This week marks the last week of DC’s epic rebootlaunch, and in honor of that I tried desperately to pick a book to discuss that someway would be reflective of the endeavor in a true off the cape fashion — but to make a long story short, I failed. I also thought that maybe I could write about the book I was currently reading, but somehow I didn’t think people would respect an article that begins with “I’m less than halfway through The Incal right now, but it’s really good! Seriously!”
This is where today’s topic came from. Last week (for some, if not all) marked the release of Craig Thompson’s highly anticipated and quite massive tome, Habibi. Thompson is a creator everyone should know by now for his seminal work Blankets, which was one of the first comics discussed in this column and one of the few comics that actively transcends that barrier between comic fan and non-comic fan in catching the attention of readers. Thinking about this (since I did not finish Habibi yet) while looking at my bookshelf, it occurred to me — instead of one book, why not discuss a few books just as essential?
Click after the cut for a short list of graphic novels that I believe are required reading for anyone who owns a comic book collection.
As a note, since I’ve mentioned Blankets already, I want to assume that everyone already owns a copy. If you don’t own a copy, just correct that already. Seriously. I shouldn’t even have to write this bit.
5. Bone, by Jeff Smith (previously discussed here)
Bone is perhaps one of the single greatest comics of our generation. Beginning in 1991 and ending in 2004, the 55 issue book is the definition of all-ages comics in a world that still struggles to imitate it. Telling the story of young Phoncible P. “Phoney” Bone and his two brothers on their journey outside of Boneville, Smith created a universe full of rich characters and mythology that has captured the hearts and minds of readers everywhere. It’s a book that actively balances the tightrope of slapstick children-based humor to a sprawling fantasy epic, and Bone is one of the few comics compared to the works of JRR Tolkein that actually makes sense, with the journey of young Phoney Bone is an affable tale akin to that of young Baggins.
What makes Bone so accessible across multiple readerships is quite simple: at no point in time during the story does Jeff Smith actively try and pander to either audience. The general problem that most all-ages comics have is that they either slant too far to either side of the spectrum, not fully grasping what the moniker of “all-ages” means. With Bone, Smith created a comic that is actually accessible to anyone; the stories of the Great Cow Race are certainly great for younger readers in it’s goofy nature, but the darker scenes or references (both subtle and overt) to Moby Dick are perfect for older audiences. Bone is a comic that can be read at multiple levels, and it’s that multi-layered nature that really makes it all-ages. Smith, in no short terms, shows how it’s done.
More importantly, though, Bone is just one of those comics that you have to read as a comic fan. There are plenty of titles out there that make for great reads, and important ones at that. Bone, however, is a comic that – even for the smallest of comic fans – should be considered as required reading for anyone interested even slightly in comic books. In it’s 1000+ pages full of literary references, recurring themes and intelligent storytelling, Smith has created an all time classic series of novels, and anyone interested in telling a longform story in the comic medium should certainly be taking notes from a complete copy of Bone.Continued below
4. The Complete Adventures of Tintin, by Herge
Tintin is perhaps one of the most interesting comics of all time. Much like Bone in the number five spot, Tintin is a fantastic example of an all-ages comic that has not lost it’s value with time. Starring a young reporter and his trusty dog companion, the various adventures of Tintin saw the eponymous character exploring the world and getting into all sorts of adventures with a recurring cast of characters. These adventures both actively capture the imagination of the young readers as well as captivate the older audiences, and the stories are rather effortlessly timeless and celebrated. (My hardcover copies of Tintin are currently kept on their own shelf along with Bone in order to visually show their importance in my collection.)
However, the more adult reader can glean a lot from Tintin that the younger mind wouldn’t neccesarily be able to. Writer/artist Herge put a great amount of research into his stories, including the use of photo references for his art which gave Tintin a far more realistic existence in the medium than other comics of it’s time. Herge’s understanding of politics is also quite apparent in reading the books with great reflection to the world stage in World War 2, as most of the stories are often reflective of the times in which they were written; Tintin’s adventures on the moon, for example, were reflective of the space race of the 1950s, with Tintin making it to the moon a year before Sputnik 1 was launched. On top of that, in a more controversial aspect of the series, Herge’s comics featured a lot of stereotypical (read: racist) portrayals of race and other cultures, and no matter what side of the “is this on purpose or not?” line you fall, that alone provides a great look into the past at the sociological landscape these comics were created in (the first Tintin comic was created in the 1920s, for reference).
It’s with these two elements combined that Tintin steps above Bone on the list, as not only is it a wonderful tale of adventure but it’s also a pseudo-lesson in history.
3. Maus, by Art Spiegelman
Maus is, I believe, the first comic book my parents ever bought me. Long before I was bought my first issue of X-Men, my parents believed that a good educational tool for me would be the graphic novel medium, and given our Jewish heritage it only made sense to give me a copy of Maus. Unfortunately, my young and underdeveloped mind couldn’t really appreciate the story of Maus until much later in life, when I repurchased a copy of the complete story in hardcover. However, upon retackling it at an older age, it is perhaps one of the most powerful comics ever created from it’s subject matter.
For those unaware, Maus is the biography of Spiegelman’s father from his time alive in Poland both before and during World War 2. It’s a rather hauntingly brilliant portrayal of Nazi-occupied Europe from the eyes of a concentration camp survivor. Spiegelman interviewed his father and several other survivors to tell the story as accurately as possible, and then divided the nationalities of the story between animal caricatures (which is why I think my mother thought it’d be ok for me to read this). The Jews and Nazis themselves are represented as mice and cats respectively, both as a metaphorical expression of the cat and mouse game the Nazis played with the lives of Jews in concentration camps as well as a way for Spiegelman to comment on the idea of generalization by race or religion. With all the animal characters essentially looking the same, with the only identifying characteristic being the clothes they wear, it’s Spiegelman attempting to display the inhumanity of judging anyone of any race or religion by singular defining aspects, and it’s viciously effective.
There is no two ways about it: Maus is rather depressing. I have never been able to read Maus in a single setting, because there are points in the story where I find myself too moved to continue reading coherently, or too disturbed to be able to stomach at once. It’s odd that in today’s day and age, the tragedy of the Holocaust has somewhat been marginalized by Hollywood films as a go-to tear jerker, to the point that some stories don’t seem as poignant as they should be. However, with Maus we have Spiegelman’s brutal and honest portrayal of both the events of the Holocaust and how they have in turn affected him and his family, and no cheap Hollywood pot-shot of a film will ever devalue what is arguably one of the most important Holocaust-based novels of all time.Continued below
2. Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli (previously discussed here)
Asterios Polyp is the only book on this list that is here because it is one of my personal favorites. While I’ve tried to look at the whole endeavor objectively, there is no way in my right mind that I couldn’t put Asterios Polyp on this list, as it is by far one of the books that I flip through most frequently.
While most known for his work on titles like Batman: Year One or Daredevil, Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp – a book ten years in the making – is the work that he should assuredly be most known for. Asterios Polyp follows the story of the titular character after a freak lightning strike burns up his apartment and forces him to abandon the life he currently lives. The book is told both in flashback and present day, examing the life that Asterios once lived in parallel to the life that he is forced to live now in the aftermath of the disaster. It’s a curious and poignant portrayal of life, both in it’s portrayal of duality and the questions it asks the reader. On top of that, Mazzucchelli’s history as an artist fully shines through the story as each of the flashbacks of the story is told through an artistic deconstruction of the visual medium, both in its visual execution and its thematic context
It also has one of the best endings for a story that I’ve ever read, as it offers up perfect resolution to the randomness of universal occurences discussed throughout the book.
Put simply, Asterios Polyp is a comic that belongs in every comic book collection, and no amount of writing that I could do here will ever do it justice. Just trust me.
1. The Contract With God Trilogy, by Will Eisner (previously discussed here)
A Contract With God is the graphic novel, literally. It is the first comic book ever to be called a graphic novel (or so Wikipedia tells me), and one of Will Eisner’s most famous works, aside from maybe the Spirit. Telling the collective stories of life on Dropsie Avenue, the book features a more adult grasp on the nature of sequential storytelling, no longer simply satiated being a “comic book” full of men with capes during the age of superheroes.
Created in a time where genre storytelling in the medium was generally more relevant, Eisner released this collected edition of autobiographical stories, following the lives of Jewish immigrants he used to live near in the Bronx. The book was full of poignant tales dealing with life, death, religion, success and failure through the eyes of Dropsie Avenue’s inhabitants through various short stories that all tied together thematically. Eisner is certainly a legend in the medium, but this book amongst all of his other work probably stands the most true as to what makes Eisner such a famous creator. His innovative style in displaying sequential storytelling is a definitive learning lesson for any aspiring creator, despite at times remaining somewhat minimalistic in their visual depth. His stories read incredibly realistic, acutely capturing this slice of life and bottling it in a way that reads effectively smoothly. This book more than most rather effectively show just why Eisner is as respected a creator as he is.
The collected Dropsie Ave Trilogy is by far one of his most inspired collections, and definitely one that should be on required reading lists for one and all. Again, like Asterios Polyp, it is difficult to try and justify why you need this comic in your collection so much as just say it needs to be. Often times I find it is much more compelling to hand someone a comic and let them experience it themselves, but A Contract With God and it’s subsequent stories are wonderful autobiographical tales from the comic master himself.
Of course, there are plenty of comics besides these five titles that you should own. We could probably go back and forth forever with a list of important graphic novels of our time. Considering my rather open admittance to being a Morrison fanboy, you are probably surprised that books like WE3 or the Filth aren’t on here. Given it’s clout, possibly you are surprised that Watchmen isn’t on the list. Seeing as how I usually call it “the best comic ever made,” it is perhaps an oddity that Planetary is not number one on the list, or even Locke & Key given last week’s Friday Recommendation. In fact, I might even be so bold as to call myself out before any reader has the opportunity to, and note that my picks are kind of the obvious picks.Continued below
But let me put it this way: as my nephew grows older, every year I’ve begun to send him comics that I believe are important to read. It started when I noticed my sister teaching him French via Tintin (which is by far the greatest parenting trick ever), and the first book I ever sent him was the complete epic of Bone. Since then I keep asking myself, “Well, what should I get him this year?” I don’t think it’s appropriate to send a ten-year-old a copy of The Filth, nor do I think he’s ready to tackle Planetary. However, a book like Maus? Or A Contract with God? Given their timeless nature and stories, those feel much more appropriate to share with him to show the importance and depth of the graphic novel medium, certainly more than random issues from the DC relaunch. That’s why this list now exists.
(And, for the record, yes, I am aware of the adult content of these books, but given our Jewish backgrounds I’m sure my sister would understand my intent in sending Maus and A Contract With God, if not immediately approve. Or, I hope so, anyway. The jury is out on Asterios Polyp. But hey, she let me give him All Star Superman, so fingers crossed.)