Comic books are an underrated type of media. Many people tend to dismiss comics as being trashy or generally not as ‘important’ as novels or other literature, and others accuse them of being ‘geeky’ or purile. In reality though, comics are actually a highly versatile medium and offer something different and refreshing compared to conventional literature.
Firstly they give you an art form that combines two different mediums, so that you can appreciate great artwork and a good plot/dialogue. This then allows the images to be composed just as a director might film scenes by taking into account both the plot and the visual element. The writer and artist can this way direct the readers’ attention wherever they want it – pull away for big reveals, show the tiny details, misdirect, or create huge splash pages of action. One reason that this lends itself so well to the superhero genre is that it allows for huge impressive fight scenes and the kinds of special effect that would have a huge budget if they had to be done by a CGI company or with physical effects. With comics there’s no restriction. And some superhero stories have more to them than you might expect – in many ways these are the modern day myths and legends. Like Hercules or Achiles; and the plots are often just as addictive and compulsive as they are in TV shows like 24 or Prison Break.
But comics do not have to be superheroes either and the format lends itself to some very artistic and/or highbrow creations. At the same time it is the perfect setting for comedy, so just like the TV anyone can appreciate a comic whatever their tastes and it is a great way to dip in and out of something without the commitment of a novel or the eye strain of the television. But where to start?
Marvel and DC
Marvel and DC are the two big comics publishers owned by Disney (a recent purchase) and Warner Bros respectively. Both are predominately superhero comics, and both have their own ‘universe’ and timeline meaning that all the characters interact within that imprint. While Spider-Man and Iron Man are separate characters for instance and have separate storylines, things Spider-Man does can have repercussions on Iron Man and vice versa. At the same time they both appear in the Avengers book together, and have a shared history that spans back to the 60s when they were first created. Iron Man will interact with Superman though as Superman is DC. Essentially: Batman, Robin, Green Lantern, Super-Man, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, Martian Manhunter and Aquaman are all DC, and Iron Man, Spider-Man, Wolverine, The X-Men, The Hulk, Thor, The Punisher, Captain America, Daredevil and Ghost Rider are all Marvel. If you think the names are cheesy then that is because many of them were invented in the 60s – and this is alluded to in the comics.
While these two ongoing stoylines and interactions make the books very addictive however, they also can make it hard to get started. If you want to have a go then watch the websites of the two companies to see what is going on. At the same time head to your local comics shop and look for a story that is a ‘part one’ which will offer a good jumping on point. You’ll start to pick things up in no time. Some stories however of course work perfectly well stand-alone titles and can often be picked up in collected ‘trade paper back’ form. Read a few of these to get started, some good titles are: The Ultimates (volume 1), Iron Man: Extremis, Civil War, The Dark Knight Returns, Identity Crisis, Superman for Tomorrow 1 & 2, Spider-Man: The Other, Batman: Hush.
Of course though Marvel and DC aren’t the only comic book publishers around and there are plenty of ‘independent’ and smaller publishers such as Oni Press, DarkHorse and IDW that produce some more off-the-wall titles that are more open to experimentation and less dictated by their ‘universes’ and ‘rules’. This is where some more experimental stories occur and the boundaries get pushed a little. At the same time this is the place where comics aren’t necessarily all about Superheroes so you can try something a little more high-brow or comedic. Again most of these can be ordered in trade-paperback online and some good ones to look out for are:
Maus: A story about the holocaust featuring mice. A black and white book that shows that comics can be both serious and powerful.
The Sandman: A series of comics about dreams by novelist Neil Gaiman that has developed something of a cult following.
Hell Boy: An indie comic that has been turned into a relatively successful film series. About a wise talking devil-thing and a team of other ‘freaks’.
The Watchmen: Actually by a smaller imprint of DC. This has also been turned into a comic really and is about superheroes but with a more serious and artistic bent. Very ambitious and experimental (see for instance the ‘comic within a comic’) and hailed as one of the best comics of all time.
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: A comic that teams up various literary heroes and legendary characters such as Nemo and The Invisible Man. Not what you at first expect and quite explicit in places.
Sin City: A gritty ‘noir’ style series of stories about vice and grime.
300: A comic about the Spartan warriors. Non-fiction that uses a very heavy artistic license in reporting the facts.
Scott Pilgrim: A comedy series that is very inventive with its frames and direction. Also available as a very interactive and multimedia ‘app’ for Android phones.