To most people in English-speaking countries, superheroes spring to mind when you mention comics or comic books. Superheroes, those tough men and women in tights, possessed of strange powers and locked in endless combat with their deranged doppelgangers, the supervillains. It's a world that has been developing for 70 years or so, and has been tightly wound up in issues of its own continuity.
I understand that genre conventions are a powerful thing, having read many science fiction books that rely on genre- or self-referential frisson for effect. But why not write and draw in any of the various genres that exist? For example, science fiction is only one of many types of books that people write and read, but the North American comic book market seems dominated by superheroes. I hasten to add that I'm not talking about Japanese manga or French bande dessinees, both of which are entirely different creatures.
This dominance triggers a perverse reaction in me: if that's the way you want it to be, well, I want it the other way! So this column is partly motivated by my own restless reading habits.
Also, I don't seem to be alone in getting nervous about the general quality of superhero storylines. The writers and artists who manage to subvert the system from within deserve their own kudos, but the rest is "tights and fights." I'm reminded of Warren Ellis' formulation of calling superheroes "underwear perverts" (by way of Cory Doctorow's anxious look at Marvel and DC trying to trademark the term "superheroes," a Googlebomb which seems to have worked quite nicely.. er, nastily). That's not to say that a non-superhero comic is automatically good! I'll have a few comments about the state of non-SF, non-superhero comics at the end.
Finding the "good stuff," whatever that happens to be, is just as much of a problem or worse in comics than any other genre. That's why I was quite pleased that the inaugural Year's Best Graphic Novels, Manga and Comics is a success, albeit a qualified one. It's edited by Byron Preiss and Howard Zimmerman, and it's made up of short excerpts in four categories: graphic novels, comic books, manga, and something called "rest of the best." The excerpts are done erratically—they vary in length from 2 pages on up—and they are enormously frustrating because they don't seem to match any natural breaking point or internal rhythm. But they are a valuable overview of what's going on (except the manga section, which is surprisingly useless).
How to track down these items? If you are intimidated by comic book stores, as I am most of the time, you should try your local public library. The librarians in my city are definitely on the ball, as their collection has everything that I mention in this column; if this is not the case for you, find a librarian and make a suggestion. And if you've found something you like, support it by buying it yourself. It's the best way to ensure someone is out there writing and drawing books that match your tastes.
So, here are a few worthy SF comics. As always, further suggestions are welcome.
I'll start with an extraordinary series called Y: The Last Man. It was created by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, the writer and penciller respectively. Y takes the old trope about the last man in the world and treats it with a notable mix of realism, whimsy, and wit. The twist is that "man" is meant literally here; all women survived the plague that killed off the men. The series is at about 40 issues of a projected 60, and the monthly issues have been collected in 7 trade paperbacks. I highly recommend picking up the first collection, Unmanned.
Vaughan's writing is top-notch, but the visuals here are the most remarkable thing. It's now a planet of women, none of whom have physiques cast from the armored-or-spandex-clad-boobs model of Wonder Woman and her ilk (if you have no idea what I'm talking about, check out this scary post over at Dave's Long Box about a superheroine named Power Girl). Guerra draws ordinary women that differ from each other just as much as women do in real life. I'm reminded of something Suzy McKee Charnas talked about in an essay in her collection Stagestruck Vampires and Other Phantasms. In the early 1970s, when she was writing Walk to the End of the World, she started out with male protagonists and a female sidekick. Even when she had the epiphany of a female protagonist, there simply weren't any models for such a thing. Y: The Last Man provides such roles in abundance.
Sure, Y: The Last Man has an obvious title that indicates a central male protagonist, but I'm always struck by the strength of the other characters, who are all women.
Brian K. Vaughan is a writer to watch in the no-superhero science fiction space. I also recommend his Ex Machina series: it's about a mild-mannered civil engineer who gets mysterious superpowers, and then decides to run for mayor of New York City! Granted, this is less a work of science fiction than Y, but the former-superhero-as-mayor feels like a breath of fresh air all the same.
Next up is Transmetropolitan, an original 60-issue comic about a journalist named Spider Jerusalem an unspecified number of years in the future. It was written by Warren Ellis and pencilled by Darick Robertson. It is a contrast with Y: The Last Man; Y has a smooth narrative that flows along as quickly as possible, while Transmetropolitan is jam-packed with visual puns, disgusting injokes, recomplicated storylines, and intricate philosophical and scatalogical ranting by the main character. It's all a bit much, exactly as it's designed to be. Spider lives in a future with massive political corruption coupled with future shock the like seldom seen in science fiction. In one issue of the comic book, we see what happens to a woman whose cryogenically-preserved head is revived and re-embodied: she walks out onto the street, sees the glorious mess that the city has become, and falls into a near-catatonic shock, just like most of the other reviveds. That's pretty much the experience of the reader.
Ellis makes political corruption the subject of the overall story, but using a journalist as the main character is a good excuse to explore the other nooks and crannies of this future. Everything is here from downloading brains into nanotech foglets to designer drugs to designer bodies. Mostly what sticks with the reader, though, is the combination of ruthless politics and the sophisticated machinery of control and secrecy—and this was written in the late 1990s. As Ellis writes in Apparat (see below): "The years since I finished Transmetropolitan have been a litany of horrors. That book is coming true."
Transmetropolitan is not the only science fiction story that Warren Ellis has told, and the others include Planetary and Global Frequency. When I asked around for suggestions for this column, two other works by Ellis came up: Orbiter and Ministry of Space. I haven't read these other comics myself, but I did get a chance to check out something from the department of Ellis oddities, Apparat.
Apparat is a collection of four one-shot comics, each set up to deliberately model what a pulp genre might be like transposed to modern sensibilities as if superhero comics had never happened. Ellis covers science fiction, crime, aviation, and the rich adventurer/vigilante. He clearly knows each genre well; the SF segment is especially apropos. It's a commentary on the genre in graphic format.
Two short works now.
100% is only 5 issues long (which translates to roughly 240 pages, since each is a bit longer than an average comic), completely self-contained, and it's written and illustrated by Paul Pope. It's the story of New York City a few decades from now, with legalized drugs, grim life on the streets, and a type of strip club called a gastro club as the hot new thing. In a gastro club, an invasive camera goes right inside a stripper's body and displays her internal organs on a giant screen. Pope tells us a handful of personal stories about the relationships of people trying to get by in this world.
We3, even shorter at 3 issues, is written by Grant Morrison and pencilled by Frank Quitely—both are prolific in the comics world. We3 is the story of three household pets, a cat, a dog, and a rabbit, who are cyborged and then try to quit the program. Blood and gore ensues when #4 is set loose to get them back. This short work is somehow more visceral than many other such stories. It's a combination of Quitely's technical innovation—lots of wide shots with tiny inset panels—and the sheer amount of blood and guts.
All of the things I mention here (including Street Angel, next) are extremely violent. We3 might be one of the most violent comic books I've read, and that's saying a lot. Would an identical story told strictly in print seem as gory? I think it would, but I've also observed that comics tend to favor the violent anyway.
Street Angel was created by Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca, and it's about a young girl named Jesse Sanchez. Jesse is basically Y.T. from Snow Crash, in an even more violent setting, if that were possible considering Stephenson's penchant for ultraviolence in that book. Jesse is a skateboarding homeless girl who has to deal with ninjas, conquistadors, mad scientists, Incan gods, assorted maniacs, even Jesus Christ. Perhaps just as violent as We3, but played here for a more comedic effect. The few issues of the comic have now been collected in a trade paperback. It's worth picking up.
Street Angel illustrates another point I need to make: even the female characters are written by men. Kind of like the Buffy written by Joss Whedon syndrome. That's not a comment on the quality of the portrayal of Buffy or of Jesse Sanchez. Of all of the writers and illustrators mentioned so far, only Pia Guerra of Y: The Last Man breaks the stereotype; the rest are men.
It feels like a boy's club. I've got some female writers and artists in my other recommendations below, but science fiction and comics is like all of the exclusionary elements of both mixed together in the worst ways. I would appreciate any suggestions or things that I have missed, because this bothers me.
A few other good things I've found recently, not necessarily science fiction.
I'm a fan of Kazuo Koike's Samurai Executioner, which is exactly what it sounds like: a historical epic about someone who cuts off heads for a living. As befits the title, almost every one of the short stories (usually 4 or 5 per volume) ends with a severed head flying through the air, and this after copious amounts of sex and nudity—the "mature reader" sticker actually means something here, unlike the timid-by-comparison American comics. Oddly, my local library has this series but not Koike's more famous Lone Wolf and Cub.
I do read the occasional superhero comic book, like Batman or Spider-Man; these are hit-or-miss due to sheer quantity. By way of the Year's Best anthology I mentioned earlier, I found an excellent miniseries called Superman: Secret Identity, written by Kurt Busiek (who does some of the best original superhero stories—see Astro City for more) and illustrated by Stuart Immonen. Some poor kid in Kansas is named Clark Kent by his parents; after years of teasing and endless Superman-related gifts, he finds out that he actually does have superpowers. A neat twist.
I confess that I've read the entire run of Jeff Smith's Bone, a 1300 page epic fantasy that starts out as a comedy and gets much more serious later on. Your mileage may vary. It's currently being printed in its fourth incarnation as a nifty colorized version from Scholastic that's aimed at kids.
To find other items worth reading, a good list to start with is the somewhat-facetiously titled "Get Your Girlfriend to Read Comics". On this list, I would highlight Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis and the classic Maus by Art Spiegelman, while substituting Jessica Abel's La Perdida for her Mirror, Window, and seconding the recommendation for Ghost World, book or movie. I'd also like to point out that Y: The Last Man is on the list. Go Y!
This list draws heavily on the indie comic, like the kind of stuff published by Fantagraphic or Drawn and Quarterly; this area is definitely worth checking out. These items tend to be historical in nature like Chester Brown's compelling Louis Riel, or autobiographical/confessional like Persepolis, or a combination of the two, as with Maus or Joe Sacco's Palestine. It can be overwhelming, all of the autobiography going on here, but there are unique gems too.
I'm happy to hear any other recommendations, either for comic newbies or veterans of the field. I'm also hoping to look into bandes dessinees, so if anyone with a better knowledge of French than me has read the stuff, I would be grateful to hear from you.
You must log in to post a comment.