July 2005

Karin L. Kross


Comics Newbies

When you've spent fifteen years or so reading comics, writing about comics, thinking about comics, and occasionally (against one's better judgement, perhaps) even making them, it's easy to get a little jaded on the subject. It's helpful, at times like these, to get a reminder of what got you so excited about the medium in the first place.

My reminder came in the form of a friend who, well into adulthood, is just now discovering comics. She confessed that up until recently, she'd not thought very highly of the form, but now she's eager and interested. What changed her mind was Chester Brown's I Never Liked You, followed by Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics and Art Spiegelman's Maus. She's moving next to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

My discussions with this friend (in which I ran off at the keyboard rather shamelessly) got me thinking about a lot of things, one of which can be more or less summarized as, "how to pick the right gateway drug for a comics skeptic." Because even though the New York Times Book Review features comics reviews every now and then, there's still plenty of people who don't quite seem to believe that there's any merit to the medium. (Case in point, as Jessa pointed out recently, reviews like this are still being written.)

Picking out someone's first comic isn't simply a matter of throwing Watchmen at someone and hoping for the best; you have to know what will appeal to them. If they're not into superheroes, The Dark Knight Returns isn't going to change minds; likewise, someone who disdains science fiction may be put off by Y: The Last Man. Are they addicted to police procedural TV dramas? Do they read "literary" novels?

Because what's going to get a comics skeptic, in the end, is seeing that it's not just picture books; that the words and images play off each other in a way utterly unique to the medium. Giving them a comic that fits in their already-existing genre tastes is going to make it that much easier.

So just for fun, here are a few informal, highly unscientific suggestions for converting the skeptical:

Liberal Political Blogger: Persepolis, parts 1 and 2, by Marjane Satrapi. If Maus seems a little too much of a cliche (landmark book though it is), Satrapi's wry, melancholy memoir of her childhood and adolescence will suit the purpose, especially in light of current events.

College Student Just Back From a Summer Abroad: Carnet de Voyage, by Craig Thompson. Thompson's account of his travels in France and Morocco is filled with beautiful drawings and self-deprecating humour; those who found Blankets to be a little too precious will probably enjoy this one more.

College Student About To Leave For a Summer Abroad: La Perdida, by Jessica Abel. Paul Bowles once drew a distinction between "tourists" and "travelers"; Abel's book tells the story of a young woman who believes herself to be a "traveler" in Mexico. She's unaware that her romance with the idea of the country eclipses the reality of her situation, with dangerous results.

Coworker Who Watches Every CSI Show: Top Ten, written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Gene Ha and Zander Cannon. The concept is high (police procedurals in a city full of superheroes), but what could be a simple gimmick is actually very well thought out, and works both as an interesting story and an amusing satire of both genres.

Fellow Student in Creative Writing Class Who Reads Too Much Raymond Carver: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, by Chris Ware. About this book -- its painfully observed details, its obsessive draftsmanship -- not much needs to be said.

Science Fiction Fan Who Watched a Lot of X-Files: Heavy Liquid, by Paul Pope. Set in a near-future New York City, the McGuffin at the heart of the tale is a strange substance with hallucinogenic properties. Pope's 100% would be another good choice.

Struggling Artist or Writer: Cages, by Dave McKean. Covered in detail here.

Obviously, this list is debatable, and by no means definitive, but if you've got a friend who's still balking at the idea of picking up a comic, maybe this will help. If you have any suggestions of your own, I'd love to read them.