Comics Recommended by a Guy Who Knows Nothing About Them
The things I don’t know about comic books could fill several very large graphic novels. I didn’t buy them as a kid, in the waning days of comics’ “Bronze Age.” I didn’t buy them when the likes of Art Speigelman, Alan Moore and Los Bros Hernandez arguably re-invigorated the form in the late 1980s/early 1990s. I didn’t even buy them in 1992-1993, when I had an entire apartment filled with comic books. (My girlfriend of the time was buying them up; “X-Men” and its million-and-six related titles, mostly. I read just enough of them to know that every movie based on the “X-Men” comics is a godawful piece of leathery tripe, with the possible exception of the second one. It had some moments.)
That’s not to say that comics are entirely foreign to me. I’ve read many of the pivotal titles of recent years, usually when a friend slides me a graphic novel or two; that’s how I came to read Frank Miller’s “The Dark Night Returns,” Kyle Baker’s “Why I Hate Saturn,” most of Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” and nearly all of Garth Ennis’ “Preacher.” But before you get too excited, listen: I haven’t read any of the “Love and Rockets” books, any bit of “Transmetropolitan” or anything of “Y: The Last Man.” Please don’t rush me. I’m getting around to it.
Needless to say, you should take the following recommendations with the qualification that they come from a man who’s only recently begun to understand books with pictures. The crew of Ballard’s Arcane Comics has acquired a good sense of the kind of stories I like, and they’ve directed me to several titles that, with your indulgence, I would like to recommend to you now. Just remember: I know nothing about comics. I don’t even ask for the protective bags and boards when I buy them. As I understand it, that’s a sin tantamount to making an “X-Men” movie with Fraiser Crane.
“Captain Swing and the Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island,” written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Raoul Caceres. As I said earlier, I’ve yet to read Ellis’ dystopian gonzo-journalism epic “Transmetropolitan,” which makes my recommending a book by him about as fitting as recommending the music of the Rolling Stones based on the cover art of “Some Girls.” And I’m only halfway though his wonderful “Planetary” series, which I can’t recommend highly enough. (All my friends at Arcane had to say of the latter was that it dealt with “super-powered archeologists uncovering the secret history of the world,” and I bought everything they had.) Still, I’ll give this a shot. As near as I can tell, Ellis has all of Alan Moore’s considerable storytelling talents — an ability to bend historical events to his will, a knack for dialogue that advances the plot without reading like so much exposition, and a gift for creating characters that seem to exist in three dimensions — but he also has something that Moore doesn’t, which I’ll call “sweetness” for lack of a better name. Ellis’s stories don’t have the bleak aftertaste that I sometimes get from Moore’s (nonetheless exemplary) work.
“Captain Swing” is the first Ellis story I’ve begun from the beginning, and lemme tell you something: If ever the Steampunk genre had reason to exist, it’s this title. It’s got Spring-Heeled Jack; it’s got the Bow Street Runners; it’s got a levitating rowboat. Any one of these elements could make a good story by itself, but Ellis is tying these cords together into a strong rope.
“Chew,” written by John Layman and illustrated by Rob Guillory. It sucks to be Tony Chu. The FDA agent is a “cibopath” — he can get a psychic reading from something by tasting it — and like Howard The Duck before him, Chu is trapped in a world he never made. He’s tasked with enforcing the federal ban on poultry (the result of the fatal advance of Swine Flu), and he’s got at least 99 problems standing between him and his job, including but not limited to homicidal partners, a mysterious extraterrestrial intelligence, and a boss who hates his ever-loving guts. These things make it difficult for Chu to do what he does best, which is tasting unsavory things to solve mysteries … including the occasional corpse.
“Chew” is a smart, wickedly satirical title. However, if you’re a vegetarian — or your stomach simply turns at the thought of cannibalism, or that new “Double Down” sandwich from KFC — you may have to content yourself with my description of it. Don’t worry about them making it into a movie; while “Chew” isn’t as graphic as you might think, this story is pretty much unfilmable.
“King City,” written and illustrated by Brandon Graham. A pure joy, month after month. “King City” is the story of Joe, a “Cat Master” making his way in a future world of zombie warfare, water-breathing alien hotties and a drug that turns its users to chalk. Joe’s companion is a cat named Earthling, who’s possessed of a genius-level human intellect (though he can’t speak), and has the ability to perform superhuman tasks when Joe hits him with a syringe full of transforming serum appropriate to the task at hand. (The cat doesn’t mind the injections, and actually seems to relish the work.) Every single frame of “King City” is filled with thousands of eye-catching details; this world is so fully imagined that you could move in tomorrow. And Graham’s relentless, groan-inducing puns (“Marmoset there’d be days like this”) take the whole enterprise over the top.
“Stumptown,” written by Gregory Rucka, illustrated by Matthew Southworth and colored by Lee Loughridge. I’m becoming a huge fan of Gregory Rucka’s writing. The Portland-based author imagines female heroes (and anti-heroes) that could stand toe-to-toe with the toughest ladies Joss Whedon has ever created … and any nerd can tell you that Joss has come up with a decent few. In “Stumptown,” Rucka gives us Dex Parios, a world-weary and wisecracking private eye in the classic tradition who only happens to be a tattooed, vaguely indie-rockish action babe. Dex is quick-thinking, resilient, fearless — all good things, because it seems that every other thug in Rose City is out to kill her.
I have more books I’d like to tell you about — Jeff Lemire’s “Sweet Tooth,” for one, and Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba’s “Daytrippers” — but we’re already out of room, so they’ll have to wait until next time. I’ve only been at this since last autumn, so a follow-up column seems likely. Heaven knows what’ll happen when I really get into comic books. I may even start putting them in bags and boards, though it’s unlikely.
ILLUSTRATION BY BRANDON GRAHAM