Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Yes, I Read Comic Books

I first got interested in comic books in 1992 when I was ten years old. I had been a fan of Superman from a very young age, and even used to wear a Superman shirt underneath the suits I wore to kindergarten. So, it was natural for me to delve further into the character by reading his adventures in the comics. The initial stories I read involved the Death of Superman saga, a story that captivated my young imagination and hooked me on comic books.

I continued collecting almost exclusively DC comics until around 1998, when I stopped reading because I could no longer afford to buy them regularly. In 2003, after several years of watching the television show Smallville, I picked up the comic book adaptation of the series. It felt great to have a new comic book in my hands, so I decided to start collecting again. With the advent of eBay in the intervening years, I was able to pick up large runs of back issues for much less than I would have paid had I bought them on the newsstand. Since returning to comics, I have amassed a collection of somewhere around 4,000 comics, including nearly every appearance of Superman since 1985.

When I tell people I am a comic book collector, I get varying reactions. Mostly, people do not understand the appeal of a comic book story, relegating comics to a children's medium that no intelligent person has any business following. The truth is that while comic books started out with children as their primary audience, today's typical comic book reader is older and has a desire to read stories that are more complex and realistic. Even superhero comics, with their outlandish premises and plots, have matured to the point where the stories behind the capes and powers involve real-life human drama. Comics deal with violence against women, deep philosophical and religious debates, and even heated political issues and current events.

One of the creators most responsible for this shift in tone was the late Will Eisner. Eisner began his work in the early days of comics, when material published in the new comic book format was typically reprints of newspaper comic strips. He went on to create The Spirit, a masked crime fighter who deals with the real life struggles of the inner city, and the landmark A Contract with God, one of the first graphic novels. Eisner also created the graphic novel Fagin the Jew, an attempt to create a backstory for the famous Jewish caricature in Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist. Shortly before his death in 2005, Eisner published The Plot, a graphic novel detailing the sordid history of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged document that anti-Semites, most notably the Nazis, used to "prove" a worldwide Jewish conspiracy aimed at controlling the world.

Eisner's literary forbears carry on his tradition of using the graphic novel to tell stories of surprising scope and grandeur. These include Frank Miller, whose taste for gritty realism and violence garnered critical acclaim for works like Sin City, The Dark Knight Returns, and Ronin, and Alan Moore, whose storytelling genius gave us works like Watchmen, V for Vendetta and From Hell. Writer Brian K. Vaughan, one of the medium's popular new voices, keeps the torch lit with high concept comics including ongoing series Ex Machina, a political thriller about a superhero turned mayor of New York, and Y: the Last Man, a post-apocalyptic tale about a world where all the men on earth die save the series protagonist, Yorick Brown.

Comics have certainly matured from the early four color days, and it is gratifying to see that USF's own Gleeson Library has recognized this by creating a prominent display of comics and graphic novels. Hopefully the interest generated by this display will introduce more people to the medium, and showcase the fact that it is not just for kids anymore.


SKBlackburn said...

As you are a comic book enthusiast what is your favorite one (of all time), and also what comic would you recommend to someone that is new to comics? (Someone such as myself!)

eerickson said...

Out of curiosity, as the graphic novel expert which novel do you think is probably the most "profound" or interesting of them all? life changing?

Carly Perez said...

great post. sense your such a comic book connoisseur which one is your all time favorite?

Michael Vick said...

Everybody wants to know my favorite comic book. :-) That is such a difficult question. My current favorite in terms of ongoing superhero comics has to be Action Comics, with writers Geoff Johns and Richard Donner of Superman: the Movie fame, and artist Adam Kubert, son of legendary artist Joe Kubert. As for my favorite non-superhero ongoing title, I would say Brian K. Vaughan's Y: the Last Man and Bill Willingham's Fables would be a tie for number one. My new favorite non-superhero graphic novel is Eisner's A Contract with God Trilogy, which should be required reading for all human beings, period.

Profound and life-changing would have to go to Watchmen, Kingdom Come, Uncle Sam, and Ex Machina.

If I could recommend any creator to a new reader, it would be Will Eisner. Eisner's work is part autobiographical, part historical, and all genius. I just started reading his work after his recent passing, and I'm always very moved by it.

For those of you interested in seeing just how deep superhero comics can get, I would recommend Vaughan's Ex Machina, Alan Moore's Watchmen, Mark Waid's and Alex Ross's Kingdom Come and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.

Kathy Woo said...

I'll check Michael's list of favorites against the library's holdings and order what I can. Once the display goes away at the end of the month, feel free to keep suggesting titles through emailing me at or through the "Book purchase recommendations" link on Ignacio.

Debbie said...

The library already has the Contract With God Trilogy and a couple of other Eisner titles, and I think we'll be getting more. I read that it was Eisner who first used the term "graphic novels."

david silver said...

nice post (although i would have also liked to hear more about what you thought about gleeson's exhibit!).

mike - we've talked about this before but i just want to echo your suggestion of the watchmen. that was the graphic novel i checked out from the library and i'm nearly finished. a true tour de force.

ChristinaK said...

hey! thanks for the recommendation on The Pride of Baghdad, it was really an interesting and moving read.
*wonder con (March 2-4 Moscone Center South, San Francisco)
*comic con (July 26 - July 29, San Diego Convention Center, San Diego)