Interlude – The Visual Word

One of the symptoms of my recent/ongoing/whenwilliteverstop illness is a low ability to concentrate. In my case, this manifests itself mainly as an inability to read and comprehend much more than a sentence at a time. Well done, body and brain. Well done. Just when I’m spending most time sitting and lying down because my body’s revolting (in the sense of an uprising against me, rather than being repulsive… although give me a few more sedentary months with chocolate…), my brain flakes out on the one thing I’ve actually got most time to do. Seriously, well done. All the time in the world to read, and I can’t read.

However…

For some reason, I can manage graphic novels and comic books. I’ve no idea what it is about them that makes them comprehensible to my current brain-state. Perhaps it’s the fact that virtually all the text comes in short, digestible chunks of dialogue and thought (apart from you, From Hell… you were hard work). Perhaps it’s that the descriptive text that makes up so much of standard, normal, non-graphic fiction (umm… is there a proper term for this?) is replaced by images, reducing the form to that of almost pure story. Perhaps it’s that the stories themselves are almost always episodic in nature – chunks of chunks, conveniently reducing the cognitive load. Whatever it is, it works for me.

I’m a relative newcomer to the realm of comics and graphic novels – a couple of months ago, I’d only read a couple – but I’ve had a few people ask me if I have any recommendations. Yes. Yes, I do. Here are a few of the books and series that have blown me away.

Side note: Every single one of the books that follows contains graphic violence and extremely strong language. I don’t know what that says about me as a person, but there it is.

Watchmen (1987) – Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

Watchmen

Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!”…

…and I’ll look down, and whisper “No.”

Rorschach’s opening words in Watchmen

This book is some sort of rite of passage for anyone who wants to get into comics and graphic novels. Like Moore’s V for Vendetta, it’s very much a product of its time, with Cold War paranoia oozing through every frame. Unlike V though, it doesn’t seem to have aged much. Watchmen is drawn and coloured in a timeless, standard superhero-genre fashion: strong black lines and bold, often primary colours. Every frame jumps off the page and pulls you in.

But this is no superhero comic. The main characters in Watchmen are (with the exception of the virtually omnipotent super-being Dr Manhattan) simply people who chose to don costumes and fight for the American way of life… and many of them are pretty unpleasant people. The book is rife with antiheroes, with Rorschach’s unshakeable moral absolutism driving the plot forward through broken finger after broken finger.

I’ll admit, the last chapter or two didn’t fully do it for me. It seemed a step too far in an unrealistic direction, after so much time spent in a plausible world. But it was still great stuff. I’d highly recommend Watchmen.

Daytripper (2010) – Fábio Moon & Gabriel Bá

Daytripper

This is one of the few graphic novels I’d read before this illness. Through ten chapters, Daytripper tells the story of ten different possible endings to the life of Brazilian obituary writer Brás de Oliva Domingos. Sounds pretty bleak?

It’s not at all. It’s a sort of magical-realist paean to family, to love and to life itself. If that sounds massively sentimental and overly soppy… yeah, it kind of is. But it works, and mainly because of the incredible artwork. A contrast from Watchmen‘s rigid nine-frames-per-page layout, Moon and Bá strew frames across the page (although not with quite the same abandon as some of Sandman‘s artists, more of which later) and fill them with faces, places and emotion.

For a book about mortality, it’s surprisingly positive. Recommended for everyone. (And probably the least violent book in this post, although there are still a few bloody pages.)

Saga (2012–ongoing) – Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

Saga

Ah, Saga. Look at the image above. A woman with wings and a slightly silly asymmetric haircut is holding a gun and breastfeeding a baby. A man with curly horns, goat ears and a sword has his arm around her. Does any of that put you off? No? Go out and read Saga now.

Even if it does put you off, I say go and read Saga anyway. At the moment, it’s only two volumes old with a third volume due in a couple of months, but it’s already a favourite of mine. Vaughan seems to have seen the freedom offered by a fantasy sci-fi setting and taken an “everything but the kitchen-sink… ah, what the hell, I’ll throw in the kitchen sink too” approach to Saga. Interplanetary warfare, wings, horns, magic, anthropomorphic rodents, teenage ghosts, living wooden spaceships, an entire nobility consisting of androids with televisions for heads (one of the main characters is Prince Robot IV)… it’s all in there.

There are no deep explorations of morality, or the nature of free will, or anything like that. This is pure, unadulterated fun in an over-the-top space-opera universe, with Buffy-esque tongue-in-cheek dialogue throughout. And that’s just the writing. The real icing on the cake is Staples’ artwork. Of everything I’ve read in the graphic format, Saga contains my favourite art. Every detail is beautifully realised and consistent from frame to frame. This feels like a real, ongoing story that the reader just happens to have walked in on halfway through. My only personal gripe with the art is that virtually every character is insanely beautiful; a bit more ugliness wouldn’t go amiss. That might just be me though.

Note: Saga does have quite a bit of graphic sexual content in it. There. I warned you. It doesn’t bother me, but it does bother some.

Sandman (1989–1996, now ongoing again) – Neil Gaiman & various artists

Sandman

Like Watchmen, Gaiman’s Sandman is something of a ‘must-read’ for those new to comics and graphic novels. This is very different fare though, and it sprawls quite differently across the twelve volumes that make up the original series.

I’ve only read the first three volumes, with the fourth waiting on my shelf, so I can’t comment on the full series. What I’ve read so far has varied in style and tone so widely that it can be hard to piece it together as a consistent narrative; in fact, it’s not intended to fit together in that way. Rather, it’s a collection of short stories, each of which feature dreams… and Dream, the main character of the series.

I started out sure that I’d love this series, but I don’t quite love it as much as I expected. Nevertheless, I can see that it’s brilliant writing and the art is superb in every story, which keeps bringing me back for more, and I like the variety. This is probably a series I’ll keep dipping back into for a long time yet.

Locke & Key (2008–2013) – Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez

Locke and Key

I can’t quite put my finger on why I like Locke & Key as much as I do. It’s essentially a supernatural teen-drama. But I suppose it’s a supernatural teen-drama with a superb premise: the Locke family (minus the father, Rendell, who gets killed off in the first few pages of the first issue) move into the old family home, which is full of keys with wildly varying supernatural powers. Many chapters revolve around the discovery of a new key (often by six-year-old Bode) and how its powers affect the ongoing story arc. And just like all great writing, just when you think the story’s been neatly rounded up for the chapter, there’s a neat little twist that makes you want to carry on reading.

Locke & Key is unusual in this post in that it’s the only title I’ve read solely in digital form. The Comixology app for iPad offers instant download of pretty much every comic and graphic novel you can think of, usually substantially cheaper than the print edition. I’ve read a few free first issues on the app (that’s how they suck you in), but none have really worked on screen so well as Locke & Key. It’s down to the bold, detailed art style – it really sings with a backlight.

I’ve read the first four volumes, with two more to go (the final one will be released in a few weeks), and although the supernatural story has escalated a pretty long way, it hasn’t quite reached Stephen-King-level silliness. Yet. I fear it may run in the family – Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King – but the twist at the end of the fourth volume is a great set-up for the last couple of chunks.

Honourable mentions

I’m wearing myself out by actually thinking here (and this post has already taken a couple of days to put together), so I’ll quickly round up a few others that have tickled my awesome button.

From Hell (1999) – Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell

As I said above, this was hard work for me, and it’s really not going to be a book for everyone. It’s a graphic, graphic exploration of a hypothesis surrounding the Whitechapel murders of 1888. Rolling in themes of existentialism, Freemasonry and royal conspiracies through the medium of dark, murky and very explicit art, it’s a worthwhile read. But it’s a bit of a slog at times.

Revival (2012–ongoing) – Tim Seeley & Mike Norton

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Another zombie story. But this one’s a bit different. Here, the “revivers” aren’t bloodthirsty, flesh-eating monsters. They’re just like they were when they were alive the first time around. And this isn’t a zombie story about zombies; it’s a zombie story about people in a rural American town. I’m not sure about the other supernatural element that’s creeping into Revival over its two volumes so far, but I’m going to stick with it for now.

Ghost World (1997) – Daniel Clowes

I ploughed through this in one 90-minute sitting. It’s just a wonderful series of vignettes about growing up and being massively insecure, but the truly great part is the dialogue. It’s got that perfect level of teenage-girl snark.

OK, that’s enough for now. I’m off to read Chew, a series about a detective who experiences visions every time he eats anything other than beetroot. That’s what I love about comics: the creators can take absolutely any idea, no matter how ridiculous, and roll with it… and occasionally come up with something brilliant.

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