|Miscellaneous||Books about Comics|
This is the second page of my list of Worthwhile Comic Books, devoted to Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superheroes, Humor, Miscellaneous and Books About Comics. For books that would be called Mainstream in any other medium and Crime Stories, see the first page. For why I call these comic books, not graphic novels (and why what you call comic books are actually comics magazines), see my rant called Comics and Comic Books. Note that not many of these have descriptions yet, and I've decided against a strict down-the-list writing of them. I'll try to add at least one or two descriptions every week until the page is complete, but I'll admit that my main concern has been the books on the first page.
I won't claim that Cerebus is the best comic ever written, or even the best fantasy, but it's often my favorite and always near the top and its scope and ambition are impressive. Follow this link to my Cerebus page.
This may well be the greatest fantasy yet done in comics form. Like Cerebus, I've devoted a separate page on this website to Neil Gaiman's Sandman.
If I was ever asked to do a cover-blurb for Bone, I know exactly what I'd say. In my year-end roundup of "graphic novels" (how I hate that term) for the Post-Dispatch for 1995 I had extreme space restrictions: only a sentence or two about each book. Of Bone, I said that it has "the surface of Pogo and the depth of Lord of the Rings." I'll still stand by that as the best shorthand version of what Bone is like.
This is one of the few truly all ages comics around, in the sense that my daughter first read it at 8 and liked it, and it holds the attention of this 40-something jaded adult. While parents who read the first book and thinks it's a delightful, light tale may be surprised at how serious the story turns out to be later, there is little objectionable here, and one would have to be an oafishly overprotective boob to object to even what there is.
For instance, fairly early on, Bone takes a bath in the river with a naked young woman named Thorn (he's naked, too, but he doesn't wear any clothes anyway). But neither of their bodies are shown, just her clothing on the bank, while we listen to their word balloons. More importantly, the entire tone of the scene is innocent, like Donna Reed in the bushes in "It's a Wonderful Life." If you didn't object to that scene, there's no reason to object to this one.
The story begins as Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone are run out of Boneville due to another of Phoney Bone's schemes blowing up in his face. Separated, the Bones become lost and end up in a strange valley . . . Find out more at the Official BONE Web Page. My review of Bone ran in the GET OUT entertainment magazine of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during a short period in 1995 when I had a regular comics feature there.
The Books of Magic
Not my favorite work by Neil Gaiman, this is nonetheless interesting. Timothy Hunter has the potential for being the greatest worker of magic - real magic, not the David Copperfield kind - in this age, and four DC characters with powerful ties to the supernatural decide to initiate him into their world. Supposedly, he is to be offered a choice whether or not to use his gifts or reject them utterly. If you don't believe in magic, you can live in a world where it doesn't exist. But once you know it's there, it becomes a potent force in your life.
The characters include Dr. Occult, one of the oldest characters in the DC Universe (created by Siegel & Shuster before they sold Superman to DC), Mr. E. (who I, for one, had never heard of prior to this and thus seems a little out of place here), The Phantom Stranger (whose comic was one of my favorites when I was about my daughter's current age) and John Constantine, a relative newcomer to the DC Universe, having been created by Alan Moore during his run on Swamp Thing in the 1980s. Each takes Timothy on a journey, one to the past, one through the present, one into Faerie, and one into the future. Along the way, he sees many things, and meets just about every character in the DC Universe with supernatural powers.
The whole thing is more of a stunt than it is a real story, but Gaiman pulls it off well, ably assisted four artists (one for each of the original "books" in the miniseries): John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess and Paul Johnson. I had never heard of Johnson before, and didn't entirely like the style he used for depicting Timothy and Mr. E's walk through the future, but his ability and skill are readily apparent, and his rendering of faces alone proves he belongs in the same company as the other three.
Still, the whole thing left me not-quite-satisfied, and I have never had any interest in picking up the Books of Magic magazine that continued from this miniseries, and is now up to about issue 50. This is certainly not vintage Gaiman, but it has its moments.
Dracula: A Symphony in Moonlight & Nightmares
This is a very strange book. Although obviously inspired by Bram Stoker's novel and featuring characters with the same names as several of his main characters, it is a completely different story. So much so that it bears almost no relation to the original, save for the fact that the title character is, indeed, a vampire.
Muth concentrates on the seductiveness and sexuality that have always been the underpinnings of the vampire tale in literature and film, beginning with the beautiful woman in a white dress on her knees on the cover, her dress pooled around her and blood spilled on one part of it. The cover painting is photorealistic. The inside watercolors are more impressionistic, but no less astounding. Not technically a comic to the purists who demand panels and word baloons, this story is nonetheless told by its pictures as much as its words. Indeed, the words seem to exist because of the pictures, rather than vice-versa. It is definitely not just an illustrated story.
Muth's art is breathtakingly beautiful and seductive, at time surrealistic. This is not Bram Stoker's Dracula, but a dark dream of Muth's own based on some of the same material.
The Mythology of an Abandoned City
Jon J. Muth again. A complicated, surrealistic spy story. This book makes The Prisoner seem straightforward. Pencil art, reproduced exquisitely. The art is, again, astonishing. Muth's training is as a painter, and compared to these two books most art in comics is laughable. The last part, an epilogue of sorts, is a dream-tale done in a different style, one that has an almost tangible realism. I would say it's photographic, but even that would be no compliment - a camera could not capture this reality.
If you've never seen Muth's art (he also did Moonshadow with writer J.M. DeMatteis, which probably ought to be here, but I've not seen the collected edition and I'm trying to stick to books I own), you owe it to your eyes to pick up one of these books and give them a feast. The stories are good, too, but I admit that with these two books I don't really care about the writing. Buy them for the art.
Viking Glory: The Viking Prince
Lee Marrs and Bo Hampton present what is essentially a historical novel about 10th Century Germanic tribesmen, thoroughly researched and beautifully presented. There is, however, a dragon, which means the tale properly belongs here. The dragon doesn't make his appearance until near the end, but somehow you know there's going to be something like a dragon from the beginning. It's that kind of story.
I'm not really familiar with the Viking Prince as a character previous to this. My guess is that this is a story from early in his career, but I could be wrong. It doesn't matter much, because with no familiarity at all with the character, I nonetheless enjoyed this book a lot.
If you like tales of derring-do and devious villains and saucy princesses who can teach a Viking Hero a thing or two, this is your book. None other than Will Eisner provides the introduction, and points out a couple of examples of how the graphic storytelling presented here is superb. Hey, if it's good enough for Will Eisner, it's good enough for me.
The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde
If you've not been exposed to Wilde's fairy tales, they're not what you might expect. Not at all cynical or revisionist, they are lyrical and lovely, ranging from poignant and almost melancholy to cheerful and delightful. P. Craig Russell, one of the most impressive artists ever to be drawn to the medium of sequential storytelling, gives them lush adaptations that are far more than just illustrating the words, but incorporating the pictures into the storytelling while keeping much of Wilde's wonderful language intact.
Deadface: Immortality Isn't Forever
The first volume collecting Eddie Campbell's stories about Bacchus, the God of Wine, who looks every bit of his 4,000 years. And at that, he's lucky - Zeus and most of the rest of the gods of Olympus are dead. I've always preferred Campbell's autobiographical Alec stories to Bacchus, but there's no denying the appeal of the character or the education to be gleaned from his retelling of the ancient myths. And although some don't like his scratchy style, I'd pay to see Campbell illustrate a grocery list.
V for Vendetta
This isn't really a science fiction story, but since it's set in the future I decided to put it here. Sort of a dark take on the superhero mythos, sort of a bleak prediction of the direction our society is headed, mostly a philosophical discourse on anarchy and freedom disguised as an adventure story, this was one of the first major works by Alan Moore. Done for the British magazine Warrior around the same time as Marvelman (itself nearly as groundbreaking and published in the U.S. as Miracleman), it was left unfinished when he came to America to work for DC revamping The Swamp Thing. DC republished the earlier episodes, newly colored but in a muted palette that didn't detract from the original black-and-white art, and Moore and his partner David Lloyd were allowed to bring the story to a conclusion for the first time. The collected edition includes an afterword by Moore that explains some of the story's convoluted history.
Although he doesn't wear a form-fitting costume, V is essentially a reconstruction of the traditional superhero. Unlike Superman or Batman, however, he is a homicidal madman. There is a purpose to his madness, however, and when a society is insane and pathological, one could argue that it needs a madman to help correct its excesses. Moreover, the people V targets for his vendetta are the people responsible for his condition.
That's one reading. Another is that V is quite sane, that the horrific acts he engages in are precisely planned, not by a lunatic, but by an agent of chaos who cold-bloodedly calculates the effect of every move.
There are as many interpretations as there are readers - or even readings, for multiple readings will result in different interpretations by the same reader. One of the greatest examples of the real possibilities of the superhero motif if freed from the cliched stories and restricted expectations of the mainstream.
Considered by some to be the ultimate superhero comic, it is definitely one of the finest science fiction novels of the 1980s - a decade that saw many fine novels. Not eligible for consideration of any of the major prizes because of the "comic books aren't really literature" mentality of most of the awards committees, it nonethless was given a special honorary Hugo Award for "Other Forms" at the World Science Fiction Convention in 1988. Ironically, the winner of the "Best Novel" that year is now out of print, while Wathcmen continues to sell 1,000 copies a month (according to a recent post quoting the publisher of DC comics).
Bitter? Why should I be bitter?
But seriously folks, this is a good book, even if it does feature characters who dress up in goofy costumes and fight crime. In fact, it was one of the first works within the field to really examine that idea in depth. What could make an otherwise rational person become a costumed hero?
The whole thing takes place in an alternate universe, one where the appearance of Action #1 inspired some real people to become real-life superheroes. The original heroes had their heyday in th 1940s, just like the ones in the comics. In the 1950s, a nuclear accident created the first real superhero - Dr. Manhattan, a being whose powers make him not unlike a god.
Although all this is explained in numerous flashbacks, the main action of the story takes place in the 1980s, contemporaneous with the first appearance of the original comics magazines. The story by Alan Moore and the art by Dave Gibbons is incredibly intricate and detailed, the pieces fitting together like a clockwork. Every time you read it you'll see some new panel detail that ties this page in with what was happening on some other page. A tour de force of planning and execution.
Is it, finally, great literature? Frankly, no. Its depth is mostly surface, really, a collection of magician's tricks that offer surprise and delight but few real insights into the human condition. It does not hold up upon comparison to, say Maus or Stuck Rubber Baby. But while it may not be great literature, it is, I would argue, real literature. It rewards repeated rereadings with new discoveries, which puts it above most prose novels ever written, not to mention most other comics.
Although it falls far short of Dave Sim's 500-page minimum, Watchmen is one of the few books I would say qualifies for the oft-misused term "graphic novel."
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