Comics Should Be Good’s Question of the Month!
Here’s a new routine we’ll be doing here on the blog. Every month, around this time, we will all answer the same comic book related question. Feel free to send in suggestions for future questions to firstname.lastname@example.org! This month, we’re using a question that Greg Hatcher suggested – “If you had to pick one current ongoing series to recommend to new readers, what would it be and why?”
Read on to see how we all answered!
We’ll do this alphabetically by first name..
I suppose this depends on how strict your definition of “ongoing” is. At the moment, the title I’m leaning towards recommending most heavily is Red 5’s Atomic Robo, by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener (and friends). “It’s a mini-series!” you may cry, shaking your fist at the thunderous heavens, but bear with me. The way the book’s shaping up, it looks like it’s becoming a series of mini-series, and that’s ongoing enough for me. We’ve had one mini-series (soon to be available in a far more palatable and digestible trade paperback) and a Free Comic Book Day Special (what better format to hook new readers?), with another mini-series on the horizon. Yeah, looks like Atomic Robo’s going to stick around.
Why praise it so heavily? Especially for readers new to comics? For one thing, it’s not laden down by the oppressive weight of the dread creature called “continuity,” so we don’t have to worry about any sort of confusion on that end. More worthwhile, however, are the book’s attitude and execution: it’s fun. Yes, that harmless three-letter word is a curse to “serious comic readers” everywhere, but for new readers, it’s a blessing. Atomic Robo is a comic that doesn’t take itself too seriously; it’s an adventure comic about an irreverent, ass-kicking robot that’s been around since 1923 and takes on strange menaces with the help of his action scientists. There’s a good premise for you. It leads the comic into what might seem like standard comics territory– robots, Nazis, robot Nazis, giant ants, etc.– but Clevinger’s scripts sing and zing, and Wegener’s clean, dynamic art tells the story perfectly. The book’s got a lovely sense of freshness about it. *sniff sniff* Mmm. Lemony.
Atomic Robo is perfect entry-level comics (not to worry, sports fans, it’s also perfect comics for those of you who have been around for a while). It’s suitable for all ages, too, so your best friend, your wife, and your kid can enjoy it. It’s got a cracking sense of humor and a high level of excitement. I hope it sticks around, and I hope that the FCBD issue has hooked a new batch of readers.
There’s no magic bullet for the one comic that’s going to hook new readers, because they’re not a monolithic, collective blob. Not that Brian assumes that, even if he is an android who doesn’t quite understand humanity, no matter how well he fakes it. Well, that’s my pet theory for why he’s so prolific.
So, yeah, you really ought to tailor this kind of thing to the reader’s taste. But that statement of the obvious defeats the purpose of the question, and as much as I enjoy routing purposes, I’ll break down and pick one: Casanova.
It’s a genre hybrid, so it’s not as limiting as something that’s strictly a superhero or crime book; it’s got an absurd amount of bang per buck (and not only because it costs $1.99, although that’s part of it); it makes excellent use of the serial format, with cliffhangers to make you crave that next issue; it’s new enough that catching up wouldn’t be hard at all, and episodic enough (well, other than the last couple issues in a given storyline) that you could hand a new reader an issue hot of the stands and they could figure things out pretty fast; and… well, I hate to harp on the price, since it’s an excellent comic regardless, but even if they despise it with every fiber of their being, it’s only $1.99.
Hopefully this hypothetical new reader is okay with the occasional bit of ultraviolence, some foul language, and a blue color palette, and finds Fraction’s “backmatter” process stuff interesting and not the dreaded “pretentious,” can live with the occasionally eratic schedule of a creator owned comic. It also helps that they have two eyes and a heart, too. People with eye patches and pacemakers tend to not be big fans.
Seeing as how I wrote a bit awhile back about recommending comics to non-comic readers (and how you shouldn’t use a superhero comic, unless they specifically say “I’m interested in superhero comics”), it’d be pretty funny if I picked a superhero comic as my choice.
Sadly, I am avoiding said hilarity.
My first two picks I decided to back off on because while I love them both, they might be a bit too heady for a general new reader, and those are Ganges and Acme Novelty Library. Both stunningly expressive works, but they’re not the easiest works to get into for a new reader (Ganges, though, certainly more so than Acme Novelty Library). That said, we sure are lucky that Kevin Huizenga and Chris Ware are doing ongoing works.
I’m loving Jason Aaron’s Scalped, but that’s a bit of a genre book.
So if I were to pick a more mainstream book, I am going with Fables.
The concept of doing new stories with classic fairy tale and mythical characters is a popular one (Mike Myers did it with Shrek, Sondheim did it with Into the Woods, Schwartz is currently doing it to great popular acclaim with Wicked), so new readers will be familiar with the concept, while also, since the concept of the book is based on the idea of using famous characters, they will also be familiar with the characters in the book.
In addition, Bill Willingham has generally created a book that appeals to different types of readers – there’s plenty of action, but there’s also plenty of character moments. It’s a bit of a soap opera, just one that has battle sequences every once in awhile.
Most of all, like a soap opera, you can depend on Fables almost every month for a new story, which I think is important for hooking a new reader – give them something every month, so they have a reason to come into the store, and while they’re there, maybe something else could catch their attention.
My recommendation for new readers (either new to manga or even to comics in general) is xxxholic by CLAMP and published by Del Rey (simply pronounced as “holic”). These volumes (currently 11 are available in the U.S.) represent CLAMP’s most mature work, as their art-style and story-telling capabilities are beautifully integrated to tell a supernatural tale about a special young man who comes to change the world around him in surprising ways.
The Plot: Kimihiro Watanuki’s life really, really sucks — not only can he see spirits and all sorts of supernatural-shenanigans, they are very attracted to him as well. Imagine trying to go to school on a daily basis when a big, scary blog of ectoplasm is chasing you down, trying to make you its pillow. Going through life as the human equivalent of supernatural cat nip isn’t much fun, so when Watanuki stumbles across a beautiful and mercurial witch named Yuko who grants wishes (but only in exchange for some form of “payment” of equal value), he makes the obvious wish – to be cured of his “gift.” Yuko promises to grant his wish but in exchange Watanuki must become her indentured servant (poor bastard).
Radiating out from Watanuki and Yuko’s initial encounter are a host of expected and unexpected consequences – since nothing in life, according to the logic of the narrative, can be attributed to coincidence, everything is “fated” to happen. In spite of his wish, as Yuko’s servant-boy Watanuki finds himself ever more entrapped in the supernatural world, often becoming entangled with Yuko’s other customers (who have their own wishes and agendas). Often, and occasionally against his will, he ends up resolving various supernatural conflicts with two classmates in tow; one a very pretty girl Watanuki likes, and the other a standoffish boy he greatly dislikes, but whose very presence transforms Watanuki’s supernatural gifts in surprising ways (remember this is CLAMP, and if you don’t know what that means, let us just say that opposites have a way of attracting in their narratives, regardless of gender).
Watanuki starts off as a very average kind of guy who just happens to have an unfortunate burden to carry, and he tends to spend the first few volumes reluctantly using his abilities to help others and whining about it. It should probably be mentioned most of the humor of `holic comes from the fact Watanuki is a great big – and occasionally adorable — spaz. Yet even if he resists letting the supernatural infiltrate his life and relationships, CLAMP slowly reveals the very human potential of his other-worldly gifts, and as readers we are given the true pleasure of witnessing Watanuki mature over time and learn to accept the burdens *and* the blessings associated with his gifts.
The basic plot is probably a clichÃ© to everyone who regularly reads manga (i.e. a supernatural shop where customers ask the impossible and have but two potential resolutions depending on the true nature of their motives: they can come to either bad or good ends) but CLAMP’s take on the subject feels quite fresh. It must be said the art alone makes ‘holic spectacular even when we might feel we are spinning our wheels plot-wise (Important note: when CLAMP gets to plot arcs with real and long-reaching effects they will blow the top of your head off. Trust me). Imagine manga done in a style reminiscent of the art nouveau movement – this world and the people in it are long, lean, sharp-edged, elegant, and beautifully detailed. And oh yes, the entire title is rendered starkly in (almost exclusively) black and white. Gray tones – the real expressive “guts” of most modern manga — are practically nonexistent. Artistically speaking this makes ‘holic quite innovative, but beautiful art alone would leave me cold. It is the way CLAMP uses this surprising art style to create a world we both know and don’t know, portraying the everyday and the other-worldly, all in the service of telling us an age-old story — a young man’s coming of age. While the majority of manga is about human development of some kind, very rarely has this subject been rendered with such sensitivity, humor, and even pathos, as in ‘holic.
Go read, enjoy, and marvel at how strange and beautiful comics can be.
I think I’ll have to say Casanova. Or Rex Libris (if someone already claimed Casanova). Both are unfettered by continuity, neither feature superheroes, both are packed with content, Rex Libris is hilarious, Casanova is exciting (so is Rex Libris, for that matter), and perhaps most importantly, both show the kind of stories comics can tell beautifully, without the worry of special effects budgets.
They’re highbrow enough to appeal to people who are snobs about comics, but lowbrow enough to appeal to everyone’s love of visceral entertainment. And neither have a long history themselves, so it wouldn’t be too difficult to get caught up.
And you don’t have to explain Skrulls for people to love them. That’s a bonus!
The nice thing about this question for me is that my wife is actually one of those mythical ‘new readers.’ She married into all this. Julie’s got some nerdy interests and they intersect mine here and there — she’s a bit of a Trekkie, for example. But by and large comics began and ended with Charles Schulz for Julie, until she met me.
So sometimes if I am curious to see what a non-comics reader thinks of something, I’ll ask Julie to look at it. (I gave her the first issue of Green Lantern: Rebirth because I wondered if it really was as incomprehensible to a newcomer as I thought it was. Answer was a resounding yes.) But there are very few that she grabs out of my hands because SHE is interested in reading them.
Of those, the biggest success in recent months was Cover Girl, from Andrew Cosby, Kevin Church and Mat Santolouco. Here’s the press copy summing up the premise: “He’s Alex Martin, the down-on-his-luck actor whose star is rising thanks to a roadside rescue caught on tape. She’s Rachel Dodd, the bodyguard assigned to keep him alive after several mysterious attempts on his life. Will Rachel be able to keep Alex alive long enough to get to the bottom of the attacks on the actor? Will Alex be able to keep his hair perfect the entire time?” It’s a great idea, well-executed, and Mat Santolouco did a terrific job on the art. If that was an ONGOING book, it would be the clear winner, no question. It’s amazingly fun and accessible.
In fact a lot of BOOM’s output fits the bill here except they tend to do mini-series that are collected into one-off book projects. BOOM is actually doing a nice job of finding that niche area in the market for those of us that like adventure — stories with a bit of swash in their buckle — but are getting burned out on costumed superheroes. Hunter’s Moon, 2 Guns, Left On Mission, Stardust Kid, Potter’s Field… all would be easy recommendations from me for this except they’re not ONGOING. But I did at least want to mention their books because it seemed unfair to penalize them for being smart enough to use a different publishing model.
But I did suggest both the question and the “ongoing, monthly” qualifier. So I guess I better stick to the rules. What I can tell you is that new readers aren’t looking for superheroes. Mostly they want to laugh, they want something fun. More than anything else, the comics that catch people’s eye at at the art studio where I teach tend to be humor books, or at least books with a lot of humor in them; stuff like Naughty Bits, K Chronicles, Barry Ween.
And of those, Tom Beland’s True Story Swear To God is the one that hits the best with the most people. Anyone who picks it up at the studio can’t put it down, in my experience. They stop what they’re doing and read all the way to the end. Then they start asking me about it and wondering where to find more. (This was Julie’s pick, too; when I told her about this particular challenge she blurted, “You’re going to say Tom Beland, aren’t you?”)
Beland’s work is not very kid-friendly, though, which is a shame; because his art style is so wonderfully accessible and old-school just in terms of the drawing. Everyone that talks about True Story tends to focus on the writing, but one of the things I really love about it is the art. It’s got a great sort of Tex Avery vibe to it — always in service to the story, but the fact that he can use the art to tell so many different kinds of stories with all the different shadings of emotional tone is amazing to me given that he does it in such a cartoony, humorous style.
But for kid-friendly I’d go with something else, probably one of the Marvel Adventures books.
The most successful (well, artistically, anyway) kid-friendly monthly I’ve seen is the entire Marvel Adventures line. To be honest I often think it’s the best-kept secret in superhero comics. Those fans that snarl about out-of-control continuity, about wanting more self-contained stories, about superheroes being too dark, etc., etc… really, Marvel Adventures is the line for you. Those books are uniformly entertaining and you can hand them to almost any reader of any age and they’ll connect with the story on some level. The one I enjoy most is Avengers, because I enjoy the child-like version of the Hulk interacting with Spider-Man and the others, and it always makes me smile. But really any of them would be a good pick. The only grump I have about them is the way the art reproduces in the digests; it’s too tiny and hard to read. If Marvel could figure out a slightly different reproduction ratio that was easier on the eye and got those digests into grocery store racks next to the Archie ones, I bet they’d move a lot of them. Certainly my middle-school kids love the ones they’ve seen.
With the announcement of new material, I’d LOVE to recommend Larry Marder’s ‘Tales of the Beanworld’ as it’s immediate, it grabs, entices and draws in all at once. It’s also deceptively simplistic on its surface. However, I think that MAY be pushing the definition of ‘ongoing’ a little far.
‘Groo’ is another one I like to throw at new readers, but it’s settled into a series of miniseries. Again, very immediate, but also self-contained for the most part.
‘RASL’ by Jeff Smith may be a contender, but alas, while I was impressed by issue 1, it didn’t really have enough ‘meat’ to it. I love Smith’s work, but it really works better in trade format.
‘The Goon’s another series I like to recommend. It’s funny as hell, and Powell’s art and writing are bloody meticulous. That said, it’s starting on a longer story arc, so now is NOT the time to be jumping aboard. Besides, everybody loves big knuckleheads punching zombies and monsters. Like I say, immediacy.
‘Atomic Robo’ is another good ‘un. Somewhat reminiscent of Hellboy, but without the backstory, it’s immediately likable, energetic and fun. It’s not an especially challenging read by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s certainly the sort of thing that might encourage a new reader to read more.
Unfortunately, this question is really difficult to answer with ONE title. What may work for one person may be abominably ill-chosen for another. It really depends on who the title is for and what sorts of stories they like.
Someone who enjoys ‘Jonah Hex’ for instance, may not be able to get into ‘Owly’, f’rinstance. Though both are good titles for new readers.
And I’ve forgotten ‘Scott Pilgrim’. Sure it’s not a 22-page dealie, but it IS ongoing.
‘Scott Pilgrim’ it is then.
So there you go! Feel free to send in suggestions for future Questions of the Month!