Monday, May 3, 2010

Ten Comics for People who don't like Comics

There are a lot of lists of the best comics ever out there.  This isn't one of those, although many of the comics included here are among the best comics ever, at least for what they are trying to do.

This is a list of comics for people who don't like comics.  It might be considered as an introduction--books to recommend to your friends to convince them to read comics--or as a few possible starting points for people who want to read comics but don't know where to start.  But I'm hoping that there's something here for people who actually dislike comics--depending on what it is they dislike.

10. Bill Waterson's Calvin and Hobbes:
The Indispensable Calvin And HobbesFor a complete comic novice, who has somehow avoided reading any comics at all, I think a comic strip is a good place to start.  It's a simple and easy way to familiarize yourself with some of the conventions of the medium, and to get used to how comics look and feel, in bite-sized pieces.  And among comic strips, Bill Waterson's Calvin and Hobbes is hard to beat.  It's intelligent and thoughtful but still accessible and funny, it's very sharply written, the art is among the best comic strips have to offer, and in the collections he always includes a multi-page story or two that reads more like a comic book than like a conventional strip.  Waterson also likes to play with the medium, but does so in ways that will not alienate a complete newcomer to comics.  Any of the books or collections is highly recommended.

9.  Jeff Smith's Bone:
Bone: The Complete Cartoon Epic in One Volume (Vol 1)If what you don't like about comics is the violence, or the sexuality, then Jeff Smith's Bone is the perfect thing.  This is a comic that Fredric Wertham could not have objected to, yet at the same time it is creative, funny, and smart enough to make anyone happy.  It's all-ages appropriate without being juvenile, and silly without being dumb.  I would recommend Bone with equal enthusiasm to a 10 year old or to a 40 year old.  It is, however, very much a comic book fantasy epic, clearly influenced by Mickey Mouse, which is why it's so far down on this list.  It's a great comic book, but people who hate comics might hate this just as much.

8.   Brian K. Vaughn's Y the Last Man
Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1: UnmannedIf what you don't like about comics is the superheroes, Y the Last Man is a great choice.  A ten volume self-contained story, it takes some commitment, but no preparation.  You can pick up the first volume having never read a comic book before, and be perfectly informed.  The story is a dystopian fable about a world in which all male mammals are suddenly killed by a mysterious virus--all except the story's protagonist and his pet monkey.  The book ranges from social critique and satire to magical realism, and it's a nice read, at turns thought-provoking and simply entertaining.  Like Bone, it might be slightly less appealing to people who dislike comics, and especially people who have trouble with the mix of sci-fi and fantasy that is so common in comic books.

7. Neil Gaiman's Dream Hunters
The Dream Hunters (Sandman, Book 11)If what you don't like about comics is all those pesky word-balloons, Neil Gaiman's Dream Hunters is a fantastic choice.  Neil Gaiman is one of the big names of comics, and his epic Sandman is, with Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Watchmen, one of the comics credited with revolutionizing the comics industry in the 1980s.  Dream Hunters features the protagonist of Sandman, but is a self-contained story that requires no previous knowledge of Gaiman or his work.  It is beautifully illustrated, with a single image each page, fully separated from the text, which means that it is not a comic according to everyone's definition.  If it had no other virtues to recommend it--and it does--that alone would be enough to earn it a place on this list.

6.  Mo Willems's You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When it Monsoons
You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons: The World on One Cartoon a Day Mo Willems' You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When it Monsoons is another book that might not fit everyone's definition of a comic.  The book consists of 365 individual cartoons, one-per-page, chronicling Willems' year long trip around the world.  Full of humour, wit, and pathos, it's simply a great non-fiction travel narrative that also happens to be a comic.  After writing this book,Willems went on to be a writer for Sesame Street, and is now a successful and popular children's book writer.  You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When it Monsoons showcases the humour that would later serve Willems in good stead, but is a great read for grown-ups.

5.  Kurt Busiek's Astro City: Life in the Big City
Life in the Big City (Astro City, Vol. 1) I debated including this book on this list.  Astro City is in its way such a loving tribute to superhero comics that I worried it might not be a good choice in this context.  But although the "tribute" dimension makes Astro City a great recommendation for people who love comics already, it is also a great introduction to superheroes for people who've never seen what all the fuss is about.  Astro City is a self-contained "universe", which means that no prior knowledge of superheroes is required to make sense of the plots.  The book I'm particularly recommending, Life in the Big City contains some foreshadowing, that doesn't get resolved within the book itself, but you never feel like you're not in the in crowd.  Astro City is about why superhero comics are good, and it manages to be iconic and heroic and emotionally resonant even without all the history of Superman or Batman to back that up.  If Astro City doesn't turn you on to superheroes, I doubt anything will.

4. Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics
Understanding Comics: The Invisible ArtScott McCloud's Understanding Comics is, among other things, an exercise in comics evangelism.  A theoretical examination of the medium of comics, produced in the form it advocates, Understanding Comics brought comics theory to the mainstream in a whole new way.  If what you don't like about comics is that you feel that fiction is not intellectually rigourous enough, Understanding Comics is a great choice, both for its argument about what comics can be, and as an example of that.

3. Craig Thompson's Blankets
Blankets A beautifully drawn, intricately plotted story of coming of age and of lost love, Craig Thompson's Blankets is simply a great graphic novel.  Though Thompson classifies it as a "novel", it has the feel of a thematically tight and imaginatively rich  memoir.  It has nothing to do with superheroes or fantasy or science fiction, and is one of the best examples of indivisibility words and art I know of--by which I mean that the words would not be comprehensible without the pictures, and the pictures would not be comprehensible without the words.  As such, it showcases the medium of comics wonderfully.

2. Will Eisner's Contract with God
The Contract with God Trilogy: Life on Dropsie Avenue (A Contract With God, A Life Force, Dropsie Avenue) Will Eisner's Contract with God is the book the popularized the term "graphic novel".  The book is a collection of four short stories, connected by theme and by the fact that they are all set in the same New York tenements.  Sometimes flippant, sometimes grotesque, A Contract with God is a work worth reading by anyone's standards.

1. Art Spiegelman's Maus
Maus 1 and 2 - (2 Volume Box Set)In his Pulitzer Prize winning Maus: A Survivor's Tale Art Spiegelman retells his father's experience as a holocaust survivor.  Maus is deceptively simple in its illustration--Jews are depicted as mice, Nazis as cats, and Americans are dogs--it is both mythically resonant and deeply personal, both specific and generalizable.  Maus is one of the great works of holocaust narrative, and a masterful comic book.

Do you object to things on this list?  Do you think I've made an unforgivable omission?  I haven't included anything by Alan Moore, who is regarded by many as the world's foremost comics creator.  If you think I should have, or if you have other works you'd add or take away, please say so in the comments.


  1. With respect, Paul, why aim your aesthetic judgments toward that hypothetical reader that "hates" comics?

    You can't convince everyone that what you like is what they'll like too, so why bother?

    For example, regarding BONE, it doesn't matter to me whether that hypothetical reader likes it or not. If that reader has an allergic aversion to cartooning, it's their loss.

    I can't think of another artistic field in which judgments of quality are as outward-directed and as anxious to please non-fans as in comics. Let's face it: not everyone is going to be persuaded to dig comics, and that's fine. I dig comics, and I'm not an evangelist.

  2. I don't know if I know anyone who "hates" comics, but if we lay aside the binary of like or hate this seems like a great idea for an article regardless of who it's aimed at. While I probably have half of these on my shelf already at the very least I now get to check out Astro City next time I visit the comic shop (thanks for that).

    Beyond the fringe benefit to a moderately informed comic enthusiast such as myself, rather than hating the very idea of the medium of a comic book the average person who dislikes comics simply doesn't care enough to look for something worthwhile. I was surprised to hear mother's account of walking into a comic shop to find a Christmas present for me one year. But if you stop to think, it makes sense. Not knowing what to look for, it's easy to be scared off by flashy spandex and of course the ubiquitous nearly-naked-elf. This is where I would happily point someone at a blog like this rather than try to expand on a rather lame "there's more to it than that."

    On the topic of atypical comics: Paul, do you happen to know of a graphic novel featuring a christian physicist of some description. I seem to recall seeing it in Waterloo, but have not managed to find it since. I believe it was of the sci-fi persuasion, but if I could remember more I'd probably have been able to track it down myself.

  3. I really appreciate the effort that went into making this list. While some people choose to enjoy comics without feeling the need to engage in any 'comic evangelism', I feel that comics don't just have value as literature and art, but also as a social lubricant. This list could someone share their passion with someone else, which would only serve to enlarge the comic reading audience, leading to more comics getting produced and even more people engaging in discussion about comics. Plus this list could help a lot of fellows explain their comic reading habits to their skeptical girlfriends. That's important too.

  4. Love it. Good work.

    RE: The discussion above: I just read people who don't "like" comics as those who don't read them regularly. And that includes most of the people I know really. Even for me, I consider myself someone who doesn't "like" comics -- I have very little patience for comics that are geeks-only... it's a thin line, but there are many. (FYI I do own quite a few comics, though only four or five from the above list.)