Comics get a bad press, often dismissed as childish alternatives to proper reading material, the reserve of geeks and nerds who pursue escapism through caped crusaders who can shoot slime from their elbows. To be caught in public reading anything with speech bubbles is a great shame, the bearer of the brightly coloured pages assumedly illiterate, if not a little creepy. Ashamed comic aficionados then invented the term “graphic novel” to vindicate themselves from this unfair judgment.
Just like how superheroes are seemingly monopolising the movie market, when one thinks “comic book” they wouldn’t be blamed for having an immediate association with the likes of Superman and the crew. The general conflation for the two is more likely ignorance than pretension, as with many forms of alternative media. It used to be thought that TV and film were intellectually numbing, with the written word and art being the only truly thought-provoking formats. Now comic books, computer games and social media face the same prejudice.
Just as books and movies can express any idea you can imagine, so can comics. Upon reflection, it seems obvious that you can illustrate things in panels other than super-beings. You don’t see some dude dressed as a bee buzzing around many of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptychs. Although maybe, come to think of it, Jesus and the disciples were the original Justice League. Some may be familiar with the shorter comedy strips such as Garfield by Jim Davis, or Dilbert by noted sexist Scott Adams.
If art and books are both valuable in themselves, then surely a combination of the two is even more so. People like Steve Ditko, Amanda Conner and Osamu Tezuka may not be large names in the modern art world, but if Roy Lichtenstein is so deserving of praise then comic book illustrators absolutely should be. Telling a story through a picture is an astonishing feat in itself, much less hundreds of pages worth of them. Similarly, the narratives woven together by these conjunctions of word and image can be as deep as in any novel.
With that in mind, here are some suggestions:
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, although technically in the “superhero” category presents a dark story about a disbanded group of heroes following a governmental ruling banning them. Taking place in an alternate 1980s USA where the group’s presence influenced a decisive victory of the Vietnam War, political turmoil follows the disappearance of a man with the power to control matter. Like much of Moore’s work Watchmen is predicated on the fantastic but is tonally gritty and claustrophobic, and could not be told better than in ink.
Maus by Art Spiegelman details Spiegelman’s father’s recounting of his experience as a Polish Jew in the Holocaust, from being placed in the ghetto through being sent to Auschwitz and marching through desperate conditions after the pushing back of the German front. The use of the comic format becomes fairly integral to the book, as concurrent to Art’s father’s story is the process of Art interviewing his father about his experience and how this process affects Art himself, and the changing relationship between him and his father. A difficult read, but nonetheless a necessary one.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is an autobiography depicting growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution and her experience of having her freedoms removed, going to school in Austria out of fear of arrest as a result of her outspokenness, and becoming outraged by people who take their freedom for granted. The animated film adaptation was nominated for an academy award and won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2007.
Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa is a Japanese manga series set in a universe where alchemy is a widely practiced science. It follows two boys who attempt to bring their mother back to life through the use of alchemy, which is a forbidden use of the science and the two boys are maimed in the process. The boys then go on fantasy adventures to get their bodies back. The manga has sold 64 million copies worldwide and has spawned numerous anime and computer game adaptations.
[Jimmy Donaghy -@JimmyDonagee]