A friend of mine once told me that his favourite form of reading is instruction manuals. Seriously. Anything he could get his hands on that went through the process of describing how something worked or was made was something he could really enjoy. It was something about the combination of text and images that appealed to him.
Obviously, there’s something wrong with him.
Or maybe there isn’t. I have to admit that for a good long period after I finished university with my English degree I was on the verge of becoming a snob. I had been exposed to a great deal of opinion as to what constituted literature and, for the most part, I agreed. But there was one small, snaking branch that I refused to let go of: comic books. Are they really so different than what my friend was enjoying? Perhaps not. And besides, if it appeals to you reading is reading and comic books were definitely my bag and plenty of people looked down on that when I was growing up.
Comic books, and in particular their film adaptations, are currently enjoying a cultural bump in their general level of appreciation but there is still a significant portion of the population that regard it largely as a kids’ medium. How many people do you know with at least one trade paperback (a collection of multiple issues that make up a story arc from a series) or a complete graphic novel? The number is increasing, for sure, but most people still pass it by.
Those people are missing out.
In my last post I championed the entire genre of YA and my belief that even if you’ve grown past the target demographic you should still be reading them. Now I’m making the same argument for comic books. While I don’t specifically mean titles like Archie (though I still have a mighty collection), I don’t exclude them either. There are some terrific tales of the teenager from Riverdale. Just this month Newsweek named Jughead: The Hunger (the food-obsessed character doubles as a werewolf) by Frank Tieri, Michael Walsh, and Pat & Tim Kennedy, as one of the best titles of the year.
Today I’m going to focus on a few titles that are either well-known or should be, to help make the case for inclusion on your shelf at home.
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Widely considered to be the best graphic novel of all time, Watchmen is a masterpiece. It was even called one of the best 100 novels of all time by Time magazine. It is a dystopian tale of an alternate 1985 when heroes have been forced into retirement by a public tired of their antics. Sound familiar? The Incredibles do a great take on a similar subject. Here, though, the tale is dark and gritty as Rorschach, one of the most amazing characters in all of comics, works to solve the mystery of who is murdering his former colleagues while he himself is dismissed as a lunatic. This book is dark, gritty, violent, and full of incredible imagery, symbolism, depth, and unparalleled writing.
Maus by Art Spiegelman
A heartbreaking portrayal of the Holocaust where the survivors are depicted as mice and the Germans depicted as cats. The story follows Spiegelman’s father’s account of his experiences as a Polish Jew in the second World War. It's a powerful tale that is brutally honest even through the distance it strikes thanks to the imagery. The work is so powerful that it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Many universities have taken the book and added it to curriculum lists.
Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley
Canadian comics at their finest. A former staff member of the beloved Toronto comic store, The Beguiling, O’Malley writes about a slacker character in Toronto named Scott who falls for the mysterious Ramona but first needs to fight off her evil ex-boyfriends for the right to date her. The 6-book strong story is hilarious, a bit thoughtful at times, and whimsical. I love this series so much that I even have an action figure of Scott who watches me write from a shelf by my desk. The film adaptation by Edgar Wright is an under-appreciated gem.
Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona
A prominent Marvel comic headed by a Muslim teenager from Pakistan, Ms. Marvel deals with how Kamala Khan deals with being a hero. It’s an amazing read and about time we saw comics better represent our world. I bought every trade that came out of her adventures and put them on the shelves in my school library. They go out constantly. I was also thrilled to see Halloween costumes of Kamala popping up on shelves. Comics are meant to be a reflective window into our society and I love the positive vibes that Kamala puts out there. We need more of this in all forms of literature. Marvel has been doing a great job so far with Miles Morales, Riri Williams, and other young characters taking the lead with amazingly written stories. All I can say is more, more, more, please!
Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra
A mysterious event brings about the death of every male of every species on Earth save for Yorick Brown and his male capuchin monkey, Ampersand. What might seem like a simple concept becomes a fascinating study of how our society functions. As woman inherits the Earth, we see some become more tribal, some become religious, and some find hope. Through it all, Yorick is a man hunted by sides who either want him dead or see him as the last hope for humanity. In total, the series ran for 60 issues and is collected through 10 trade paperbacks for each arc. Also, look for Vaughn and artist Fiona Staples’ work, Saga, which is ongoing right now.
And the list doesn’t stop there. There are graphic adaptations of just about every major work. All of Shakespeare can be found in comics. A Newsweek 2018 title is Anne Frank’s Diary by Ari Polman and David Polonsky. There are stories about history, the war, and more. There are graphic adaptations of The Hobbit and other prominent works of literature from the classics to current hits in pop culture. If it's superheroes you're after, Marvel and DC have the market cornered and have put out so many amazing tales over the years that I couldn’t begin to try to list them all, though I can't praise Brian Michael Bendis and his run on Ultimate Spider-Man in particular enough.
Bendis wrote 240 issues of Spider-Man and co-created Miles Morales. Great stuff and I own all of it. For any of these titles or to find something else head to a comic shop and trust in the people there to put the very best into your hands. You won’t regret it.
Even after that list, you might still be hesitant to see comics as anything other than books with loud pictures and a few words. But comics are much more than that. They're full of morals, lessons, and wisdom. They have excitement, heart, love, and loss. They’re also a bridge between so many forms of entertainment. They’re close to film, but not. They’re close to full-fledged books, but not. They convey emotion and depth through art the way writers struggle to express them through words. Is that not an impressive skill? They have to contain and constrain their stories to 22 pages a month with stories plotted out years in advance. To be a writer and an artist (as well as an inker, letterer, editor, and more) of a monthly title is a tons of pressure. To have the work maintain such a level of quality of top of all of that for years on end is an impressive feat that is far too often ignored.
Getting back to the start of this post, I stifled my laughter and scorn when my friend told me about his love for instruction books. Who was I to judge? All reading is good reading, after all. I never forgot that moment or that lesson and I pass it along to my students. As a teacher, I’ve spent years trying to get kids motivated to pick up books and try them out. Whether they be YA, adult fiction, non-fiction, comic books, or yes, instruction manuals, I think our main job as both teachers and lovers of literature is to encourage people to follow their passions.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Brian Wilkinson attempts to juggle multiple careers as an author, high school teacher, and librarian. He currently lives in East York, Ontario, with his wife and two children, who served as the inspiration for the main characters in his first novels, Battledoors and Paramnesia. Brian was born and raised in Guelph, Ontario, where he attended the University of Guelph and received a BA in English Literature. He continued his writing career by earning a diploma in Journalism from Humber College, and applied those skills by working as a reporter for the Toronto Sun, the Toronto Star, and EYE Weekly, as well as serving as a co-publisher for the comic news site ComiXfan, and an editor for Humber Etcetera, where he won a Columbia Scholastic writing award for first-person column-writing. He was even lucky enough to realize a lifelong dream by writing for Marvel Comics when he co-wrote X-Men: The 198 Files. Brian feels like he is the luckiest person on Earth. He gets to be a dad, a husband, a teacher, and a writer. Not too bad, huh?