For those of you lacking a basic comic book education, below is a reading list of books that I have found particularly compelling in explaining, exploring and promoting comics as an art form. This comics curriculum 101 also includes books on the history of the industry and the lives of some of its most noteworthy creators. A few of these books are comics themselves, and most of them rely heavily on images and graphic design, making them, like comics, as entertaining to look at as they are to read — although to fully appreciate them, you really should do both (click on the hyperlinked words to see page examples). The books are grouped by theme to answer the fundamental journalistic questions Who?, What?, When?, Where?, Why? and How? (although not in that order). I truly think these books have something of interest to offer both comics veterans and newcomers, and will whet anyone’s appetite to at least sample some of the works they present.
How do comics work and Why make them?
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud was the first scholarly tome on “sequential art” (see next book) presented entirely in the medium it sets out to explain. It begins by establishing a definition and vocabulary for comics, then examines the inner workings that make this form of artistic expression so unique. These include the delicate balancing act between words and pictures, the varying effects of different panel transitions, and, best of all, the magic of “closure,” through which the reader fills in the gaps between panels (called “the gutter”) to coauthor the story with the writer and artist. That and the ability of readers to control the pace at which they interact with the story make comics an art form unlike any other. And because of the way McCloud reveals the secrets of this “invisible art,” Understanding Comics is one of the most fascinating books (with or without pictures) that I’ve ever read on any topic.
McCloud was heavily influenced by Comics and Sequential Art, written by comics pioneer and early graphic novelist, Will Eisner. Eisner coined the phrase “sequential art” to describe the narrative nature of comics as distinct from single panel cartoons. Although heavily illustrated with examples of Eisner’s trailblazing work — to examine elements such as imagery, timing, the frame (panel), expressive anatomy, and writing — the book makes its case in prose text and captions rather than comics. Still, it is an important early attempt to give the art form the consideration and legitimacy it deserves.
One work that has always been highly regarded for its graphic literary merit is Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, which tells the story of the author’s relationship with his father through his father’s retelling of his experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz and Dachau. Perhaps the world’s most famous (non-superhero) comic, it attempts to deconstruct Aryan racial theory by depicting the human characters with the heads of animals—most prominently Jews as mice and Germans as cats. In MetaMaus, published 25 years later, Spiegelman finally answers the three question he has most been asked about this work: “Why the Holocaust?” – “Why Mice?” – “Why Comics?” Spiegelman’s response is illustrated with more autobiographical comics, and reproductions from his extensive archive of historical documents and sketches that take the reader through the creative process from transcript to finished page. The book comes with a supplemental DVD that includes an annotated digital version of the complete Maus, as well as video footage of Spiegelman’s trip to Auschwitz and the audio recordings of his interviews with his father. I truly wish that there were companion volumes like this for all the great works of graphic literature. [In 2005 I wrote a paper, published in the International Journal of Comic Art, that examines how the visual metaphor of Maus reflects society’s negative views/treatment of animals.]
In 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style author Matt Madden presents a one-page comic template — in which he gets up from his desk to go to the refrigerator, only to forget what he was looking for when he arrives there — then retells it over and over again by changing different elements such as perspective, panel arrangement, artistic style, format and genre. Although some of these variations are played just for laughs, Madden demonstrates how sometimes subtle changes in execution can affect the mood, tone, message and reception of even a single brief scene that includes (originally at least) only 15 words of dialogue.
Doug Wolk’s Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean essentially takes the same approach I am here to explain the merits of comics. Although only sparsely illustrated with black and white photos, I think people who like reading well-written book reviews and literary criticism will not only enjoy Wolk’s essays, but also learn to appreciate the sophistication and intelligence behind an art form traditionally thought of as crude and childish. Part One: Theory and History includes chapters such as “Auteurs, the History of Art Comics, and How to Look at Ugly Drawings,” and “What’s Good About Bad Comics and What’s Bad About Good Comics.” Part Two: Reviews and Commentary offers fresh insights into works published from the 1970s (The Tomb of Dracula and Warlock) to the 2000s (Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical Fun Home and Chris Ware’s quaint-looking but unsettling Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth).
What comics should I read?
British comics publisher and promoter Paul Gravett lays out an enticing array of choices in Graphic Novels: Stories To Change Your Life (subtitled Everything You Need to Know in the U.S. edition). The book introduces 30 classic works of graphic literature then reproduces sample pages from each of them in two-page spreads that provide an overview of the story and focus on the details of how it was executed. Each of these titles is followed by half-page entries on four similarly-themed works, providing 120 additional recommended stories of childhood, adulthood, war, superheroes, science fiction and fantasy, horror, crime, humor and satire, history, and passion/eroticism. I stumbled upon it several years ago in a bookstore (you remember those, right?) and purchased it immediately. (It didn’t hurt that Gravett and I have similar taste in what constitutes great comics.)
At half the size but nearly twice the thickness, 500 Essential Graphic Novels: The Ultimate Guide, by Gene Kannenberg Jr., offers more than three times as many recommendations as Gravett’s Graphic Novels. Each work is presented in brief two-, one-, or half-page entries grouped under ten subject categories very similar to the ones used by Gravett: Adventure, Non-fiction, Crime and Mystery, Fantasy, General Fiction, Horror, Humor, Science Fiction, Superheroes and War. Although Kannenberg’s more expansive coverage means he can’t go into as much detail about individual works, it does allow him to surpass Gravett’s book in one crucial area: offering a wide range of works appropriate for “all-ages,” ensuring that young readers have a suitable selection to help them get an early start in developing their comics literacy.
Apparently unwilling to be outdone, Paul Gravett ups the ante in 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die, which doubles the number of “essential” recommendations offered by Gene Kannenberg Jr. But while this collection is unsurpassed in sheer volume, the half- to two-page entries in this book are less user-friendly than Kannenberg’s in a couple of respects. First, they include old, rare, and out-of-print titles that in many cases would be difficult if not impossible to find (which on the plus side, if Gravett’s title is literally true, means that most of us will live forever). Second, rather than being categorized by theme or genre, after starting with precursors to actual comic books published before 1930, the titles are grouped into somewhat arbitrary time frames going from 1930-49, 1950-69, 1970-89, 1990-99 and 2000-the present.
If you really feel that mainstream comics offer nothing that would interest you, perhaps your best single source of high quality, mature, thought-provoking and sometimes mind-bending comics would be The Vertigo Encyclopedia by Alex Irvine. Vertigo Comics is an imprint of DC Comics, established in 1993 as a home for sophisticated, unconventional storytelling far removed from the publishing giant’s usual superhero fare (although Vertigo has issued some unique takes on that genre as well). It launched with six titles—The Sandman; John Constantine: Hellblazer; Shade, the Changing Man; Doom Patrol; Animal Man and Swamp Thing—and went on to publish over 200 more, including 100 Bullets; DMZ; Preacher; Fables; The Books of Magic; The Invisibles; WE3 and Y: The Last Man. Detailed entries on 100 titles provide information about storylines, themes, characters, creators and often key moments, locations and behind-the-scenes looks at the creative process. Brief synopses of another 100 titles appear in the Gazetteer at the back of the book. Although many of the series have completed their runs during the past 25 years, most are still in print and readily available in collected trade paperback editions.
Who makes comics? [comic book biography]
Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World, by Monte Beauchamp, presents brief comics biographies of its subjects illustrated by various artists. Although it includes comic strip and editorial cartoonists, children’s book illustrators, and animators, about half of the book is devoted to comic book luminaries that include Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Captain America co-creator Jack Kirby and Mad Magazine editor Harvey Kurtzman; graphic novel pioneer Lynd Ward and underground comix icon Robert Crumb; and Belgian and Japanese comics masters, Tintin creator Hergé and “God of Manga” Osamu Teszuka. The one major failing of this educational and fun book is that it doesn’t include a single female comics creator. Fortunately, the next book more than compensates for this imbalance.
She Changed Comics profiles more than 60 groundbreaking female writers and artists such as: early comics pioneers, “Brenda Starr” creator Dale Messick and “Torchy Brown” creator Jackie Ormes (the first professional Black woman cartoonist); veteran of EC and Marvel Comics, Marie Severin; underground comix creators Trina Robbins and Roberta Gregory; alternative comics creators Jessica Abel and Alison Bechdel; and current superstar writers Kelly Sue DeConnick and G. Willow Wilson. Presented by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the book also examines the plights of women comics creators worldwide whose works have been responded to with bans, threats and even imprisonment.
The Silver Age of Comic Book Art by Arlen Shumer provides a stunning showcase for eight artists who played major roles in a superhero renaissance that took place in the comics industry from the mid-1950s to the close of the 1960s. This oversized book displays the art of Carmine Infantino, Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, Joe Kubert, Gene Colan, Jim Steranko and Neal Adams in vivid two-page spreads that emphasize the dynamic action and often over-the-top drama that left a lasting imprint on a generation of young comics readers (that obviously included me). Together they helped establish the iconic looks of such current superhero movie and television stars as the Flash, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Daredevil, Nick Fury, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man and Batman. These characters would never have made it to the big or small screens if they hadn’t first been brought to life on the page by these amazing artists.
Of all the talented artists featured in the preceding book, there was only one who earned the title Kirby: King of Comics. (Likewise, Marvel Comics, of which Kirby was a principal architect — along with Stan Lee — is sometimes referred to as the “house that Jack built.”) Biographer Mark Evanier uses Jack Kirby’s original art (and family photos) to tell the King’s life story, from his humble beginnings in a tenement on New York’s Lower East Side; to his innovative work in comics genres including superhero, war, romance and horror; to his later years as arguably comics most revered creator. [See my blog post describing Kirby’s impact on my formative years as a comic book reader.]
Mythology: The DC Comics Art of Alex Ross, by Chip Kidd, is a lavishly illustrated chronicle of the life and works of the modern-day “Norman Rockwell of comics.” Ross’ photorealist paintings bring breathtaking life to fantastical characters in such instant comics classics as an epic about an apocalyptic war between superhero generations, and the internal struggle of a homeless and confused Uncle Sam wandering the streets haunted by images of his country’s past sins. The book also reveals Ross’ artistic process, which starts with taking photos of a model, then progresses from initial sketch to completed painting.
While artists used to be the superstars of comics fandom, today’s writers may have a greater following, and none is held in higher esteem (certainly not by me) than Alan Moore. In Alan Moore: Storyteller, author Gary Spencer Millidge traces his subject’s life from his childhood in Northhampton, England (where he still lives today), to his early work on British comics, to his graphic literary masterpieces produced while working for American publisher DC Comics (such as the seminal Watchmen*), to later genre-defying works published under his America’s Best Comics imprint (such as the Victorian adventure series, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen*, and the metaphysical primer, Promethea). The book also looks at his non-comics work as a novelist, musician and performance artist (examples of his works in the latter two roles are included in a DVD that comes with the book). [*If you’ve seen the movie versions of these or any of Moore’s other works, such as V for Vendetta and From Hell, I beg you to seek out and read the original source material.]
Before best-selling British author Neil Gaiman made a reputation for himself with such books as Coraline, American Gods and Stardust he was already one of the world’s most famous and popular modern comics writers. Hayley Campbell’s The Art of Neil Gaiman: The Story of a Writer with Handwritten Notes, Drawings, Manuscripts, and Personal Photographs follows Gaiman’s life and career from his days as a young punk and comics journalist, to his achievements as a comics writer, from his graphic novels to what is arguably his best work, The Sandman. This dark fantasy series – about the Master of Dreams and his family, The Endless (which includes his older sister, Death) – ran from 1989-93, won more than two dozen comics and literary awards, and is a frequent gateway for bringing non-comics readers into comics.
Grant Morrison’s Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human is part comics history and part trippy autobiography of one of comics’ greatest (and my favorite) writers. Although containing only the occasional black and white photo, Morrison’s prose paints vivid pictures of the imaginary landscapes he explores. A Scottish member of the British Invasion that revolutionized American comics in the late 1980s, Morrison is best known for addressing metaphysical/political themes in such works as The Invisibles – about a secret organization of anarchists fighting to free the human race from alien-imposed slavery to conformity and mediocrity – and for breaking the fourth wall by having his characters interact directly with the reader (and vice versa). But he has also authored some of the best stories ever written about iconic mainstream superheroes including Batman, Superman and the X-Men. I think anyone with a love (or at least tolerance) for the weird who likes well-written autobiographies by interesting people will thoroughly enjoy this book — even if you don’t care about superheroes (although I think you might by the time you finish).
When did comics start? [comic book history]
If you’re interested in learning the exciting backstory behind how the comics industry got its start, there’s no more fun way to do it than reading the current comic book series by humorous historians Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey. So far they’ve covered such highlights in the history of comic books as early printed comics art, literary proto-superheroes such as The Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro, the anti-comic book hysteria of the 1950s and the evolution of superheroes over the past 70 years. The first collected edition of the series, The Four Color Comic Book History of Comics: Birth of a Medium, will be released in August.
Gerard Jones offers a more serious (and nearly pictureless) history in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book. I believe it was in reading this book that I first learned how many founding figures of the comics industry were Jewish: From girlie magazine publisher Harry Donenfeld, who saw selling comics as a (marginally) more reputable way to make a profit, to the pair of high school friends and science fiction fans from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, whose strange visitor from another planet launched the the early sales boom that led to comics becoming an enduring fixture in American culture and commerce. [See my blog post for a more extensive list of Jewish comics creators.]
In The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, David Hadju tells the story of the lowest point in comics history (aided by only a handful of archival black and white photos). Starting in the late 1940s, the country was caught up in a wave of anti-comic book hysteria that blamed horror and crime comics for corrupting the nation’s youth. This led to public comic book burnings and culminated in a 1954 investigation of the comics industry by the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. To avoid threatened congressional regulation, publishers self-imposed a set of “decency” standards that stifled artistic expression in comics for decades and ended the careers of many talented writers and artists. [For a slightly more detailed synopsis of these events, see Part 5 of my series of posts on the history of superhero comics, The Big Chill.]
The only selection on this list probably best-suited for hardcore comics fans, the five volume American Comic Book Chronicles give a detailed year-by-year account of comics industry history from the 1950s to the 1980s (the “Silver Age” 1960s are divided into two books). Extensively illustrated in full color, one of my favorite features of the series, and the one most likely to be of interest to lay readers, are the timelines for each year that put major moments in comics history in context with world events such as: the development of the polio vaccine and end of McCarthyism (1953), the assassinations of MLK Jr. and RFK (1968), the Ali – Frazier “fight of the century”and grand opening of Disney World (1971), and the beginning of the Reagan Era and introduction of personal computers (1981).
Where do comics get made? [comic book geography]
Although the comic book is an American invention, The Essential Guide to World Comics, by Tim Pilcher and Brad Brooks, shows how it has swept the globe and flourished in other countries. The book starts with U.S. comics, then goes on to provide examples of works from Britain, Japan, Southeast Asia, France (where they are accepted as high art), other countries in Europe, Latin America, Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand, and the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Each chapter also contains a brief biography of a prominent “World-Class Creator.”
Comics are a much more prominent part of culture in Japan than in the United States, and are read by a much wider spectrum of the population. Paul Gravett’s Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics provides a thorough overview of popular manga genres, which virtually ignore superheroes in favor of more general themes such as humor, horror and romance. Most of the the manga examples have been translated into English, but the pages retain their original Japanese formatting of being read right to left (numbering is provided to help readers follow the stories in proper sequence).