September 15th, 2011 / 12:07 am

Reading Comics

Now is an exciting time for comic book lovers and newbies alike, in part because DC comics has decided to restart their entire catalog. “The New 52” they’re calling it. A complete reboot: new writers, new artists, new storylines, and a reset to issue #1 for everything. I’ve decided to use this event as a motivator to get myself more involved with comic books. Over the past few years my interest in them has grown, but it’s still an unfamiliar world and I have a lot to learn, which is both exciting and a little intimidating. On that note, I thought perhaps I’d share with you some ideas, reactions, commentary about the comic books I’m reading — maybe make this an ongoing thing, a new series: “Reading Comics.” Perhaps I’ll also ask a few writers that I know of who are into comics to contribute to the series. (If you’re interested in contributing a few words about reading comics, email me at higgs dot chris at gmail.)

To begin, new comics come out on Wednesday. Here’s what I got today:

Swamp Thing #1
Animal Man #1
Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #1
Severed #1 & #2

After the jump, I’ll share a bit about my history with comic books in order to contextualize my perspective. Then, in the not too distant future, I’ll offer a few thoughts about the comics on that list. So far I’ve read the Animal Man and Severed #1. Both are really good!

Truth is, I didn’t read comic books as a kid. I collected a few of them, but only for their exchange value. For the same reason, I collected baseball cards even though I never watched baseball and in fact loathed the sport. The first time I actually read a comic book I was in film school, around age 20 (so, nearly 15 years ago). One of my closest friends avidly devoured comics. Ritualistically, he went to the comic book shop on Maryland Parkway across from UNLV campus every Wednesday to purchase the latest offerings. Sometimes I would accompany him and peruse the titles, but mostly it didn’t interest me. At some point he encouraged me to read a Brian Michael Bendis series called JINX, which I remember enjoying, but not enough to become addicted. I read Scott Mccloud’s seminal Understanding Comics because at the time it was required reading for student filmmakers. Beyond that, I rarely even peeked at comic books.

Then a few years ago my wife started reading this series called Fables, which is a sort of retelling or reimagining of classic fairy tales. One day, while I was at the comic book shop in Columbus OH, where we lived at the time, I noticed an interesting-looking cover for something called Y-The Last Man. The storekeeper informed me that the writer, Brian K. Vaughan, was also one of the writers for the television show LOST, which was at the time one of my favorite shows. Plus, I’m a sucker for “last man on earth” scenarios, so I grabbed it along with my wife’s copy of Fables. I read it and enjoyed it and got the second volume and read it and enjoyed it, but after that my enthusiasm waned. (As of today it looks like there are ~10 volumes, so I have some catching up to do!) My wife, on the other hand, has remained interested in Fables, and stays as up to date as she can on them.

After my encounter with Y-The Last Man, I read a few others that I’ve really loved and would highly recommend. Charles Burns’s Black Hole, which is about these mutated teenagers in the 1970s who suffer from a hideously grotesque sexually transmitted disease. Hans Rickheit’s The Squirrel Machine, which bills itself as “AN ANACHRONISTIC PARABLE FOR THE CONVULSIVE ELITE.” Jim Woodring’s Portable Frank and Weathercraft, which are these nearly silent surrealist dreamscapes. Jason’s Almost Silent, which similarly eschews language but includes zombie vampire skeleton dog-like creatures and a healthy amount of humor. Josh Simmons’s Jessica Farm, which describes itself as “a Lynchian take on Alice in Wonderland.” Theo Ellsworth’s Capacity, which is like a Borgesian labyrinth of metfictional madness. Fletcher Hanks’s old school awesomeness You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation!, which seems to be considered by some a work of outsider art. Stan Lee & Steve Ditko’s Doctor Strange, which is mystical and occultish and fun. As well, I’ve become extremely interested in the horror, mystery, and sci-fi comics of the “pre-code” era, which is to say prior to 1954. (The code was a censorship program akin to the Hayes Code in cinema. You can read the original code here.) My favorite of these early comics that I have found so far were published by EC, with titles like: The Haunt of Fear, Tales From the Crypt, Shock SuspenStories, and Weird Fantasy. I scored a big stack of these EC titles from a badass comics shop called Secret Headquarters in Silverlake, the last time I was in Los Angeles. I’m sure there are other comics I’ve read and loved and would recommend, but at the moment they’re eluding me.

In addition to all of those, what has recently rekindled my interest, which occurred before I learned about the DC reboot, was my brother’s recommendation to check out Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, from the 1980s. He assured me it was brilliant, that I’d love it, and since I consider my brother’s taste impeccable, I ordered a copy of the first volume.

After reading the first two books in the trade paperback, I went: wow, this thing is massively wicked. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but what makes Moore’s intervention in the series really fascinating is how it actually produces an amazing philosophical (ethical/ontological) quandary. Also appealing is its accessibility. The way they handle it, you don’t need to know anything about the series prior to Moore’s entrance (issue #21) in order to understand and enjoy it. The artwork by Stephen Bissette, Dan Day, and John Totleben glows. Like absolutely. And the story is both intellectually stimulating, beautifully rendered, and entertaining as hell. I intend to write something substantial about Moore’s Swamp Thing…it deserves the kind of attention Adam Jameson has given to Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Night Returns (as always, Jameson offers insightful and engaging commentary — if you haven’t read his stuff on Batman, you should check it out posthaste).

So here I am. A true novice. At the moment, all I know is that I tend to gravitate toward comics that possess some combination of dark, strange, quirky, and unsettling aspects. Also, I’m excited to begin writing and thinking about this material, and equally excited to get more people involved in the conversation as well. (At present, I’m gearing up for doctoral exams, so this also serves as a much needed exercise in displaced anxiety.) Hopefully you’ll find it interesting.


  1. ownclmnts

      this is great. i’m interested to read yr thoughts on animal man, and looking forward to a consideration of comics-as-comics (monthly issues) rather than comics-as-‘graphic novels’, since the latter is SO dominant in discussion+criticism.
      also, have you read any digital comics? if so, what did you think, if not, why not etc.
      in short, more pls.

  2. bobby

      I think the DC reboot is kind of exciting. Marvel and DC mainstream comics have been flirting w/ different models of reboots and “resets” (Marvel’s House of M series was pretty unsettling for the Marvel universe in a pretty neat way) in the last decade. But in the last couple of years, reading any of the big house titles just sets up the reader to invest in a million god damn comics in order to “get” the whole picture. The whole thing feels like a bait and switch. 

      I look forward to reading your reviews of the new DC universe. 

  3. Adam D Jameson

      Thanks for the kind words, Chris!

      Moore’s Swamp Thing is indeed absolutely brilliant. If Jeremy M. Davies ever takes up blogging (hint, hint), he’d be the perfect person to analyze that series.

      I was toying with doing a close reading of Watchmen. Though what I really want to write about is Cerebus… Or Uncanny X-Men.


  4. Adam D Jameson

      I myself am a huge fan of digital comics. In fact, I think they’re one aspect of publishing that will be greatly improved by becoming electronic.

      Comics are in a weird place right now, in that they’re rather disposable pamphlets that cost around $4 and, to be frank, mostly look terrible. They’re also loaded with ads. Back when they cost $1 and had a kind of shoddy charm to them, they were a lot of fun, but now… It’s no wonder that only the most hardcore enthusiasts buy them. Everyone else reads graphic novels (or manga collections).

      Publishing them electronically should, I think, make them more attractive in every way. Also, the iPad and the like seem practically designed for reading comics!

      But, more importantly, publishing comics electronically could make it that back catalogs become so much more accessible. No one can really afford the entire back catalog of Uncanny X-Men, and not just in issue form; purchasing even the trade collections would run into the thousands of dollars. But if one could download back issues for nominal fees (DC and Marvel aren’t really making any money on them at the moment)… But what will the end situation be? I don’t trust Marvel and DC to get it right.

      Comics scholarship has long suffered from the fact that comics have very little history—meaning, the texts themselves are rarely available for review. Hopefully e-comics will go a long way toward correcting that. (The reason why I was able to do that Dark Knight Returns series of posts is because someone scanned the graphic novel for me—otherwise, it would have taken an unthinkable amount of time.)

  5. Carla

      Moore’s Swamp Thing is wildly overlooked, so glad to see it highlighted here. I think the DC reboot is exciting because it could become a very real reflection of the impact the Vertigo imprint has had on DC by producing some of the the most innovative and successful new serials from the last decade. Hopefully the writing will hold up.

  6. dole

      Given your interest in experimental lit, I’d strongly recommend Yuichi Yokoyama’s wordless Travel, which has really stretched my thinking about what is possible in writing and comics, form & narrative, etc (New Engineering is also good). 

      Also Chester Brown (Louis Riel or any of his crazy stuff), Powr Mastrs by C.F., Anders Nilsen.  

      Osamu Tezuka’s late books (like MW) get really dark and weird…Phoenix is pretty amazing.  I’d normally never make this kind of argument, but if we are gonna be real in terms of scope, quality, and output, he’s probably the most important comics guy ever.

      Agreed on Hanks and Woodring…the last two Frank books have been fantastic (Woodring is good with words, so it’s kind of a shame that Frank is wordless…check out The Book of Jim).

  7. Ashley Ford

      Love comics. Right now, I’m really digging Preacher, The Walking Dead, Transmetropolitan, and Fables. I’ve heard good things about Animal Man. Also, looking to get my hands on the Sandman series sometime.

  8. Russ

      No one seems to have read Adam Hines’ Duncan the Wonder Dog, despite the fact that it’s been out for a year.  Everyone should read Adam Hines’ Duncan the Wonder Dog.  I’m wondering now if there are other gems that AdHouse has put out that are of that caliber.  Skyscrapers of the Midwest sure as hell wasn’t.

  9. Tomk

      Daniel Clowes: David Boring and Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron are great.

  10. Christopher Higgs

      Thanks, ownclmnts.

      I can’t recall reading any digital comics.  My gut reaction is to be uninterested in them, in part because I like the physicality of books.  (When it comes to books, I’m a curmudgeonly old Luddite — I don’t own an e-reader or iPad or anything of that sort.) 

      I get what Adam is saying about the benefits digital might provide in terms of making available backlogs of certain titles, but the thing about that is: I enjoy hunting for books, finding them, getting them, bringing them home and adding them to the population of books who live in our home.  I like the way books change the geographical landscape of my domestic habitat.  I mean, I’m fairly certain it would be easy to download digital copies of most books (comic or otherwise) from bit torrent or other filesharing communities, but doing it that way would make me not want to read them because the object, for me, is half of the joy.  Adam’s point about scholarship benefiting from digitization is different, and there I think he’s right on and I agree it’s a good thing.    

  11. Christopher Higgs

      I loved reading those Batman posts of yours.  You should do Cerebus!  I’ll try to get in touch with Jeremy to see if he’d be interested in writing something about Swamp Thing — that would be great!  If you talk to him before I do, encourage him to get in touch with me.

  12. Christopher Higgs

      Thanks for commenting, Ashley.  I messaged you on FB.  Would love for you to contribute something to the mix.

  13. Christopher Higgs

      Thanks, Dole.  I’ll add these to my list.

  14. jtc

      I’m skeptical, but will try to remain optimistic; The New 52 could be a huge risk, a huge step forward for DC, or it could be a very safe move, no different in the end from rebooting superman/spiderman/batman/xmen in film (i know two of those are marvel).

      I am not an avid reader of comics, but have read a fair share on lunch breaks, and went through a phase five years ago or so when that’s all I read. My feeling is that if they’re at all concerned with continuity with the canonical timeline, the comics suck. When they throw that out the window and just try to tell a good story, I’m often pleased. I think Marvel has more of a problem with this than DC what with the whole multiverse thing. Maybe they’re heading in that direction though? Not sure.

      In terms of comics outside the two big dogs marvel and dc, there are a few I’ve read and really enjoyed. Blankets is pretty incredible, at least because for me it felt like a retelling of my own life in a weird way. If you grew up in the midwest, I think the book will have an impact.

      You mentioned Frank Miller: even though it totally weird, and probably unnecessary, the followup to TDKR is a fun read.

      I’m sure you’ve read Watchmen, which I loved but after watching the movie liked less. It’s still probably one of the coolest comics ever. I’ve heard everything else of Alan Moore’s is good, but I haven’t taken the initiative to look into it.

      I think all of Jeph Loeb’s batman stuff is awesome, but especially long halloween and dark victory.

      Fables is cool; have you or your wife read Bone? I never finished it, but always plan on returning to it sometime.

      Also, yes, Sandman series. It’s so long! I got halfway through it. Twenty times better than Y the last man, which has a great premise but, for me, never figured out what to do with it. You can tell, reading sandman, that gaiman is a real writer. It’s incredible.

  15. Carla

      Yes, Transmetropolitan!

  16. Bill Hsu

      I’ve read more than my share of comics over the years. I’m not a big fan of most comics published today (including many titles mentioned in this thread; Frank Miller has been boring me for years, sorry). The only titles I’ve been getting regularly are Matthew Sturges and Bill Willingham’s House of Mystery, and Mike Carey’s The Unwritten, with their open narratives and structural twists.

      Old favorites: Max Andersson’s Pixy and Bosnian Flat Dog, Al Columbia’s The Biologic Show, and of course Alan Moore, Jim Woodring, Jaime Hernandez, Chester Brown’s Yummy Fur…


  17. Bill Hsu

      I’ve read more than my share of comics over the years. I’m not a big fan of most comics published today (including many titles mentioned in this thread; Frank Miller has been boring me for years, sorry). The only titles I’ve been getting regularly are Matthew Sturges and Bill Willingham’s House of Mystery, and Mike Carey’s The Unwritten, with their open narratives and structural twists.

      Old favorites: Max Andersson’s Pixy and Bosnian Flat Dog, Al Columbia’s The Biologic Show, and of course Alan Moore, Jim Woodring, Jaime Hernandez, Chester Brown’s Yummy Fur…


  18. deadgod

      An interesting now-old-school niche worth (re)visiting is the Metal Hurlant/Heavy Metal ‘group’:  Moebius (a great comix artist), Druillet, Bilal, Caza, RanXerox, and others.  Lots of big teats/swords+guns imagery/stories, but also lots of humor, well-‘boxed’ storytelling, and often big visual pleasure.

      Also, don’t count out the narrative and illustration wit of strips/books like Calvin and Hobbes and Reid Fleming, World’s Toughest Milkman.

  19. Bhirts

      From what I’ve heard about the reboot it sounds a lil weak, like when Superman isn’t wearing armor (what?) he’s wearing jeans and texting (what??). Also the Martian Manhunter is no longer in the Justice League while up until now he’s been the only consistent founding member. From a personal standpoint I guess it’s “good” because it sort of opens up the weekly comic
      world too someone like myself, 22 and interested yet overwhelmed, but… I don’t know Action Comics ad
      Detective Comics stretch back until WWII… they’re like “American as

      I’ve only read the first couple volumes of Sandman but I thought they were awesome. Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing was awesome. Jack Kirby’s “fourth world” omnibi, I’ve read
      the first two I think, blew me away. Such raw power of imagination.

  20. Bhirts

      Also, on the digital comics tip, I used to be a huge fan of web comic
      strips, like Dos Factotum, XKCD, Nedroid and Achewood. I sort of stopped paying attention to them but, as someone who read the “funnies” every day in the paper as a kid I think it’s one of the most “exciting frontiers” in [you know, whatever]. Calvin and Hobbes was probably the most influential thing to me as a person considering how young I was and reading it was usually the first thing I did, everyday. Achewood in particular seems like an example of something in which the Internet was “necessary” to it’s existence; how crude it was when it started, and still is at least somewhat visually.

  21. Christopher Higgs

      Yeah, I want to get a hold of “Like A Velvet Glove…” I’ve heard real good things about it: surreal, grotesque, etc.

  22. Christopher Higgs

      Hi jtc,

      I actually haven’t read Watchmen — haven’t seen the movie either.  I just recently picked up League of Extraordinary Gentlemen — haven’t seen that movie either. Never looked at Bone, either.  Got the first TPB of Sandman, but didn’t finish it.  Jeez, I’m way far behind when it comes to comics!  Thanks for your suggestions, I’m adding them to my list.

  23. jtc

      awesome. I’m thinking it wasn’t until the 3rd or 4th sandman that I realized how great it was. League is great too, but again, failed by its film adaptation. I read the first two sets, but never got around to the third. you should read watchmen. thinking back, the problems the film brought to light were mostly small. also, promethea by alan moore, and I’ve heard good things about the writing he did for swamp thing, if you’re intrigued enough by the reboot.

      and if it makes you feel better, I’m way far behind when it comes to Deleuze. Currently looking back on your beginner’s guide to figure out where to start. though, boy, comics seem much more inviting…

  24. Alice May Connolly

      Blankets is great! I’m from New Zealand and I found it really moving.

  25. Alice May Connolly

      You should give The Invisibles series a go too. I also read a really great, albeit unfinished, web comic yesterday by Gabby Schulz called “Sick”. The artwork is pretty grotesque. Maybe you will like that. I don’t know.

  26. Jeremy Bauer

      I loved superheroes as a kid, but I didn’t get an allowance and didn’t get money for doing chores or anything, so I’d be able to get, like, two or three a year. Luckily, when I got to college, the university bookstore sold trade paperbacks and I’ve been real into comics ever since. Some favorites are the Green Lantern: Blackest Night series, Preacher, Sandman, Incognito, American Splendor, some of Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural (just what I’ve been able to get my hands on so far), Shade, the Changing Man (Peter Milligan), Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing as well, and gazillions of others I can’t think of right now.

      Can’t wait to check out the new Animal Man, and Jeff Lemire’s work for Vertigo called Sweet Tooth. I’m also looking forward to exploring Love & Rockets, and a lot more Comix, like this one:

      I’d love to contribute something, if you’d like. 

  27. Jeremy Bauer

      Also, Mike Allred’s X-Statix. Haven’t gotten a hold of his other stuff, like The Atomics or Madman, but I really like his artistic style and humor, so I’m betting they’re good too.

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  29. Bradley Sands

      Marvel Comics has made nearly every issue of The Uncanny X-Men that Chris Claremont wrote available with their massive phone book-sized volumes of Essential X-Men, but the paper quality nearly the same as a phone book and the art is in black and white. These days, collections of a title’s storyline are published shortly after all the issues are released and they lack ads. I also think they may cost a lot less than buying the issues. Also, Marvel and DC are selling their comics in an electronic format, but I haven’t bought any of them so I don’t know the specific details. Seems like the issues go for $1.99 each rather than $3.99

  30. Bradley Sands

      DC seems to reboot their universe every few years (most of the “Crisis” events plus this new Flashpoint/52 thing). The last Crisis was “Final Crisis,” so perhaps it will actually be the last event that uses the name. I don’t think it really rebooted anything. Just killed off Darkseid, Batman allegedly (but like Captain America after his “death,” he was only lost in time), and the New Gods (although I think they started new lives on an alternate Earth or something). There are 52 different Earths now (although all of the new comics take place on the same Earth). The creation of 52 Earths either had something to do with the previous Crisis event (Infinite Crisis) or a comic that they published that was called 52 and came out once a week for a year (I think). So assuming there are 52 weeks in a year, that’s where they got the number from.

      Grant Morrison mentioned in an interview how he’s supposed to write a limited series where he explores some of the various Earths, although it may not happen because things don’t always go as planned in the comic book industry.Marvel Comics doesn’t do this, although their Ultimate line had a pretty mediocre event where a crapload of characters were killed off even though not many major characters existed in the “Ultimate Universe” in the first place. I’m not entirely sure why they did it.I’ve read the first issue of five of the new “52” titles and have been a bit let down by them. They all share a common trait: very little happens. It’s as if the editorial board made the decision so they would be paced this way. It reminds me of the decompressed storytelling that was so popular in comics for a while. People always use the first storyline in Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man as an example for it: I believe the first Spider-Man story was about half an issue while Ultimate Spider-Man took about four issues to get through the same story. But unlike USM, there was a lot more happening during these 4 issues that the original story lacked, such as strong character development. But the “new 52” titles that I read weren’t like that.I may end up liking some of the new 52 titles in the long run, but I won’t know until I have the opportunity to read various issues considering their pacing almost seems to be equivalent to that of a Tarkosky movie.Pretty cool seeing a page from The Believer as the first page in Animal Man though, huh?

  31. Bradley Sands

      Yeah, The Invisibles is really great. I’m also fond of Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol.

  32. Bradley Sands

      I really liked X-Statix. Before the changed the name, it was called X-Force. And Peter Milligan wrote it. Allred just did the art. This was also a really great “solo” limited series with one of the team members who was named Dead Girl. Allred only drew the covers for it. Someone else did the interior art. And there was a two issue team-up between Wolverine and Doop which I can’t recall whether or not I actually read so I should probably get on that considering Milligan wrote that as well.

  33. Ahimaaz Rajesh

      Like Moore’s Swamp Thing, Morrison’s Doom Patrol is a very special comic. It’s bonkers – clever and absurd – pleasurable, very.