Monday, July 11, 2005

Graphic Novels For Beginners

This was a comment for Cynthia, who's writing something to do with graphic novels, but it's too long not to post here, too. I'm not sure if it's helpful or pointless.

This was basically my prompt:

To prove that it takes no expert subject knowledge, I'm writing a short paper involving collection development and graphic novels and comic books. professional resources on these are slim. While I can google as well as the next guy, I was hoping that someone would have suggestions on resources for me, web or not. top 10, top 100, what every comic collector should own/know about etc. also, if i haven't filled my quota of 4 pages, i'll stick in manga too.


Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, itself in comic form, is an excellent analysis of the workings and potential of the comic form, or “sequential art.” His follow-up, Reinventing Comics, veers more into futurist speculation, some of which is panning out, some of which is not. Some creators, like the Penny Arcade guys, despise and ridicule it, while others respect it. McCloud continues to espouse his theories on his website, probably scottmccloud.com. In any case, Reinventing also offers a nice history of the comics industry and the reasons for its collapse.

You can’t talk about the rise of “graphic novels” without discussing Frank Miller and Alan Moore, especially their serious-minded works in the ‘80s that gave rise to that term. Together, they are largely responsible for the movement to get comics for older audiences taken seriously.

In the ‘80s, Miller was responsible for the acclaimed Batman story The Dark Knight Returns, an excellent and very dark story about Batman coming out of retirement, as well as the gritty and realistic Batman: Year One, which strongly influenced Batman Begins. Miller also did memorable work on Marvel’s Daredevil. He went on to create many other lesser-known properties held in high regard by his fans. Most notably, he created the Sin City series, which everyone has heard of now that it’s a movie. A few years ago, he also did a subpar follow-up to Dark Knight Returns called The Dark Knight Strikes Again, which combined superheroes and heavy-handed social commentary to incoherent effect. Miller usually writes and illustrates, but sometimes only writes. Back in the Daredevil days he also spent some time as the artist. He’s currently working on another Batman project with Jim Lee handling art.

Alan Moore wrote Watchmen, a story about superheroes in a world where they’d been outlawed. It’s often considered one of the best graphic novels ever. Moore tends to be less mainstream (although every comic fan knows who he is). He did a memorable Batman/Joker story called The Killing Joke in which one possible tragic origin story for the Joker is explored, and in which former Batgirl Barbara Gordon is paralyzed by the Joker, a development that has left her confined to a wheelchair to this day. Moore has done a lot of “serious” stories, but he also seems to do a lot of weirdly postmodern stories that wink at the reader while still investing the stories with an uncommon earnestness. Other well-known Moore creations include V for Vendetta (Natalie Portman shaved her head for the upcoming movie version), From Hell (about Jack the Ripper, already a movie), and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (movie versions of Moore’s work have not always fared well).

Neil Gaiman was arguably the major force in graphic novels in the ‘90s. He’s the writer of the popular Sandman series. If you know any Goths or self-consciously freaky/artsy people, they probably like Sandman. And if they don’t, they haven’t read it yet. In spite of this, it’s an excellent series, smartly weaving together the mythologies of many cultures to create a sweeping fantasy that, thankfully, intersects with the real world enough to keep it grounded. The Sandman gave a whole new generation their justification for calling comics literature. Girls like this series, which is rare in comics. Gaiman ended the series after a certain number of volumes (8 or 9? I have them all, so I really should know), so this is a collection you could buy and be done with. A spinoff series, The Dreaming, ran for awhile after that but is not important. Gaiman occasionally returns to the Sandman world for one-shot stories, but mostly has gone on to the more “legitimate” business of writing novels.

Vertigo is the DC comics “adult” label, borne out of the Sandman series. They deal with more mature subject matter, like foul language, extreme violence, nudity, and casual fucking. Sometimes their stories are also more sophisticated, too. On the other hand, sometimes their stories are just more foul. The movie Constantine was based on the Vertigo series Hellblazer. Another popular Vertigo title was Preacher. I never read it, but it seemed to be about a preacher who cussed a lot and did violence. People said it was great.

Superhero comics mostly come from either Marvel or DC.

Marvel: Spider-Man, X-Men, Daredevil, Punisher, Fantastic Four, etc.
DC: Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, etc.

In libraries, Batman graphic novels tend to be pretty popular. I’d assume you’d want some Superman, too. As for Marvel, they put out “Essential” collections for all of their different popular characters, and I see a lot of those at the library too. You’ll want plenty of this stuff for the kids, who ought to be the main patrons of the graphic novel section. And the Vertigo stuff really shouldn’t be put right next to it, for the kids’ sake, but it probably will be because libraries will assume they’re all the same.

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