By Erik Grove
When I got married, I was wearing Superman boxer shorts. I wore a Superman t-shirt under my black sports coat and my groomsmen wore Batman t-shirts. My nephew? He was the ring bearer and he was Robin. I love comic books. I love the variety and possibilities of the medium. There’s something magical that happens with that combination of words and pictures. The whole becomes much greater than the sum of its parts. From the lettering to the pulpiest comic book cover, I love it all.
Like a good comic book evangelist, I like to share my passion for the medium with other people. Sure, talking comics with people that already love comics is rewarding (and sometimes very frustrating) but what I really enjoy is taking a book off of my shelf and loaning it to someone that isn’t already in the comic book fan club. I’m talking about my friends and colleagues that are comic book curious. Maybe they really enjoyed a movie based on a comic – there are millions of those – or maybe they like video games, sci-fi TV shows or just really great art and stories but they haven’t quite gotten into comic books yet. They’re comic book sympathetic and with the right book, well, that might make them evangelists too.
So, here’s a list. It’s a starting point. No one’s going to like every item on the list. Everyone’s going to argue against at least one of them but that’s the great thing about lists like this; they start conversations and conversations about comics lead to better comics. At least I think so. Without further ado, I give you the Essential Eight Comic Books for the Comic Book Curious (in no particular order).
It used to be that whenever people found out I liked comic books a lot of them wanted to talk about Sandman. Neil Gaiman’s epic story about Dream and the other Endless went out past the usual crowd of comic book fans at the comic book store and captivated the attention of baristas at Starbucks, record store hipsters and girls in my Introduction to English Major class at the University of Oregon. Sandman transcended comics and American Vampire is the new Sandman. Or more likely it’s one of the new Sandmen. In esteemed company that includes Chew, Locke & Key, Saga, Fables and a whole lot more (including new Sandman), the reason American Vampire makes my list is pretty simple. Two words: Stephen King. Right now there are fewer people living in the United States than books King has sold. If you throw a rock in a room full of people that do a lot of reading and you don’t hit someone that’s read at least one King book, you’re throwing rocks wrong. His name has a certain cache and credibility that I think can put a comic book reading novice at ease and his name is on the cover of the first collection because he wrote half of the story. And the story? It’s good. It’s really good. Scott Snyder, current writer of the critically lauded and best selling New 52 Batman, puts his story right next to King and he does it confidently. He tells an engaging horror story about an aspiring LA actress that becomes the next in a lineage of uniquely American vampires. King contributes an origin story of the first American vampire, Skinner Sweet in the cynical American Wild West. Then there’s Rafael Albuquerque, the Brazilian penciller that acts as a bridge between the stories in volume one. His style is modern but infused with what I can only call scruffy swagger. He draws characters that pop off the page and demand their place in your imagination. It’s a great book. So great I haven’t been able to keep a copy in my bookshelf for over a year.
Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life
One of the coolest things about comic books is that something like American Vampire can sit right next to something like Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life and they’re both equally praiseworthy. The Scott Pilgrim books (there are 6) are clever, often funny windows into Bryan Lee O’Malley’s video game saturated Canadian world. O’Malley writes and draws the books with a cartoon-y style and a sweetly cynical wit. The books are smaller, digest or manga sized, and perfectly suited for jamming into your oversized hipster coat before you ride the bus or ride around town on your fixy. Yes, there’s something almost overwhelming millennial about the Scott Pilgrim series but they’re honestly delightful like a fruity craft beer on a kinda sunny Northwest afternoon or a band that you want to hate because you liked they got popular but you have to admit their new stuff is still pretty catchy.
The diehard comic book fans reading this are now thinking “alright, here we go.” Most of you are probably aware that Batman is a pretty big deal. You’ve maybe seen a movie or six or maybe you were a guest at my wedding and you gave my best man a high five and noticed his t-shirt. Batman is one of the first images that comes mind when people across the world are thinking about comic books and Batman: Year One is the Batman story. Frank Miller puts a target on what makes Batman Batman and he hits center (bat-logoed) mass. Batman: Year One has inspired and impacted everything Batman from more than 25 years of published comic books to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. But lest we forget, there’s also David Mazzucchelli on art. Mazzuchelli is comic book rock star royalty. He draws Batman with a sense of history and timelessness. You could go to a gallery show of Mazzuchelli’s work (and I have) and spend hours looking at his line work and storytelling and still want more. There are greats in the comic book medium. Mazzucchelli hangs out with them.
And now the diehard comic book fans reading this are thinking “not this stupid book again – it’s so overrated” but they’re just wrong (sorry, diehard comic book fans). Hawkeye is a comic book about what Hawkeye (the Avenger-y guy with the bow in the movies) does when he’s not with the Avengers. It’s a simple, elegant premise that delivers fun, page-turning stories about bad luck, bad choices, and the coolest dog in comics (sorry, Snoopy). Matt Fraction is writing a comic book that a whole lot of people wouldn’t think could be this good and his partner in this perfect crime, for volume one, is David Aja. If you’re new to comics you might not know that Aja is the artist that blew my mind in an amazing run on Iron Fist a few years ago. Well, Hawkeye is better. It’s stylistic. It’s classic. It compliments and elevates the writing and it’s just a pleasure to look at. When I finished reading the first issue of Hawkeye I knew it was something special. When I finished the first collection, I knew it was going to be a comic book that everyone was going to love so much that no one could possibly stand to hear about it anymore.
You might not find this comic at your comic book store and some comic book aficionados might object to it being on this list at all because it’s not so much a sequential story but a book full of vignettes about what Darth Vader would be like as a dad. This book is cute. There, I said it. It’s &*%$ing adorable. Jeffrey Brown has crafted vignettes here that are funny and obnoxiously tender. I’m at an age where I have a lot of friends with little children and Darth Vader and Son is the perfect book for parents. You can read several vignettes before being interrupted by the kids and Oh My God, did I express how stupidly, heart-achingly adorable this is? Give this book to someone who’s comic book skeptical and wait for it. They’re going to love it. Pair it with a night of peace and quiet and Brown’s follow-up Vader’s Little Princess and you’ll win at friendship. Then you can have a conversation with them about Batman.
I considered a lot of books for this list. Many of my favorites didn’t make it but this one did and it’s here because I really like it and I really like the creators and I’m making the list. Promethea is from Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics imprint from the final days of the previous century. Moore’s big idea was to dig deeper into our literary traditions and make comic books from older legends. With Promethea, Moore is mining mythology and folklore and ultimately, the nature of storytelling itself. This is a meta comic book. Promethea is not Moore’s most famous work (that would probably be Watchmen) and a lot of people might argue it’s not his best but it seems fitting for my list because it’s concerned with the things that I find so fascinating about comic books; that magical fusion between words and ideas and art. Moore is one of the most renowned comic book writers in history for a good reason. He writes compelling stories with interesting characters. It’s really that easy. Promethea deals with a lot of themes and text and subtext but at its most basic level it’s a compelling story with interesting characters. What I particularly love about Promethea though is the artwork. JH Williams III is a hot damn genius and I don’t care who wants to argue that with me. Alan Moore seemed to agree and so does Neil Gaiman (Williams was handpicked for Gaiman’s new Sandman series). In the early issues of Promethea, Williams is slowly pushing boundaries and reimagining how a comic book should with innovative panel layouts and a great use of the gutter (what Scott McCloud calls the “space between borders” or panels). I like Promethea as a pick for this list because it scratches the surface of how crazy and creative comic book stories and art can be without throwing a new reader into the deep end too quickly.
Sometimes you want to get your hands dirty when you read a comic book. You want moral ambiguity and terrible people doing terrible things. Well, I do at least and there are plenty of people that might have their misconceptions of comic books obliterated when you hand them something like Scalped. This a comic book for Grown Ups, the comic book equivalent of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire or True Detective. There’s nothing polite or fantastic in this book and there is certainly no one wearing tights. It’s just hardboiled, grit in your teeth, fire in your belly, two-fisted misery courtesy of Jason Aaron and RM Guerra. Scalped is the story of drugs and double-crosses on an Indian reservation. It’s bleak and it’s bad-ass. The hero Dash Badhorse is a deeply flawed prodigal son of an activist. He’s the kind of hero you know is going down in a blaze of glory as soon as you meet him. One part Clint Eastwood nightmare and one part uber noir gangster, he’s only barely likeable and that’s precisely the point. Aaron builds a world and a mood here that’s intense and unrelenting and Guerra draws it in all of its sketchy squalid glory.
This pick is where I step outside of the conventional box and pick something that is very likely not on most comic book fans’ radars as a perfect introductory comic book. Hyperbole and a Half is a book by Allie Brosh. It’s a compilation of material from her very popular website of the same name and some new stuff. She has a very unconventional art style that’s about as far away as you get from Batman before you get to Dr. Seuss and she’s telling anecdotes about being a crazy little kid, having crazy dogs and living a crazy life. The stories within the book (it’s huge and jammed full of them) are really funny and very brave. She writes very honestly and very personally about herself and her struggles with depression (and the crazy dogs). The diehard comic book fans are wondering what any of that has to do with this list. They’re thinking it’s a collection of web comic that’s not traditionally comic book shaped and doesn’t have anything at all to do with Batman. Okay, I hear you fellas but here’s the thing: my wife loves this book. Her friends love this book. They laugh out loud just remembering this book. It’s good and Batman or no Batman it’s art and words mixed up together like chocolate and peanut butter so it counts. More importantly Brosh and Hyperbole and a Half mean new, diverse and completely engaged comic book fans. If you love comic books you need to celebrate this book and recommend it to people. It’s on radio shows. It’s #112 of the best-selling Amazon books right now. There are no Batman books more popular than it is. It’s the #1 best-selling book in the Comics & Graphic Novels category on Amazon and the Kindle version is #6 (Batman doesn’t show up until #18). This book is connecting with an audience that exists for this art form but has not always felt comfortable with it. Allie Brosh is a bigger deal than Batman.
Agree with me? Disagree with me? Let’s talk comics.
Erik Grove is a writer and comic book lover that lives in Portland, OR. Follow him on Twitter @erikgrove and check out his website www.erikgrove.com for comic book adjacent absurdly awesome fiction.