Reading Comics, Part 5

Brad Hawley continues his series on How to Read Comics. If you missed the previous columns, be sure to start with Part 1: Why Read Comics? (Or find the entire series here.)

Reading Comics, Part 5: Good Reference Material

by Dr. Brad K. Hawley

In my first four-part essay (see links above), I offered reasons for reading comics and suggested how one go about appreciating the art of comics by paying attention to what often goes unnoticed at first, much as one might not notice how important film angles or film editing is to the art of cinematography. In this next series of essays, I will begin giving recommendations. This first essay will focus on books dealing with aesthetics, reference books, fiction, and a variety of non-fiction works on comics. The essays coming up after this one will introduce a few more key terms that will aid in purchasing comics and understanding how they are collected for sale after initial publication as individual comics. I will discuss ways to go about selecting titles and deciding whether to purchase comics as single issues, as trades, or as digital books. Then I will begin recommending specific comic books with a focus on The Avengers since the movie, perhaps the best superhero movie Hollywood has produced to date, has just come out. Finally, I will recommend a variety of titles that offer a good entry into the world of comics, focusing on contemporary titles as the best entry point for the new reader of comic books.

My first recommendation must be Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, because — along with my reading and teaching comics — it is the basis for my previous essays. His book is a comic book itself and is a work of art appreciation for comics — he does an excellent job of showing and explaining in an accessible way how comics function on multiple levels simultaneously. If you are even slightly the studious type and start reading comics, you’ll want this book on your reference shelf. I also recommend Comic Books 101: The History, Methods, and Madness by Chris Ryall and Scott Tipton. They provide a history of comics, focusing on the main publishers (including the most important second-tier publishers after DC and Marvel) and the most important creators, and in the course of doing so, they recommend enough specific titles to keep you busy for a life-time. This book, along with McCloud’s, is essential.

If you are looking for books that focus primarily on recommending specific titles, The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels by Danny Fingeroth is useful in suggesting sixty titles that fall into the more serious “graphic novel” category in the way people often use “graphic novel” to mean something other than and better than mere “comic books.” I don’t like the distinction; but you’ll notice that many people will say they read graphic novels instead of comic books, and by doing so, suggest that comic books are immature and are for children. To me, this tendency, instead of raising the respectability of comics, just clarifies in people’s minds that most comics are not worthy of being placed in the category we call “art.” But still, this book is a good overview of respected titles with less an emphasis on superheroes comics. If you want to read graphic novels in this more narrow sense and avoid superhero comics as much as possible, this is the reference book for you. However, if you want a balanced understanding of the history of comic books and the role graphic novels (in this narrow sense) play into that history, this book is misleading. Still, it’s great at what it does. It includes an essay about the problems with defining the terms “graphic novel” before giving excellent overviews of sixty major artistic works in the field.

Another good reference book is the more complete 500 Essential Graphic Novels: The Ultimate Guide by Gene Kannenberg, Jr. Kannenberg uses the term “graphic novel” in its broadest sense to include 1) trades that stand alone even though they were originally serialized (Watchmen by Moore & Gibbons and Batman: Year One by Miller & Mazzucchelli), 2) trades published all at once as book-length comics with no planned follow-up work instead of serialized comics (Arkham Asylum by Morrison & McKean and The Alcoholic by Ames & Haspiel), and 3) trade collections of individual comics that usually, but not always, comprise one or more story arcs (The Sandman: Season of the Mists by Neil Gaiman and Powers: Who Killed Retro Girl? By Bendis & Oeming). 500 Essential Graphic Novels is divided by genre: Adventure, Non-Fiction, Crime and Mystery, Fantasy, General Fiction, Horror, Humor, Science Fiction, Superheroes, and War. Each section starts with the top ten suggested novels in the genre before giving 20-40 more recommendations. This excellent resource shows clearly how broad the subject matter of comics truly is. I like that Superheroes, as much as I’ve come to appreciate the genre, is presented as only one of ten genres.

Other useful books are more expensive and are for those who are ready to jump in all the way or have already been reading for awhile. The first two of these are large, hard-back volumes that cost quite a bit: DC Comics Year By Year: A Visual Chronicle and Marvel Chronicle: A Year By Year History, both of which are beautiful editions written by a team of authors, and as the titles make clear, they give visual histories of the companies. Finally, I really like the The Vertigo Encyclopedia by Alex Irvine. It focuses on a line of comics within DC Publications that, as Neil Gaiman says in the introduction, was supposed to be “For Mature Readers.” Gaiman, who wrote Sandman for Vertigo, one of the best long-running comic book series of all-time, was recruited by editor Karen Berger who told Gaiman that Vertigo would put out comics that included “stuff that wasn’t normal super-hero books, often written by people from England and Scotland and overseen by Karen [Berger].” In many ways, Vertigo in the 1980s helped make people acknowledge that comic books had grown up and were for adults by putting out amazing titles like these: Swamp Thing, Animal Man, The Invisibles, Human Target, 100 Bullets, Preacher, Transmetropolitan, Y: The Last Man, and Fables.

There are a few other books I’d like to recommend in the category of general history of, reference for, and introduction to comic books. First, I highly recommend Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Chabon shows through his novel the important role that Jewish immigrants played in shaping comics as we know them today. His characters are based on many of the real people who wrote and illustrated comics and were, for the most part, first generation children of Jewish immigrants: Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg), Jerome “Jerry” Siegel, Joseph “Joe” Shuster, Joseph “Joe” Simon, William Eisner, and, most famous of all, Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber). Aside from its enlightening subject matter in the context of our discussion, I highly recommend Chabon’s work as one of the “great American novels.” Personally, it’s one of my top ten novels.

For those of you who are interested in superheroes as contemporary mythology, I highly recommend Grant Morrison‘s Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. Morrison, one of the top current comic book writers, has written comic books for many of these characters he analyzes in this insightful work of non-fiction. Almost every page provides some insight into superheroes and how important their stories are to our culture and how similar they are to much traditional mythology, as he explains in terms of Superman, for example: “[Superman] was Apollo, the sun god, the unbeatable supreme self, the personal greatness of which we all know we’re capable…. Superman was the rebirth of our oldest idea: He was a god. His throne topped the peaks of an emergent dime-store Olympus, and, like Zeus, he would disguise himself as a mortal to walk among the common people and stay in touch with their dramas and passions. The parallels continued: His S is a stylized lightning stroke — the weapon of Zeus, motivating bolt of stern authority and just retribution.” Morrison’s book is a fun read and one of the best explanations for the argument made by many adult readers of superhero comic books: Comic books provide an important contemporary mythology. He also mixes in autobiography that is relevant to the creation of his own comics and even offers some explanations of his ideas that went into his creative work. Morrison also spends some time discussing the history of the superhero movie. The movies are further proof of one of his arguments: people don’t want mere action-packed movies for the hot summer; they want those movies to have meaning as well.

This meaning is explored by contemporary philosophers, particularly through the titles in The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series. These books offer a selection of philosophic essays by a variety of authors. Some of the titles published in this series so far include: Batman and Philosophy, X-Men and Philosophy, Watchmen and Philosophy, Iron Man and Philosophy, Green Lantern and Philosophy, Spider-Man and Philosophy, and The Avengers and Philosophy. While not every essay is of equal quality, there are enough thought-provoking essays in each volume to make it worth the cover price. The best essays, while often written by academics and philosophers, are not written solely for an academic audience; they are written with an intelligent, but popular, audience in mind and are pleasurable to read. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every volume I’ve read.

Next time: Part 6, Great Introductions


Author’s Note: This essay wouldn’t be possible without those people who made great recommendations over the past five years. My life-long friend Andy, in particular, has consistently made excellent recommendations and has been willing to answer my questions on a weekly and all-to-often daily basis (the poor guy is probably beginning to see the downside to texts at this point). I also want to thank those who work in comic book stores for their help: Ken, Zach, Rory, Hart, Roxanne, and Amjad. With them around, who needs Wikipedia?

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BRAD HAWLEY earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Read Brad's series on HOW TO READ COMICS.

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4 comments

  1. Brad — these are great columns! I do have a question. I thought “graphic novel” actually referred to the perfect-bound compilation of a series of comic books, like Sandman, for instance. I thought the comic book was the thin flexible magazine-like edition that contains a single segment. Is this incorrect?

  2. Brad Hawley /

    The terms “graphic novel” and “comic book” are vague because “graphic novel” could refer to a trade collection of comics OR a book-length comic book that was never issued serially. “Comic book” is vague because it could refer to either a specific issue or a trade collection or a book-length comic book that was never issued serially.

    The term “comic book trade collection” is very specific because it refers to a collection of individual issues. “Batman #10″ is specific because it names a specific issue of a comic (I will get into “volumes” in a later essay in order to explain why there are more than one Batman #10 comics.) These more specific terms, therefore, are very useful because of their precision.

    Many people who use the term “graphic novel” use it to distinguish it from what they see as lesser “comic books” (usually meaning “superhero comics,” a very limited view of the art form to begin with), but as true fans of the art form will tell you, the distinction between high art comics and low art comics is almost as offensive as the common negative view of comics is to begin with. In other words, this use of “graphic novel” often is a label of artistic value or quality and NOT a neutral term to distinguish different formats.

    Here’s how I use the terms: For me, “comic book” is a very broad term and refers to any of these types of formats. I use the word “issue” to refer to a specific title and number. I use the word “trade” to refer to a collection of specific issues, and finally, I use the term “graphic novel” to refer specifically to a book-length comic that was never issued serially. To me these are very different approaches to writing. If an author knows that his audience might have to wait a month between issues, he must write differently (and often with more repetition) than the author of a “graphic novel.” The reader of a graphic novel gets the entire story at once and doesn’t need the repetition. Basically, you can’t read a trade collection the same way you would a graphic novel. You must know that the trade collection was originally serialized and written for an audience that had to wait between issues. Notice that all these terms are neutral. They are different formats and not inherently “better” formats.

    So, most Sandman titles, just like most Superman titles, are trade collections. I find that some people (not all) want to call Sandman trades “graphic novels” to suggest that they are better than Superman “comic books” even if they are in trades. But the formats are the same.

    I have heard one person refer to a specific issue of a comic as a “floppy” but don’t know if that’s technically correct. Even if it is, I haven’t heard it used with any frequency.

    Basically, if you go into a comic book store, you would generally ask where their recent comics are (usually on a wall with the front cover in view), where their old comics are (usually in bins), where their trades and/or graphic novels are, or where their manga comics are. Many, but not all, comic book stores put their manga comics in a separate section (and seem to include under the designation “manga” any comic book that is asian).

    You’ll need to decide how you use these terms and how the person you are talking to is using them (whether they are aware of it or not). Also, be aware that if you walk into a comic book store and ask immediately where their “graphic novels” are, you could possibly be seen as a snob and given the cold shoulder! Those of us who read comics are proud of the art form, are tired of people viewing it as not being very intellectual, often have a chip on our shoulders from defending our passion over and over again, and are tired of people who think they read real literature coming into comic book stores with the sense that they are stooping to read a graphic novel, but at least aren’t reading superhero books!

    I hope this long post give you a sense of the ambiguity of these terms, their connotations in different settings, and an understanding of why the comic book reading community often feels so defensive of what they love.

    Peace,
    Brad

  3. So my set of 17 perfect bound paperback Sandman… er, things, are actually trade collections. Now I know!

    The guys at the one comic book store that I frequent are remarkably tolerant of my ignorance and usually quite helpful unless they distract themselves by squabbling over which is the best Elektra version, or something.

  4. My mother actually bought me “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” as a present one year and there is a reason it’s a Pulitzer Prize winner. Great stuff and very insightful into the history of the industry. It makes the lives of New York city writers interesting!
    (btw, I know putting all these titles in quotes is technically wrong, but I work with what I got…)

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