Words and pictures

If you are a regular reader of Hidden City you already know that comic books — or graphic novels, if you prefer — are a form, not a genre. I can no more tell you all about comics in one essay than I could tell you everything you need to know about novels in two thousand words. Nonetheless, should you still harbor the belief that good stories and serious themes only work with words alone, read on.

Batman 80-Page Giant
Batman 80-Page Giant, 1966

I remember my first comic quite clearly. My parents had left me with a babysitter for the first time, so they could go hear Ike and Tina Turner perform somewhere in southern Illinois. When they came home they gave me a Batman comic, a ridiculous 80-page monstrosity prominently featuring the Caped Crusader in a rainbow striped costume. They probably bought it because the classic camp TV show was just starting to air. The gadgets, the mad villains, the friendship between the heroes — it all combined into a world where the impossible was merely improbable, evil was overcome, and where brains were as important as brawn. I read that book until it disintegrated.

Swamp Thing #1
Swamp Thing #1, art by Berni Wrightson

Still, I didn’t make the immediate leap into comics fandom. My next exposure came during our regular trips to my hometown to visit the rest of my relatives. During our stay we’d often go to a used book store downtown which featured boxes and boxes of beat up old comics. You would get a paper grocery bag and fill it, walking out with a summer’s worth of reading for less than a dollar. That’s how I first learned of an entire universe of four-color adventures, from Superman to Ghostly Tales, Magnus: Robot Fighter to Nick Fury: Agent of Shield. And while Marvel characters like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four fascinated me, I was frustrated by the serial nature of their stories. Getting my comics used meant I’d end up with part two of a three-part story, and never find the other issues. Other comic books contained one or two complete stories, so they earned my loyalty.

Heavy Metal illustration by Moebius
Heavy Metal illustration by Moebius

Those bags of comics carried me through the our family’s move to Florida in 1970, in part because I didn’t really know where else to get them. I wasn’t the kind of kid who rode his bike all over town, buying grape Nehi and swiping comics off of drugstore spinners. The first I heard of those once ubiquitous newsstand racks was when I got sick. My father had taken me to the doctor, and afterward we stopped at the pharmacy to get my medication. While we waited I roamed the store, bored, until something purple and green caught my eye, some kind of swamp creature. Being new to Florida and generally alienated from society, as precocious pre-teens tend to be, I felt a certain kinship with this poor scientist-turned-monster. I started hunting down new issues on a regular basis, picking up a few others along the way. Still, it didn’t last. They were too hard to find.

The Dark Knight Returns
The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller

After I left college I was exposed to the underground comics scene, primarily through a few friends who wanted to be the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers when they grew up (if they grew up). When the animated film Heavy Metal hit the theaters I went out of my way to look for issues of the comic. My mind was blown. These weren’t monsters or superheroes or TV characters — these characters were naked. In space. Having sex. Speaking French. Sometimes all at the same time! (Like jazz, comics have always been better respected in Japan and Europe than in the nation which created the form.)  The stories were smarter, the art wildly different, and raw imagination dripped from each page. I was an immediate fan, but still not a collector.

Black Orchid
Black Orchid, art by Dave McKean

When I learned that there was a new Swamp Thing comic series I found a local shop and picked up a copy, striking a friendship with the owner. Through conversations with him, and with the other customers, I learned more than I could have guessed about the form. At first I promised myself I wasn’t going to get sucked into it, that I’d keep my collection to just a few titles. That didn’t last. Soon comics had become a hobby, and a few years later the hobby became a job when I took over management of the shop. That job, incidentally, introduced me to my wife, who worked for the same chain of stores.

Maus cover
Maus, by Art Spiegelman

The ’80s were a tumultuous period in comics. America finally started to catch up with the rest of the world, expanding the stories told beyond superpowers and into much more accessible realms. Desktop publishing and the advent of cheap black and white printing led to an explosion of new publishers, while the wholly unexpected breakthrough success of the independently-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic sucked financial speculators into the naive and insular comics world. Meanwhile a new British invasion was underway, spearheaded by a mad writer named Alan Moore, who had begun the process of deconstructing the adolescent power fantasies of spandex-clad heroes, twisting them into more realistic — if thoroughly unpleasant — forms. This trend toward “grim and gritty” heroes saw the publication of its two best-known and best-written examples, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, standing above a host of crude and brutal trash. By the decade’s end the explosion had imploded, nearly taking the entire industry with it.

Omaha the Cat Dancer #2
Omaha the Cat Dancer #2, art by Reed Waller

Still, the genie was out of the bottle, and the public finally discovered the diversity in the form. A handful of my favorites from the era include Reed Waller and Kate Worley’s remarkably moving and sexually explicit character drama Omaha the Cat Dancer, Gilbert and Jamie Hernandez’s groundbreaking punk/scifi/magic realist Love and Rockets, Arn Saba’s innocent and joyous musical comedy Neil the Horse, Larry Marder’s inexplicable Beanworld comics, and Will Eisner’s memoirs of life in ’30s New York’s immigrant communities, starting with proto-graphic novel, A Contract With God. There are so many more I could name, without even leaving the 20th Century. The superheroes still ruled the publishers, though, and even the journalists reporting on comics indulged in cheap “Bam! Pow! Comics for adults!” headlines.

A Contract With God
A Contract With God, art by Will Eisner

I separated from comics (and my wife) around the turn of the millennium. Moving to Miami put me out of range of my usual shop, and I had a difficult time finding a local shop that stocked the less mainstream titles I loved. Comics had become more expensive, too, and new budgetary restrictions ate into my discretionary spending, anyway. I went to movies and read books, but I missed the unique combination of words and pictures which can — in the hands of gifted storytellers — make the form so moving and immersive.

By the time my situation had stabilized the form had made sufficient inroads into the intelligentsia that a hierarchy of “acceptable” creators had emerged. Reading Batman was still declassé, but Art Spiegelman’s holocaust memoir Maus was required reading. There’s no better sign of a new form’s acceptance into the rarified atmosphere of Art than the emergence of taste-makers to divide work into the divergent ghettos of literature and entertainment. Creators like Alison Bechtel, Chris Ware, Marjane Satrapi, and Daniel Clowes are welcomed among the smart set, while other, equally brilliant writers such as Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, and Neil Gaiman are mere entertainers.

Watchmen #1
Watchmen #1, art by Dave Gibbons

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the film industry has discovered comics, too. The two major publishers, Marvel and DC, are owned by Disney and Warner Brothers, respectively. The interest is primarily centered around the use of effects laden superhero slugfests as summer tentpole movies, moving the parent companies to see their publishing arms as testing grounds for new ideas. Compared to the cost of a blockbuster, keeping a stable of writers, artists, and editors on the payroll is a rounding error. These publishers are able to produce interesting and innovative books almost as side projects, even if the bulk of the amazing work comes from the independents.

Tales of the Beanworld
Tales of the Beanworld, by Larry Marder

Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to make up your own mind. Graphic novels are stocked in libraries and most bookstores, and trade paperbacks collect stories originally serialized. Comics have begun the migration to the digital realm, too, with the availability of applications for smartphones and computers. The market has also matured enough to support beautiful (and expensive) collector’s editions, often produced at larger sizes to better showcase the art. And while the number of specialty comics stores has fallen dramatically during the recession, they are still around; south Florida has a number of excellent stores.

Speaking of these excellent local stores, tomorrow is Free Comic Book Day. This is an international event held the first Saturday in May every year to promote comics and comic shops. Many local stores participate, giving away samplers from a variety of genres and publishers. If you are interested in learning more about the form, find a store near you and stop in. I’ll be spending the day with some friends driving to a variety of shops in a kind of comic book pub crawl.

From Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics
From Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics

If you are interested in learning more about the comics form, and what makes it so different from either words or pictures alone, get a copy of Scott McCloud’s truly amazing Understanding Comics. A comics creator himself, McCloud digs into the historical, sociological, and neurological factors behind the illusions that make comics work, and does it while making the entire book a comic itself. (It’s funny, too!)

I have tremendous respect for and appreciation of the beautiful, engrossing, thoughtful, and sophisticated work being produced in comics today, and have shelf after shelf of evidence to prove it. Works like Alan Moore’s From Hell and Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar are treasures I re-read on a regular basis. Still, I must confess a continuing love of superheroes. Sure, many of the plots are shallow and stupid, and continued stories are the rule now from almost all publishers, making it rough to find a place to start. But there remains something intrinsically appealing about a four-color world of right and wrong, good and evil, even if the lines sometimes blur. Perhaps it’s a part of me who never really grew up, and hasn’t yet given up on the ideals he learned from a wealthy playboy who decided to right wrongs by dressing up as a bat.

Which reminds me: I can’t remember exactly why Batman was wearing  that rainbow costume back in 1966. It’s time to dig out that comic and solve that mystery.

[NB: Some links are affiliate links. All images are under copyright of their owners, and not me.]

9 thoughts on “Words and pictures”

  1. Your comics knowledge is encyclopedic! I was a Mad Magazine guy at best. Words of advice to enhance your personal comic experience.

    Ad four or five slab of Bazooka and a Grape Nehi and you’re living large.


  2. I’ve been an avid reader my whole life but only just recently have come to appreciate the medium. This last month I’ve been immersed in graphic novels, flying through them.

    One recommendation, check out Asterios Polyp by David Mazzuchelli. I thought it was one of the best books, graphic or not, that I’ve read in quite a while.

  3. Good rundown of an underestimated form! I was never interested in the superhero genre of comics before and so totally discounted the form, but a few years ago was introduced to the the type of comics that focus on everyday people, such as Maus and After the Deluge. Comics are even translating Shakespeare and other classics these days! I have since developed a great appreciation of the form, and try to read a graphic novel here and there to stay current on further evolutions of the form.

    I’m interested to know your thoughts on Manga. Though I have only read about 2 Manga books, I am not able to connect with them the way I can connect with more traditional (and western) comics. I don’t know if the problem is as simple as I have trouble reading from back to front, or that I have have trouble visually differentiating each character, or that I just haven’t found the right Manga series yet!

  4. Excellent post (to which I was directed by Mike La Monica) and interesting life journey through comics.
    However, looks like you missed out on Belfast superhero Ciderman. (Gets bolshie and punchy after a few ciders – throws up a bit.)

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