Pretty pictures, potent storytelling: good graphic novel reads

One of the best things about a regular income again is the ability to indulge those (unnecessary) appetites you’ve been suppressing for financial reasons. So over the past month or so I’ve been devouring graphic novels, comic book miniseries and trade paperback collections. These are some of my recent reads, as well as my recommendations:

The Walking Dead – The couch potatoes and pop culture geeks of the world are currently going apeshit over Frank Darabont’s Walking Dead TV show, a stunningly cinematic and sincere adaptation of the monthly black-and-white survival-horror comic series by writer Robert Kirkman. So far I’ve just read the first volume of The Walking Dead, entitled Days Gone Bye, which is drawn in an appealing, clean, almost cartoonish style by Tony Moore.

Eisner Award-winning The Walking Dead chronicles the adventures of Sheriff Rick Grimes, who wakes from a coma to find the world devastated by a zombie apocalypse. Only small pockets of human survivors remain. Now of course there are plenty of shambling undead for Grimes and co. to outrun, shoot, bludgeon and eviscerate, but The Walking Dead is a surprisingly strong character-centric series. It’s a tale about human response to devastation, and the collapse of civilisation as we know it (Just how much would you miss your crappy job? Or something as apparently inconsequential as fabric softer?).

Although the comic series apparently becomes darker, more despairing and extreme later on, as characters are pushed to their emotional limits, Volume 1 is still optimistic for the most part – with characters waiting patiently for the US government to sort out the mess. Interestingly enough, the first few episodes of the TV show start off on an automatically more cynical, distrustful and selfish note.

Anyway, one of the most notable things about Days Gone Bye is how Kirkman and Moore succeed in making you care from the outset about the characters, and the odd little family unit that they form. I know I’ve got a lot of catching up to do in regards to The Walking Dead, which has been published by Image Comics since late 2003 (there are currently 13 volumes to read), but I definitely intend to make the effort. The Walking Dead is one of the best alternatives around for anyone weary of spandex and superheroes in their comic reading.

Marvel 1602 – Speaking of superheroes, as someone disillusioned with massive crossover events and the continual, confusing retconning of characters and events, I’ve found myself veering towards standalone tales that offer an intriguing “alternate” take on iconic heroes. Much like Marvel 1602 – from none other than Sandman’s Neil Gaiman and artist Andy Kubert.

Although this 8-issue miniseries actually still accommodates the Marvel comic continuity (I won’t say how), Marvel 1602 theorises what the great Silver Age heroes would have been like if they’d emerged in 17th Century England during Elizabeth the First’s reign. So Nick Fury is head of British Secret Intelligence, Doctor Strange mixes medicine and magic for the queen, Daredevil is a blind Irish balladeer, the Fantastic Four are New World explorers aboard a sailing ship called “The Fantastick”, and the X-Men are pursued relentlessly by the Spanish Inquisition for being unholy “witchbreed”. Many other iconic characters appear in the series as well, in sometimes very unexpected forms. And I must confess at least 2 caught me completely off guard.

As is the risk with all alternate superhero imaginings, Marvel 1602 could have been far stronger in concept than execution (See Superman: True Brit for a prime example). However, Gaiman and Kubert take what could have been simply a gimmick and crafted a thoughtful, sombre tale with plenty of political intrigue and some very enjoyable twists. Marvel 1602 isn’t without overblown, brain-scratching weirdness of course – I really could have done without the dinosaurs! – but on the whole I was engrossed in this 2005 Quill Award winner.

I’m proud to make Marvel 1602 the first ever Marvel addition to my graphic novel collection.

Ultra: Seven Days – Indie 8-issue series Ultra: Seven Days is a real oddity. Created by the Luna Brothers, Ultra is basically Sex & The City with superheroes. Published during 2004 – 2005, the comic is essentially a “gateway drug” for women who have never before been enticed by superhero comics.

Ultra is set in a world where meta-humans exist and superheroes have been “out”, proud and much admired for over 70 years. Superheroes in this world are in fact comparable to pop stars, A-list actors and sports celebrities. They compete for awards, they have brand managers and sponsorship deals, they alter their outfits according to market research, and they’re tabloid fodder, continually stalked by the paparazzi.

Pearl Penalosa (AKA Ultra) is currently one of the most popular heroines, but she’s a workaholic with no love life. However, this changes when a girls’ night out with super buddies Cowgirl (Charlotte/Miranda in Sex & the City terms) and Aphrodite (equivalent to S&TC’s slutty Samantha) ends with a visit to a fortune teller, who predicts that Pearl will find her soul mate within 7 days. Pearl is then faced with the challenge of opening her heart – taking a risk on non-superhero guys – while the city is terrorised by a deadly supervillain arsonist.

Although Ultra: Seven Days has a healthy sense of humour, the laughs are of the gentler, satirical kind. There’s no My Super Ex-Girlfriend-style goofiness here, as the tale tries to remain poignant for the most part. Jonathan Luna’s stripped down artwork does its functional job in conveying the story, although the standout feature of the series, visually, is the spoof magazine covers, advertorials and fashion spreads that punctuate the series, much like in Watchmen – making the comic world more “real” and relatable for the reader.

It’s certainly interesting in Ultra to watch male comic creators trying to enter the minds and conversations of women without resorting to (too much) lasciviousness. I just wonder though what male readers will get out of this tale, which seems to occupy a strange No Man’s Land in terms of appeal. A serious curiosity.

Wanted – Forget the terrible Angelina Jolie movie. Mark Millar and J. G. Jones’s 6-issue 2003 – 2005 miniseries has no bullet bending. The Fraternity is not a group of assassins reading binary code off the Loom of Fate. There are no healing wax baths. And there are certainly NO exploding peanut butter rats.

Still, much like the movie, the Wanted comic isn’t for everyone. Apart from being obviously for mature readers only, it’s distasteful at best and absolutely repulsive at worst – and it honestly takes until issue #3 for the reader to even begin to like, and/or throw their support behind the series “hero”, Wesley Gibson.

Wesley – clearly modelled on Eminem physically – starts off the comic series as a spineless, self-loathing wimp abused by everyone in his life. Out of the blue he is recruited by the Catwoman-esque Fox (based on Halle Berry) to join the secret society of supervillains that has been running the world since 1986. Superheroes were once real you see, until a joint effort by their nemeses wiped them out, and altered humanity’s memories of events. Wesley learns this shocking truth, as well as the fact that he is the son of the world’s greatest assassin, The Killer – and has exactly the same gift for death dealing.

Having achieved Fight Club-style enlightenment about the emptiness of his old life, Wesley celebrates his new power by randomly shooting and raping innocents. You know, as one does. This kind of behaviour doesn’t endear Wesley to the audience, but then again, the cynical and off-putting nature of Wanted may be the point. If supervillains were real they’d be a lot nastier than the Comics Code Authority ever allowed them to be.

Most of the pleasure that comes from reading Wanted is intellectual. It’s a lot of fun to play “Spot the Bad Guy”, seeing as the Fraternity of supervillains includes innumerable references to mainstream comicdom’s greatest foes. There are nods to the Mandarin, Ventriloquist, Lex Luthor, Venom, Bizarro, and Poison Ivy just to name a few. Two of the standouts though are Clayface-like Shithead – a walking, morphing mass of faecal matter – and Mister Rictus – a hideously scarred amalgamation of Red Skull and the Joker, who insists “I don't fuck goats... I make love to them”.

So yeah, I eventually did start enjoying Wanted after the overtly crass first half. It’s a good thing that Jones’s beautiful, crisp pencils and inks helped sustain my interest. Out of all the comics profiled in this post, Wanted is definitely the best looking.

Chew – Another indie series for comic readers sick of superheroes is Eisner and Harvey Award-winning Chew. Written by John Layman and drawn in a suitably idiosyncratic style by Rob Guillory, Chew is one of the hottest new series around, having debuted only in June last year.

Mixing crime, action and morbid comedy, Chew centres on police detective Tony Chu, who is one of only 3 documented cibopaths in the world. To put it more plainly, Tony receives psychic impressions from anything he ingests. This immediately brings him to the attention of the Food and Drug Administration, which has become one of the most powerful law enforcement agencies in the world since a Bird Flu epidemic led to all poultry being outlawed.

Cue Tony chomping down on everything from black market chicken soup to dead dogs, dismembered fingers, serial killers’ faces, and, if his sadistic boss could have his way, any shit (literally) that comes Tony’s way.

It’s debatable how long Layman and Guillory will be able to sustain Chew without the concept becoming tired. After all, the hero has just one single, specific talent and after you’ve seen Tony cannibalise a few corpses the act loses its squirm-inducing gross out value. Chew does however bolt out the starting gates with a must-read first volume entitled Taster’s Choice – which collects the first 5 comics, and the first complete story arc. Volume 2, International Flavour, isn’t quite as satisfying but it does at least resolve several loose ends from Volume 1.

Chew is definitely one to check out if you’re in the mood for something different but undeniably tasty. It’s the best, most original genre-blender I’ve read in a long time.


Cassey said…
Now I need disposable income ;) Great post, now just to get my hands on Marvel 1602 and Chew.
Pfangirl said…
Glad to hear you enjoyed the post, Cassey. It took quite a while to write;)

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