Obviously, comics needn’t always be about superheros. Not even ninjas or pirates or robots. Comics are simply a medium and can contain as many diverse genres as prose novels or film. The simple juxtaposition of words and pictures can create works of high literary value, and has for decades.
I don’t have to explain that to you sophisticated readers, right? The whole ‘comics are for grownups’ conversation has been cliché for ages already.
Point being, I do read comics of a higher caliber. I enjoy comics written by authors of literary merit. Not only that, but sometimes I try to support comics that are not published by the big media comics (DC being owned by Warner Bro. and now Marvel owned by Disney), such as publishers Fantagraphics, Kitchen Sink Press, and Drawn & Quarterly. It’ good to support storytellers who have a more independent streak, as well as those fun boy’s adventure stories.
I like an auteur who both writes and draws, in cheap black & white, getting to the core essentials of humanity.
In no particular order, here are my favorite indie comics.
Will Eisner is a legend. Credited with popularizing the concept of graphic novels in the first place, one of his seminal works is the very deep A Contract With God.
Dealing with issues of Judaism and American identity and the (non) existence of God, this sort of book has nothing whatsoever to do with capes.
I also recently read Fagin the Jew, among others. There’s a consistent theme. Also, Eisner going back to his early 1940s days with the Spirit was very good at playing around with the panels of the page. A serious writer and artist all at once.
Nowadays, Dan Clowes is my kinda guy. One of the great alternative cartoonists of all time. His anthology series Eightball was weird and brilliant. The surreal Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. His latest book Wilson about a misanthrope’s misadventures.
Yet the best of the best is undoubtedly Ghost World, about two young women complaining and trying to figure themselves out. It was making fun of hipsters long before it was cool to make fun of hipsters. The film is a fine film as well, but if you’ve ever seen it please treat yourself to the original.
One running them of indie comics is that they are often autobiographical. Time and time again the format of the memoir has led to some great writing throughout the history of literature. In comics, this goes all the way back to the pseudo-pornographic comix of R. Crumb in the 60s.
Contemporarily, Blankets by Craig Thompson is a wondrous thing of beauty. About young love, a Christian boy losing his innocence in naive middle America, with powerful art. It hit me so hard the first time I read it in my early twenties, and I’ve gone back to it from time to time when in the mood for that soft melancholy feeling…
Craig Thomspson’s more recent middle-eastern epic Habibi is also quite worth the read.
Speaking of autobiography, Maus by the great Art Spiegelman. I don’t have to sell this one; he won the friggin’ Pulitzer Prize for this famed story utilizing the metaphor of Jews as mice and cats as Nazis. Yet, as much as it is a very important work about the Holocaust, I think it is almost overhyped on that aspect. At it’s core. Spiegelman speaks about his relationship with his father more than about war atrocities. Still, intense on all levels.
If i may be more irreverat for a moment, fuckin’ Sin City by badass writer-artist Frank Miller. I’ve already spoken of him in my 80s Marvel post for Daredevil, and my Batman post for The Dark Knight Returns. He may be insane now, but he used to be among the greats.
Sin City was published by Dark Horse Comics, which is a little mainstream in that they also had the rights for Star Wars comics and various other franchises, but Sin City was creator-owned from the beginning and Dark Horse is a solid company on respecting artist’s rights.
I loved these graphic novels in my teens, illicitly reading them in the bookstore and peeking at the nude parts. Like a rated X noir movie, it was unrelenting. Marv, Dwight, Hartigan, Nancy. A Dame to Kill For, the Big Fat Kill, the Hard Goodbye. Damn.
Guess what. I know they’re popular and sure he even codirected, but I don’t like movies at all. Sin City is best as a hardcore comic, nothin else.
Meanwhile, some independents do outright sell out.
Take the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I’ve been a fan since I was a little kid, before I even knew the comics. Eastman and Laird’s famous creation was originally an independent satire of… get this… Frank Miller’s Daredevil.
It was good stuff. I still like the outer space saga with the triceratons and utrons.
Then of course the cartoon and breakfast cereal and movies, possibly biggest selling out ever in the history of selling out. Some of the latter cartoons were okay.
Getting back to proper black & whites, I have here the Optic Nerve anthology by Adrian Tomine, who decidedly never sold out. He has real street cred in comics.
So slow though. One issue a year. But what magical issues, little stories of normal people’s lives. Here is the Shortcomings collection, a treatise on the Asian-American experience that I suspect is semiautobiographical.
Note the signature on issue 10. I met him at a con several years ago. He was so nice!
Finally, I must add Kabuki by David Mack. The comic is admittedly in color, and has shifted publishers that even includes Marvel, but Mack always maintained control. Ostensibly about a ninja assassin, Kabuki bounces off that premise with minimal action, delving into more psychological issues. Half the time she’s in the psych ward.
And what elaborate paintings, a masterpiece.
From the Skin Deep graphic novel:
I also love the Akemi collection.
So much more. What did I leave out?
There’s Dave Sim’s classic Cerebus. The philosophical earth pig, a satire on Conan the Barbarian who soon found his own voice. I never completed all 300 issues, but me and my friends did read a lot in high school. The High Society phonebook-sized graphic novel, Church & State.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, another biography, this time with themes of revolutionary Iran and a girl’s coming of age. I should also note that comics needn’t always be for boys about boys; there is a strong tradition of female cartoonists beneath the mainstream.
I have a few volumes of Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, funny animals in a dead serious samurai setting. Very well done.
Black Hole by Charles Burns, such atmosphere.
More and more. Wish this was a longer post, but usually the difference between one-off graphic novels is that you read one and you’re done. Not quite as much content as the nerdier stuff that you collect for years.
I’ve always picked up as many comics as I can, from a variety of genres, and I must admit that the superhero thing tends to get you obsessive, and following manga tends to have a million volumes. But just believe that I can be literary too!
Actually, there is a mainstream comics imprint famous for it’s literary, adult comics. Vertigo! Which is a part of DC Comics, owned by Warner Brothers, but they are famous for a host of respected creator-owned titles. Even in color. Some of which are my favorite books ever.
Imagine the HBO of comics, that’s Vertigo.
Next up: “Suggested for Mature Readers.”