As a recovering English major, I was trained to be a snob. Strangely, that training means that I’m only mildly abashed to confess an addiction to graphic novel series. After all, when you read George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, you don’t worry much about what anyone thinks about your choice of reading – although I do have a lingering reluctance to be seen reading comics on the bus.
Still, graphic novels fascinate me. They are their own genre, with their own conventions. As a form of storytelling, they’re somewhere between a short story and a TV script. At their best, they have an elegant economy of expression unlike any other form.
However, very few of the graphic novels I read involve superheroes. When they do, the treatment is decidely wonky, often commenting on the whole superhero tradition. More often, they have fantasy elements woven together with strong sense of realism. All the series, too, have a definite end, which opens up more storytelling possibilities than the regular superhero series that go on forever with an occasional reboot that changes almost nothing.
So what series do I read and re-read? Here are the top ten:
1. The Books / Names / Age/ of Magic: Created by Neil Gaiman, these series tell the story of Tim Hunter, a London teenager destined to become the world’s greatest magician. But magic only complicates all the usual problems of adolescence, not least of which is staying on good terms with his girlfriend Molly. The series carries Tim through the first discovery of his powers, his uneasy denial of his destiny, the loss of his family, his search for his true parents, and his university years, ending with him at the threshold of adulthood. The invention in the series sometimes flags, depending on the writer, but the general quality remain high. My only complaint is more than half of Tim’s story is uncollected.
2, The Boys: What would superheroes really be like? According to Garth Ennis, they’d be corrupted by their power, and some of them would need to assassinated. Hence The Boys, a secret CIA-backed team devoted to seeing that justice is done for the rest of us. Violent, x-rated, hilarious, and ultimately humanistic, the result is a wry debunking of comic conventions, including thinly disguised versions of the X Men and the Justice League of America.
3, Cerebus the Aardvark: This self-published comic began as a sendup of fantasy novels, with characters such as the teenybopper Red Sophia, The Cockroach (a version of Batman) and a version of Elric of Melnibone who talks like Foghorn Leghorn, with a version of Groucho Marx thrown in for good measure. The series reached its heights in the High Society story line, then slowly declined into a combination of self-indulgence and anti-feminist rants that were decidedly unfunny and virtually unreadable (and which I didn’t keep).
4. Fables (and Jack of the Tales): The characters of fairy tales and children’s fantasy are real and living in New York, their homes having been conquered by a mysterious figure known only as the adversary. Characters include Snow White, now a civic executive, Bigby Wolf, the reformed Big Bad Wolf, and Jack of the Tales (the same Jack who was involved with the beanstalk), a trickster who eventually got a meta-series of his own. If the TV series Once Upon a Time and Grimm havent settled with creator Bill Willingham, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before they acknowledge their sources.
5. Hellblazer: Originally introduced in Swamp Thing, John Constantine is a small-time magician who is always getting in over his head in the affairs of heaven and hell, as well as any other supernatural beings that happen by. The series has its ups and downs, and sometimes includes too much of Constantine feeling sorry for himself because most of his friends are dead, but there’s always an anarchist sensibility that makes it unique. Moreover, when writers like Garth Ennis or Warren Ellis are with the series, it reaches some extraordinary heights – in Garth Ennis’ case, sometimes without any fantasy at all.
6. Hitman: Tommy Monaghan is a New York Irish boy who comes across as a nice boy – except those who object to his profession as a hired gun. Although equipped with mildly superheroic powers – telepathy and xray vision – mostly he forgets his abilities and responds by shooting. For instance, how to handle a vampire? Answer: shoot their legs out from under them, then repeat as necessary until sunrise. Like most of Garth Ennis’ works, the series is comic and irreverent, with Monaghan using Batman for a straight man and making a fool of Green Lantern. However, the series becomes increasingly darker as his family and professional friends die violently one at a time, and Monaghan struggles to leave his profession to do something worthwhile.
7. Lucifer: In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Lucifer walks away from his position in hell to live a private life as a nightclub owner. But in Mike Carey’s continuation, that’s only the beginning, as Lucifer gets involved in celestial politics and a truly creative assortment of characters and situations, and even finds love. Sarcastic and as proud as ever, he learns gradually that autonmy is far more important to him than replacing God.
8. Preacher: A young minister becomes linked to a being half-angelic and half-demonic, then sets out to hold God accountable for abandoning his creation. His sidekicks include his pistol-wielding girlfriend and a vampire with the taste for the low life. Many of Garth Ennis’ favorite preoccupations are visible in the series, including the friendships of men of action, but the series ends with the namesake character realizing that he has to change his macho ways if he wants to settle down with his girlfriend.
9. Sandman: Neil Gaiman’s now-classic series remains an exercise in different forms of storytelling, as well as the new cosmology of The Endless, seven anthropormorphic beings who control the basic powers of the universe. Through stories that range from horror to comedy, and from ancient times to modern, the title character Dream learns the inevitability of change, and how it affects his life. The series also shows Gaiman perfecting his craft as a writer as he mixes history and mythology with his own bits of fantasy.
10. Strangers in Paradise: Few comics could be farther from the superheroes tradition than Strangers in Paradise. The series features two women who are gradually falling in love, complicated by one’s determination to live the hetrosexual dream life in the suburbs and the other’s hidden past and attraction to a doomed young male artist. Sometimes melodramatic, the series is at its best when depicting daily life and the comic interactions between its large cast. A major feature of the series is the numerous fantasy interludes, many of which are pastiche tributes to well known comics artists.
These are not the only graphic novel series that I read. Ask in a couple of months, for instance, I suspect that I will want to add to the list Locke and Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez, the story of a family trying to escape the events of the past while confronting the eerie ones in the family home. I am looking forward, too, to Sydney Paduas’ first volume of her online comic, “The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, which I hope will be the first of many. With any luck enough series will continue to be published that I can continue subverting my literary training all the days of my life.