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Nexus Graphica
by Rick Klaw

Other Nexus Graphica Columns
For more information, you can try the following:
Austin Books
Shannon Morgan
Beyond the Strip: Inside the World of Comics & Graphic Novels
Sin City
Asterios Polyp
V For Vendetta
Almost Silent
The Last Days of American Crime
Lola: A Ghost Story
Recent Books of Interest
Almost Silent by Jason (Fantagraphics)
Almost Silent This hardcover collects four of Norwegian cartoonist Jason's out-of-print books: Meow Baby, Tell Me Something, You Can't Get There From Here, and The Living and the Dead. Similar to Charles Addams and Gahan Wilson, Jason relies on the humorous side of horror in these mostly wordless tales. Perhaps none demonstrates this unique confluence more than the charming and funny Night of the Living Dead-inspired The Living and the Dead. After all, nothing says true love like giving your betrothed the heart from a freshly-dead woman. Throughout the sublime Almost Silent, Jason examines traditional relationships and social norms via a deliciously warped lens, quite probably one constructed by Dr. Frankenstein himself.

The Last Days of American Crime Book 1 Written by Rick Remender Art by Greg Tocchini (Radical Comics)
The Last Days of American Crime For this violent, near-future thriller, Remender creates a reality in which, due to ultra-stringent anti-terrorism legislation, the United States has slipped into a cesspool of vice and corruption. Amid the chaos, career criminal Graham Brick plans one more big heist. Though the background story borders on absurd (the government plans to broadcast a signal making it impossible for anyone to knowingly commit unlawful acts), Remender wisely focuses on the criminal elements, conjuring the best of the late Richard Stark with a fascinating supporting cast. While his painted work is pleasing to look at, Tocchini falters as a storyteller, often causing confusion. Even with these distractions, The Last Days of American Crime offers an intriguing, nihilistic view on the crime thriller.

Lola: A Ghost Story Written by J. Torres Art by Elbert Or (Oni Press)
Lola: A Ghost Story Pre-teen Jesse and his family visit their Philippine ancestral home for the funeral of Jesse's grandmother Lola. While there, Jesse begins to see and communicate with ghosts, just as his grandmother before him. A conversation with a late cousin shapes much of this tale of self-discovery and familial exploration. Elbert Or's art perfectly complements Torres' insightful script for the engaging Lola.

Graphic Novels for Beginners

Sin City
Asterios Polyp
V For Vendetta
The weekend before Christmas while wandering Austin Books1, I spied an old friend looking over Watchmen as though he'd never seen it before. Lee surprised me with his seeming unfamiliarity with the classic graphic novel. Like many of my friends, Lee's comic geek quotient far exceeds the norm.

Turns out Lee was holiday shopping for a new friend unfamiliar but curious about comics. I decided to talk him out of Watchmen.

Don't get me wrong. I've spent a good portion of my adult life attempting to convert dubious adults to comics, explaining how the quality of this historically maligned entertainment far exceeds its children-only reputation. I just don't buy it when someone says they dislike all comics. That's akin to saying all movies, television, or books are bad. As a media platform comics span genre boundaries and spawn nearly every story type imaginable.

While I rank Watchmen among the great sequential works, its success depends heavily on readers who understand the tropes of traditional super-hero comics. Writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons expertly used the well-established storytelling methods of the time (1986). By revitalizing and reinventing the superhero genre, then entering its 50th year, the duo influenced an entire generation of writers, artists, and filmmakers. For a reader new to the form, Watchmen may as well be written in Greek.

The week between Christmas and New Year's, I received these tweets from award-winning young adult author and playwright Shannon Morgan:

  I'm doing a reading challenge in 2010 + want to explore graphic novels. I'd like to read 3 or 4 to start...

and am thinking MAUS, WATCHMEN, SANDMAN #1, and/or SIN CITY. I'd love your recs for essential GN reading!


I first met Shannon at the 2009 Writers League of Texas Agents Conference, where I spoke on the panel Beyond the Strip: Inside the World of Comics & Graphic Novels along with authors Alan J. Porter and Tony Salvaggio.. As we discussed the inner, often esoteric workings of the comic book industry, Shannon chronicled the event live via Twitter. Her decision to finally begin exploring graphic novels surprised me, given how we met. I presumed a certain knowledge of the medium.

The first volume of Neil Gaiman's Sandman (Preludes and Nocturnes) assumes a working knowledge of the long-running DC continuity, and, much like Watchmen, is not a good selection for the novice. The second volume (actually collected first) The Doll's House, works within the series' own mythos, which makes it much more accessible to neophytes.

When Sin City exploded on the scene,2 Frank Miller's explorations of crime fiction appeared dynamic and original to many comic book fans. Nothing before quite embraced the seedy world of the noir novel like the initial storyline (later re-titled Sin City: The Hard Goodbye). But to anyone who ever read 1950s-era crime fiction, Miller's words and ideas read like a second (or even third) generation clone of Mickey Spillane, who was himself a poor imitator of the far superior Raymond Chandler. While the art remains remarkable, in the ensuing 20 years many similarly themed comics have eclipsed Sin City, such as the Ed Brubaker/Sean Phillips collaboration Criminal, Tardi's West Coast Blues, and Paul Grist's Kane.

Maus presents a conundrum for the pretentious "literature crowd." It uses funny animals and illustrations to tell its story, but it won a Pulitzer Prize. Surely the acclaimed Maus cannot be a comic book!3 Upon its publication, bookstores typically shelved Maus in Judaica rather than with the rest of the graphic novels, which for a time were all kept in humor. Masterfully employing sequential art techniques, Art Spiegleman's extraordinary Holocaust tale provides a perfect gateway for the new comics reader.

Another excellent starting point, Marjane Satrapi's memoir/coming-of-age novel Persepolis relates her Iranian childhood, Viennese eduction, failed marriage, and eventual relocation to France. This poignant, engaging tale offers a fascinating feminist account of the 1979 Iranian revolution and her contemporary Muslim family.

In his first solo book endeavor, Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli tracks the life of the titular character, a renowned "paper architect" and university professor. Beginning on his fiftieth birthday, this lush non-linear graphic novel follows Polyp's surreal life through a failed marriage, dashed hopes, and a bizarre road trip. Even through all this strangeness, the diverse characters of Asterios Polyp ground the book with a sense of reality. Mazzucchelli masterfully and beautifully manipulates the comic book form to create perhaps the best graphic novel of decade and a tale embraceable by anyone eager to explore the media.

Inspired by Walt Kelly's Pogo and the French artist Moebius, Jeff Smith's beautifully-rendered, high fantasy Bone chronicles the tribulations of the exiled Bone cousins (Phoncible P. "Phoney" Bone, Smiley Bone, and Fone Bone). Pursued by rat creatures, the kin attempt to avoid the evil Lord of the Locusts while befriending the mysterious Thorn and her even more enigmatic grandmother. By injecting humor, usually centered around Fone's crush on Thorn and the interaction of the cousins, combined with a subtext-infused plot and likable characters, Smith successfully created an exciting and accessible all-ages adventure.

I explained all this to Lee. Though dubious at first, he eventually agreed with me. Sort of. He insisted on an Alan Moore graphic novel. An undisputed master of the form, Moore's works tend to rely on and expand the existing graphic narrative tropes, so most of his books don't work well for the neophyte. Lee and I explored several options before he settled on V For Vendetta. Originally published serially during the height of the Thatcher/Reagan era, V relates the struggles of an anonymous anarchist terrorist in a post-apocalyptic fascist Britain. Moore and artist David Lloyd used forties and fifties British thriller movies as the template for the nihilistic comic, resulting in his most approachable work for newer readers. Hope Lee's friend enjoyed it.

1 A frequent destination for area geeks, Austin Books is perhaps the finest comic book establishment in the country, and equal to any shop that I've visited in NYC, LA, San Diego, or Chicago.

1 Originally serialized in Dark Horse Presents #51-62 and 5th Anniversary Special

1 A similar argument is often employed when attempting to explain how 1984 and Brave New World are not science fiction.

Copyright © 2010 Rick Klaw

Professional reviewer, geek maven, and optimistic curmudgeon, Rick Klaw has supplied countless reviews, essays, and fiction for a variety of publications including The Austin Chronicle, The San Antonio Current, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Moving Pictures RevolutionSF, King Kong Is Back!, Conversations With Texas Writers, Farscape Forever, Electric Velocipede, Cross Plains Universe, and Steampunk. MonkeyBrain Books published the collection of his essays, reviews, and other things Klaw, Geek Confidential: Echoes From the 21st Century. He can often be found pontificating on Twitter and over at The Geek Curmudgeon.

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