MIND MELD: Our “Desert Island” Graphic Novel Picks (Part 2)
[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 1!)
DC archives. All of them. Dell and Gold Key archives. End of story
“Desert Island” Graphic Novels sounded like an easy topic when it was broached to me. After all, there are tons of them out there. And the restriction of making it less well known was not a problem. I started with a listing and suddenly the trouble asserted itself. I could have a list of 25 titles without trying very hard. But, to play fair, a limit of 5 -6 titles should be explored.
So, I thought overnight and came up with these titles.
My first choice would be Volume 2 of the Barry Smith Conan stories from Dark Horse. By this time, Smith had reached the pinnacle of his elaborate art for this title and this volume reproduces the stories in a nice color format. Roy Thomas played fair with the character and his adaptations of Robert E. Howard pieces including those which were not originally Conan stories. In particular, the 60 pages of Red Nails from the Treasury edition of Conan is a wonderful high point. I loved the stories and the art and this brings me back to the mid 1970’s while I was in college and awaited each of these issues. Nostalgia, art, and good stories will get you through many a night on those desert islands.
I think the next one would Volume 1 of the Showcase Presents reprints of Hawkman. I love many of the mid 60’s DC comics, in particular The Atom, Adam Strange, Hawkman, and Green Lantern. Hawkman had the distinct advantage of having Murphy Anderson on the art when he got his own title. Prior to that he was depicted by one of his Golden Age artist Joe Kubert in the six tryout issues of The Brave and the Bold. The stories by Gardner Fox generally contained some historical facts I was not familiar with as well as innovative ideas for solving whatever problem. The first B&B adventure “The Creature of a Thousand Shapes” was one of the very first comics I read as a child and the cover remains a favorite. I loved the characters if Carter and Shayera Hall as Hawkman and Hawkgirl. None of the later revivals of the characters managed to capture the flavor of these early issues.
To expand my mind and remind me that things may not be as they seem, I would choose the Steve Ditko run of Dr. Strange. The Essential Doctor Strange covers not only Ditko’s but also Marie Severin’s run on the stories. In particular, the Eternity story arc was a favorite plus you have the Dread Dormammu as well as Nightmare and Baron Mordo. Frank Brunner was also a good choice on the strip but he did not stay long. No one could draw weird like Ditko and there was a lot of fun going on.
Getting away from the superhero comics for a while, I would go next with The Big Book of Barry Ween, Boy Genius by Judd Winick. Foul mouthed and incredibly inventive, Barry Ween was a one of my favorites once I discovered his stories. Barry Ween has an incredible IQ and a bad attitude. He generally tries to stay off people’s radar but somehow he gets there, generally through the machinations of his friend Jeremy for whom the phrase “Do not touch that button!” does not the same way as it would for you and I. All the stories are fun,
The next choice would be The Essential Silver Surfer Vol. 1. Another sorta super-hero comic but this one was different. Norrin Rad served as Galactus’ herald until he came to Earth and found a race worth preserving. Tripped of his powers and exiled, he wanders the stars looking for his lost love and contemplating the universe. By far, the most philosophical of the Marvel titles, it also featured good art from John Buscema.
Of course, these titles would change on any day. My initial list included Jim Starlin’s run on Warlock, Mike Allred’s early issues of Madman, Bill Ward’s Golden Age Torchy strips, any incarnation of the Spectre , Will Eisner’s The Spirit, almost any Lou Fine collection, the original Monster Society of Evil series from Captain Marvel, Walt Kelly’s Pogo, the Alan Moore Swamp Thing, Mike Ploog’s Monster of Frankenstein, Michael Golden’s Bucky O’Hare, a selection of 60’s Batman stories where he had to figure out clues to solve crime and not every villain was super powered, Joe Lansdale’s Atomic Chili or his Jonah Hex, the Steranko SHIELD stories which were pretty trippy, the Golden Age Phantom Lady by Matt Barker, the Fletcher Hanks pieces, and many, many more. I could stuff a couple of trunk with graphic works that would keep me entertained for long periods of time.
ElfQuest by Wendy & Richard Pini Imagine me in high school: my backpack had my school books, but in a stack in my arms every single day was most of the ElfQuest graphic novels. Apologies to anyone in my hometown who wanted to read them, because I had them all checked out from our library for years until I finally got them for Christmas. It was about a 45 minute drive to the one comic shop in Baton Rouge that regularly carried the monthlies, so I borrowed Mom’s car on Wednesdays and made the trek. ElfQuest is the reason I went to art school, it’s the reason I’m a professional artist today. The world and the characters were so incredibly real to me, the experiences they go through are at times so joyful, at times so heartbreaking. As I get older and my life experiences grow, I find the stories hitting home even more. Wendy broke ground for us ladies in the indy comic field, and she’s been an inspiration for me since I first met her through her artwork as a kid. (PS I have a pretty sweet Kahvi costume I made when I was 15. It still fits. If you’re lucky, you might find me wearing it at cons).
Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai. Stan Sakai has been on my mind a lot with everything he’s been through, and I only have one of his books. So, if some crates of the entire Usagi collection could just wash on shore, then I’d have some new stuff to read. With 28 books to date, that would probably keep me occupied until someone rescued me.
Fables by Bill Willingham/Mark Buckingham/Lan Medina/Steve Leialoha/Craig Hamilton Here’s another series that I would like to wash on shore, because I have books 1-11, but my collection is missing the rest. It was recently announced that the series would be wrapping up, which makes collecting the rest of the series no longer daunting. I love fairy tales, always have, and Fables takes the stories you know and spins them into something brand new. It’s a very well crafted series, the characters develop very well, and you find yourself really caring about what happens to them. Those James Jean covers are killer.
I’m a major comics junkie. If I were on a desert island, I can’t imagine better repeat reading material than a huge box of big fat comics collections. I could go on for hours. Oh, the pain of all the great things I left out… On a different day, I could easily have come up with an entirely different list.
- Locas: The Maggie and Hopey Stories, by Jaime Hernandez – This massive 712-page omnibus that collects a huge chunk of Jaime Hernandez’s Locas saga from Love & Rockets is essential reading. Who isn’t in love with Maggie, Hopey, and Penny?
- Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories, by Gilbert Hernandez – The other side of the Love & Rockets equation: Gilbert Hernandez’s fantastical, weird, and tragic saga of a small Latin American village is as ambitious as it is daring.
- Zot! Book 1, by Scott McCloud – The original full-colour ten-issue run of Zot! – adventure, superheroics, science fiction, super science, romance, teen angst, and one of the most outlandishly insane rogues gallery ever.
- Zot! 1987-1991: The Complete Black-and-White Collection, by Scott McCloud – Zot’s parallel super-science version of Earth gets ethically more complex and nuanced, and then Zot gets stranded on mundane Earth. Black-and-white was the perfect choice for these stories. The emotional power of this second run is phenomenal, and McCloud’s teenagers are poignant and heartbreaking creations.
- Finder Library, Volumes 1-2, by Carla Speed McNeil – Two omnibus volumes collect the bulk of Finder – the greatest anthropological SF comics series ever.
- Hellboy Library Editions, Volumes 1-6 (and future volumes!), by Mike Mignola et al. – Mix Jack Kirby, Raymond Chandler, film noir, the Fantastic Four, Doctor Strange, H.P. Lovecraft, Weird Tales, S.H.I.E.L.D., and world mythology. Filter through the genius of Mike Mignola. Plus: big giant pages to really appreciate the art.
- Starman Omnibus, Volumes 1-6, by James Robinson et al. – The complete time-and-space-spanning story of Jack Knight, vintage shop dealer, son of the original Starman, and reluctant heir to his superheroic mantle.
- Catwoman, vol. 1-3, by Ed Brubaker et al. – Ed Brubaker is the king of comics that mix pulp noir with superhero adventure. Or more simply, of pulp noir comics, with or without superheroics. In the early 2000s, he had a run on Catwoman that was profoundly noir and startlingly moving. By far the best interpretation of Selina Kyle, ever. That one issue where Bruce and Selina share an evening as a regular couple still breaks my heart. DC is collecting the whole run in three omnibus volumes – the third and final one is due out later in 2014.
- The New Frontier, Absolute Edition, by Darwyn Cooke – Darwyn Cooke’s take on the political and social changes that transformed the heroes of DC’s Golden Age (1940s) to the Silver Age versions (late 1950s to early 1960s) is an epic masterpiece. This oversize edition is a thing of great beauty.
- World’s Finest, by Dave Gibbons & Steve Rude – The world’s finest comics artist on the archetypal world’s finest superteam, Superman and Batman. Pure candy. Every panel is a treasure.
BONUS! A book that doesn’t quite exist in this form: The complete Jack Kirby Fantastic Four collection – 102 issues and six annuals. 108 comics of pure greatness by the most powerful creative force to ever hit comics, Jack Kirby. Forget the Marvel Masterworks editions – the recolouring job is atrocious. I want a giant bound volume of the real thing.
I’m not going to lie and pretend like The Dark Knight Returns, Maus, Daredevil: Born Again, From Hell, Watchmen, or Sin City aren’t my favorites, because if you know my age, you know that’s demographically impossible. Those books hit me right in the face at just the right time to inform my future as both fan and creator. But I’ve been asked for more offbeat stuff, so here it is.
It feels wrong to call this a horror book because that implies cheap thrills and jump scares, but make no mistake, Black Hole is scary. The book provides plenty of grotesques to sate the traditional horror fan, but then burrows under your skin and exposes all the fears you’ve been trying to ignore since adolescence; sexual inadequacy, impending adulthood, existential isolation — all more terrifying than a homicidal lunatic in a hockey mask. Move beyond the coldly stunning beauty of the book and you’ll discover a deeply personal expression of what it feels like to be a frightened, bored, alienated teenager, not just in America, but as a young human being anywhere in the world. That’s a tall order, since the work is absolutely gorgeous, a technical masterpiece, but long after you’ve read it, the work will continue to haunt you like a nightmarish version of your high school yearbook.
An adaptation of the eponymous short story by early 20th century author Stefan Zweig, this graphic novel employs simple, wood cut style drawings that imbue the tale with a mythic, timeless quality. The panels look like ancient hieroglyphs and the story they tell feel like a lost gospel that could fit neatly into nearly every world religion. The book follows a man’s journey from soldier to king to beggar, and nearly every station between, always with the unattainable phantom of enlightenment hovering just over the horizon of each life. Despite the ancient setting and scriptural language, this is a very modern story of what it means to be a tiny human being adrift in a massive cosmos that is alternately comforting and cruel.
This is essentially Eisner’s biography. Too honest to be called a roman a clef, but just fictionalized enough to be engaging, Eisner displays his decades of cartooning experience in The Dreamer. He deftly depicts the dawn of the golden age of comics and all the larger than life personalities occupying it, as well as the life of a Jewish kid in New York during the depression. For a comics junkie like me, seeing Eisner masterfully bring that era to life only cemented my romance with comics. Consider it Mad Men circa 1939, only instead of cobbling together cheesy ads and promotions, these dreamers were crafting the myths and heroes of the twentieth century.
Clowes’ work can seem cruel at times, but the same keen eye that allows him to detect and magnify the slightest flaw in form or character also allows him to see the vulnerable, struggling beauty beneath the ugliness. Ice Haven is to date his best exercise in that level of observation. Of course, that’s old hat to Dan Clowes fans. They know how funny and astute he is, but in Ice Haven his cartooning finally keeps pace with his writing. Adventurous departures from his normal deadpan, mid-century modern style of cartooning are used to delineate the unique experiences of each resident of Ice Haven in this ambitious, hilarious, heartbreaking epic. His most accomplished, complete, human, and humane comic book yet.
It’s apt the team that gave us the first truly grown up version of the EC shock story in the horror classic Jennifer would reunite to do the same, but in a longer, more satisfying form, in Freak Show. Like the EC tales it references, the book has plenty of gross outs and shocking reveals, but is populated with fully formed characters whose hopes, fears, base appetites and higher aspirations are brought to life by Wrightson’s incomparable high contrast drawings. Wrightson dances the line between cartoonish grotesquerie and old master virtuosity as only he can. You’ll get the EC twist you came for, but along the way you’ll meet as finely crafted a set of characters that have ever graced a comic book page.
This sprawling, athletic, sensitive portrayal of how children pass into adulthood mirrors Urasawa’s theme of how fiction can also pass into reality. What boys dream, men do, for better or worse, and in Urasawa’s masterpiece there’s plenty of the latter. But the moments of heroism and humanity he dredges out of the misery make this a singular accomplishment. Sometimes the bad guys win, but heroes continue fighting long after all hope is gone, long enough to forge a new reality in which heroism and villainy themselves become hopelessly outmoded. Comparable only to television’s Lost in terms of scope and mystery, 20th Century Boys satisfies on a level only the work of an auteur like Urasawa could achieve.
It’s funny you mentioned Maus, Watchmen and Dark Knight as the three essential gns we shouldn’t include in the list. I don’t own any of those. What you didn’t mention was how many we could take on the island. I will try to control myself, for the sake of the survey.
- The Russ Cochran EC Comics collections of the sci fi material.
- A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics
- I’m not sure if this counts as a graphic novel since it isn’t square bound but in the seventies. Russ Cochran produced a b&w oversized collection of Frazetta comics called Untamed Love. If that doesn’t count I guess I’ll take the vanguard collection of his Johnny Comet.
- Mort Cinder by Alberto Breccia hopefully by the time I’m shipwrecked there’ll be an English translation of it.
- Blueberry by Moebius
- Volume 16 of Titan’s Judge Dredd collections drawn by Brendan McCarthy.
- Fraser of Africa by Frank Bellamy
- Dan Dare by Frank Hampson.
- Since you want uncommon, my Wrightson will be Freakshow
- Grimwood’s Daughter by Strnad and Nowlan.
- The Dreamer by Eisner.
My desert island collection would be
- Blue Beetle (Jaime Reyes collected stories)
- Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar
- Gray Horses by Hope Larson
- The Mire / Wolves by Becky Cloonan
- Any Tintin
- Y the Last Man by Brian K Vaughn
- X-Men either Dark Phoenix Saga collection or Days of Future Past collection
- Robot Dreams by Sara Varon
- The Deadenders by Ed Brubaker
- Genesis, by R. Crumb. – One of the most fascinating “translations” of Biblical text that we have. You can keep going back to it and learning something new — aided with Crumb’s unflinching illustrations — about the West’s first great multigenerational family saga, and all that grasping-for-the-cosmos (ever falling short) every time.
- Kings in Disguise/On the Ropes by James Vance and Dan E. Burr – I will cheat here and sneak in an extra book as a single entry, since they’re parts of a single story — that of teenage Fred Bloch, riding the rails across America in the Depression, trying to escape an alcoholic father, and a country similarly haunted by its demons. Those demons take center stage in the sequel, with our Fred seemingly working at a traveling circus, though all is not as it seems. Though, is it ever?
- Miracleman, Book 1: A Dream of Flying by an uncredited Alan Moore, et al. – Depending when we get to this island, I might like to take this forthcoming collection of the long legally-wrangled “Miracleman” books by Alan Moore, Alan Davis, and more. Originally called “Marvel Man” in the U.K., you get one guess which of the two big superhero imprints owns it now in the U.S. Moore may taken his name off this collection (credited to “The Original Author” now), but it’s a superhero deconstruction as splendid and hair-raising as Watchmen. (If this book isn’t out by the time I’m stranded, then give me Moore’s Promethea collection, done with the great J.H. Williams III, because being lonely like that, I will need sex magick, too…)
- Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross – Another for the “superhero section” of the book shelf to be made from palm fronds. Waid’s great look at the “future” of superheroes, coming a decade after Watchmen, also owes some of its flavor and fervor to the perceived excesses of 90’s superhero comics, the very decade that this “twilights of the Gods” story made its “Elseworlds” debut
- Best of American Splendor by Harvey Pekar – Actually, this title is standing in for any Harvey Pekar that I could grab, before washing up on those desert shores: Whether it was this, or his posthumous opus Cleveland, or Our Cancer Year, his adaptation of Studs Terkel’s Working, or whatever it was. But there needs to be some Pekar, because I suspect that after the food started to run low, one would be feeling pretty acerbic, too.
- DC Showcase: Batman, Vol. 4 – And if there needs to be Pekar, there needs to be Batman. This volume collects most of the key, formerly 12-cent issues of my initial comics-collecting childhood, in glorious B&W
- Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse – A great first person account of growing up as a white guy during the turmoils of the Civil Rights Movement in the South. And as a gay guy, to boot. Less well known than it oughtta be.
- A Jack Kirby 4th World Omnibus – I’m not sure which one. I have the first volume here on my shelf, and still need to get others. But on that desert isle, I think revisiting Kirby’s goofy, earnest universe of Earthly thugs in alliance with cosmic villains, Boom Tubes, escape artists, and counterculture Forever People, would be cheering.
Yep, that’s right. This is a graphic novel adaptation by Don Glut (drawn and inked by the late, great comics illustrator Alfredo Alcala) from the novel of the same name by one of the godfathers of Ghetto Lit, Donald Goines. The story is about an aging knife-wielding hitman whose one saving grace is trying to save his wayward teenage daughter from “The Life,” it was published in ’84 by Holloway House. This was the publisher in paperback of Goines, Iceberg Slim, Joe Nazel and many others penning the underbelly of the “black experience” for this white L.A.-based house.
Who knows what Holloway House thought they could do with this bad boy as I stumbled on my copy at the mother of all newsstands, World Book and News, still there on Cahuenga near Hollywood Boulevard. Frankly, Glut does a hell of a job improving upon the Goines prose, adding and altering various scenes from the source material. One of my prize possessions – signed by Glut to me when we were both signing at one of the Paperback Collectors Book Shows. Glut told me he’d also written a GN adaptation of Goines’Eldorado Red but Holloway House pulled the plug after this first attempt at a new market.
Written and drawn by Jim Starlin. The alien Kree Captain Mar-Vell, better known as the cosmic super-hero Captain Marvel, is dying of cancer form exposure to Compound 13 nerve gas. There is no cure. Indeed the Renaissance-like cover of Marvel’s first graphic novel ($5.95, 1982) has the dying Captain lying languidly across the lap of a robed Death – luminaries of the Marvel Universe including Thor, Spider-Man, Captain America and the Hulk converge on these forms…helpless to halt the onslaught of death. Marvel must face his fear and accept that he will invariably make the journey to the land of the dead. Knocked me out when I first read it
This is one of the DC Showcase Presents compendiums. It came out in 2011 and reprints the entire short run of the Marvel black and white Doc Savage magazine from the ‘70s – though Marvel and the magazine are not listed any damn where in the front credits. All the original stories, “The Earth-Wreckers!” “Hell-Reapers at the Heart of Paradise,” etc., were written by Doug Moench with art by various, including some slam-bang work by John Buscema inked by Tony DeZuniga – who also drew some of the stories. Uneven, but Moench did a good job capturing Dent’s Doc and also gave some dimensionality to his crew.
Now that Oliver Stone has been bounced from doing his warts and all biopic of Martin Luther King, Jr. (the family wasn’t down with him showing the civil rights leader knocking extra martial boots among other things), get thee a copy of the initially three-part graphic novel written, drawn and inked by Ho Che Anderson. Called an “interpretive comics biography” put on Funkadelic and enjoy the read, y’all.
Written and drawn by the one and only Jim Steranko, it was his able attempt to invent a kind of graphic novel form. My crumbling digest-sized Pyramid Books (bought for a buck, a Bryon Preiss project – who gave us the Weird Heroes paperback prose anthologies of oddball super beings before Wild Cards) copy offers two same-sized illustrations per page with typeset justified narrative and dialogue text per illo. I guess Steranko had been tinkering with the story, about a private eye named Chandler, of course, investigating a mass killing by Tommy gun, and some new over-written pages have appeared in an issue of Dark Horse Presents anthology. This was supposed to be followed by a new, revamped edition from DH, but so far nada. I remember digging the story and the nourish art was superb.
Written by Stan “The Man” Lee and drawn by Jack “King” Kirby. Technically this 1978 effort is the first Marvel graphic novel but was published by Simon and Schuster, presumably to access the bookstore market. It’s a re-telling of the origin on the Surfer without the Fantastic Four or allusions to other super powered beings. In this version, there’s a part where the Surfer disguises himself as a human to better understand our world. Galactus still seeks to devour Earth to get his grub on and uses the ol’ honey trap, in the form of the golden-skinned, blonde-haired Ardina to seduce the Silver One. Lee and Kirby were never better.
Given that we’ve agreed to steer away from some of the heavy hitters that might normally be in the “emergency reading rations” we’d take to that putative isle, here are some other volumes that might sustain me, along with the coconut oil and pilfered mangos, and conch fritters.
Here’s a list of ten. Many of the entries could change in a week, depending on circumstance or mood, but I know these volumes will provide a certain daily quotient of readerly nutrition:
The Lone Ranger and Tonto by Joe Lansdale and Timothy Truman – I feel like there should be a Western in this comics cache, and if I can’t get my hands on Lansdale’s supernatural version of Jonah Hex, then I’d want his supernatural version of The Lone Ranger, done with his Hex artist, Truman. Perhaps the best versions of these characters yet rendered, you’ll see where the idea for Johnny Depp’s take on Tonto came from. Though it’s done better here.
Any Marvel “The End” Comics – I might be feeling pretty nihilistic if I’m not rescued from that island in a goodly amount of time. Marvel’s unjustly undersung The End series will help confirm those nihilistic feelings. I especially liked the one about The Hulk, where an aged green behemoth is the last “humanoid” on Earth, and the way ahead of its time final Punisher, where an unchecked security state stumbles into nuclear war, and in a post-apocalyptic landscape, the Punisher goes after surviving members of the 1%.
The “Stranded on a Desert Island” reading list should be fairly timeless given the fact you have a first world luxury in your new third world home. For that reason, I’d place Dave Sim’s Church and State in the first slot. I’ll cheat and count the two of them as one volume. Church and State is the beating heart of Cerebus and a stunning example of the art form not quite reached by what followed in the rest of the Cerebus series. Following the same rule, I’ll count the entire Scalped series from Vertigo Comics by Jason Aaron and illustrated by R. M. Guéra in the number two slot. The noir flavor of the series is as gritty as anything by Jim Thompson. Watching Dash Bad Horse crash into crime, poverty and tragedy on the reservation evokes a visceral reaction. Third would be the Black Canary Archives for some old school heroics that date from the 1940s to the 1970s and a gem of a story by Alex Toth. That book has a nice cross-section of the evolution of the form and a gutsy female lead.
NOTE: Also check out Part 1!
Tagged with: Bill Williams • Cecil Castellucci • claude lalumiere • Gary Phillips • Joe R. Lansdale • John Lucas • Kristin A. Hogan • Mark London Williams • Mind Meld • Phillip Hester • Rick Klaw • Scott A. Cupp
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