Last week I had a bit of a rant about how comic books were no good and needed to buck their ideas up. So, to balance the scales, I present to you my Top Five Comics You Should Read Because They’re Really Quite Good You KnowTM.
Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was always going to earn top billing. It ostensibly tells the story of Dream, the titular Sandman, who is the personification of dreams. Gaiman populates his world with so many other characters and stories that he ends up telling a story about the power of dreams and of stories themselves. Stories can range from a convention for serial killers, though the eccentric (and historically accurate) Emperor Norton of the United States to Lucifer giving up his role as the devil. By making his character an immortal embodiment of dreaming, Gaiman gave himself the freedom to tell stories in the present and the past, involving fictional characters as well as figures such as Shakespeare and Marco Polo. This breadth and the depth that Gaiman wrote with kept the series fresh and exciting throughout. Sandman introduced me to comics and is an example of the medium at its best.
A lot of people would put Alan Moore in their top five except they would probably pick Watchmen. V for Vendetta, I feel, is the better choice. It’s set in (what is now) an alternative past ruled by a fascist conservative government and tells the story of Evey Hammond and how she becomes involved with the terrorist V. I wonder if this would ever be published now as V is not only a sympathetic character but, ostensibly, the hero. It’s not always that simple, though, as while the anarchist V seeks to bring down a cruel and brutal fascist government, he does so by blowing things up and killing people. This is not a black and white tale. Yet the shades of grey elevate this to a thought-provoking morality tale. I guarantee that when you read the end, you won’t be certain is Evey has made the right decision. V for Vendetta is the Guardian’s reading club book of the month and happily labelling it smart, relevant and other flattering terms. They’re not wrong.
Dan Brown done right. Charlie Northern is an English detective and a lapsed Catholic who gets drawn into a suicide at the Vatican only, of course, it’s not a suicide. Secret cults, death and treachery abound, all punctuated by Charlie swearing at his cigarettes. Jenkins writes a brilliant character in Charlie Northern, grounding the spectacular tale in stubborn disbelief and brusque but touching honesty. And special mention goes to Humberto Ramos’s art; it’s just beautiful.
I’ve written about this title already but I’m happy to recommend it briefly again. Mainstream superhero comics are full of ‘what-if?’ stories but this one is by far and away the best, asking “what if Superman grew up in Soviet Russia?”. Instead of making Superman a pantomime villain, Millar weaves a complicated in which Superman becomes well-intentioned but misguided, rewriting DC history to include a brilliant touch; Batman in a ushanka.
Maus appears so far down the list because it seemed too obvious. Comics tend to be about super-powered men beating up other super-powered men, and you can’t get further from that than a Holocaust survivor’s story. Maus, too, has become so readily accepted by mainstream literature that it doesn’t feel much like a comic anymore; it doesn’t carry that social stigma, the furtive nature that comes of being knocked by the establishment. But there’s a very good reason for this: Maus is art, through and through, making masterful use of the comic medium to tell a serious story in a way that prose alone could not. Don’t get put off by the harrowing and depressing elements of Spiegelman’s tale; this is a book that you need to read, even if you never touch a comic ever again.