Three Graphic Novels That Prove Comics Are Literature

Comic books (or graphic novels, if you want to make art-and-word-balloons sound Elite) are awesome. Not only are they enjoyable to read, they can teach one a lot about writing.

Come to think of it, “How Comic Books Can Improve Your Writing” would make a good blog post. Maybe I’ll write that in the future.

For now, though, I’m simply going to present three comic book series’s (is that the plural of “series”?) that are truly works of art (in every meaning of the phrase) and fine literature. The Debbie Downers and Gloomy Guses who say comics are just throwaway tales of spandex-and-laser-beams are wrong, dammit, and I’m gonna prove it!

OK, I understand the never-ending march of Marvel and DC movies and series’s may be wearisome to some – not to me, of course, but most people don’t have my quirky mix of literary aesthetics, where I devour “high” literature alongside the “don’t tell your MFA classmates” stuff of superheroes.

But, to somewhat placate those who are perplexed that they’re rebooting Spider-Man yet again, or are tired of seeing Hugh Jackman stab people with claws, I’m going to go further afield, and deliver to you some truly unique reading experiences.

So let’s begin….

Fables

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I held off on reading Fables for the longest time. I read all the acclaim, but the premise of the series – the living embodiments of certain fables have escaped from their homeworld and are now living in New York City – sounded excruciatingly lame. I imagined the equivalent of a bad sitcom, with a love affair between the Big Bad Wolf and Snow White delivering lots of laughs, and Pinocchio doing a lot of stupid shit.

Those things actually happen in Fables, but a bad sitcom it is not. Yes, it’s funny at times, but its goal is not to deliver cheap chuckles, nor is its goal to depress you. This is a serious world, with danger, betrayal, bitter rivalries, and heartrending deaths. This series will make you cry at the death of a mouse. But there’s also a palpable joy present on every page, the joy of creators totally invested in their world-building, and eager to show you what they’ve cooked up.

For those who like their characters with plenty of flaws, look no further: no one is a saint in Fables. Even the saintly characters are faced with difficult decisions, and have to make hard choices. And the “bad” or “scheming” or “self-centered” characters often turn out to be heroic in their own ways. King Cole, for example, seems to be a do-nothing mayor, but after he’s ousted, we learn he was an incredibly effective diplomat and manager – and the sacrifices he made for his subjects back in the Homelands are moving.

And don’t get me started on Prince Charming….

As I’ve said, many of the characters in Fables aren’t what they seem, but strangely, this doesn’t come across as wishy-washy storytelling. These are fables, after all, and you never know when the story will take a detour to some flashback or when the janitor will transform into a godlike prince. Even when you think the series has to be out of ideas, it goes off in an entirely new direction with as much gusto and ingenuity as in the previous story arcs.

It’s great, period. (The use of “period” to put emphasis on a phrase is trademarked by Sean Spicer.)

The Metabarons

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This thing is crazy.

Yes, “crazy” is an overused adjective. Everything is crazy: that movie, that video game, the belly flop Uncle Bob did into the bushes after he’d guzzled down all the eggnog.

But really – The Metabarons is really, truly, 100% crazy.

As a writer, I can usually break down a story. I can say, “OK, that’s amazing – but if you think about it, he combined A and B with X and Y, divided it all by Q, and then dribbled some literary special sauce on it.”

Not so with this story. I have no idea how it was created. If I had to guess, I’d say the creators ingested every drug known to man (and some that weren’t, until that moment) and then slapped every sci-fi idea they could some up with into a graphic novel, like a Jackson Pollock painting run even more amok.

Knowing Alejandro Jodorowsky, the writer sublime, though, it was probably an even stranger process.

Where to begin with this mammoth graphic novel? Well, it’s about a family of powerful beings passing down their dehumanizing legacy. It sounds like a preachy “power corrupts” and “the impossible demands we put on our children” story, but it isn’t – not really. Jodorowsky would get bored writing a story like that: “Bah! Too normal! Let’s throw in fifty more themes and ideas to really make it spicy!”

The sheer number of ideas casually thrown out, as if they have ten million of them on hand at all times, is staggering. Ever seen the Dune movie or read the books? Every idea from Dune is in The Metabarons. (By the way, there’s a good tale about Jodorowsky and Dune. Might wanna check it out.) Ever read anything about space battles, invading aliens, or lush magical planets? Of course you have, if you’ve ever encountered anything sci-fi – but this time it’s different. In The Metabarons, everything is bigger, brighter, bolder – it’s like a giant spotlight shining down into all the crevices, illuminating things you’ve always taken for granted.

The Metabarons is also very comfortable with itself. There’s nudity, sex, mutilation, and a whole host of other “not nice” things – and there’s no hand-wringing. No “this scene is controversial, we realize that, but we’re nice guys, really, and we respect everyone equally” hedging or punch-pulling.

In short, if you demand your fiction be wrapped in middle-class values, look elsewhere. If you’re open minded, grab this thing and let it blow your mind.

Finally, the artwork – amazing! I probably should’ve led off with the artwork, but anyway…Juan Gimenez is amazing. Every panel is amazing. When Gimenez illustrates something big, it is big – you feel it pop out from the page and loom over you. The colors are amazing. The character designs are amazing. The aliens are freaky and amazing.

Pop quiz: what is the artwork? If you answered “average,” consign yourself to Hades.

I guarantee the artwork will make you gasp in awe at least five times during the course of the story. Combined with the gasps Jodorowsky’s writing will create, that makes The Metabarons a classic.

Unfortunately, the Ultimate Collection is currently $195 on Amazon. Egads! I’d suggest searching your library system for this masterpiece. Local or county libraries probably won’t have it, but if you’re near a university, check their catalog. If you find it, get a library card (you should be able to get one even if you’re not a student or faculty) and race through the shelves until it’s in your grasp.

Top 10

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A while back, I wrote this about Alan Moore: “The guy has more creativity in the cuticle of his pinkie finger than the entire comic book industry combined. My frugality has prevented me from reading all of his stuff, but once I’m a successful indie author making millions of dollars, I’ll rectify that.”

Obviously, I’m still not a successful indie author, but I’m still a fanboy for Alan Moore.

I guess I should mention Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and Batman: The Killing Joke, since these are his more well-known works, and two have been made into movies. Perhaps these are better overall than Top 10, but for wackiness and pure reading enjoyment, Top 10 is hard to beat.

Like The Metabarons, there are a lot of ideas bandied about in Top 10. Moore, however, isn’t as wild as Jodorowsky; you can be sure everything is going to be tied together tightly instead of sprayed everywhere.

The story revolves around the most eclectic police precinct you’ve ever seen, which is situated in the most eclectic city you’ve ever seen. The kicker: everyone in the city has superpowers, or is somehow “gifted.” As such, the cops have to be pretty damn powerful and resourceful to handle the bizarre crimes and occurrences that occur daily.

There’s a lot of wackiness, as I’ve noted, but this isn’t a long gag reel. Moore discusses issues not usually seen in mainstream comics, such as pornography and STDs. Bigotry and xenophobia are issues that have been explored (think the “hated and feared” X-Men), but Moore handles these with more nuance than, say, an X-Men story where some stock villain wants to wipe out all mutants.

Sexuality plays a large role as well, with even bestiality discussed frankly. Or is it even bestiality at all, considering the nature of the characters?

The plot has a lot of disparate threads that come together, as a good old-fashioned conspiracy reveals itself. Actually, forget “old-fashioned” – everything about this series feels fresh.

I didn’t find the artwork to be all that grand, but with Moore’s writing holding everything together, it could’ve been drawn in stick figures and still be absorbing.

Top 10 actually inspired my soon-to-be-released novel. I wanted to mimic the wackiness found in that world. Of course, my story took on a life of its own, and now it probably looks nothing like Top 10 – you know how this writing stuff goes.

Three gems that are sure to dazzle any eye – unless you’re a philistine, and a bad person.

Kidding. Everyone has their own tastes. Give these a shot, though, if your experience with comic books has been relegated to what’s translated to the cinema. They’ll likely open your eyes to the variety and quality of the medium.

If you have already read these books, tell me what you thought of them in the comments!

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