No More Heroes: 10 Comics and Graphic Novels for the Literary Geek

by Jean-Paul Sparta on February 16, 2011

The key is still good books. Without them we don’t have an industry.
Kuo-Yu Liang, Diamond Book Distributors

It’s time to face it: comic books have changed. 50 years ago nobody would have ever dreamed that a comic book, even with the haughtily applied title of “graphic novel,” would someday be counted amongst those great works, that Parthenon of genius, the Western Literary Canon.

The day that a comic appears on the same list as Hemingway and Melville has yet to be seen, but the emergence of the literary graphic novel over the last few decades has slowly begun to define the genre. Sure, comics lend themselves well to filmic, over-the-top narrative styles – dialogue driven, severely lacking in exposition, and almost inevitably involving the eye-candy of big muscles, flashy costumes, epic violence and stylized sexual tension – but more and more, books that do not rely on the crutch of the Super Hero or the weak pulp-fiction plot are separating from the pack.

The median age of comic book readers is now somewhere between 28 and 30 (with 1 in 4 over the age of 65), and although the old-school is certainly still popular, these once fringe-dwelling, non-super comics are rapidly becoming staples of the refined, gourmet comic-geek diet.

Here are the book reviews of 10 titles to sink your teeth into.

1. The Sandman, by Neil Gaiman

Sandman Preludes and noctures_Gaiman

Let’s get this one out of the way first, shall we? Simply put, Neil Gaiman is a giant, transcending genre, medium and readership boundaries, and this series is undoubtedly his magnum opus, one of the most critically acclaimed comic books in history.

The Sandman series is a vague and ever-changing narrative with a loose but discernible central plot, spanning centuries and featuring historical, literary, mythic and religious cameos (Caesar, Shakespeare, Cane and Abel, Loki, etc.). The story follows a character named Dream; not exactly a god, but an immortal and mostly omnipotent being that is the embodiment of dreaming. He goes by many names (Morpheus, Onieros, the Shaper, Kai’Kul) and comes in many forms. In some stories he is the primary protagonist, in others he is featured in only one or two panels (making Dream almost a celebrity in his own universe).

Summing up this series is like trying to put into a few sentences an entire lifetime of accomplishment. Just read it. Then maybe we can talk.

2. Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli

Asterios-Polyp-mazzucchelli

Asterios Polyp is a graceful and well-wrought character study, something of a rarity within the medium of graphic novels. No capes, no villains, no special powers – okay, there’s kind of an evil twin and maybe some malicious Greek deities way in the background, but it’s all very tastefully done, I assure you.

Asterios, the protagonist for whom the book is named, is an austere professor of architecture in Ithica, New York until his apartment is struck by lightning. Rather than picking up the pieces like a normal person, Asterios hops on a midnight train going anywhere. Actually it’s a bus, but you get the idea.

His rapid transition into a semi-transient lifestyle is in stark contrast to his stoic, logical personality – the classic Greek Apollonian/Dionysian split which becomes a driving theme throughout the rest of the book. Even the art and printing techniques embody this duality. Despite all this sterile-sounding classicism, Mazzucchelli’s whimsical plot and charming characters resound with humanity.

3. We3, by Grant Morrison

we3_morrison

On the eve of World War I, philosophers and scientists all over the world were in a state of panic. With the invention of machine guns, mustard gas and biological weapons, the sense that technology had gotten away from its higher purpose must have been overwhelming.

This same anxiety is certainly alive today, but hides beneath a veneer of apathy and over-exposure. By using that familiar trope of anthropomorphism (so good at exposing the absurdity of human behavior, from Watership Down to Animal Farm) Grant Morrison strips away these layers, exposing questions of ethics and humanity. In We3, a trio of armor-plated, weaponized house pets – a rabbit, a cat and a golden lab – plucked from suburban homes (get ready to relive childhood abandonment trauma) and put into a military testing facility where attempt to escape while being pursued by their heavily armed captors.

Sounds like Homeward Bound with explosions? Maybe, but don’t let that put you off – I’ve seen grown men reduced to hysterical sobs by this emotional powerhouse. And at only 104 pages in trade paperback, it’s a quick read. Just don’t ever let your kids get their hands on it.

4. Lucifer, by Mike Carey

lucifer_carey

An offspring of Gainman’s The Sandman series and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Mike Carey’s Lucifer is an 11 volume epic surrounding the ultimate anti-hero – the Devil. Not the bright red one with the pitchfork and hooves, though. He is “a man of wealth and taste,” as the song goes, and Carey’s representation of the fallen Morningstar (physically reminiscent of a young David Bowie) certainly lives up to the lyrics.

Before the series even begins, Lucifer leaves his throne in Hell, bored of his eternal punishment and frustrated by mankind’s perceptions of him. So he retires to L.A. and opens a piano bar. Of course, Lucifer’s myriad enemies — angelic, demonic and mortal – eventually catch up with him, resulting in a series of story arcs taking place across a range of physical planes and featuring a cast of characters from Judeo-christian and other mythologies.

Amidst all of the epic schemes and battles of wit, Carey explores the question of free will through Lucifer’s actions, a nod to Milton’s overarching theme in Paradise Lost… And there’s something to be said for a book that just makes you feel like a bad ass.

5. Transmetropolitan, by Warren Ellis

transmetropolitan_ellis

Recipe for an awesome comic book: take Hunter S. Thompson (like, literally Hunter S. Thompson reincarnated under the moniker Spider Jerusalem), hurl him into a cyberpunk dystopian future – a bigger, louder, more deadly, more deranged version of every big city in America – and just let him do what he does best.

Warren Ellis’ homage to the late founder of Gonzo journalism is a brilliant, cynical and triumphant look at our own urban culture, evolved and mutated over generations. Following Spider as he exposes inner-city injustice and upends evil politicians on a cracked-out journalistic joyride, you find yourself being absorbed by this shattered future. The illustrations, full page spreads packed with subtle jokes and sinister subtexts going on in the background, create a composite zeitgeist almost as interesting and dynamic as the plot and characters themselves. Cynical, crude, unapologetic and definitely worth your time.

6. Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou

Logicomix

Logic, the foundation of mathematics and really everything that we understand as true in the world, is perhaps the least likely (and undoubtedly most geeky) subject for a graphic novel that I can think of. Only slightly less likely is Logicomix‘s protagonist and narrator, Bertrand Russell: philosopher, historian, social critic, and prominent logician of the early 20th century. The story: a biography of Russell’s life and his love affair with logic in the form of a lecture.

While the philosophy involved can get murky at times, they leave out a lot of the nuts and bolts and heavy math involved and include enough juicy detail from Bertrand’s life (polygamy, scandal, murder, and the constant damoclean sword of insanity) to keep the plot moving. Like any good philosophical text, there are very few answers, and many, many unanswerable questions (e.g. who’s shaving the barber?), but if your idea of a good time is pondering the imponderables of the cosmos, then this is the book for you. At the very least you’ll look smart reading it on the subway.

7. From Hell, by Alan Moore

from hell-Moore

Just as it is impossible to discuss English poetry without at least a cursory nod to William Shakespeare, so it is impossible to treat graphic novels without invoking that paragon of strange brilliance, the Mad Sorcerer Alan Moore.

Centered around one of London’s most notorious figures, Jack the Ripper, Moore spins an intricate web, blending history, occult lore, politics, religion and psychology into a gritty Victorian tableaux. No, this is not some Dan-Brownian international goose-chase, nor is it a historical whodunit. Moore reaches far deeper, exploring the nature of time, the spiritual power struggle between masculine and feminine ideals and inequities of class and social structure. Of course there’s also plenty of grimy sex, pulp violence and the kind of literary-historical inside jokes that Moore is famous for; most of which will be completely over your head. Keep Wikipedia on stand-by for maximum enjoyment.

8. Fables, by Bill Willingham

Fables_Willingham

Ever wonder what happens to the characters in fairy-tales and nursery rhymes after the story’s over? Do the other two Little Pigs get sick of their brother lording his masonry skills over them? Does Jack the Giant-Killer manage to transcend socioeconomic barriers with his new-found wealth, or does he remain an indolent tenant farmer? Stories, even fairy-tales, never really end where the text stops; in fact they don’t really end until somebody gets killed.

Fables goes one step further. Before the plot picks up, the realm of myth and legend – homeland to all fairy-tale beings from the Big Bad Wolf to Sin Bad the Sailor – is ravaged by a great war against “The Adversary,” a faceless, tyrannical overlord. Unsurprisingly, The Adversary succeeds in driving the Fables from their homes, forcing them to relocate to our world; specifically a borough of New York City, which they name “Fabletown.”

Willingham fuses characters from Aesop and the Brothers Grimm, the Arabian Nights, Wonderland and more into an epic, ongoing story arc, similar in scale and feel to both Lucifer and The Sandman. By reworking and updating the often non-family-friendly characters and stories, Willingham breaths new life into these two-dimensional, half-remembered legends, and even managed to bring back some of the power they once commanded.

9. The Walking Dead, by Robert Kirkman

walking dead

Thanks to the critically acclaimed series on HBO, this comic has become an overnight hit, but it still deserves a mention. Sure, zombies are hot right now, but let’s ignore the threadbare “desperation in a post-apocalyptic world” motif, the guns and explosions and carnage, even ignore the hordes of mindless, flesh-eating corpses – it’s all about the characters.

Robert Kirkman didn’t set out to make a horror series, or even a “zombie” series, necessarily. He wanted to put a group of people into a particular scenario and then let their personal motives, secret histories and instincts inform their actions and carry the plot. If his work scares you, then this is only a bi-product; a sign that he is doing his job well. While I wouldn’t call The Walking Dead “scary,” Robert Kirkman is an incredibly sadistic writer at times, putting his characters through hell and making sure his readers feel every ounce of their misery, depression and hopelessness.

Then again there’s plenty of triumph, elation and hard-won joy in this grizzly, emotional roller coaster. You may feel like barfing, but you’ll just keep jumping right back in line.

10. Alice in Sunderland, by Bryan Talbot

alice in sunderland

In honor of Humpty Dumpty, I’d like to begin with a thoroughly true statement: unless you have already read Alice in Sunderland, you have never read anything even remotely like Alice in Sunderland.

Part narrative fiction, part history book, Bryan Talbot gives his readers a different look at the Wonderland that Lewis Carroll created by reconstructing the geography, population and history of his home town – Sutherland, England. The dynamic story zig-zags through time, all the way from the beginnings of English history in 43 BC to the present… actually the future. The narrator/author even references forthcoming events, such as an exhibition of the artwork from Alice in Sunderland, which occurs after its publication.

If that sounds like a breach of the Fourth Wall, you’re absolutely right. In fact, the proverbial “reader” is a physical audience member in the story, personified by a cockney bloke who has entered the book in a dream…. within a dream… within a dream. It gets complicated, but don’t worry; just do as the King of Hearts and “begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

Am I missing anything?

I doubt it, but try your best to impress in the comments.

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