So here we are. Funnybooks, like the rest of the world, are on hold and we don’t know when they’re coming back. At the same time, many of us are stuck at home waiting for this whole thing to be over, and in need of some funnybook escapism. So this week, I thought it might be nice to offer up a list of good quarantine reads.
My criteria here were fairly simple:
- I wanted to talk about less well-known comics, and/or stuff we haven’t championed to death here on the nerd farm. I mean, everybody knows about books like Sandman or Preacher or Maus. And much as we love us some Stray Bullets around here, we don’t need to tell you to read it again (though, seriously… If you haven’t read Stray Bullets, you should totally read Stray Bullets).
- Since the vast majority of comic shops around the world are closed right now, I figured our suggestions also need to be available digitally.
- And considering that we’re getting just about all the grim and gritty we can handle in the real world right now… I wanted to focus on books that have an escapist element, or that at least don’t go down dark incredibly paths.
So! Keeping in mind that these are in no particular order (except that in which I pulled them off my shelf)… Let’s see what we’ve been able to shake out of the funnybook tree.
Jack Staff, by Paul Grist
This book was originally conceived as a Union Jack pitch for Marvel Comics, but when that pitch was rejected, writer/artist Paul Grist turned the idea into a self-published super hero comic that swiftly became a celebration of British super hero comics in general. Always lively and fun, Jack Staff features good cartooning, inventive layouts, imaginative super hero storytelling, vampires, and a huge cast partially made up of characters based on forgotten public domain British comics (most of whom are just as engaging as Jack Staff himself).
Grist tells sprawling stories here, and jumps from character to character in a way that makes the book feel like an anthology comic. The various cast members rarely meet, and each character has their own logo to introduce their sections of each issue, announcing that we’re switching perspectives for a few pages. In reality, though, all the various threads are at least loosely connected, and together the series forms a tapestry that tells the story of a coherent (or at least semi-coherent) super hero universe. It’s complicated and great fun, one of my all-time favorite super hero comics.
Only the later Image Comics issues seem to be available digitally, and you should be able to start reading there without much trouble. But if you can find the earlier self-published issues (collected by Image under the title Everything Used to be Black and White), do so. They’re a lot of fun, and might show you why that Union Jack proposal got shot down at Marvel.
Also by Paul Grist: Kane. A book that does for cop comics what Jack Staff does for super heroes.
God and Science
by Jaime Hernandez
Two Love and Rockets collections telling fun side stories set in Jaime Hernandez’s Locas universe. The first, Whoa Nellie!, is a short book set on the old-time women’s pro wrestling circuit, focusing on two young stars trying to make their way in a cut-throat business. It’s got page after lovingly-crafted page of wordless in-ring action, and is one of the more fun Los Bros comics out there.
God and Science is a more recent collection, telling a super hero story that’s concerned with healing the tortured psyche of longtime Locas supporting character Penny Century. This is a rare look at the “Rockets” side of Love and Rockets, and ranks high for me among the best pure super hero stories ever told. It’s exciting and fun, and captures a lot of the spirit that made CC Beck’s Golden Age Captain Marvel stories so good. Plus, you know, it’s Jaime Hernandez, so it’s also deceptively touching and beautifully drawn.
Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E., by Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen
Easily one of my favorite Marvel Comics of the 21st Century, Nextwave is utterly ridiculous and great. It’s about a ragtag team of C-list heroes working for and/or against a secret organization called H.A.T.E. (Highest Anti-Terrorism Effort). H.A.T.E. is run by Dirk Anger, a Nick Fury parody created when Marvel told Warren Ellis he couldn’t use the actual Nick Fury for this nonsense. And…
Oh, hell. This book is best-described in bullet points.
- The first issue featured the tagline “Healing America by Beating People Up.”
- Ellis coined the term “Kicksplode” to describe what genre he was working in.
- One character’s super hero name was so profane, Captain America beat him up for saying it.
- One issue featured Machine Man crawling out of Fin Fang Foom’s butthole.
- There were Bondage Ninjas, Broccoli Men, and MODOK Elvis impersonators.
- It featured an appearance by Forbush Man.
- It has its own theme song, and it FREAKING ROCKS!
Seriously. Just go read it.
Orc Stain, by James Stokoe
If Elf Quest had an evil twin, it would be Orc Stain. This book is funny, exciting, beautiful, grotesque, and sadly unfinished. That shouldn’t stop you from reading, though. It’s worth the price of admission just to stare at all the detail creator James Stokoe packs into the art. Every page is filled with background weirdness and little sight gags that do as much to define the world he’s creating as the story itself.
Head Lopper, by Andrew Maclean
Another great fantasy comic, this one about a mighty evil-slaying warrior with a penchant for chopping off his foes’ heads. Like Orc Stain, it’s the work of one creator with a unique art style, telling satisfyingly simple stories with plenty of action that don’t insult your intelligence. Both have a distinct manga influence, too, without really looking like any manga you’ve ever seen. It’s mostly in the kinds of stories they tell, and the way they visualize the action. This one’s another fun read, anyway, with plenty of humor mixed in with the action and drama.
Casanova, by Matt Fraction, Gabriel Ba, and Fabio Moon
Matt Fraction’s spy-fi love letter to everything cool about the 1960s. It’s got spies, cat burglars, flying cars, giant robots, kung fu masters, evil twins, psychic gene freaks, inter-dimensional time travel, nekkid lady assassins, a dude wrapped entirely in bandages, bad sex, worse violence, and more effed-up dysfunctional family dynamics than you can shake a stick at.
It is awesome, and one of my favorite funnybooks ever. It remains sadly unfinished, but the first three volumes are a hell of a lot of fun.
Also by Fraction: Immortal Iron Fist, which introduced a metric ton of great pulpy background material into the Iron Fist character, giving him a depth he previously lacked and making him truly interesting to me for the first time. Done with Fraction’s future Hawkeye collaborator David Aja, this book is not as inventive as that one. But I think I might like it more.
The Pro, by Garth Ennis and Amanda Conner
Ennis and Conner do a comic about a prostitute who becomes a super hero.
It’s just as filthy and messed up as you probably think.
And funny as hell.
Afrodisiac, by Jim Rugg
Now we go from super-prostitute to super-pimp, with Jim Rugg’s Afrodisiac. Simultaneously a parody of 1970s blaxploitation movies and long-running super hero comics, this book is… hard to describe, I’m finding. Rugg finds a way to turn what could be a one-note gag (what if Superfly was a super hero?) into something that can power a whole book. In its pages, Afrodisiac fights Hercules and Dracula. He plays checkers with God. He seduces Death, fights off an alien invasion with sex, and conducts an on-going feud with President Richard Nixon (who is also his former tag team partner). The result is stupid and profane and absolutely brilliant.
Also by Jim Rugg: Street Angel. I’m not as big a fan of the recent album-sized Street Angel books Rugg’s put out from Image, but the original series of stories is great stuff in the vein of Afrodisiac. This one’s about Jesse Sanchez, a young homeless girl who is also a bad ass skateboarding super hero. She fights ninjas, demons, pirates, space men, Aztec Gods, and hunger. The final issue features the first appearance of Afrodisiac.
World’s Finest, by Dave Gibbons and Steve Rude
Written by the artist of Watchmen and drawn by the artist of Nexus, this thin volume is a classic Superman/Batman team-up pitting them against Lex Luthor and the Joker. It seems like a lot of people haven’t read this one, though, which really surprises me. To my way of thinking, this is one of those iconic stories that captures the best of both these characters, and shows why they work so well together.
Or that’s how I remember it, at least. Looking at it again today, it strikes me how long it’s been since I read it, and how few details I actually remember from it. I’m also struck by how freaking beautiful it is. I like Rude on just about anything, but he was firing on all cylinders with this one. I mean, just check out this Gotham City spread here:
I think this one’s going to have to go into my own quarantine re-read stack. Seems like the kind of thing I should refamiliarize myself with. Speaking of which…
The New Frontier, by Darwyn Cooke
This book is far from obscure. It gets wide praise, in fact, and has made it onto more than one “quarantine reading” list I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks. But I pulled it off the shelf as I was looking for things to suggest today, and I couldn’t help but admire its beauty. Clean, simple lines and dynamic storytelling wed to an exciting story that, I suddenly realized, I’d forgotten whole chunks of. I had all the major beats down, but there were images in that book I had no memory of at all. Which means it’s time for a re-read. So I include it, in case you’re in the same boat.
by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
Remember that page from All-Star Superman where Superman talks that goth girl out of jumping off a ledge? Well, Flex Mentallo is that page, writ large. It’s more complicated than that, of course. Stranger, and WAY more meta. But ultimately… That’s what this book is. And that can’t be a bad sort of thing to read in times like these.
Also by Morrison and Quitely: We3. A bit more harrowing than Flex, this story of animal super-soldiers is notoriously sad. But it’s also brilliant (some of both men’s best work), and has a happier ending than I remembered. So I’m giving it a mention.
Tales of the Beanworld, by Larry Marder
A most peculiar comic book experience.
That’s been the tag line for Beanworld from the start, and I can’t dispute it. Larry Marder turns ecosystem into story, and the results are equally charming, funny, and bizarre. I’ve never read another comic like it.
Okay. So far, I’ve been suggesting mostly shorter works. Things that fit inside one set of covers, or that you could read in two or three light and enjoyable days. But if you’re serious about this quarantine thing… If you wanna hunker down in the house with a comic and not come out for a while… I’ve got two more suggestions for you. We’ll start with the shorter, less insane of the two.
Nexus, by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
Maybe my favorite long-form super hero comic ever. It’s in the running, anyway.
Nexus is the story of a man who gains vast super powers from a mysterious alien intelligence, who demands only one thing of him in return: he must execute the mass murderers that haunt his dreams. That simple premise has carried the character through well over 100 issues of sci-fi super hero adventures, delving along the way into issues of morality, politics, and justice in a way not many spandex books ever even attempt. But it’s not all weighty subject matter, of course. Nexus is also exciting, funny, and weird, filled with entertaining characters, imaginative set-pieces, and great action sequences. And it’s drawn (mostly) by Steve Rude, so you also know it’s going to be pretty.
One side note that may be an issue for some: the politics of this book could best be described as “Libertarian.” Which is not a political philosophy I hold personally, but it doesn’t much trouble me here. It never (as I recall) gets preachy about it, and as the series continues, Mike Baron writes about the foibles of a fledgling democracy with a great deal of humor and thought. But, our political times being what they are, I thought it best to bring it up.
And now, the king-daddy of both long-form funnybook reading, AND funnybook insanity…
Cerebus, by Dave Sim and Gerhard
If Nexus is the tower, this is the mountain.
And about halfway through, the author goes off the deep end.
An Aside: yes, I know there’s a lot more pages of Lone Wolf and Cub (which would also make good quarantine reading, if you’re of a mind). And I know the story it starts telling in issue one doesn’t truly end until the final issue. But in-between, it’s a lot more episodic. Cerebus is split up into multiple stories, as well, but they tend to move in much larger passages. The longest, Church & State, runs to around 60 issues all by itself. And it’s got more depth to it, as well. So I’m sticking with my original idea: Cerebus is the freaking mountain.
At any rate…
Cerebus is the story of a barbarian who rises through the ranks of society, and is utterly ruined by civilization. Or maybe it’s the story of a terrible person, a murderer and thief, who tries to take over the world, but is ultimately not as smart as he thinks he is. Or maybe it’s both. Probably both. It’s a story about politics, love, sex, religion, and how all those things intersect. It is at turns funny and infuriating and heartbreaking. And at some point, the author (as I said) kind of loses his mind.
But it’s smart and it’s beautiful. Or it becomes so. Dave Sim is barely more than an amateur in the beginning, but he never stops growing as an artist or a writer throughout the book’s run, and after 20 or 30 issues (a mere TENTH of its total length), he’s become a master cartoonist. And he keeps. Getting. Better. Even after he’s gone nuts, he just refuses to stop improving his technique. Much like the book itself, he is relentless.
Now, I’m not going to go into all the various controversies surrounding the series’ second half. Enough ink’s been spilled over that already. But I will address two other Cerebus controversies here, for anyone who decides to undertake this epic journey:
First, where do you start reading?
Many say you should start with volume two, High Society. And you could do that, and you’d be able to follow along okay. But that’s not my advice. My advice is that you start at the beginning. The early issues are rough, and the Conan parody it starts out as wears thin pretty quickly. But you can skim those. Get to know the characters, and remember the situations. Some of them will become very important later. But skim. Follow your own best judgment as to how carefully you read. Then, somewhere around the halfway point of the first collection, start paying closer attention. Once the action moves to the city, things really start to pick up, and Cerebus becomes the book it’s going to be.
Second, where do you stop?
If you make it through Melmoth, you’re at the halfway point, and you could very well stop there. You’d have a fairly satisfying (if depressing) ending, and you’d avoid watching the author go nuts. You wouldn’t have to deal with his philosophies pissing you off, nor would you have to slog through his interminable, nigh-unreadable Bible parody. But you’d also miss some of Sim’s best artwork, and you’d miss some exasperatingly good funnybooks, too.
So I say, go all the way. Or go as far as you can. Maybe skim the more maddening stuff. And marvel at Sim’s willingness to write a petty, despicable protagonist who you still can’t help but… Not “like,” exactly. But who remains fascinating and frighteningly understandable nonetheless.
Now, then. Only the first two collections are currently available on Comixology. But you can get the whole damn thing in PDF format direct from Dave Sim himself, right here: http://www.cerebusdownloads.com/index2v16s.html
And that’s all I got. But, holy crap, isn’t that enough?!