1. Fast Descent into Hell!/To Sacrifice My Soul…/Into the Land of Death…/Lost Souls! Marvel Fanfare #1-4, Chris Claremont, Michael Golden, Dave Cockrum, Bob McLeod
So much of the appeal from these early books came in mystery. The pages held uncertainty, intimations of tragedy and sex. In the 1982 Savage Land arc of Marvel Fanfare, the X-Men did battle in the Savage Land, and I was a captive audience.
The story: As a child, Karl Lykos, bookish son of an explorer, is attacked by Pterosaurs in Tierra del Fuego. He’s transformed into a flying Pterosaur/monster (Sauron) forced to feed off the life-force of humans who enter the Savage Land (a piece of prehistoric earth hidden on the Antarctic continent). Lykos’s fiancée, Tanya Anderson, recruits Angel (aka Warren Worthington III) and Peter Parker (aka Spider Man) to accompany her to the Savage Land, in an attempt to rescue the man inside the monster. As the rescue party falters, the Uncanny X-men join the effort, teaming up with their former allies, Ka-zar and Zabu, to battle Sauron, Brainchild, Barbarus, Vertigo, Amphibius, and their legion hordes.
Savage Land was exciting because it came as a packet from another world. But like all comics at that time, it wasn’t a complete packet. Comics were incomplete installments of information about seemingly infinite histories, generating an aura of mystery. Wolverine, one of the great mysterious X-Men characters, was especially bolstered by a sense of unknowability. The comics and television cartoons even put forth conflicting narratives concerning his origins. Some things were known: he was Canadian, he was sarcastic and short in stature, he had been the subject of government testing, and he had a long lost love. But the convoluted nature of these narratives made any definitive “truth” elusive. Can anyone out there explain the New Mutants or X-Force in simple terms?
This ambiguity exploits the basic compulsion of comic reader (to understand the minutiae of these little worlds), with the reality of contradictory story-arcs, red herrings, multiplicities, one off characters, innumerable origin stories, etc. But that also ultimately made for a big part of the fun and frustration of being a comic book reader. I felt a strange tinge of sadness when I read the “definitive” Wolverine origin story as purported by Wikipedia, or even Marvel.com in strict accord with the Earth 616 continuity. It was discontinuity and illegibility that made the comics so mysterious in the first place. It’s sad to see we’ve lost some of that.
2. Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge: The Mine’s of King Solomon, Gladstone Comic Album Series 1, Carl Barks
Part of the discontinuous aspect of comic books meant reading whatever came your way. So a 1987 Uncle Scrooge reprint of a 1957 adventure story, “The Mines of King Solomon,” entered my literary universe in a predictably random fashion.
Written and inked by a bonafide legend Carl Banks, this story has Uncle Scrooge, Donald, Huey, Dewey, and Louie traveling across 69 countries to check on 1,200 investments. Along the way the nephews wreak havoc with their “Junior Woodchuck” animal whistles and uncover a terrific mystery.
It’s surprising how often elements of this comic book resurface in my mind. It certainly created a permanent soft spot for Uncle Scrooge, that wiley capitalist, even as Ron Paul obsessives return to Duck Tales for “evidence” against inflationary fiscal policy, crowing about the gold standard like so many magpies.
NOTE: Even the very moderate Paul Krugman does not have much difficulty dispatching this kind of paranoia:
3. Love and Rockets, Jaime Hernandez, Gilbert Hernandez
Growing up with comics meant experiencing a lot of these almost beider meinhof moments. In the wake of my first real introduction to revolutionary politics, Love and Rockets appeared alongside stacks of mimeographed zines to share stories of sex, punk rock, and sci-fi. Love and Rockets follows a series of artists, leftists, and musicians in alternate visions of Mexico and Los Angeles. It’s expansive and, very often, heartbreaking.
4. Batman: Year One, Batman 404-407, Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli
Years ago, when I was living in South America, I spent a lot of time in bookstores and comic book stores. I found Year One (Año Uno) by flipping through display shelves, and bought the book without really knowing what it was. By the time I’d reached the mid-point (“Señoras, Caballeros. Han comido bien. Han devorado la riqueza de Gotham. Su espíritu. Su banquete está llegado a su fin. Desde ahora…ninguno está salvo.”) I realized I had probably stumbled onto something important. Of course, later I looked up Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, but that initial pleasure of discovery has always stayed with the book for me.
5. Empire: A visual novel, Berkley/Windhover Books, Samuel R. Delany, Howard V. Chaykin
to wound the autumnal city. So howled out for the world to give him a name. The in-dark answered with wind.
d –Samuel R. Delany
It’s pretty common knowledge that Samuel R. Delany, the brilliant “Polymath” author, professor, and critic, wrote two issues of Wonder Woman in the early seventies called “The Women’s Lib” arc, in which Wonder Woman loses her powers and takes up the fight for equal pay and sexual rights. A less known work is Empire, his 1978 collaboration with Howard Chaykin. Empire is pure pulp and space opera. It’s immersive, however brief, and evokes some of the style of Lynch’s, or as we might imagine, Jodorowsky’s Dune.
6. Fantagraphic Books and the comics I geek out on today 2015-Onward
As I grow older, it usually takes a little more complexity and length for comics and graphic novels to be immersive in the same way. Just as we’re drawn to longer novels (there’s almost nothing quite like the satisfaction of Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London) it’s reasonable to look for this in different media. I think the establishment of continuity in comicbooks series (via online tracking the .cbr, etc) also makes the longer graphic novel more accessible and attractive than endless episodes. Lucky for us, certain publishers put out consistently terrific work.
Miss Don’t Touch Me, from NBM Publishing is a taut mystery that presents ambivalent attitudes around sex and violence. The art is stylish, and the story is surprisingly subtle.
Image Comics release some very attractive hardcover anthologies.
In Germany, there is a very popular television police procedural called Tatort. Explaining this to me, a German-speaker once struggled with an appropriate English translation for the title. The translation is scene of the crime.
Scene of the Crime. In the mid-90s Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark, the team that went on to create the highly acclaimed Fatale and Gotham Central, put out a pulpy noir following slacker PI Jack Herriman as he traces a missing little sister through the slums of generation x. The art is cinematic, and heavily indebted to Mazzucchelli’s Year One.
Drawn & Quarterly. Road to America, by Baru tells a compelling story of Said Boudiaf, an Algerian boxer who gained prominence during the last years of French colonial rule and the early days of the Algerian war.
I feel unhip citing Fantagraphic Books as a persistent source of inspiration for me, but it’s true. They publish tremendous authors. The Jacques Tardi interpretations of 3 to Kill and Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot introduced me to Jean-Patrick Manchette, an author hugely influential to contemporary French novelists like Jean Echenoz.
7 Miles a Second, a graphic novelisation of the last years of the life of artist David Wojnarowicz, is nothing short of breathtaking. James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook bring out the vibrancy and squalor of Wojnarowicz’s hustling teenage years on the streets of Manhattan, psychedelic nightmares, and the eventual AIDS related illness that ended his life prematurely.
Long blocks of text are incorporated into the book, and the result is something truly collaborative, and truly exciting:
“My mind cannot contain all that I see. I keep experiencing this sensation that my skin is too tight; civilization is expanding inside of me. Do you have a room with a better view? I am experiencing the x-ray of civilization. The minimum speed required to break through the Earth’s gravitational pull is seven miles a second. Since economic conditions prevent us from gaining access to rockets or spaceships we would have to learn to run awfully fast to achieve escape from where we are heading.”