Thursday, December 8, 2011

Cole's Desert Island Graphic Novels

Like most people who read them, and most who create them, I've never been very comfortable with the term "graphic novel". It's certainly flawed and fails to properly define plenty of the works that carry its label. Really, it's a marketing term more than anything else. Without going into all the details (you could find them easily enough at a place like wikipedia) I'll just come to the main problem it presented to me when trying to come up with this list: should I choose only works that fit the flawed term at least a little better, that is, works such as V For Vendetta and The Dark Knight Returns which tell a single stand-alone story or could I include any comic book story that made up an arc or even part of an arc of an ongoing series?

If you ask my pal Aristotle, he'd tell you only the former type is worth a damn. As he so succinctly (ha!) puts it in Poetics:

A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.

So...yeah. There's that.

Just the other day I bought a trade paperback of Black Panther called Black Panther The Man Without Fear. It's just a six issue story arc but technically, it does meet the requirements of the term "graphic novel". It and other trades like it are probably the loosest example of the term and again, I don't want to get into a dissertation on the problems said term presents. But another problem I had with including books of this second type is the other spectrum - that certain collections are absolutely huge. They usually exist in what is called "omnibus" format and can contain up to forty issues of content. And often these omnibuses are so long that they don't just include one story arc but several. So am I cheating if I pick one of these?

After all, The Crow may be a great graphic novel and truly is one of my favourites, but in a desert island situation, can it really compete with a huge omnibus that contains thirty-five issues and four story arcs of my favourite run on Daredevil? And the manga Akira is easily one of my favourite works of graphic fiction (that works better, doesn't it? But of course, not all comics are works of fiction) but it's huge - well over two thousand pages. It's broken into six volumes. Each volume on its own, is technically a graphic novel but the entire work could never be collected into a single volume. So would I really want to pick for my stay on a deserted island one volume that's really just part of a larger story? It's different than picking a graphic novel that features say, a super hero because most of those are part of an ongoing continuity. But Akira has a beginning, middle and end.

You can see just how hard it was to figure all this out. In the end, I decided anything that fits the flawed, blanket term of graphic novel was eligible. This actually made things more difficult but I'd like to avoid making lists that have strange exceptions unless they're absolutely unavoidable for maintaining the spirit of the list.

So I apologize for this overly long intro but I really wanted to explain just what my process was for making the selections I came up with. Enjoy.

5. The Sandman: Endless Nights (Neil Gaiman and various artists)
This one actually isn't either type of graphic novel I explained above. It's a collection of stories - each one focusing on one of Dream's siblings, those being: Death, Desire, Despair, Destruction, Delirium and Destiny, and one featuring Dream himself. Each story is illustrated by a different artist or pair of artists and there are some pretty big names. Two of my own personal favourites, Bill Sienkiewicz and Frank Quitely, are among the contributors.

So naturally each story has a very different art style, including painting and collage. They're all beautiful to look at and make Endless Nights the most visually beautiful title in my graphic novel collection.

Given their subject matter, the stories are very unique and metaphysical in nature. Of course it's in this arena that Gaiman is most comfortable as a writer. This really adds to the re-readability of this collection (important because it isn't very long) and, combined with the quality and diversity of art, makes it absolutely essential for my desert island exile.

4. Batman: The Long Halloween (Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale)
I'm still not entirely sure which Batman graphic novel is my favourite, and I may never be, but I've decided that The Long Halloween is the one that makes the most sense to be shipwrecked (or plane crashed?) with. Obviously I need something with Batman. And I figured I should have a Batman that tells one definitive story that can stand completely on its own. That still didn't really narrow things down all that much. Great works by Frank Miller, Batman: Year One and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns both fall into this category and they also fall into the category of greatest Batman stories ever told. Both were given serious consideration for this list. But I eventually reasoned that if I was going to have just one Batman story (having more than one would seriously hinder my desire for variety in my five chosen graphic novels) then it should feature Batman in his element. That is to say, it should be something you could refer to as "classic Batman". So Dark Knight Returns was out. This was difficult as I reread that one very frequently.

In the case of Year One, while one could argue that the definitive telling of Batman's origin and first efforts at fighting crime in costume does have him in his element, it's just too early. He's only just learning and trying out his techniques. Also, the story doesn't have any of his iconic enemies - it's too early for them too. Finally, I decided that David Mazuchelli's art, while perfectly suited to the story being told, was just too ordinary for me to choose it over so many other works.

Arkham Asylum A Serious House on Serious Earth remains a masterpiece of Batman lore and it's another that I reread all the time. The painted art by Dave McKean is surreal and haunting. It's probably the most successful attempt to date in delving into Batman's complex psyche as well as the twisted psyches of his greatest foes. Plus a detailed history of the asylum itself is given, which is great. But at the end of the day, this is a fairly short story that's limited to just one location. That's just as it should be, of course but it causes the book to lose points in desert island appeal. I need a story that has Batman doing more.

The Long Halloween is also quite early in Batman's career. Gordon still isn't commissioner, Dick Grayson has not yet been recruited and the Falcone and Maroni crime families are still the primary criminals of Gotham. But some of Batman's colourful rogues gallery (as well as Catwoman, who to be fair, did show up in Year One) have started to appear and several are included in this story even though they don't play major roles. The Joker, Penguin, Poison Ivy, the Riddler and Scarecrow can all be seen here and they all play their part in keeping the story moving. Loeb even includes Solomon Grundy for some reason and tries to inject lamewad criminal the Calendar Man with some credibility.

But one of the major elements of The Long Halloween is the origin story of Two-Face. While Batman tries to keep the mobs in check and simultaneously hunts the serial killer known only as Holiday, the tragic fall of Harvey Dent is unwoven and it makes for compelling reading. One of Loeb's greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to juggle several balls in the air without becoming overwhelmed. He manages to tie all the elements together very effectively - probably more effectively than in his later effort, Hush, where I think the story suffers a bit from having too much going on - and the ending is satisfying but still leaves you wondering a bit. The story's main concern is the hunt for Holiday so it's very much a mystery. Even though reading it once reveals the solution (or does it?), I still feel it has great re-read value.

As far as giving us Batman "in his element" I think The Long Halloween succeeds tremendously. He's playing detective, fighting gangsters, visiting Arkham, tangling with some of his "theme" villains and doing his little tango with Catwoman. And since it's still early in his career we aren't distracted by any Robins, Batgirls, Oracles or intrusions by the Justice League. He's operating on his own. Along with the long slide of Dent we're also treated to the evolution of Batman's relationship with Gordon. This is where they're really starting to understand and trust one another.

I love Sale's art for this story. It has this sharp, positively retro look that perfectly depicts an episode that takes place fairly early on in Batman's career. I especially love the way he draws gangsters with their guns and pin-striped suits. His style has a very noir feel and most Batman stories, particularly those during his early years, are noir at their core.

As later works would prove, Loeb and Sale have a wonderful, enduring chemistry but I don't think it's ever better displayed than in The Long Halloween.

3. From Hell (Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell)
You knew Alan Moore would get at least one spot here. At least, I hope you did. The man's a genius. And like many super-talented people...eccentric. But still a genius. Don't believe me? Then maybe you should read From Hell.

On the simplest of levels, From Hell is a good desert island choice because it is long. Clocking in at 572 pages, there's also an extensive (sixty-six pages) appendix wherein Moore explains the research and thinking that went into many of the scenes. So once you're finished reading an epic tale of historical fiction (and my very favourite in the genre), there's still lots more.

Chronicling the Whitechapel Murders of the late 1880's attributed to the killer known most (in)famously as Jack the Ripper, From Hell is not a whodunnit or mystery of any kind. Instead it immediately shows us the identity of the killer and much of the story is from his own point of view. What is revealed is that the murders were part of conspiracy involving the British royal family and freemasonry. This theory was originally presented in the 1976 novel Jack The Ripper: The Final Solution by Stephen Knight. Moore has said that he doesn't personally believe this Ripper theory is at all likely (it's been discredited across the board) but that it makes for great fiction.

And great fiction it is indeed, with lots of non fiction woven in. We're given a wonderfully accurate view of Victorian London as a society. The architecture, which is central to the plot, is painstakingly reconstructed by artist Eddie Campbell. In black and white, the story is extremely gritty and visceral. No punches are pulled, nothing has been prettied up or glamourized. In a story filled with sex and violence, neither element is in any way stylized; it's just there, presented as banal to uncomfortable to downright disturbing.

All the major characters were real people and the historical backdrop is completely accurate. Moore proves that even in such a setting, he is in no way encumbered. If anything, he absolutely thrives in this environment, throwing in some cameos by other historical figures of the time. He also uses the narrative as a forum to explore his own ideas on the nature of time - something he also did to an extent in Watchmen.

Finally, Moore ably points out that many elements of 1880's London and the Ripper murders themselves, would foreshadow the direction the twentieth century would take. After completing the final kill, Gull wipes his hands and says "...the twentieth century. I have delivered it." Parts of the plot are very metaphysical in nature so even beyond the simple ingredient of a great story, there's compelling reading. I'd have to be as crazy as Gull himself to not take this comic masterpiece with me to read on the beach.

2. Daredevil by Brian Michael Bendis Omnibus Volume One (Brian Bendis, Alex Maleev, David Mack)
There was simply no getting around including a large omnibus volume and the first half of Bendis's seminal run on the Man Without Fear gets the nod.

After Kevin Smith's eight issue Guardian Devil arc kicked off the new Marvel Knights Daredevil series (which years later would be reconfigured back into the original series's numbering), the next few issues were handled by Mack, who did both the art and writing for the Parts of A Hole arc (issues 9 through 15) before Bendis arrived to write (with Mack still on art) the arc, Wake Up. This is where this omnibus begins but then it jumps over the next six issues which were done by Bob Gale (writer of the Back To The Future screenplay, you may recall) and artists Phil Winslade and David Ross. It picks back up at issue #26 with Bendis being joined by Maleev. The two would embark on an acclaimed four-year run on the book together. Omnibus Volume One concludes at issue #60.

Maleev's art style is perfect for a character like Daredevil. As much as I enjoy Guardian Devil, its art (by Joe Quesada) is just a little too cartoony and clean. But Maleev presents a jagged, grainy look further enhanced by stark, muted colours (lots of black and red) that meshes wonderfully with the stories Bendis tells.

As for the stories Bendis presents, they're as good or better than anything Frank Miller ever did with the character. Wake Up is cool because it's not so much about Daredevil but rather about how he affects others around him. Reporter Ben Urich (perhaps Daredevil's strongest supporting character; he's certainly more interesting than Foggy) visits a young boy in the hospital to try to piece together exactly what happened in an encounter between Daredevil and particularly pathetic costumed criminal, Leap Frog. The boy is actually Leap Frog's son and he's been in a near catatonic state since the event, communicating mostly through drawings. Mack's unique style really brings the story to life.

Subsequent arcs trace more familiar territory: Daredevil vs the Kingpin. But Bendis isn't just recycling old material here. The arc Underboss, which traces the roots and eventual result of an attempted coup within the Kingpin's organization, is extremely well-crafted and satisfying, giving us a tight story from lots of different angles. Bendis really excels at telling stories out of sequence. The fallout from the arc has Daredevil's secret identity - known to the Kingpin and many of his men for quite some time (read Born Again by Miller) - is finally leaked to the outside world and Matt's life comes crashing down around him. This leads to the next arc, Out.

The following arc, a shorter, three-issue story, Trial of the Century, wherein Matt defends Hector Ayala, the White Tiger, in court, features art not done by Maleev. While the story isn't as good as other arcs, it does serve an important purpose in kickstarting the evolution of Hector's niece, FBI Agent Angela del Toro, who would eventually become the new White Tiger.

I could take you through the next few arcs but realize this is getting tiresome. Just know that these are some of the greatest Daredevil stories ever told.  We get more from the Kingpin, Echo and Black Widow, as well as an appearance by Typhoid Mary and the introduction of Matt's next great love interest, the also blind Milla Donovan. Tons of great stuff. Hell, it's tempting for me to pick Ominibus Volume Two as well.

1. Watchmen (Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons)
I first heard of Alan Moore and Watchmen sometime in 1999. At the time I was still trying to find my way into the world of comics. All I really knew about was Marvel and Batman. But I craved comics that weren't just about superheroes. I knew there were lots out there, I just didn't know where to begin. Some four years later, when I did begin, I began with....superheroes.

But anyway in the spring of 2005, with just more than a year of serious collecting under my belt, I went to audition for a musical downtown. I just happened to be wearing my Superman t-shirt and struck up a conversation with a teenage kid who was also into comics. He asked if I'd read Watchmen, and I, embarrassed, said I had. For the next few minutes I faked my way through a conversation about it. I quickly realized that while this story seemed to be yet another one about superheroes, there was something very different about it. Luckily we only discussed it in broad strokes so none of the plot was given away.

When I got home later that day, I didn't have the part but I wasn't too broken up over it. I hadn't been expecting to make the cut and had only gone for the experience. No, what was really on my mind was Watchmen. The next day I went back downtown and bought it. It was only the third or fourth graphic novel I'd ever bought and the first that wasn't Batman or X-Men. As much as I wanted to devour it right away (as is my usual custom), I decided to pace myself, reading only two chapters a day.

One week later my life was changed. I'm not kidding. Reading Watchmen changed my life. I decided then and there that someday, somehow, I would be part of the comic book industry. No, I can't draw but neither can Alan Moore (as far as I know). I'm still working on it to this day. The other thing that happened was I really stepped up my comic intake.

I know I haven't gone into any sort of analysis of Watchmen but I guess there's very little I could add that hasn't already been said. It's a brilliant work of fiction that hasn't aged at all to my mind. It's intelligent, powerful, introspective, philosophical and dynamic. Every panel crackles with energy and drips with story. While the ending is a little weak compared to the rest, I can't even call this a flaw. It's still a damn good ending. All I know is that I haven't gotten tired of it yet and I couldn't imagine not taking it with me if I had the choice.


Ryan said...

Haha, I only just had a chance to read it!

I figured I'd see Batman on there, and I'm not shocked by your choice. I knew I'd see Watchmen and From Hell makes sense.

I don't know much about Gaiman's Sandman, but I have seen some of the art in that book and it's amazing.

I'm kind of surprised by Daredevil, I must say. I know you really enjoy the Maleev/Bendis run, but I expected something X-Men (80s era) to make the list for some reason!

Shane said...

Well, Shane, I'm going to have to agree with Cole, this is a pretty decent list. Superb, in fact.

I've only read (and own) two from the list (Long Halloween and Watchmen), but I'm now interested in the others, especially getting a look at the art from Sandman.

I'm going to agree with Ryan, I'm kind of shocked that X-men don't have a place on the list. I'm certain it can't be easy to pick just one with Marvel's overwhelming intertwining multi-verse. However, I can't think of X-men without thinking of you, and vice versa, so it's a bit surprising.

No question Watchmen is rightfully #1. I read it pretty late on, just as the movie was going to be coming out, but it still blew me away. If I made a similar list it would probably be #1. I'd have to include a Batman story too (maybe Long Halloween, maybe Hush, maybe Dark Knight Returns, it's too hard to decide). Another I'd have to include on the list is Maus: A Survivor's Tale. I bought it in junior high somewhere around '95 and it was one of the best things I'd ever read. I don't know if it would fit well into this sort of list because of its autobiographical style and the fact that it was published in two volumes, but for me, it influenced my writing and illustration making it the most important graphic novel I've read.

Also, I had no idea From Hell was a graphic novel. I'm interested in reading it now, but I guess I'm interested in reading anything by Alan Moore beyond Watchmen.

Anyway, great list, and Merry Christmas.

cole d'arc said...

as for X-Men, if there was some sort of hardcover omnibus of Claremont and Byrne's run together, it would be in serious contention for this list. but i don't think any exist.

but also, X-Men is a team book. team books just aren't my thing. i mean, i like them, but nothing that's my FAVOURITE is a team book. really, X-Men by Claremont is the only thing that comes close. But i like books that focus on one main character the most because because they're...well, more focused, i guess. achieving balance in a team book is extremely difficult so that i find even with the best examples like X-Men, there are always arcs i just don't like as much as others.

actually, Shane, Maus was certainly eligible for me. for years, i resisted buying it because i was waiting for a nice special edition to be released. well, it finally happened this year and i bought the The Complete Maus which is the twenty-fifth anniversary edition and includes both volumes in hardcover. however, as powerful as the story is, it doesn't provide the level of escapism i require for a desert island comic - it's just not that sort of story. but yes, it is brilliant and i'm happy to be able to say i finally own it.

i guarantee you'd dig From Hell. it's one of the most engrossing things i've ever read; comic or otherwise.