MIND MELD: Our “Desert Island” Graphic Novel Picks (Part 1)
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
When Mark London Williams and I decided to move our long running SF Site column Nexus Graphica to SF Signal, we decided that we needed to announce our presence with a bang. Hence, this Mind Meld was born, in which we asked our esteemed panelists this question:
The only caveat we gave the contributors that their selections could not include the obvious books such as Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Maus, and their ilk.
I’ll return next month with the first installment of the new Nexus Graphica and Mark issues his first SF Signal contribution in March. We’ll alternated columns every other month, culminating with a special two parter in December, featuring our annual best of the year lists. But more on this in February.
For now, enjoy the confab.
(And be sure to check out Part 2!)
Sharaz-De by Sergio Toppi. Beautiful beautiful drawing, and at last, there’s an English version!
The Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius (as it was originally called) by Moebius. Completely wonked-out story with drawing ranging from cartoony to super-elegant by Moebius. Lovely work.
The entire Modesty Blaise run of Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway. It’s not in a single volume so I’m not sure how this works for a desert island, but it’s my favorite run of a newspaper strip and very influential in my work.
Growing up, I was more of a Marvel girl than DC, although that won’t be obvious from my list of favorites. That was a big deal when I was a kid, practically a playground holy war. Of course, when I was growing up, those were the only choices in the world for a fan of comics, or a fan of superheroes. Also, the comic story-telling medium and the superhero genre were nearly synonymous in the minds of most people. That was 40 years ago, but I still get into periodic arguments with folks who think that nothing has changed in all that time. (See I don’t consider manga or comics to be Sci Fi and ALL Comics are Fantasy – Or, Rant, the Sequel.)
Today, my number one, must have, all-time favorite graphic series would have to be Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore. If I could have only one choice, that would be it. It isn’t Marvel. It isn’t DC. It isn’t a superhero story. It isn’t even fantasy or science fiction, so the fact that it absolutely captured my heart from the first issue to the last is virtually inexplicable to anyone who knows my tastes. Moore not only wrote the story, but did the art as well, and both are beyond masterful. The characters and situations are so real, I swear I know those people. In turns, Strangers in Paradise is belly-laugh funny, heart-breakingly sad, nail-bitingly action-filled, and marvelously mundane. If you are human, you would love this series. If you’re not human, you could learn a lot about being human by reading this series. I can’t recommend it enough.
I can’t really put an order to the rest of my favorites. So, I’ll throw all my favorite DC superheroine books in next. Being a strong-willed woman, I, rather naturally, like reading about strong-willed women. Surprisingly, comics have been one of the few places where I could always find strong female characters, even back when Lindsey Wagner and Nichelle Nichols were the only heroines on television, and fantasy novels were filled with Tarzans, Conans, John Carters, and Gor novels with women who were little more than door prizes.
A great modern example, and possibly the best graphic novel I’ve read in years is Batwoman Ellegy by Greg Rucka with art by J.H. Williams III. I have been gushing over that one for ages, mistaking it for a while for the first in the new 52 Batwoman series. (My day job combined with my own writing has me playing perpetual catch-up with my reading, so that’s not as odd as it might seem.) I read “Hydrology” finally, and found it good, but not to the level of greatness that the Rucka/Williams team achieved. Those two made magic with that book. It doesn’t hurt, I suppose, that I’m generally fond of Rucka’s writing anyway, and the art Williams creates is so filled with vivid passion that I can’t imagine not loving a book with both. Add to that a powerful, stereotype-shattering female lead superhero, a bit of Lewis Carroll rabbit hole madness, and it’s like they wrote this book just for me.
Gail Simone’s “Batgirl, volume 1, has a lot of the same brilliant synergy of vivid art, writing with depth, and a main character whose strength of character are beautifully balanced by her vulnerability and compassion. Since it seems to belong with the previous two, I’ll add in Wonder Woman, Spirit of Truth by Alex Ross and Paul Dini. It’s a moving story, but to be honest, I would take that book to my island just so I could look at the beauty of the art. A book by Alex Ross is like having an entire art museum in your hands.
For all my supposed lean toward Marvel growing up, the only Marvel book on my list is a fun, rock-em, sock-em adventure called Spider-Woman, Agent of S.W.O.R.D. by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev. I love a good action tale and while the writing is, of course, excellent, I love best the large sections of story that are told almost entirely by the art. I could spend hours looking at the subtlety of expression and lighting and color. I find new nuances to the story each time I look at that book.
Now, anyone who has read the last three paragraphs might think I had a pattern in my favorites, and be a bit confused by the rest. No more DC heroines, or even super-heroines at all. The next thing I’d have to take with me would be Pantheon High, by Paul Benjamin, with art by Steven and Megumi Cummings. This great little manga series about a high school for demi-gods oozes originality and does a crazy mind meld of teen angst with myth and legend. What Buffy did for vampire tales, Pantheon High does for classic mythology. There’s even little educational bits at the end where you can learn more about the myths and legends the characters come from.
Neil Gaiman’s Death, the High Cost of Living may seem like a crow among doves in this list, but Gaiman’s style of dark and weird has always appealed to me where Frank Miller’s more noir and stylized dark and weird sometimes leaves me flat. Don’t tell my mother, though. She’s a huge Frank Miller and Allan Moore fan. Grimjack by John Ostrander, with art by Timothy Truman, is another dark and weird all-time favorite, with its gritty detective in his city on the edge of everywhere. However, it is the one title on this list that I don’t have currently sitting by my knee while I’m writing this article. My brother had the entire collection from the first issue to the last one before the reboot. I never felt the need to buy my own copies since I could read his at will. Then, he went and sold them, the traitor. One of these days, I’ll cough up the money for the Grimjack Omnibus edition.
One more small stack of books that I wouldn’t trade for anything, and can read again and again, are the multiple copies I have of the Gate of Ivrel by CJ Cherryh, illustrated by Jane Fancher. I bought originals many years ago, then, recently, met Cherryh and Fancher at a convention. I didn’t have my copies with me, so I bought new ones right there, so they could autograph them for me. Then, I spent several fun minutes with them as we experimented with a new way to autograph e-books. I got a free CJ Cherryh autographed e-book, complete with a title page that included a picture of us together, for my trouble. I only hope they continue those books at some point. I’d be first in line to donate to that kickstarter. The Morgaine novels would be brilliant in graphic form. The first couple of issues just showed the promise.
And, last, but not least, I have one very old, worn, and many times thumbed through edition of Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes that was published in 1976 when I was eleven years old. It’s a giant sized book that has a centerfold of the wedding of Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel with nearly every Legion character ever created in the background. I wasn’t a huge Legion fan as a kid, but this limited collector’s edition which cost an entire dollar at the time, (two full weeks’ allowance for me) was one of the first times I’d ever seen a “full-length super-hero novel” in one book. Even as a kid, having a whole graphic story in one book was my idea of heaven. If I was going to be stuck on a dessert island, and never get another graphic story again, I’d have to take that one. It has certainly proven its power to please me again and again. I still get a kick out of trying to identify the characters without resorting to the legend in the back of the book. If I were stuck on an island, I bet I’d know all of them by the time I got rescued.
It’s funny you should ask. I lived in Uzbekistan for a couple of years and that was just about as isolated as a desert island. Setting aside the obvious choices, here are the graphic novels that I just can’t do without!
- Absolute Authority Vols. 1 and 2 – Nothing tops the Authority at its apogee with over-the-top action and super politics illustrated by Hitch and Quitely, two of my favorite artists in the biz.
- Locke and Key – Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s horror series is one of the best examples of a story that has a clear beginning, middle and end with clues dropped in all the right places and a sense of mystery teasing you the entire time. Whenever I reread it, I discover something new.
- Marvel Adventures Avengers – Jeff Parker’s all-ages tales of the Avengers are self-contained but they have a broad scope and a sense of humor that make for tons of fun, something hard to come by on a desert island.
- Legion of Super-Heroes – The entire run of Legion of Super-Heroes Archives and The Great Darkness Saga are a must-have. The Legion was one of my first loves in comics and the breadth of stories from the earliest to the 80s are brilliant. Again, there’s a sense of fun to these comics that is hard to find in present day comics.
- Fantastic Four Visionaries: John Byrne – Byrne’s run on the FF was a sea change for the series. Invisible Girl became Invisible Woman and one of the most powerful female characters in the Marvel Universe. Thing left the team in the capable hands of She-Hulk, moving Jennifer Walters up the food chain, eventually leading to…
- She-Hulk Vol. 1 Single Green Female and She-Hulk Vol. 2 Superhuman Law – Dan Slott delivers one of the most hilarious runs in comics with attorney Jen Walters, aka She-Hulk, exploring the legal ramifications of super powers in the Marvel Universe.
- Chew – Layman and Guillory’s adventures of a cannibal detective with food-related powers is nothing short of genius. These two guys are at the top of their game and no other book makes me laugh out loud as much as this one.
- Justice League International Vols 1-3 – Hey, it turns out I like comics that are fun! None are more fun than the “funny Justice League” by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire. This series redefined the Justice League at a time when it was in serious need of a reboot and it remains hilarious to this day.
- Kingdom Come – This may be too much of an obvious classic, but I think my bookshelf needs some comics that are a little more serious. Waid and Ross’ Kingdom Come was another book that redefined comics. At a time when the 90s had left super hero comics grim and gritty, this series brought a sense of heroism back into comics.
- Planetary – Another run of brilliance is that of Warren Ellis and John Cassaday, arguably two of the most talented creators in comics. Their series of mysteries exploring a broad variety of comics genres is one of the pinnacles of comics storytelling. The story keeps you guessing and the art leaves you drooling.
- Astonishing X-Men – More from John Cassaday, this time with Buffy creator Joss Whedon. One of the great things about this run is that it harkens back to the classic X-Men I love but with a modern twist that is a fresh departure from Claremont’s often over-wordy dialogue.
- Skullkickers Vols. 1 and 2: Treasure Trove – Jim Zubkavich’s series about two bad ass mercenaries monster-killing their way across a fantasy world feels like all the best elements of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign boiled down into comics form. If I can’t have my gaming buddies with me on this island, at least I can get the feel of playing a great RPG campaign.
Phew! Lucky for me that ship that stranded me on this island had plenty of bookshelves on board!
When I started really thinking about this, I came up with fewer contenders than I expected. The problem is, if you define the “novel” part of graphic novel the same way you would for prose, a lot of stuff gets eliminated. Admittedly, I am very old school, but at a minimum I would expect a novel to be a substantial work of fiction with a beginning and an end, with a single over-arching story in between (subject, of course, to digressions and different viewpoints). I would want it to at least seem like it was intended as a novel from the outset, not pieced together into book form after original publication.
A lot of the best work from mainstream comics publishers is in ongoing series. A collected edition of The Elektra Saga, for example, is too burdened with continuity to really stand alone. Fables is great stuff, but the collected volumes represent story arcs, not novels. The massive Locas collection by Jaime Hernandez is one of the high points of comics history, but it’s a story collection, not a novel.
Over in the artsy sector, many of the most acclaimed “graphic novels” aren’t even fiction: Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home — all memoirs.
So here, for what it’s worth, are my contenders:
- The Invisibles by Grant Morrison and various artists (DC Vertigo) – Morrison’s original project was even more ambitious than the final result, which was whittled down repeatedly by DC’s Vertigo imprint due to poor sales until it was “only” seven trade paperbacks long. Still, this crazy, sexy, literate, violent paean to anarchy remains Morrison’s masterpiece.
- Black Hole by Charles Burns (Pantheon) – A surrealistic and beautifully drawn allegory about the transformative power of sexual relationships on teenagers.
- Stray Toasters by Bill Sienkiewicz (Marvel Epic) – The story doesn’t quite stand up to the art, but the art is amazing. More surrealism, more mayhem, but a clear labor of love by Sienkiewicz.
- Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron by Daniel Clowes (Fantagraphics) – Yet more surrealism and mayhem, yet there is an abiding sadness in this novel that still haunts me. Here’s an academic paper I wrote about it.
- Spaceman by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso (DC Vertigo) – I also love 100 Bullets from the same team, but I think this is a more coherent and controlled novel, if equally dark. Equal parts social commentary, media satire, and suspense novel, this futuristic noir has surprising emotional depth and the usual eye-popping art from Risso.
Here is my list. If I had more time, I’d say a little something about each one:
- What It Is, The Freddie Stories, and One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry
- You’ll Never Know, Books 1-3 by Carol Tyler
- The Rocketeer by Dave Stevens
- Sin City (complete collection) by Frank Miller
- The Arrival by Shaun Tan
- Tamara Drewe and Gemma Bovary by Posy Simmonds
- Alec: The Years Have Pants by Eddie Campbell
- Monster by Naoki Urasawa
- Ethel & Ernest by Raymond Briggs
- Wilson by Dan Clowes
- A Child’s Life by Phoebe Gloeckner
- The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar
- Bubbles & Gondola by Renaud Dillies
There are comics I’ve read a million times and keep rereading. I think these are all undeniably great comics, but the reason they’re on my desert island list is that they have a personal meaning to me. They came along when I ready for them. And now, they’re like old friends.
The Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics edited by Bill Blackbeard and Martin Williams (1977). I got this as a Christmas present when I was in high school. It’s an anthology of comic strips from just before the turn of the century to the seventies, but it really focuses on pre-war strips. This means it gives relatively short shrift to strips like Terry and the Pirates, Pogo, Peanuts, and Doonesbury. But in exchange, the reader gets astonishing, lengthy reprints of E.C. Segar’s Popeye, Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs, Crocket Johnson’s Barnaby, Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse and much more. Up to this point, I was pretty much a Marvel zombie. This book vastly broadened my conception of what good comics could be. It let me see that people had been doing great comics for many decades—that comics had a history. After reading The Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics, I no longer felt that comics needed to be about superheroes or to be drawn in Marvel’s Romita/Buscema-derived “house style.” Comics could be anything. This book was liberating.
Love & Rockets by Gilbert Hernandez and Jaime Hernandez. I bought my first issue of Love & Rockets in 1983. I had somehow heard it was good (I don’t remember how—the internet didn’t exist yet, after all!). So I picked up issue 2 and was hooked. The stories felt so clever, so emotional, so self-aware all at once. I ended up working for Love & Rockets’ publisher Fantagraphics in 1989, and part of the reason for taking that job was my love for Love & Rockets. Finding the 50 original comics would be difficult and is frankly unnecessary—they’ve been collected in various books over the years. And when I reread them now, I read them from a book instead of pulling out the old comics. It’s easier! Gilbert and Jaime have continued to produce great work for the past 30 years. I love reading early stories like “The Laughing Sun” by Gilbert and “Vida Loca” by Jaime, but I love reading their newest stuff as well.
Hate by Peter Bagge. Bagge is another artist who did memorable work for Fantagraphics. He had a solo anthology comic, Neat Stuff, which was excellent, and he edited quite a few issues of the seminal 80s anthology Weirdo. When I started working at Fantagraphics, Bagge decided he wanted to do a more traditional comic—one with ongoing stories and characters with the traditional comic book trim-size. He was going to call it “Hey Buddy!” after the main character, Buddy Bradley. But all of us at the office liked his other name, Hate, better. It was just so aggressive and outrageous. It seemed to fit the times better. And that’s what’s great about the comic—even though Bagge was in many ways your basic suburban dad (he and his wife bought a house and had a kid while he was doing Hate), he used his own memories of being a young man in punk-rock era Hoboken to comment on the grunge era Seattle. As a young man living in Seattle, I appreciated his uncannily accurate and hilarious portrayal of that time and place. You can get all of Hate in two giant volumes, Buddy Does Seattle and Buddy Does Jersey, but better to get the books Buddy Go Home!, Buddy’s Got Three Moms! andBuddy Bites the Bullet! instead of Buddy Does Jersey, because they reproduce the comic in its original full-color form.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind by Hiyao Miyazaki (1982-1994). I first read this in the late 90s as I was starting to get into manga. If you are familiar with the animated film version, you will be surprised by this ecological fantasy story—the manga has so much more to it than the movie. The art is not typical for a manga—Miyazaki seems to have been heavily influenced by Moebius. But Moebius never wrote a story with such richly drawn characters. In fact, I think the reason I’ve reread Love & Rockets, Hate and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind so many times, despite their fundamental differences, is that they all feature characters who feel real. Characters that feel like they have a personal history and they feel like they can evolve and age (and they do over the course of each of these series). As a reader, I fell in love with these characters—Nausicaä, a princess of a small kingdom; Kushana, the princess of the empire of Tormekia; Charuka, the priest and general of the Dorok armies; and many more. They keep me coming back.
- Parker: The Martini Edition
- All-Star Superman: Absolute Edition
- New Frontier: Absolute Edition
- Y the Last Man
- The complete HB collections of Girls and The Sword
- The Punisher: Born
The following selections are not because everyone should read these particular books. These are books that remind me of my life thus far or parts of humanity that mean something to me. When there is a story of people being trapped on a deserted island, it seems like they quickly forget to be human beings to one another. People get into arguments over petty things; who ate the last coconut (even though there are more coconut trees), who is the leader of the group, do we send up a red flare or a green flare? These books remind me that there are universal truths that we all acknowledge and want in our lives. So maybe these will keep me sane when Bob tries to blame me for his sunscreen running out.
This is the one book I grabbed that I knew I could read over and over again and still find something new in the book itself. Three stories set in a fantasy noir world of beautifully drawn Disney-esque characters. Guarnido’s artwork is a wonderful counterpoint to Diaz Canales’ dark stories of murder and corruption. The high level of Guarnido’s artwork left me staring at the page trying to soak in every detail. This is definitely one to keep around when you feel like you haven’t seen anything but sand and water for awhile.
IMPORTANCE TO HUMANITY: Beauty
I picked up this one not just for the irony but also because it will always remind me of my fiance. Lost at Sea was one of the first books he gave me to read and is great at expressing what it’s like to be a confused young adult. This is one I’ll look at and remember home.
IMPORTANCE TO HUMANITY: Adolescent wanderlust
Jessica Abel does a great job at capturing what it is to be a young women on her own for the first time and searching for herself. I read this book and remember the times sitting on my best friend’s bed, flipping through comics she’d recently picked up and talking about other friends, our careers and what we wanted from post-college life. La Perdida gives me a strength that none of the other books listed here can and to remind me that adventure tends to happen when you’re lost.
IMPORTANCE TO HUMANITY: Sexy lost adventures
I chose this one for the inspiration it’ll give me for taking over the island for the other inhabitants when the time comes. Not really. This book is something I can always turn to center myself. To recognize when I get caught up in the bullshit of the world, take a step back and get out of my own head. Nate Powell tells a wonderful story of what it’s like to grow up in suburbia and the trials and tribulations of just surviving.
IMPORTANCE TO HUMANITY: Suburbia sucks
My favorite graphic novels include:
- Cowboy Wally – It’s one of the few books where the shortcuts compliment rather than detract from the final product. I never noticed that he used the same panel layout on every page until someone pointed it out. Baker’s timing with a joke still amazes me. His drawing style is loose but exact and perfectly suits his story telling.
- Freak Bros. – Shelton (and crew) tell a story like nobody else. No panel is wasted. It’s funny as hell too.
- Moonshadow – the first art comic that I read. It opened up a new world of what a graphic novel could be for me.
For new stuff – the All Star Superman is really well put together. The writing, complimented by the art, created pathos for a hero I thought I would never like. I appreciate that I had no idea what would happen next in the story. Great plot, themes, and depth of character. Good stuff.
Trigan Empire – Originally running as a weekly strip in the British weekly comic Look & Learn, Trigan Empire was continually published for 854 issues – take that American comics! My memories of it are from the Look & Learn issues from the mid-sixties through to the mid-seventies. Blending science-fiction, mythology, and ancient earth-civilizations it was the first epic saga I ever read, and it influenced a whole generation of British comics writers and artists. This was the strip that opened my eyes to the scope of comics as a medium. It is primarily known for the strips written by Mike Butterworth and the amazing painted art of Don Lawrence. A selection of the classic Butterworth and Lawrence strips were reprinted in a hardback collection in 1978 and it’s remained one of my go-to books ever since.
Twentieth Century Boys – This classic by Naoki Urasawa is sometimes referred to as the “Watchmen of Manga,” I’d actually rate it higher than the Moore/Gibbons classic. Watchmen only really works if you’ve been steeped in comics culture – to understand Twentieth Century Boys all you have to understand is friendship, family, a love for rock-n-roll, and a desire to make things right. Spread out over twenty-two volumes, it’s a compelling tale of a group of friends who believe their actions as a group of kids is the catalyst for a potential apocalypse on December 31st, 1999. They set out to save the world, but do they succeed? The story time jumps from childhood, to the millennium, and on into the future, each strand building on the next, and each undertone adding more layers of complexity, character development and understanding. (Disclaimer: As I write this I’m only on Volume 12 so far – but it is simply one of the most compelling reads I’ve come across to date.)
Strangers In Paradise – Writer/artist Terry Moore’s crowning achievement. A tale of friendship, love, and self-discovery interwoven with comedy, gangland violence, mystery, and even a nod to super-heroes, all infused with some of the best realized characters in comics. The cast of SiP quickly become real breathing people and almost feel like your best friends. Now available in a 2,000 page plus slip-cased Omnibus edition. This is the comic for people who don’t read comics.
Kingdom Come – My super-hero guilty pleasure. This is simply the superhero story I go back to time and time again. Writer Mark Waid and artist Alex Ross deliver a nuanced parable that plays to the “be careful what you wish for” theme while simultaneously using a tale of modern anti-heroes to promote the values of the traditional hero. For a fan of comics and pop-culture it seems like almost every panel is filled with references and nods to things we enjoy or recognize, but unlike some other stories that use this technique it doesn’t seemed forced. You don’t need the annotations to read and understand this story, but if you get the references it adds a new level of enjoyment. This is the only comics story I have in multiple formats and media, including the prose and audio-play adaptations. If I could only read one superhero story it wouldn’t be Dark Knight or Watchmen – it would be Kingdom Come.
NOTE: Continued in Part 2!
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