When an adult admits to someone he reads comics it’s a little like dropping the words, “I love you.” What if the recipient doesn’t repeat the sentiment? What if they just look at you like you’re from another planet? Too embarrassing to imagine.
Many adults hide their comic collections with more security than a porn collection, just to avoid the conversation altogether. But with the success of TV shows utilizing comic motifs (“Heroes,” for one) and countless movies being borne out of the genre, people are starting to take notice of the creative storytelling opportunities in comics, or it’s beefier counterpart, the “graphic novel.”
The trend has prompted Muse Comics and the Missoula Public Library to put together a presentation on Dec. 12 introducing the graphic novel as a form of literature. In advance of that event, here are five promising points of entry to the form, ranging from standard superhero fare to love-stricken dorks.
The Watchmen (DC Comics/Titan Books)
Imagine a world where America won the Vietnam War, but the Cold War rages on, and we’ve removed that pesky 22nd Amendment so Richard Nixon could remain president indefinitely. The electric car is the only type of car available. Superheroes once existed as nothing more than normal people gallivanting around in costumes and fighting crime, but were outlawed in 1977.
Oh, and one other minor detail: God exists, and he’s an American.
That’s the world depicted in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 1987 epic tale The Watchmen. It’s the first-ever comic to receive a Hugo Award, one of science fiction’s most coveted prizes. Further legitimizing this tome’s presence in your collection: Time magazine named it one of the 100 greatest novels of all time, lumping it alongside The Great Gatsby and A Clockwork Orange.
Batman: The Long Halloween (DC Comics)
The Dark Knight finally got some much needed movie love with 2005’s Batman Begins. That complex depiction was more representative of DC Comics’ Dark Knight series, thankfully avoiding the campy elements of the character popularized by the 1970s television series. It also nearly made up for Prince’s abysmal single “Bat Dance” from the first Tim Burton version.
While Batman Begins borrowed heavily from touted Bat-books like Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns (both by Frank Miller of Sin City and 300 fame), Jeph Loeb’s too often ignored story Batman: The Long Halloween best defined the film’s overall aesthetic. It’s also one of the best Batman books around, period.
In Halloween Loeb captures the caped crusader early in his Gotham-defending career in pursuit of a serial killer dubbed “Holiday.” The book also introduces the origin of Gotham district attorney Harvey Dent’s criminal persona, “Two Face,” which will factor into the next big-budget Bat-flick, The Dark Knight, due out next year.
Ghost World (Fantagraphic Books)
Had enough with the superhero mumbo-jumbo? This book contains no magic, mutants or rich men with father issues. Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World deals with the angst of two recent high school grads, Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Dopplemeyer, as they explore existence in an overly commercial urban sprawl. There’s also some problematic friendship stuff as Enid moves toward college and Rebecca stays behind.
In many ways it’s a comic version of Catcher in the Rye, but set in the ’90s among the angst and caustic attitude of grunge-era youth culture.
Maus (Penguin Books)
In 1992 Art Spiegelman’s comic-memoir Maus won a Pulitzer Prize, and ever since has been a beacon for book comic fans looking to legitimize their affections to unbelievers.
The personal nature of each panel and Spiegelman’s narrative make for an experience that’d be nearly impossible to duplicate in any other form—stage, screen or book couldn’t do this work justice.
Maus explores Spiegelman’s parents’ survival of the Holocaust, and later, his quest to cope with the difficult relationship he has with his father. Spiegelman’s satirical depiction of World War II personalities as anthropomorphic animals—Jews are mice, Germans cats, Americans dogs, and the British fish—may seem too comic-like for some, but the tragedy within the images is worth any reader’s time.
Heartbreak (1130 Studios)
Everyone fails at love a few times. Between high school and college it’s pretty much a guarantee you’ll embarrass yourself at least once. That’s the message from Heartbreak, a collection of stories from cartoonists Jonathan Rivera and Nick DeStefano.
All the clichés are here: the cheating girlfriend, the drunken mistake, the long-term relationship ending in a fiery blaze, rampant Star Wars references, everything. Using episodic snippets instead of a linear story arch, Heartbreak takes an embarrassingly frank look at nerd love in a forum familiar to its primary audience. But because of the book’s subject matter, anyone can identify, even if they’ve never missed a date because they were playing “Batman vs. Star Wars” with action figures.
The Missoula Public Library presents “Graphic Novels for Adults Too!” in conjunction with Muse Comics Wednesday, Dec. 12, at 7 PM in the library’s large meeting room. Free.