Becoming a visual reader: Where to begin with graphic novels and comic books
About two years ago, I decided that it was high time I became a better visual reader. As I’ve written about here before, I was the absolute worst at reading graphic novels and comics—not only was I unable to enjoy them, I was singularly inept at reading them. Constantly, I found myself either blasting through the words while ignoring the art or focusing at the art and getting so lost in admiration that I forgot about the words. It was a mess.
But I decided to change that a couple of years ago by going back to the basics and, essentially, teaching myself to read all over again, but this time in a whole new way. I aimed to appreciate not just the words or just the art, but the synthesis between the two. More often than not, the great thing about graphic novels or comic books is that combination—the words and the art can heighten each other, providing emotional and visual aspects of the story (or even an extra joke) that would have been entirely missing otherwise. Graphic novels and comics had something special to offer, I was sure of it, and I was sick of missing out.
To that end, I dove right in and was happy to discover a whole new world of literature on the other side. In fact, graphic novels have come to fill a much-missed gap in my literature experience—what Neil Gaiman calls “imaginative fiction.” These are generally stories for adults, but with a heavy dose of magic, beauty, and quirk (i.e. imagination!). I’ve found that, while there are some straight-up novels in this genre (most written by Gaiman himself), there is simply much more of it in graphic novel form.
Thus, to help others wishing to dip a toe in the pool of graphic novels and comic books, I put together a list of the ones I’ve particularly enjoyed over the last few years. I’m by no means an expert, or even fluent yet, but I think these are good starting points.
Sailor Twain, or the Mermaid on the Hudson
by Mark Siegel
Swirly and dark and fascinating. The book is amazing in a number of ways, although I was particularly impressed with how rich the characterization was and how historical the plot. Also, Siegel has a really unique artistic style—all the illustrations look like pencil that will smudge if you’re not careful. It’s actually perfect for this Hudson River-set adventure.
Castle Waiting: Volumes I & II
by Linda Medley
SO great! Medley starts out her tale of Castle Waiting by seemingly retelling already-known fairy tales with a feminist bent, but then takes off down the most delightful and imaginative path you can imagine. The characters are quite unlike anyone you will have met before and her drawings are beautiful. This appears to be an on-going series (a lot is still left unanswered at the end of Volume II), so I eagerly await Volume III!
Written by: Neil Gaiman
Art by: Andy Kubert and Scott McKowen (covers)
Color by: Richard Isanove
This was the first comic book proper I ever read and, although it has benefited greatly from subsequent re-readings after I was more familiar with the Marvel universe, it was also a terrific introduction. Gaiman ties in tons of Marvel characters and replants them in seventeenth-century Europe and the new world. I loved it as a history nerd and then later as a comics fan, but either way you’re in for a very entertaining ride.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Written by: Ed Brubaker
Art by: Steve Epting and Michael Lark
A perfect starting place for Captain America or for contemporary comic books in general. So far, I’m about half-way through the Brubaker run of Captain America and, from a comparative perspective, The Winter Solider is by far the most interesting and well-plotted.
Two other comic book points:
1. Ed Brubaker. He is just the best and, if you’re looking for an author to start with, try Brubaker first. He’s done a bunch of series with a bunch of different characters (as well as doing some of his own series with original characters), so odds are you’ll be able to find something you like.
2. Movies. I know people who come into comic books from the film adaptations get a bad wrap, as if they are somehow not “real” fans, but, honestly, it’s a good place to start. If something intrigues you about a character you see on screen, take a dip into the comics and see where it takes you. Personally, I went in for Captain America and ended up discovering this bizarre (in a good way!) series by Alan Moore about Captain Britain, who is given his powers by Merlyn and forced to battle with (I kid you not) a league of villains called the Crazy Gang. I probably never would have found that series without first being drawn to Cap via Captain America: The First Avenger. So go for it!
So hopefully these suggestions are helpful to people looking to get more into “visual reading.” I feel I should also mention Sandman, which is rightfully acclaimed throughout the graphic novel and comic book universe. I have been working my way through Preludes and Nocturnes (Volume 1 of the series) for a while now, but I hear things really pick up after everything is laid out in the first volume.
As I continue to try and improve my abilities in this regard, I’m always looking for recommendations, so chime in with your favorites in either genre below!