august company. I have put it first here deliberately, intentionally implying that yes, it may well be better, more important, more undeniably "literature" than even the great icon of comix acceptance by the literati, Art Spiegelman's Maus. Or it may not. Ask me again in ten years. But that's the level of art we are discussing here.
This book completely blew my mind when I finally got a chance to read the whole thing in the collected edition. I had managed to find only a few of the individual issues Dave McKean had published, and while I found them fascinating I couldn't begin to piece together a story from them. Published in ten volumes over eight years, now gathered together in one hardbound book of more than 500 pages, this is perhaps the most extraordinary work to come out of the comics field, and one that truly earns the title "graphic novel."
McKean challenges the reader in ways almost unheard of in pictorial narrative, recalling Joyce and Pynchon and Auster more than Kirby and Adams and Miller - or even Spiegelman and Moore and Gaiman. I have read and reread it several times by now, and I can't say that I understand it all. That task may take a lifetime. This isn't to say that it isn't accessible. There is enough surface meaning to tease the reader into continuing to the end, and enough layers to keep him coming back for more. This book is meant to be savored upon many rereadings, not swallowed up in one gulp. But it's not the kind of deliberate meaninglessness that often passes for depth among college students. This is the real thing.
When I reviewed this book for my "This Week's Good Read" column, I said that despite its seemingly ridiculous price tag of $45, the book is, indeed, a bargain. You cmay be able to do even better than I did, though, because Amazon.com is selling it at a discount - or was when I set up the link below.
If you already love graphic novels, don't let this one pass you by. If you think the very idea of a comic book being compared to Joyce is ludicrous, give this book a try. It's that good.
ADDENDUM: Kitchen Sink, the publisher of this book, has gone out of business. I don't know whether you can get this book from Amazon or not. They have it listed, and not as "out of print," but they're not offering their usual 24-hour turn-around for books in stock in their warehouse. They may not know yet that KSP is gone. Or they may have a source for it - KSP's inventory was going to be sold to Bud Plant, I believe, and they may be getting it there. I don't know. If you happen to live in the St. Louis area, I know for a fact that Star Clipper Books (Big Bend & Millbrook) has a generous supply of them for sale - at full price, to be sure, but as I said this book is a bargain at $45. Honest.
Order Cages (hardcover) from amazon.com
This book has received the greatest acclaim so far accorded a work of sequential art. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Art Spiegelman received a National Book Critic's Circle nomination for the first volume and the first Guggenheim Foundation grant ever given for the completion of a work of comics art to help him finish it. It deserves all the praise it has gotten. Mixing history, biography and autobiography, Spiegelman tells the story of his uneasy relationship with his father, Vladek, through encounters between the two of them as he asks Vladek to tell of his experiences during the Holocaust. The whole tale is told in the form of an animal fable, with the Jews represented as mice, the Nazis as cats. This is much more effective than one would expect. The animal heads become "masks" that universalize Vladek's experience. Spiegelman underscores this aspect in a later chapter, written after the publication of the first volume, dealing with reactions to the story so far. He presents himself as himself, an ordinary human when seen from the back except for a tell-tale string holding on the mouse mask. Most of the attention to this book has gone to the depiction of the events of World War II, but the relationship between Art and Vladek is possibly even more important in making this a singularly affecting work of art. I reviewed Maus when the second volume came out, and mentioned it in my 1992 Graphic Novel Roundup. My interview with Spiegelman was the first feature story I sold to the Post-Dispatch.
Eventually, I really will get around to putting up a complete transcript of the actual interview, but in the meantime I'd like to bring up one thing that didn't make it into the Post-Dispatch article. Spiegelman has gotten criticism over the years for his depiction of the Poles as pigs, even the people who help hide Vladek. (He also presents his wife, who is French as a frog and American soldiers as dogs). During the interview, I brought this up, and Spiegelman told me a story that I remember clearly to this day. Since I recently typed in The Comics Journal version of my interview with Spiegelman, I can quote it directly instead of having to rely on memory (as an earlier version of this page did):
"At a certain point I wanted to go to Poland, and I had to get a visa. I put in my application, and then I got a call from the consul. He said 'the Polish attache wants to speak with you.' And I knew what he wanted to talk to me about. On the way over there, I tried to figure out what I was going to say to him. 'I wanted to draw noble stallions, but I don't do horses very well?' When I got there, he gave me the perfect opening. He said, 'You know, the Nazis called us schwein' (German for pig). And I said, 'Yes, and they called us vermin (German for mouse or rat).'"
The whole point of the animal heads in Maus, or at least one of the points, was to turn the Nazi propaganda on its head. The Nazis referred to the Jews as vermin, which in German can mean either mice or rats. They referred to the Poles as pigs, and Hitler referred to the Americans as "a mongrel race." (The frog is probably gratuitous, but it's a short scene more than halfway through and by then he was locked into the idea and it was an easy stereotype.) By no means does Spiegelman intend to malign the Polish people as a whole, and certainly not those who helped hide his father at considerable risk to their own lives. Nor is it accidental. It's precisely because the Nazis called the Poles schwein that they are depicted as pigs.
In checking out the status of the book on amazon.com I saw a couple of indignant protests about this by people with Polish names. I doubt if any of them will ever read this, but to the extant I am able I wanted to set the record straight.
Order Maus Volume I (paper) from amazon.com
Order Maus Voume II (paper) from amazon.com
Order Maus boxed set (both volumes, paper) from amazon.com
Order Maus combined edition (hardcover) from amazon.com
Stuck Rubber Baby
I'm beginning to suspect that the main reason this book hasn't attracted as much attention as "Maus" is because people are uncomfortable with one of its themes. It's the story of a young man coming to grips with his homosexuality and at the same time being drawn into the civil rights movement in the deep south of the early 60s. Although not directly autobiographical, it draws deeply on the experiences of writer and artist Howard Cruse. In some ways, this is a more important book than "Maus" - there are lots of holocaust books, lots of eyewitness testimony available in various forms. Now more than ever, though, we seem to need to be reminded just what it was those 60s "radicals" fought so hard for, and why it's important that we not abandon the struggle and let the forces of bigotry and narrow-mindedness take back the reins of power.
This book is not a "gay" book. While it deals with growing up gay and coming to grips with one's sexuality, it is equally - perhaps even more prominently - about the way things really were in the Deep South during those "idyllic" days in the early 60s the author looks back on as "Kennedy time." And the real sacrifices people made to change things, and the real tragedies that occurred along the way. Yes, the book is fictional, the town it takes place in doesn't exist, but the local sheriff is obviously meant to remind us of "Bull" Conner, who loosed dogs and sprayed firehoses on Martin Luther King, and one of the terrible events in the book is just as obviously based on the bombing of the church in which four little girls were killed, which happened in Birmingham, Alabama while Howard Cruse was going to college there.
This is a powerful book, an important book, and most of all an absorbing story of engaging characters that rewards the reader with genuine insights into the human condition. Yet while "Maus" won mainstream acclaim and even a Pulitzer Prize, this book has been completely ignored by the mainstream media, and not given the adulation it deserves within the industry. I wish I could think of a possible reason for this other than homophobia, but frankly I cannot. I reviewed SRB for the Post-Dispatchm and mentioned it in my 1995 Graphic Novel Roundup.
Order Stuck Rubber Baby (paper) from amazon.com
Order Stuck Rubber Baby (hardcover) from amazon.com
The Tale of One Bad Rat
This is an understated masterpiece. Once read, the story of Helen Potter will haunt you for a long time. I don't want to give too much of it away. Helen is a runaway with a pet rat and a talent for art. We learn why she ran away and follow her on her adventures. I picked this up primarily because I like Bryan Talbot. I already thought he was good before this. This takes him to another level entirely. These first three books on this list don't have to say they're better than other comics or stand out above the dreck around them. They stand out, period. They're all better than most books published without pictures. This one has the added benefit that the pictures are better than most you'll see hanging on walls in art galleries. My review of this book was never published by the Post-Dispatch, but I did manage to get it into my 1995 Graphic Novel Roundup.
I want to say so much about this, but I personally feel like even the One Bad Rat Homepage, which is part of the Official Bryan Talbot Fan Page, gives away too much. I mean, they've got the afterword there! There's a reason it's an afterword. You shouldn't read it before you read the book. Although the main thing it gives away is something it's almost impossible to find and read this book without knowing - it may be on the cover of the collected edition, for all I know (I haven't gotten it yet, still stuck with rereading the original comics). Still, I think ideally you should come to this book with no preconceptions, so I'm not going to give anything away.
Order The Tale of One Bad Rat from amazon.com
Some folks see this as a companion piece to Maus, I guess because of the Jewish/Arab thing. While the Israelis are definitely seen here as mistreating the Palestinians, however, and while modern parlance has stretched the word "genocide" enough to fit all sorts of things like inferior schools for urban blacks in the USA, the fact is that nobody is herding the Palestinians up and gassing them. Moreover, Joe Sacco is a reporter, without the personal ties to his subjects and informants that Art Spiegelman had to his father. Basically, they have nothing in common except that they are both nonfiction (to the extent that there is such a thing) and they are both very good. In the end, I don't think Palestine is the artistic achievement Maus is, but it is very good.
Palestine is journalism with a pencil. Sacco's real artistic predecessor is not Art Spiegelman, but Goya, whose disturbing pictures of the Napoleonic wars prefigured the TV news pictures that helped stop the Vietnam War. Doing this sort of journalism in the camera age is hard, because the realities of creating, printing and distributing the work often retard its timeliness - Sacco is just now coming out with comics about his experiences in Bosnia, for instance. But Palestine is timeless. The specific charges raised in the book may be tied to a date, but the basic problems have been the same for 30 years - some would say 100, or even thousands of years. And they're not going away anytime soon. I mentioned Palestine in my 1994 Graphic Novel Roundup.
Palestine was originally done as a series of comics and later collected in a pair of volumes. Only the first is currently available from amazon.com, but the second should be in better comics shops and can be ordered directly from Fantagraphics.
Order Palestine Volume 1 from amazon.com
Strangers in Paradise
What can I say about these books? Francine, David and especially Katchoo are people whose lives Terry Moore has made me care about. The first book collects the original 3-issue mini-series, and sets a very light tone, centering on the collapse of Francine's relationship with Freddie and Katchoo's revenge on him for breaking her heart. With the second series, the stories became more serious, as we began to learn of Katchoo's dark and mysterious past - and that past came back to haunt her. From I Dream of You through Immortal Enemies is really one extended storyline, an adventure/thriller with a touch of James Bond, yet keeping the down-to-earth quirkiness of the main characters.
Maida Carpio Scott, who maintains an unofficial Strangers In Paradise Website says "Terry Moore is a genius. His characters have personality, depth and secrets. This book is real, with a twist. The plot is almost secondary to the interaction of the main characters: Katchoo, Francine and David." I'd agree with that. The thriller plot was intricately plotted and fairly enjoyable to see play out, but was nothing I hadn't seen a hundred times before. Alone, or even in the forefront, if would not have kept me going through the almost 30 magazines this material was originally published in. But those of us who love Strangers in Paradise don't read it for the adventure story (which is a good thing, because it came to a climactic and quite definite end in the last book listed here and Moore is doing other things with the title now). We read it for the characters.
A Small Killing
One of the least known of Alan Moore's works, this collaboration with Oscar Zarate is an amazing little "graphic novel" (don't get me started) about an ad executive taking an unintended and unwanted excursion into his past when he's sent to London to come up with a new campaign to sell soft drinks to the Russians. A child with a mischievous smile appears suddenly in front of his car just before he leaves New York, causing him to lose control and smash his car into a bridge. The boy keeps popping up, at the airport, in London. Who is he? Why does our protagonist care so much about him? These questions are answered as we delve deeper into the past, each chapter carrying the ostensible story forward in time but also flashing back further and further, as the chapter headings go backward in time. (The first chapter is "New York 1985-1989," the second "London 1979-1985," etc.). The two stories, the ad executive and the haunting little boy, and the flashbacks into the ad executives past, all come together in the end. This is one of Moore's best works, and repays repeated rereadings with new insights. Zarate is from Argentina, though the back of the book says he now lives in London. He's probably most famous for his "Freud for Beginners," which has been published in 18 languages world-wide.
Osamu Tezuka is known in Japan as "the god of comics." When he died, his funeral rivaled that of the Emperor, who had died shortly before. While he is best known for animation work and simplistic, cartoony art (the reason most Japanese anime looks alike is it all imitates his work - those big eyes were his trademark), this long story, finally translated into English, shows that he was capable of a more realistic artistic style when the story demanded it.
I do have a fairly large quibble with the marketing of this novel. Although it is a single five-volume novel, the only hint of that on the covers is the fact that on each volume the overall title "Adolf" is in large type, while the volume title is below it in smaller letters. The volumes are not numbered, and the only way to guess the order to read them in is to check the publication dates.
That's the marketing folks at the American publisher, though. It should not be held against Tezuka, who creates here a story that is powerful, poignant and insightful, especially as it gives a uniquely Japanese view to World War II. It's true that the "McGuffin" is particularly creaky, a document supposedly proving Adolf Hitler is of Jewish origin, which supposedly would bring down the entire Nazi regime if brought to light. The idea that the Nazis could have been brought down so easily is ludicrous - they could simply have denied it, insisted it was phony. Indeed, a rumor existed at the time that one of Hitler's grandparents was born a Jew - which would have made him Jewish by Nazi law. This rumor had little effect during his life, and documents purporting to "prove" it would have simply been dismissed as propaganda, especially if it came from Jews.
But, as in Hitchcock's movies, the plot revolves around the McGuffin but that's not really what the story is about. It's about Sohei Toge, a Japanese journalist whose brother is murdered over the papers, which first draws him into the intrigue; Miss Ogi, his brother's schoolteacher, who Toge finds himself attracted too; and three Adolfs: Adolf Kaufmann, the half-Aryan of the third book's title, whose father is a Nazi diplomat married to a Japanese woman; Adolf Kamil, a Jewish boy living in Japan; and, of course, Adolf Hitler, whose Jewish roots (in this novel, the story is true) are being covered up by the Gestapo, who know all about it.
The thrilling spy story plays itself out across the five volumes, but all of the pages directly devoted to it would easily fit in one volume. The story is really about these people and how their lives are affected by the war and by the diseases of racism and nationalism that inflamed Germany and Japan in particular, and to a lesser extent the entire world, during that period of history. The plight of Adolf Kaufmann, whose father is a Nazi and whose best friend is a Jew, is particularly poignant, and what happens to him when he is sent to Germany to be "properly educated" (i.e., brainwashed and indoctrinated) is chilling. We see how easy it is to turn a good-hearted boy into a monster.
With Maus and Stuck Rubber Baby, this is among the highest literary achievements yet attained by the comics medium.
Order Adolf: A Tale of the Twentieth Century (Volume 1) from amazon.com
Order Adolf: An Exile in Japan (Volume 2) from amazon.com
Order Adolf: The Half-Aryan (Volume 3) from amazon.com
Order Adolf: Days of Infamy (Volume 4) from amazon.com
Order Adolf: 1945 and All That Remains (Volume 5) from amazon.com
The Complete Alec
The name is a misnomer, since Eddie Campbell has gone on to write and draw more Alec stories since he did these. At the time, though, it was a compilation of all the Alec stories that had appeared in a wide variety of sources, many of them literally impossible for those of us in the States to track down, since they had appeared in tiny circulation anthologies that got little distribution in Great Britain, and none here.
Eddie Campbell is perhaps better known for the Bacchus series, following the exploits of the 4,000-year-old god of wine and a few other surviving Olympians in the modern world, or for his work with Alan Moore on From Hell. These stories are completely different, small and brilliantly observed slice-of-life pieces that he has said are more-or-less autobiographical. The protagonist, though, is not called Eddie Campbell but Alec MacGarry. Alec and his friends hang out at pubs and drink a lot, in fact going to pubs seems to be the main thing that ties them all together.
My favorite of Campbell's Alec McGarry work is actually Graffiti Kitchen, which is not collected here but is its own stand-alone comic of 48-pages. At that length, it is actually longer than one or two things that claim to be "graphic novels" and could fit comfortably on this page by itself, but it was published in magazine format with flimsy covers and, as far as I know, is not being kept in print continuously the way most books are. But then, for that matter, The Complete Alec is out of print. They're both worth searching for, however.
Happy news! Last month the publisher reissued Graffiti Kitchen, and is keeping it available as a back order at least for awhile. Comics shops should be able to order it from Diamond, and anybody can order it from the publisher (Kitchen Sink, I believe). Bookstores probably won't get it, although if amazon.com does I'll put up a link here. Now, if somebody would reissue this book . . .
A Contract With God
This book arguably marks the point where the dying "underground comics" transformed into "alternative" or "independent" comics. It was published in 1978, when Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith were still trying to keep undergrounds alive with Arcade and Cerebus was still a Conan spoof few had even heard of. Will Eisner was a comics legend, one of the creators of the modern comic book, who had been out of the public eye for decades, using the techniques of comics in educational and advertising materials. Kitchen Sink was a holdover "underground" publisher whose only steady seller was The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.
It's hard to describe to anyone to people today the impact this book had. There was no existing market in the United States for comics stories about ordinary people living in the real world. In the mainstream comics sold on newstands and increasingly in the few hundred (that's right, few hundred) direct market comic book stores springing up around the country, the most realistic comics at the time were probably The Uncanny X-Men and Master of Kung Fu. The undergrounds were dying, and they had always been more a forum for scatalogical humor and political rhetoric than real human drama.
For those of us who believed that comics could be and do more, this book was the Holy Grail. Eisner had finally done it, we thought. He'd proven, once and for all, that this was a real artistic medium that needed to be taken seriously.
Looking over these stories after the perspective of not only 20 years of personal growth, but having witnessed Maus and Stuck Rubber Baby and From Hell, after seeing the medium fulfill the promise and the challenge laid down by this slim volume at the dawn of what would become a movement toward higher standards, it is understandable to feel a little disappointed, a little wistful that the book is not as good as one remembered it.
It would be understandable, but it's not true. This book is a marvel. Oh sure, in many ways we've moved beyond the Eisner we see here - Eisner himself, in later books has stylistically matured, continuing to grow and develop, refusing to grow old artistically. But even Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell presenting Jack the Ripper don't send a chill straight to the bone with more visceral punch than "The Super," one of the four tales here. After 20 years, after the medium has lifted itself up out of the muck to produce masterpieces, this is still incredible stuff.
Order A Contract with God from amazon.com
A Life Force
A sequel of sorts to A Contract With God, this book contains more stories of the same sort, set in the same neighborhood (the fictional Dropsie Avenue which stands for all the streets full of tenements inhabited largely by Eastern European immigrants in the 20s and 30s).
Order A Life Force from amazon.com
This ambitious book traces the history of New York City through one plot of land, sitting on Eisner's ubiquitous Dropsie Avenue. Beginning in the Dutch colonial days, we watch it change hands as the surrounding land goes from farmland to houses to tenements, from prosperous neighborhood to urban war zone. Much in the same vein as A Contract With God and A Life Force, this work displays a firmer narrative and Eisner's usual uncanny ability to draw in a simple, even cartoony style that is nonetheless extremely realistic.
I've gone ahead and listed some amazon.com links to other Eisner books as well, books I haven't read yet so can't really review, but given his reputation, my knowledge of his other work, and the reviews I have read of some of them I can still recommend them. Eisner is one of the very few people whose name on a project insures quality. I have been disappointed by nearly all of my other comics heroes, but never by Will Eisner.
The Dreamer is about the early days of comics magazines (what most people call "comic books"), To the Heart of the Storm is about a young man going off to World War II. Dropsie Avenue would from its title seem to be more tales similar to the ones I've reviewed here; it's the only one I don't know anything about. I'll get them all, eventually, and I'd suggest you do the same.
Order The Building (paper) from amazon.com
Order The Building (hardcover) from amazon.com
Order The Dreamer from amazon.com
Order Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood from amazon.com
Order To the Heart of the Storm from amazon.com
Our Cancer Year
American Splendor: Bob & Harv's Comics
I can't believe I left Our Cancer Year off the list! I recently opened up a box of books and there it was, and I've been kicking myself ever since.
Harvey Pekar is the writer of American Splendor, probably the oldest and certainly the longest running autobiographical comic. When Seth, Joe Matt and Chester Brown were little tykes Pekar was already sweating out scripts that bared his soul, getting some of the best artists in comics to draw them, and self-publishing the results. He never made enough money at it to quit his job at the veteran's hospital, but he did briefly become a national celebrity on the basis of several appearances on David Letterman.
Bob & Harv's Comics is a collection of all the American Splendor pieces that were illustrated by Robert Crumb. It's some of Crumb's best work. It is his name, of course, that is intended to sell the collection, and indeed it's his fame that caused the collection to come about. Still, these two curmudgeonly veterans of the underground comics scene, with their similarly gloomy and even bitter at times outlooks on life, seem to enhance each other and push each other to new heights. It may not be the best possible collection of American Splendor, but it is a good one.
Our Cancer Year is something else entirely. Co-written by Pekar and his wife, Joyce Brabner, and drawn by Frank Stack, it tells the story of Harvey's diagnosis and treatment for cancer while Joyce was heavily involved with an international anti-war group as Desert Shield turned into Desert Storm. Having Brabner co-write the book is a brilliant strategy, for not only does the story of her political work give us some alleviation of the sometimes horrific progression of the disease and the chemotherapy treatment, but we also get to see her reactions to things, and get to see scenes that it's doubtful Pekar remembered clearly enough afterward to put down. I doubt if this book could have been done without her.
Both Pekar and Brabner have a good sense of how to tell a story (Brabner has done comic scripts before, though she's not as well known as her husband). The harrowing tale ends on a hopeful, optimistic note, unusually upbeat for the normally dour Pekar, but then, I suppose beating cancer would tend to give one a better outlook on life, at least temporarily.
The art, by Frank Stack, is spare and somewhat expressionistic. It blends well with the words, and carries the bulk of the work in some of the most gripping scenes. Stack, as Foolbert Sturgeon, produced what many comics historians consider the first underground comic, The Further Adventures of Jesus, long before Zap #1, and is now a professor of art at the University of Missouri (I told you Harvey gets the best folks to draw for him).
This is more than an extended episode of American Splendor. This is a deep book, a meaningful book. It is the story of an illness, the story of some courageous people - the political activist teenagers Joyce befriends, as well as Joyce and Harvey. Most of all, perhaps, it is a love story. For when it comes down to it, the story, and Harvey's recovery, revolve largely around the bond between these two remarkable people.
If you think comics need to be about superheroes, or detectives, or fantastic adventures of one kind or another to be interesting, if you think ordinary events that happen to millions of people every year can't be the basis of truly intense, fascinating graphic storytelling, you owe it to yourself to read this book and find out just how wrong you are.
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You Never Loved Me
These two books are companion pieces in several ways. Both autobiographical, they tackle some of the same themes and deal with overlapping periods of Chester Brown's life. Both are collected from material previously published in his comic, Yummy Fur. They're very different, but they go together, which is why I've listed them together here.
I'm not a big fan of Chester Brown. I never read any of the earlier issues of Yummy Fur, the ones collected in Ed, the Happy Clown (not even sure I got that title right), and from what I've heard of them, I wouldn't be interested. I tried the first few issues of Underwater but though I got the point I found the gibberish word balloons ultimately frustrating and gave up. His Bible stories I find interesting, and might consider buying a collection if one ever comes out. His jam with Dave Sim is the only thing Sim has done I found utterly without merit.
Nonetheless, I liked these books very much, and think The Playboy, in particular, is as important as it is good. Brown is not only remembering with painful accuracy deeply private aspects of his sexual awakening, he's using these observations to examine the role our dysfunctional culture played in programming desires and alienating us from each other and ourselves.
The Playboy is primarily about the adolescent Chester Brown's relationship with the magazine. Girls, and later women, enter into the story, but almost as an afterthought. They are used to illustrate points he is making. One girlfriend, for instance, he can only have sex with while imagining Playboy centerfolds. I Never Liked You is about Brown's first tentative relationships with girls. Obviously, they inform each other, and it's clear they both cover much of the same chronological ground (his mother's nervous breakdown and voluntary admission to a mental hospital, for instance, occurs in both). Rereading either of them after reading the other opens up a whole new dimension of understanding, not only of Brown but of our perverse society.
These are deeply political works containing not one word about what are normally considered political matters. They are in some ways a corrective and restorative for one who's read too much of Dave Sim's diatribes on women.
Jar of Fools
Jason Lutes came out of nowhere to make a name for himself in the alternative comics world with this book, originally published in two volumes. Actually, it was first published a page at a time in an alternative weekly newspaper, which is just amazing. I can't imagine what people must have thought trying to follow it that way.
I liked this book very much when it came out, but I haven't reread it lately and I want to dig it out and make sure of details (like the names of the characters) before I give it a more thorough description. (The rehab project from hell strikes again!)
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The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch
This and the following two books were all written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean. Gaiman is best known, of course, for his work on Sandman, and McKean may well be best known for his covers on that remarkable series. They've been working together since they met in 1986, about the time they both started working in the medium. This is their best collaboration so far, in my opinion. McKean's bold experiments with mixed media are perfect for this dark and complex tale of childhood memory and disturbing undercurrents, all centered on that terrible puppet, so cruel and violent and mysteriously popular with young and old alike. Mr. Punch is politically incorrect. He is a bad influence. He is a psychopathic serial killer. How did such a creature become a beloved childhood institution? Gaiman and McKean provide no answers to that question, but they use the terrible truth of Mr. Punch's popularity as a starting point for an examination of other terrible truths.
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The first collaboration by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, and still remarkable. In only 44 pages, they present a whole new way of looking at comics. Visually, the book is stunning. McKean's experiments with what "comics" means have gotten more complex, more sophisticated, but the seeds of everything he has done since are visible in this work. Gaiman's story plays with childhood memory the same way he later would in Mr. Punch. The title comes from a childhood mistake, thinking American gangsters carried tommy guns in violent cases. But of course, it has more than one meaning, and this seemingly slight little tale of Al Capone's osteopath folds in on itself as truth and memory overlap and diverge. For practically their first work in the medium, it's an amazing achievement.
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Signal to Noise
This is, in my opinion, the worst thing Gaiman and McKean have done together, which means its better than, oh, 90% of everything that's ever been done in the medium instead of 99%. Deliberately convoluted and difficult to read, it mixes dream with reality and discordant images and the breakdown of meaning into gibberish, of signal to noise. A film director is dying. He keeps working on his latest project, knowing that he will never finish it, that no one will ever see it. Still, he keeps working it out in his head. Except his head is full of other images, other thoughts. And everything is breaking down. Falling apart. I get the idea, I know WHY the narrative is disjointed and broken, but it remains for me a rather cold work, an experiment rather than a fully realized work of art.
The Ballad of Doctor Richardson
Paul Pope broke onto the comics scene in the 1990s seemingly out of nowhere. This "drawn novel," as he calls it, displays a maturity and assurance rare for a young artist. Not everybody likes Pope's style, but many do. It works for this story, anyway, which he describes in an afterword as a sort of "anti-Prufrock." The protagonist is not unlike one imagines J. Alfred to be, a college professor whose peers don't respect him, whose last publication was 10 years ago and whose current work was just rejected - again. He lives alone, and his manner seems to hold people off. So this night, he decides to go out, to break out of his routine and find something like an adventure. Prufrock found only his own lonely self. A character in most comics - or most movies or novels, for that matter - would find "adventure" in a melodramatic plot involving smuggled drugs or lost treasure. Doctor Richardson finds something much more ordinary, but no less precious, something more realistic, but still miraculous.
If I have to tell you that what he finds is love, you're not romantic enough to enjoy this book.
Days to Remember
Jimmy Gownley's comic, Shades of Gray, was one of my favorite comics. Or maybe it is. Like many small press and self-published comics, it is nearly always in danger of cancellation and often late, so when I haven't seen it in awhile I'm never sure what's going on. I hope it's still going.
It's about some high school kids. Nothing fancy, no super powers, no alien invasions, not even drug dealers or gangsters or secret agents. Just life, as it is lived. Very closely observed and achingly real, this series is one of the best things going.
This book collects the first few comics. It's a bit maudlin and represents the series as a whole not much better than the first four issues of Cerebus represent the remarkable work Dave Sim has gone on to do, but I think you can still see Gownley's talent shining through.
Enemy Ace: War Idyll
This beautifully painted book by George Pratt was one of the first original "graphic novels" aimed at adults put out by DC Comics, released originally in hardcover. The character was one of my favorites as a young boy, the only reason I ever bought any of DCs war comics. I don't even recall, now, which comic he was featured in, always as a backup strip, and I didn't know then that he was created by Bob Kanigher and Joe Kubert. But Enemy Ace was a different kind of hero for a war comic. He was a German, for one thing. True, he wasn't a nasty Nazi from World War II (all Germans in WWII war comics are Nazis, despite the fact that most soldiers had little ideology and less choice), but a World War I pilot in a Fokker triplane, Hans von Hammer (obviously based on the famous Baron Manfred von Richtoffen, generally known as the Red Baron). He saw the futility of war, but he was a professional. He did his job. He honored those he shot down and worried about the men under his command. The stories were philosophical vignettes of 8 pages or so, a far cry from the typical "blood and guts" war comics.
This tale takes place in 1969, as a writer visits the Baron, who is very, very old now, and dying. The writer wants to know what it was like, fighting in what was known then as The Great War. How does he feel about it all, now? And the deeper questions, like the meaning of honor and the price of survival. The writer has his own demons to exorcise, it turns out, for he was recently an American soldier in Vietnam, and something happened to him there that traumatized him.
This slim volume is hardly a novel - it had to be padded out with preparatory sketches to be stretched to 120 pages, and can easily be read in one sitting. But it is a fine graphic novella, or novelette, or whatever the appropriate term would be. Pratt's art is simply breathtaking. And the story, though a tad melodramatic, is both effective and affecting.
Technically, this isn't a book yet. Although it was finished almost two years ago various problems (including the publisher's financial difficulties) have delayed the collected edition. Still, the ten squarebound volumes of the "comic book" version are more bookish than most, and I'm fairly certain it will be eventually collected, so I've listed it here.
Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell revisit the Jack the Ripper material in an engrossing way that rises above the genre (yes, Jack has become a genre all by himself, as the footnotes included here show) by using Jack to examine Victorian society. One of the best things done in the medium to date - as serious in its own way as Maus or Stuck Rubber Baby - this book fulfills the promise of Moore's earlier work and cements him solidly in the small list of those who have done unquestionably worthwhile literature in the medium of comics.
Moore strips away the usual air of mystery and brings a whole new kind of terror to the story. He establishes the killer and the motive right from the start - and the terrible thing is that there is a motive. The women are not the victims of some madman who strikes at random. No, they are the victims of a cold and calculating plot for quite mundane - though scandalous - reasons. It is carried out by the Chief Physician to Her Majesty Queen Victoria. And the chilling thing is that he undertakes the task with cold rationality, although by the end it is clear that Dr. Gull is, indeed, quite mad.
Eddie Campbell's art has never been better. The faces, the poses, the architecture, the flow from panel to panel, all are perfect. The rendering is in his familiar scratchy style, yet subtly different from his work in Bacchus or the Alec MacGarry stories. Campbell's style is deceptive. At first glance, it looks rough and sketchy, almost incomplete. Looked at carefully, however, it reveals itself as complex and even at times photorealistic. The more I see of his work the more I like it. Here, for the most part, it unobtrusively furthers the story without drawing attention to itself.
I hope to get a review of the collected volume published in the Post-Dispatch whenever it comes out. In the meantime, Volume Two was mentioned in my 1993 Graphic Novel Roundup. It's hard to believe there's not a better From Hell Web Page - I may have to do one and add it to this site. There is a pretty good Alan Moore Fan Site, but all it has on "From Hell" is a list of the volumes.
Road to Perdition
Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner present an homage to the Japanese classic Lone Wolf and Cub done as a 1920s gangster tale. Since I am, to my shame, totally unfamiliar with the original other than its name and basic Shogun-with-a-kid idea, I missed that entirely when I first reviewed this book for my "This Week's Good Read" column.
As I pointed out in my review, Collins is a solid mystery writer, with a number of prose novels under his belt in addition to his comics work on Ms. Tree and Mike Danger and others. He is also something of a historian, having previously produced well-researched novels on such topics as the Lindbergh kidnapping. So it should come as no surprise to find him authoring a tight little masterpiece of a gangster-era bloodbath, a tale of Michael O'Sullivan, nicknamed the Archangel of Death, up against his former boss and eventually Al Capone and all his minions.
There is a lot of violence in this book. Every few pages, it seems, O'Sullivan faces another shootout against impossible odds. In fact, there only a few such set pieces and the lulls between them are considerable, but the way Collins and Rayner manage to make the unbelievable seem plausible, the way we see O'Sullivan duck and shoot and ultimately prevail against large numbers of opponents, is so memorable they seem in retrospect to take up more of the book than they actually do.
I like Collins' writing, and I like very much the way O'Sullivan's son tells the story in retrospect, sometimes discussing the sources he had to use to reconstruct scenes he didn't witness - the same sources Collins must have used to provide the authentic details that make this more than just another gangster tale. Rayner's art is perfect for the story, showing exactly why Collins chose to use this format rather than prose to tell this tale.
Although the level of violence has to make this not for the squeamish, it's recommended for anybody else.
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At more than 300 pages, this is one of the few books here that actually can be called a graphic novel. It's also the only one presented entirely in pictures. There are a few words - less than fifty of them - but except for two place-setting captions what few words appear are all presented within pictures: labels, notes, a book title.
My own review in the Post-Dispatch and another I wrote for the Comics Journal seem to be the only attention it got. This is a shame, because while the story was a tad melodramatic it was a very interesting work. The ambition involved in doing a basically wordless novel of over 300 pages is overwhelming, and Peter Kalberkamp pulled it off very well. The black-and-white art is striking throughout.
The characterizations are not deep, but they are very well handled - with only facial expression and body language. As you might guess from the title, the theme of the book is guilt. The book whose title is glimpsed is "Crime and Punishment." I don't want to say more for fear of giving it away, but I recommend this book quite highly.
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Someone is killing all the women in Felix's life, starting with his old high school girlfriends. Likely suspects include Felix himself, because we see the murderer early on and it seems to be Felix, except that we just SAW Felix elsewhere a moment before - didn't we?
A fine mystery with more than a touch of weirdness. The landlords, for instance, who live upstairs, introduce their son. "He has just returned from a trip . . . abroad." "Oh yeah?" says Felix, "from where." The wife gets a very strange look on her face and says "France. He has just returned from France." The fact that she is standing in a kiddie pool filled with water (at least, we assume it's water) in the middle of the living room adds to the effect.
The weirdness is more than just to give the story a nice moody effect. It ends up being intrinsic to the plot. To say more would be to take a chance on spoiling it for potential readers.
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