Thursday, February 09, 2006

Two Dozen Or So Excellent Graphic Novels That You've Probably Never Heard Of

I've been thinking about doing this for about a week or so, and now I'm finally pulling books off of the shelves to do it. (Note: "now," in this case, was the evening of January 23rd. This post has been gestating a long time.)

Every so often, magazines and websites list "the Ten Best Modern Comics," or something like that, and it's always the same things. So I'm taking it as written that, by this point, you've heard of Maus and Watchmen and Safe Area Gorazde and Jimmy Corrigan. This list is of other books, ones that are more obscure, but still very worth reading (especially to readers who aren't already fans of the spandex crowd that infest most comics). I'll also try to give somewhat fuller bibliographic information, in case anyone wants to go out and find any of these. (Though, looking at the assembled details, I'd imagine most of these are long out of print. Oops.) My shelves are alphabetical by author (or, at least, they're supposed to be), so this list should be as well:
  • David Boswell, Reid Fleming, World's Toughest Milkman: Rogue to Riches (Vancouver, BC, Canada: Deep-Sea Comics, 1998; $13.95 trade paperback)
    A lot of the comics I'm going to recommend here are odd, idiosyncratic things, with various bizarre elements that don't seem like they should go together. This one is relatively normal in that company, being the well-drawn story of a surly milkman and his battles with the his unpleasant boss and overseer. Well, and his love life. And "the Perils of Ivan," his favorite TV show, which is about a skeleton sitting in a chair all day. It's very funny, and surreal in an unexpectedly grounded way.
  • Bob Burden, Flaming Carrot Comics, Collected Album No. 2: The Wild Shall Wild Remain! (Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Comics, 1997; $17.95 trade paperback)
    But here we get into as pure a dose of weirdness as comics -- or any medium -- can provide. Bob Burden is the wild man of comics, and the Carrot is his greatest creation; a low-budget superhero in a blue-collar town, battling dead dogs, zombies, and spindly aliens with an atomic pogo stick, a broken yo-yo, and the most unlikely dialogue you've ever read. This is the kind of story that gets called "dream-like," but it's not like any dream I've ever had; it's more like suddenly seeing into someone else's head, and not understanding the significance of half of what you see. Most of the series has been collected into four volumes, but the first is not as strong as the later books; this one finds the Carrot hitting his stride.
  • Eddie Campbell, Alec: The King Canute Crowd (Paddington, Queensland, Australia: Eddie Campbell Comics/Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Comics, 2000, $14.50 trade paperback)
    Pseudo-autobiographical comics, of the "why and how I became an artist" variety, from the writer/artist of the excellent Bacchus/Deadface series (and also the artist of From Hell, written by Alan Moore). I chose this one for accessibility to readers of prose "education of an artist" books, but the various Bacchus collections are also good introductions to his work (they showcase the ancient wine-god in modern times, usually telling his own versions of old myths and occasionally getting caught up in the battles of the other, very few, surviving gods). If you like this one, there are three more volumes of "Alec" stories.
  • Zander Cannon, The Replacement God (San Jose, CA: Amaze Ink/Slave Labor Graphics, 1997, $19.95 trade paperback)
    The beginning of a good epic fantasy story, in comics form, with a lot of interesting touches and an engaging, loose black & white drawing style. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like he could make a living doing this, because after a few more issues for another publisher, this series hasn't been seen for at least five years. Maybe it will come back someday; I hope it does. And this book stands just fine on its own, though the larger problems are still unresolved at the end.
  • Evan Dorkin, Who's Laughing Now? (San Jose, CA: Slave Labor Graphics, 2001, $11.95 trade paperback)
    Dorkin is not the first name that comes to mind when you think of autobiographical cartoonists, but I find his cartoony, steeped-in-pop-culture style and strong layouts makes his life (and mental anguish -- well, particularly his mental anguish) gripping reading. Some of these stories are laugh-out-loud funny, and some are borderline horrifying looks into the mind of a guy who's read too many comics and is too obsessed with his own childhood entertainment to function well in the world. (And, of course, that's nothing like any of us other comics-reading folks, right?) This isn't all autobiography, by any means, and even the personal stories are seen through a fantastic lens, so it's a great book for readers who, like Dorkin, feel like they've grown out of superheroes but don't want to leave comics behind.
  • Matt Feazell, Ert!: Not Available Comics (Detroit, MI: Caliber Press, 1995, $12.95 trade paperback)
    Feazell is the creator of Cynicalman, Cute Girl, and dozens of other extremely funny stick-figure characters. He used to (and for all I know, may still) write and draw mini-comics, and this is a collection of his best stuff as of a decade ago. He's very funny, and the stick figures are surprisingly expressive.
  • Bob Fingerman, Beg the Question (Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2002, $24.95 hardcover)
    Semi-autobiographical story of hipsters in early '90s NYC, having lots of sex (well, the couple we follow have a lot of sex with each other; it's not a bed-hopping stroke book), trying to do good comics work, and toiling in the fields of low-rent porno comics. Fingerman's people are fleshy and lumpy, which works well in a story that's in large part about ambivalent feelings about different kids of sex (real, imaginary, cartoon) -- his characters aren't pneumatic sex robots, and the point of the story isn't to see Tab A go into Slot B repeatedly for several pages. But there is enough sex here that you wouldn't want to hand it to your ten-year-old. (That could be a plus or a minus, depending on the audience.)
  • Andy Garcia, Big City: The Complete Oblivion City Saga (San Jose, CA: Slave Labor Graphics, 1995, $19.95 trade paperback)
    More scratchy black and white art about strange people inhabiting a surreal city; I think I've found the kind of comics I like best. This one is very obscure, but a lot of fun.
  • Marc Hempel, A Gregory Treasury 1 (New York, NY: DC Comics, 2004, $9.95 trade paperback)
    Gregory is a big-headed person (probably a child, but it's hard to tell) who lives, wrapped in a straitjacket, in some kind of mental hospital. He doesn't talk, really. His only friend is a rat, Herman Vermin, who does talk -- too much. It's funny, it's cheap, so just go buy it. There's a second volume, too.
  • Greg Hyland, The Big Book of Lethargic Lad (Brookfield, CT: Destination Entertainment, 1998, $15.95 trade paperback)
    The funniest '90s superhero parodies I've ever seen (Mark Martin holds down the '80s crown), and laugh-out-loud funny even for someone (such as me) who hasn't read any of the things being parodied. Actually, this is probably "satire" more than "parody," since it's only rarely commenting on a specific story, rather than a trend or style. The series now appears on-line and in the back pages of Dork Tower -- in fact, it's the reason I started reading Dork Tower.
  • Scott McCloud, Zot! Book 1 (Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press, 1997, $34,95 trade paperback)
    Light-hearted adventure comics, set in an alternate early '60s world of the future and featuring a girl from our world who crosses over to befriend (and maybe fall in love with) Zot!, the greatest hero of that world. If Mort Weisinger Superman comics a) made sense and b) didn't have plots that required Superman to be a dick, they might be like this. There were three volumes collecting the series before Kitchen Sink went under; unfortunately, the best run of the series would have been in the fourth volume. Oh, well. What was collected is still awfully good.
  • Frank Miller & Bill Sienkiewicz, Elektra: Assassin (New York, NY: Marvel Comics, 2000, $24.95 trade paperback)
    Miller's done more famous works (Sin City, his various Batman books), and has done works as good (and arguably more accessible) than this. But this is one of the great books to show what modern adventure comics are capable of. The art style is manic expressionist, using one of the widest palette of colors (and styles of color) that I've ever seen. The pages are drenched in words, as well: several levels of narration/internal monologue, and the kind of dialogue Miller used to be able to write before his brain got eaten. This book has ties to Miller's Daredevil run, but you don't need to know anything to start reading it -- in fact, knowing Marvel continuity could be a detriment to enjoying this book. It's about a possibly-crazy female ninja assassin (who should be dead), the government agents investigating her, and somebody's plot to destroy the world.
  • Peter Milligan, Brett Ewins & Steve Dillon, Skreemer (New York, NY: DC Comics, 2002, $19.95 trade paperback)
    I lied a few weeks ago, when I said Ex Machina was the first successful SF comic I'd ever seen; I'd forgotten about this one. Of course, the SF is really just a skin on a gangster story, which could have been set in any era. (As I recall, there's nothing here that needed to be science fictional.) But this is a great gangster story, with all of the necessary fear and loathing and violence, and the slightly spiky, '80s-looking art carries the story well.
  • Pat Mills & Kevin O'Neill, Marshal Law: Fear and Loathing (London, UK: Titan Books, 2002, $24.99)
    If you hate superheroes -- and I know I do -- you must read Marshall Law. He's a cop in a satirical near-future world where government-designed ex-supersoldiers are running wild. Luckily, he loves killing them. Kevin O'Neill is the only artist ever told by the high and mighty Comics Code Authority (of the USA, and back in the day when they actually meant something) that his entire style was unacceptable under the code. There's also a pretty good story in this one, besides the random superhero slaughter. (And the game of spot-the-reference doesn't really start being a major part of the series until later stories.)
  • Steve Purcell, The Collected Sam & Max: Surfin' the Highway (New York, NY: Marlowe & Company, 1995, $12.95 trade paperback)
    Those guys from that crazy old LucasArts computer game? Yeah, they were a comic first. And the comic is funnier. For those of you who don't know them, Sam and Max are a suit-wearing anthropomorphic dog and a borderline psychotic (but extremely cute) bunny. They're also freelance police.
  • Scott Saavedra, Dr. Radium Battles Phill, King of of the Pill Bugs! (San Jose, CA: Amaze Ink/Slave Labor Graphics, 2004, $9.95 trade paperback)
    If "She Blinded Me With Science" was a comic...well, it still wouldn't be much like this, but they're both goofy crazy-scientist artifacts of the '80s, so that's a good enough comparison for government work. Saavedra did Dr. Radium conics for a long time, in a variety of formats, but they've been recently collected (complete, I think) into three small volumes, starting with this one. Buy them and see the fabulous world of the future!
  • Will Jacobs, Gerard Jones, Tim Hamilton & Dave Garcia, The Trouble With Girls (Newbury Park, CA: Eternity Comics/Malibu Graphics, 1989, $7.95 trade paperback)
    Lester Girls is a reluctant hero. He always ends up saving the world, defeating the maniacal supervillains, shutting off the doomsday devices and bedding several supermodels at a time, but what he really wants to do is find time to sit quietly and read The Red Pony. But he's a polite and respectful young man, so he always does what he has to. The humor is broad and most would call it sexist (though this was, at the time, my wife's favorite comic, and one of the very few she'd read at all). I haven't re-read it in ages, but this was amazingly funny when it was at its best.
  • Ty Templeton, Stig's Inferno (Toronto, ON, Canada: Vortex Graphics, 1988, $6.95 trade paperback)
    Templeton is probably best known for his loose, energetic, cartoony art for various DC Comics titles over the past decade or so. (Lately he seems to have been working just an an inker, which I hope he enjoys, because it depressed the hell out of me to think about it.) This was his first comics work: the very funny story of a guy who accidentally goes to hell and ends up in charge of the place. If the world were fair, this would have been a huge hit and collected into many fat volumes, and Ty would now be working on something else equally funny and cool. Sadly, that is not the case -- but we do have this slim book to remind us of the world that could have been.
  • Andi Watson, Breakfast After Noon (San Jose, CA: Slave Labor Graphics, 2001, $19.95 trade paperback)
    Watson writes low-key comics stories focused on characters, which is a real rarity -- most of comics is either spandex lunatics, bizarre adventure stories, or autobiographical mutterings. He also has a nice art style that lends itself well to black and white reproduction (it almost looks like charcoal on art paper, though I'm pretty sure it isn't). This is one of his best stories, about a couple fighting with each other over the things we all fight about; it's just a nice story that in prose would be "mainstream" but in comics is about as unlikely and different as you can get (unfortunately).
  • Kyle Baker, Why I Hate Saturn (New York, NY: Piranha Press/DC Comics, 1990, $14.95 trade paperback)
    I can't tell you what an effect this had on my friends and I when it came out in 1990. Sure, there had been "good comics" before, like Maus and Watchmen, but those were generally serialized beforehand. And most of them were extensions of the usual comic-booky ideas (even Maus, with its sly Mickey-Mouseness). Why I Hate Saturn appeared simply as a book, and it was clearly a graphic novel -- a single story, told in comics form -- that had nothing to do with the usual four-color world. It was funny, it was touching, it was real. There are damn few great pure graphic novels out there, and this is the first one I found. I don't know if it will strike readers today the way it did me, but I can't doubt that it's still a wonderful story, told just the right way by a master.
  • Jean-Michel Charlier & Jean "Moebius" Giraud, Blueberry 1: Chihuahua Pearl (New York, NY: Epic Comics/Marvel Comics, 1989, price unknown, trade paperback)
    I've never been a big fan of Moebius's work; I've generally found it pretentious and off-putting (though that could be the fault of the translations). But the westerns he illustrated are a different story: wonderful landscapes, magnificent page designs, instantly recognizable characters -- all of Moebius's strengths are put to work in service of an exciting adventure story with philosophical undertones (instead of the opposite, in his own works).
  • Phil Foglio, Buck Godot: Zap Gun for Hire (Norfolk, VA: Starblaze Graphics, 1986, $7.95 trade paperback)
    Foglio also did the great sex comic of the '90s (Xxxenophile), but I thought that was a little too far out for this list. Buck Godot exists in two old album-sized graphic novels (of which this is the first) from Starblaze in the mid-80s, and then a short series of comics (never collected, as far as I can tell) in the late '90s. It's funny oddball space adventure that can turn serious when it needs to, drawn with a loose, energetic line and featuring the fattest title character ever in American comics.
  • Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean, Violent Cases (London, UK: Titan Books, 1987, $10.50 trade paperback)
    This was their first comics work, a standalone graphic novel with no connection to anyone else's fictional world. It would be cruel to say it's the best thing they've done, but, on the other hand, it has a power and a feeling all its own that the later Gaiman-McKean collaborations never quite touched. It's a great comic about memory and childhood (two things Gaiman's words and McKean's art evoke very well in general), and all those of us who bought it before Sandman started are sitting over here with smug smiles on our faces.
  • Rick Geary, Housebound With Rick Geary (Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 1991, $11.95 trade paperback)
    Geary has spent the last decade or so doing little books in his "Treasury of Victorian Murder" series, each one telling the story of a relatively famous murder from the second half of the 18th century. And those books are great, don't get me wrong. But I miss Geary's old stuff, the whimsical short pieces and single-page oddities that filled up his first two collections. Geary has a soft, rounded art style with lots of detail -- his people are very recognizable, though they often seem to have been sculpted out of marshmallows. His stories generally have a cheerful, happy disposition, even when they're about murder and mayhem (or if they're two pages of detailed drawings of motel signs). One of the many reasons to want the '70s National Lampoon back is that its great comics section gave space to people like Geary and Sharry Flenniken.
  • William Messner-Loebs & Sam Kieth, Epicurus the Sage (New York, NY: WildStorm Productions/DC Comics, 2003, $19.95 trade paperback)
    This is the collection of two original graphic novels and some related stuff from a decade before, and it's absolutely brilliant. If you know any philosophy types you want to turn onto comics, this is the book for them: the main character is the Greek philosopher Epicurus, of "all things in moderation" fame. This is the kind of book for which nothing is off-limits: sex, drugs, politics, gods, the nature of the universe and of man; it's all here, and it's all charming and thoughtful. And funny, too.
  • Tim Truman, Wilderness, Book 1: The Borderland (Lancaster, PA: 4 Winds Publishing Group, 1989, $12.95 trade paperback)
    Truman has a gritty scratchy style that appeals to me, and which looks better when done for (and presented in) black and white. This is the first volume of his magnum opus (well, at least unless he gets off the can and does the last two Scout series he promised us twenty years ago), a comics retelling of the life of a renegade on the American border around the turn of the 18-19th century. That border, at that point, was somewhere in Pennsylvania, of course. It's absolutely gripping, and the violence is nasty and real in a way spandex boys can never come close to. It's not a nice piece of American history, but Truman makes it come completely alive.
Whew! I wouldn't have started this if I knew it would take this long. Hope at least some of you find something interesting and new to read out of this exercise.

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