If you had asked me a month ago I would have said that my comic book appreciation days ended in 1995, when I stopped buying the Beano – that’s because everyone knows that the only people who read comics are small children, and weird men who should know better. Or, at least, that used to be the case, but in recent years comic books have become much more mainstream, to the extent that they have become an established literary medium in their own right. You’ll even find them in Waterstones under the title of ‘Graphic Novels’, and while this may be the euphemistic equivalent of referring to porn as ‘Adult Entertainment’, it nevertheless suggests that people are beginning to take comics much more seriously.
A recent onslaught of film adaptations of popular graphic novels, such as The Dark Knight, Sin City, and most recently, Watchmen, has led to a growing interest in the books themselves. My own conversion stemmed from the recent hype over Watchmen when, finding myself unable to join in with conversations which went along the lines of, “Oh my God, they completely changed the ending,” I was intrigued and decided to give comic books a chance. And so it was that I ventured warily into Forbidden Planet, a comic book emporium, eager to explore the realms of comic book-fandom and yet slightly apprehensive of what this may entail.
Making my way past shelves of plastic Star Wars figurines and X-Men T-shirts, I went downstairs into the Graphic Novel department. What struck me most was the sheer amount of comics on display: so many different cartoon styles, from retro WonderWoman to Japanese Manga, and whole sections dedicated to particular superheroes. Perhaps most significant is the background depth behind every comic book creation; most graphic novels are part of a series, with each issue adding to an extensive archive of characters and the world they inhabit. This allows for spin-off issues which might focus on a particular character, such as The Killing Joke, which gives the history of the Joker in the Batman comics.
Are they just picture-books? Well, kind of, but there is much to be said for the word and pictures format. The visual element enriches your reading experience, and one image can instantly convey what a whole paragraph of text might otherwise describe. It enables visual flashbacks to past events, while the juxtaposition of text and image enables different plotlines to run in parallel with each other. When we think of the most prominent comic book characters of our generation, it is most often the vivid illustrations themselves that come to mind. Since their creation, enduring figures like Batman and Superman have been endlessly reinterpreted and adapted in different ways over time to the extent that they have become cultural icons in the process.
So go on, rekindle your childhood and embrace the comic book – just be prepared for it to be a little darker this time round.
A few to start off with:
All-Star Superman Vol.1 (Grant Morrison) 2005
Back to basics with the world’s first superhero. It’s the original Man of Steel, complete with shiny red pants and large rectangular jaw.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Frank Miller) 1986
An aging Batman comes out of retirement to save Gotham City, and ends up in mortal combat with his former ally, Superman. Oh, and Robin’s a girl.
Watchmen (Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons) 1987
Listed in Time magazine’s top 100 books and arguably the most critically acclaimed graphic novel of all time. Costumed vigilantes fight to save the world from a plot to kill millions.
Sandman Vol.1: Preludes and Nocturnes (Neil Gaiman) 1989
The first of a series of ten volumes, this begins the story of Morpheus, Lord of Dreams who after 70 years of imprisonment embarks on a quest for his lost objects of power.
Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi) 2003
A good example of the graphic novel without superheroes. Originally in French, this autobiographical account of the author’s childhood in Iran outstripped Harry Potter as best-seller in Foyles bookshop last year.