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31 Days of Comics – A Truly Smart Comic

Our pal Seth Hahne, of GoodOKBad fame, came up with this 31 Days of Comics challenge, one of those things where each day of the month you’re given a different category that you then make a choice of a comic to fill that category. I figured it would be a fun bit to do, so here we are! Click here to see each of the categories so far!

We continue with Day 30, which is A Truly Smart Comic.

Read on for my pick and then you can share yours!

I’ll go with the first volume of Alan Moore, J.H. Williams III and Mick Gray’s Promethea.

The comic was still a smart comic when it turned into an extended lecture series on the Kabbalah in the later issues, but those first six or seven issues where Moore used the book as an examination of different pieces of literary pop culture as well as themes of meta-fiction, I found it very smart.

The bit I probably found the most fascinating was from #3. To set up the scene, the whole concept about Promethea is that she is essentially a living story. Therefore, she gets called to our world by writers and artists who can evoke her (in the first issue, the newest Promethea, Sophie, merges with Promethea through writing a poem while bad guys are trying to kill her). When she is not in our world, Promethea lives in the land of ideas, referred to as Immateria or “Misty Magic Land” in the comic. In #3, Sophie’s best friend inadvertently get sucked INTO “Misty Magic Land” and Sophie has to go save her, and she discovers that things act much differently than they do on our world…

The problem with being in a land of ideas is that without them being attached to you, they can get a little wild…

And after a confrontation with the wolf, they catch up with Stacia…

However, if you ran into an ironic cartoon character in a land where irony and detachment does not exist, the “plight” of a comic character can suddenly get quite serious…

I thought this was one of Moore’s most ambitious early issues of Promethea, and it worked quite well, I thought.

I love that when Promethea stops the Gorilla, she does so using ANOTHER literary device – onomatopoeia!!!

As I noted, Moore would later use a similar approach to send Promethea on an extended journey through the Kabbalah, and while that did not interest me as much personally, it was still very intelligently written.


You can’t go wrong with Alan Moore when it comes to a smart comic.

The other great Alan Moore choice is From Hell, which is an amazing and very dense book (in many ways) that incredibly smart in the way it uses narrative and perspective to tell it’s story. It also does a great job changing between characters with vastly different worldviews while still seeming very cohesive and showing that this was less of a clever conspiracy, but rather that things can get out of hand for everyone and how the characters really don’t (and will probably never) understand each other, as they all come from world’s that are technically the same, yet somehow different. Of course, that’s nothing new, but when told well, it can be very rewarding.

Promethea was good in places – when it was telling a story – and (for me) mind-numbingly tedious when it was giving a lecture. I could read Weeping Gorilla all day long though.

My first thought was to go with something like Watchmen or half of Grant Morrison’s works. They’re a bit too showy in their cleverness though. I think it takes more skill to have the intelligence without being so showy about it.

I’m going to have to think hard about this one…

My initial enthusiasm for Promethea died fast. I had a lot less patient for Moore’s mystical waffling than you did.
But since you made me think of fiction and reality, I’ll go with Unwritten.

First thoughts that come to mind are most Warren Ellis sci-fi, Fables, and while I haven’t read Nightly News, just looking at the pages makes my brain catch on fire, which I assume is a good thing.

But the very first thing was Christopher Priest’s run on Black Panther, particularly my first exposure to it which was issues 41-45 (Enemy of the State II). Some seriously dense plotting and technical minutiae in terms of the political, scientific and dia-logical (by which I mean good dialogue, I guess that word doesn’t exist…the fact I wrote it means maybe I’m not the best judge in this category, but there you go…).

Hickman is a good name. Nightly News, Red Wing and The Manhattan Projects are all very smart and enjoyable.

I think this was probably one of the Morrison works that DanCJ was talking about when he said the guy can sometimes get “showy” smart (the crossword puzzle thing was a little much), but I was still pretty impressed by how well “Seven Soldiers” came together at the end. I’ll admit, I’ve definitely been the guy that doesn’t ‘get it’ on a lot of works (the already mentioned “Promethea” and “From Hell” both lost me at some point), but that was part of what impressed me. At the end, it actually clicked, and now I can enjoy each series as a standalone, or the work as a whole.

I also remember feeling similarly when I finished “The Filth”. A lot of big-ass ideas, but at the end I was satisfied instead of scratching my head.

Masterpiece Comics by R. Sikoryak. He re-imagines literary classics in comic form: Crime and Punishment as Detective Comics, The Stranger as Action Comics, The Metamorphosis as Peanuts, Candid as Ziggy, Wuthering Heights as Tales from the Crypt, etc. The linking of spot-on comic styles with the literary themes is inspired (Little Lulu in The Scarlet Letter!) It’s really smart AND really funny.

And since dhole mentioned it already, “Fables” is a title that REALLY hangs on its cleverness. If Willingham didn’t write each character so intelligently, that whole series would just fall into goofiness. Because he’s good at what he does, it works.

If he wasn’t, it would just be that TV show “Once Upon a Time”. Burn?

I’m not sure exactly how to parse “smart” here. Does it mean super intelligent, like the QED explanation in Ottaviani’s Feynman? Because then I’d probably just save myself the trouble and go with Feynman, because it’s a pretty safe bet that no comics writer is as brilliant as Richard Feynman, from whose own words Ottaviani adapted that segment of the book.

I could read smart as wildly creative and allusory and just plop in Duncan the Wonder Dog again. Because whatever Adam Hines is, he’s obviously firing on all kinds of cylinders here.

Or should I go with clever? That seems like the most interesting choice, so I’ll take it. And Matt kindt fits the bill pretty well. Excluding 3 Story, which sticks pretty closely to a linear narrative, Kindt’s stories have a tendency to hop all over the place. And they inevitibly do so in ways that make you re-evaluate previous story elements and think “Ohhhhhhhh, that changes everything. How clever.”

Here are two excerpts from things I’ve written about Kindt over the years:

“Kindt strikes me as foremost an Idea Man. Everything he’s shown us so far paints him as prodigiously imaginative. He has big ideas for his overarching story, for the forms those stories take, and for some of the intricacies of how his pages and panels will lay out. I don’t look for any improvement on his part in this area. He has, so far as I’m concerned, arrived. If not perfect for what he’s doing, his ideas are close enough that we mere mortals cannot distinguish well enough to complain.”


“After we read Red Handed earlier in the year, my wife remarked that Matt Kindt must be some kind of genius. I imagine my response must have been something like, “Well, yeah.” Because of course he is. Super Spy provided ample evidence and Red Handed nailed that coffin shut tight.”

So yeah, my choice is basically Most Books In Which Matt Kindt Exerts Creative Control.

Matt Fraction certainly qualifies as a writer of smart comics. Even his less engaging work-for-hire stories have some surprisingly profound moments (such as having Asgard go from a storybook monarchy to a democracy with immigrants from multiple realms, or Tony Stark recreating his company as a builder of modest consumer electronics that eventually ditches the Stark name entirely).

Oh, I forgot Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant. One of the most literate gag strips out there. You don’t need to know the books or history to get most of the gags, but the humour is enough to inspire me to learn more and get more out of how she recontextualizes the stories in characters to silly gags and jokes about dick picks.

Bryan Talbot’s work has an abundance of intelligence. Between the sci-fi mind bending of Luther Arkwright and the historical whimsy of Alice in Sunderland, Talbot crafts comics as thoughtful as they are entertaining.

I’m gonna go with Morrison’s Invisibles. Lots of big ideas in this comic book. Lots of big crazy ideas but it was always a thought provoking read.

As said, a lot of Alan Moore’s work fits the bill. Seven Soldiers was also a good call – certainly it requires a truly smart reader (or an average reader equipped with annotations from a truly smart one :-D).

My own personal nomination goes to Brett Lewis and J. P. Leon’s Winter Men. The plot is not particularly intricate (IIRC), but just the way information is conveyed, and the clever but unshowy dialogue shows an incredibly deft hand at work. It’s a shame Lewis has such a small body of work; I’d love to read more from him.

one could almost thing that other then what alan did with dc characters most of all alan moores comics are smart comics prometha a big one. though would have been surprised to not see any one mention fables to fit that mold here

Seven Soldiers was also a good call – certainly it requires a truly smart reader (or an average reader equipped with annotations from a truly smart one ).

I didn’t have a clue what was going in the final issue of Seven Soldiers.

I think this is an area where Alan Moore can be much smarter to an Grant Morrison. Moore can have all these big ideas and mu little layers in a story, but he manages to still make it accessible to the reader. For my money that’s truly smart.

Criminal strikes a chord with me. Each story is heavily steeped in familiar but the craft and intelligence that Brubaker and Phillips use to tell it always make it really fresh and never too in-your-face subversive. To me, there’s a big difference between being clever (which is what a lot of high-concept comics are) and being smart. It’s also early, but both Lazarus and Velvet are perfect examples of that right now.

I am going to go with Matt Fraction’s and David Aja’s Hawkeye series, specifically The Tape story arc.

Definitely Fables. The way Willingham has woven together all of these fairy tales, legends, and folk stories in brilliant ways and made connections that totally make sense while turning everything on its head. I will never be able to think of the Big Bad Wolf as the bad guy again. I’ll never be able to see Prince Charming as anything but an unrepentant womanizer. And both characters are far more interesting than any other version I’ve seen.

Disney tried to do this with the Once Upon a Time TV series but it’s a pale immitation of Fables with way too many forced connections and way too much Disney influence (nevermind a few blatant rip-offs from Fables…the creators definitely read the book). I would love to see a real Fables TV series land on HBO or some other cable network where they could really do it justice but my guess is they wouldn’t be able to do it now without getting sued by Disney.

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