Comics: A Beginner’s Guide

May 08

Comics: A Beginner’s Guide: Hernandez Brothers

The Brown Wedge4 comments • 1,092 views

I routinely review what I read on my LJ blog. After a recent comic review, one friend asked for a dummies’ guide to comics. It’s not the first time I’ve come across someone interested who doesn’t really know where to start. I thought I might write a sequence of short pieces suggesting where to look for great material in various areas (styles, genres, eras). Bear in mind that libraries often have good selections of comic collections these days, and you can generally order things for very low charges from other local libraries. I’ll also try to indicate when there are cheap editions available. Anyway, I thought I’d start with what has long been by stanard answer if an intelligent, literate person is interested in knowing what might be worth reading…

May 08

Comics: A Beginner’s Guide: Old Comedy Newspaper Strips

The Brown Wedge12 comments • 4,048 views

There’s nothing in comics of any kind that I love more or regard more highly than two very old newspaper strips.

a Krazy Kat panelKrazy Kat

This strip started in 1914 and ran for thirty years, until the death of its creator George Herriman. The Sunday strips started in 1916, and I think they are as good as comics has ever got. The setup is odd but kind of simple: the Kat loves a mouse, Ignatz. Ignatz hates Krazy and throws bricks at him/her, which Krazy interprets as tokens of love. Offissa Pupp loves Krazy and tries to protect her/him from Ignatz. Krazy’s sex was indeterminate – often unclear, sometimes explicitly stated one way or the other. The setting, a town of shifting scenery in mesa country in SW America, is one of countless strangenesses in the strip, as is the lyrical language. This was back when comics were sometimes taken seriously – fans of this included F. Scott Fitzgerald, e.e. cummings, Gertrude Stein, Chaplin, Joyce and Picasso. In my more flippant moods I have claimed it resembles Tom & Jerry as depicted by Joyce and Picasso.

May 08

Comics: A Beginner’s Guide: Old Superhero Comics: Marvel

The Brown Wedge9 comments • 1,947 views

There’s a limited amount of pleasure to be had in the really early superhero comics (1938 onwards), but there was a real leap forwards in the early ’60s, thanks to two people at Marvel comics – and no, I am not including Stan Lee in that.

Jack Kirby

Kirby had been working in comics since the late ’30s, and had co-created Captain America back then. When Marvel heard that DC’s new superteam book, the Justice League of America, was selling well, they decided to create one. It was a slightly rough job, and not a lot of thought went into the early issues, but the Fantastic Four was a huge hit, and Kirby created lots more characters – the Hulk, the Avengers, the X-Men, and lots more, and he also revived Cap and others. He brought a power and excitement to superheroes, indeed to comics, that had never been seen before, and for several years he created most of what has sustained Marvel for nearly 50 years, and defined the style of superheroes ever since. I don’t know if there has ever been someone with as fertile an imagination, in any field, and to have sustained such standards for so many years, working at such a fast pace (much, much faster than any other modern Western artist), makes it even more extraordinary.

Jun 08

Comics: A Beginner’s Guide: Old Superhero Comics: DC

The Brown Wedge17 comments • 1,075 views

While Marvel was going for huge, powerful stories plus soap elements, DC kept on their own way for a while. They aimed at a younger market, and even issue-length stories were an exception, let alone any continuity between issues. They were also a much bigger company, and really existed as separate units with very weak links between them. There are two of these units that I think produced terrifically entertaining comics.

Superman titles

These were aimed at children. Stories are short and childish and silly. Girls are pests to be tricked. You’re far more likely to find stories about helping his pal Jimmy Olsen or fooling Lois when she is trying to get him to marry her or discover his secret identity, than see Superman in titanic battles against mighty foes. Jimmy and Lois had their own comics, as did Superboy. Lots of fine artists on these – Swan, Boring, Schaffenberger, Plastino and so on – and some clever, if ridiculous, writing. I think they are hugely entertaining. Me on the first Showcase collection – you must at least see the reproduced panel, which is a great example of the fun on offer.

Jun 08

Comics: A Beginner’s Guide: Osamu Tezuka

The Brown Wedge6 comments • 597 views

Not exactly a style or genre, but this is one guy who is huge enough to need his own entry. In Japan he was called “the god of comics”, and his output and impact is unrivalled anywhere in the world. He produced over 150,000 pages in his life. There are lots of volumes translated into English by now (though only around a tenth of his total). He was a magnificent cartoonist, and his stories are profoundly humanist, even when he was writing about robots.

He’s best known internationally for Astro Boy, which he made into Japan’s first animated TV series (so he’s a giant figure in anime history too). This is aimed at a younger audience, but the inventiveness of the tales, their beautiful execution, and the strong exploration of ideas of what there is of worth in ideas of humanity makes them very enjoyable for adults too.

Jun 08

Comics: A Beginner’s Guide: War Comics

The Brown Wedge6 comments • 1,183 views

War is not among my favourite genres, but it has been the subject matter for some great comics over the years. It’s also been the genre for probably the most successful British comics over the years, the apparently endless Commando series, which have had some good stories here and there (the world-great Hugo Pratt drew at least one of these), but I’ve never really been interested in them.


EC was best known for the horror titles which led to the big crackdown on comics in the mid-50s, and for starting Mad magazine, but the originator of the latter, the wonderful Harvey Kurtzman, was also behind a couple of great war comics, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. Kurtzman wrote and laid out just about everything, for an exceptional crew of artists to finish. This includes one of my favourite short stories ever, artistically, in which the great Alex Toth (my favourite comic artist ever) shows the difficulty of jet pilots in even knowing which way up they are while flying through clouds – the g-force of the engines overcomes the feeling of gravity. There are a fair number of dull, worthy stories here, especially ones based on real history, but everything is excuted with immense skill, and there are lots of winners too.

Jun 08

Comics: A Beginner’s Guide: Raw & the Avant Garde

The Brown Wedge9 comments • 1,541 views
a Raw cover

Well, the old avant-garde anyway – I’m out of touch these days, so apologies for talking about yesterday’s pioneers. Raw was a comic magazine, published in a variety of formats, which specialised in the strange and experimental, striving towards comics with values more often applied to modern painting and literature. It wasn’t all successful by any means, but given the experimental nature, it hit the mark far more often than one could have ever expected. The mags (Penguin published some in book format) are well worth reading if you can find them, but I’ll just highlight a few people from that school.

Its biggest name was its editor, Art Spiegelman, who made a huge impact with his narrative of his father’s days in a Nazi concentration camp, interleaved with their current relationship, with all the characters depicted as animals. Maus was an international hit, garnering possibly the greatest praise a comic book ever had in the US, and its status was largely warranted. It’s an unflinchingly honest account, told with rigour and great skill. I have my doubts about the animal aspect, but it had its pluses as well as difficulties. It’s a very impressive achievement, and holds up pretty well stacked against something like Primo Levi’s autobiographical tale of similar experiences.

Jun 08

Comics: A Beginner’s Guide: Alan Moore

The Brown Wedge5 comments • 1,438 views

Another person who deserves his own entry in this series is Alan Moore, surely the most award-laden writer in the history of comics, and one of the most influential.

He first came to prominence in the early ’80s in Britain, with two great stories in Warrior. Marvelman (later renamed Miracleman) was a ’50s Brit Captain Marvel (the Shazam one) knock-off, but Alan recreated him brilliantly, with beautiful and sharp Garry Leach art (ha, namedropping: I ate with Garry a couple of weeks ago) – Garry was followed by various other artists. V For Vendetta was even better, a lone anarchist against a repressive future fascist British state, a clear comment on Thatcher’s Britain. David Lloyd provided bold art almost reminiscent of woodcuts. This is the earliest of Moore’s works to be adapted for the screen – one of these days we might see a good movie based on one of them, but I’m not holding my breath.

Jun 08

Comics: A Beginner’s Guide: European Comics

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 3,638 views

comic page by Guido CrepaxI remember long ago constantly being told that European comics was a mature artform for adults, to be envied. There is material like that, and material of the very highest quality – but my god there’s a gigantic amount of beautifully drawn or painted drivel, and some of the reason for the ‘adult’ term is the soft porn, which is often very sexist. A few European greats will come up elsewhere in this series (I think I am doing children’s comics next, and I’ll save Pratt for adventure comics), but I want to mention a few who I really like.

Guido Crepax is an exceptional artist who specialises in porn, including adaptations of ‘classics’ such as Emmanuelle and The Story of O. The material is often tedious, but he’s as original a designer of page layouts as I’ve ever seen, and there is real power in his twitchy line. I wish there were more interesting material with his terrific art, but even so they are worth studying.

Jun 08

Comics: A Beginner’s Guide: Bonus: Flash

The Brown Wedge1 comment • 461 views

(I thought it was worth adding this review of a recent release as a supplement to the recent piece on old DC superhero comics).

The second Flash volume is, for me, the best Showcase* collection yet. I love Carmine Infantino’s art on these old comics, the cleanness and liveliness and sharpness of everything he draws. I’m also fond of two odd stylistic tricks: the use of little hands pointing and gesturing in captions, and especially the bizarre way he depicts the city: almost everywhere Flash goes, from any angle, there is a huge paved plain, like the biggest city square in the world, with a modern city skyline in the distance, whatever is in the foreground.

The stories are sometimes very disposable: trivial and inconsequential, just another crook with a ridiculous gimmick (mirrors, tops, boomerangs…) captured by our hero. On the other hand, there is plenty of clever stuff, and some extraordinarily bizarre tales, often based on Infantino showing up with a cover idea he liked and John Broome writing something to fit. The one where he is correctly thinking “I’ve got the strangest feeling I’m being turned into a PUPPET!” is an old favourite. There’s a great splash page, also, where the Flash is running towards Grodd (an evil super-powered gorilla – Infantino always liked drawing apes), beaming adoringly, saying “Grodd, you… you’re WONDERFUL!” Sadly he doesn’t actually kiss him.