Until I was in my early twenties, I was never that into comic books. See, I have a lot of trouble being a "dabbler" when it comes to things that captivate me. A coworker of mine recently joked that he'd want me to be president of his hypothetical fan club, because he knew that I'd get, and I quote, "SUPER into it." And it's true: Until I've dug myself headfirst into a universe, I constantly feel like I'm missing out on something vital.
That's why I've always thought comic books were a bit beyond my grasp -- especially ones about superheroes, which made up the vast majority of what I had access to. I did like manga for quite some time in high school, but those series had distinct beginnings and ends; by contrast, I often found myself in the store just staring at the giant Superman shelf and making vague hand gestures until I gave up and went to eat a cheese pretzel from the cafe. I understood that there were varying character arcs and that different authors had different styles, but I couldn't figure out any good places to start.
Every book I read felt like a joke I wasn't quite in on, and as a teenage resident of a town where the main purveyor of comic goods was the local Borders, I didn't really have anyone to ask.
Even the stand-alones I found, like "Sandman" or "Watchmen," weren't really to my taste. They were gritty, dark explorations of Man's Inhumanity To Man, and I found myself unable to emotionally connect to any of the main characters. (Probably because most of them were, um, men.) The plot lines would interest me, sure, but the stories lacked the kind of engagement I generally seek out in my entertainment.
This is the complaint I hear from a lot of my friends, too. It's not that they dislike the visual format of comics themselves, but they tend to find the subject matter overwhelming at best, alienating at worst.
And like I said, I get it: I was once right there with them. That said, though, we find ourselves in truly spectacular times in the comic world, and I would hate for anyone to miss out on some of these books just because their medium carries unpleasant associations of pawing ineffectually at a pile of "Aquaman."
So for those of you who have always hated comics, please, I beg of you, at least try out the following. These aren't obscure titles by any means, but they are writ large upon my heart, and I hope that'll be the case for you, too.
1. Saga -- Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
I have trouble talking about "Saga" in anything resembling a coherent fashion, but I'll do my best. The story focuses on Alana and Marko, two lovers from warring planets who have spent the majority of their time thus far fleeing from the representatives of the governments they've abandoned, all while taking care of their newborn daughter, Hazel. It sounds a little schmaltzy, maybe, but the dialogue between the two of them is hilarious and poignant -- Alana is pragmatic and a little harsh, while Marko is a pacifist to a degree that nearly gets them both killed. So instead, "Saga" reads like a manual for how to confront the fact that the person and life you've wound up with might not be perfect, but they're yours.
(You know, in addition to picking up a ghost babysitter for your kid, fashioning an ancient tree into a rocketship, getting in a firefight with alien civilizations, the whole shebang.)
As if that weren't enough, the secondary characters in the series are almost as great as Alana and Marko themselves. It's significant to me that most of the people trying to kill the two of them are "Freelancers" -- they couldn't care less about the morals of the situation as long as someone's paying their interdimensional phone bill. Everyone in "Saga" is trying to survive somehow, and it makes for damn compelling reading on top of Fiona Staples' beautiful art.
And Alana and Marko are both characters of color. And there are queer characters. And one guy has a TV for a head. Listen, just read it, OK? I'll wait until you get back. Bring tissues.
2. Pretty Deadly -- Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios
Yay, you made it! Did you cry all over your face about found-families and banding together despite adversity? You don't have to hide it from me; I know you did.
Anyway, welcome back. My next pick for you is a bit of a face-heel turn from "Saga," but it's similarly haunting. If you squint, it even has some of those same themes, amid a whole lot of fluid illustrations and super-bloody fight scenes.
Whereas "Saga" has a fairly straightforward narrative flow, "Pretty Deadly" is confusing as hell, at least upon a first go-through. It's narrated from the perspective of a dead bunny and a butterfly, both of whom introduce the reader to a girl in a vulture cloak (Sissy) and her apparently blind guardian, Fox. Fox and Sissy, for their part, open by telling their own story of Deathface Ginny, the willful daughter of Death, who rides around exerting vengeance on people and dodging her father's attempts to yank her back into his realm.
Essentially, it's as if Persephone and Hades had a baby, and the baby escaped to the Wild West, teeth bared and furious with the world. The whole thing is arid, dreamlike and eerie, and I can't wait to see where the next arc takes us. Best read while listening to Natalia Kills and wearing short-shorts.
3. Lumberjanes -- Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis and Brooke Allen
As the newest title on this list, "Lumberjanes" is also probably the series I'm most excited about these days. It was originally just supposed to consist of eight issues, but its enormous popularity recently got it upgraded to an ongoing monthly series. In a world where women still report being intimidated and harassed at comic book stores, the fact that a work centered on teenage girls at a summer camp learning about friendship (while they battle magical woodland creatures) is such a huge hit gives me hope.
And the acclaim is well deserved. The books reward rereading: Even as one character declaims about an important plot point, drawing the reader's focus to her, another is inevitably in the background messing with a dead fish or constructing some sort of mystical shrine. There's so much going on at all times, in fact, that one begins to empathize with the girls' beleaguered no-fun counselor, who just wants everyone in bed after lights-out.
Also, each issue comes with an accompanying suggested mixtape, both of which thus far have included songs from the "Josie and the Pussycats" movie. Just sayin'.
4. Hawkeye -- Matt Fraction and (usually) David Aja
I told myself I wouldn't include any superhero comics on this list, but I just couldn't skip "Hawkeye." Lest you be put off by the "Avengers" association, though, hear me out: You can read and enjoy Fraction's "Hawkeye" with literally zero background knowledge about the character. The entire premise of the series is what Hawkeye, aka Clint, gets up to when he's not being a superhero, so pretty much all you need to understand is that he's a dude prone to misfortune who shoots a lot of arrows and mumbles despondently to himself as he drinks straight from the coffee pot.
He also has the best partner ever in the form of Kate Bishop, a teenage girl who has her life way more together than Clint could ever dream of. If it were handled improperly, their tight-knit friendship could skew a little into creepy territory, but instead they treat each other with equal parts respect and snark while fighting the forces of evil / guys in tracksuits who say "bro" a lot.
5. Jellaby -- Kean Soo
I hopped on the "Jellaby" train a bit late -- it shamefully took meeting Mr. Soo himself at this year's Free Comic Book Day to get me onboard. "Jellaby" first began as a webcomic, then got published in full-length graphic novel format in 2008. Though it went out of print in 2010, it's found life again in a new edition from Capstone, much to everyone's benefit.
Though it does focus on the adventures of a monster and his BFF, the tale in "Jellaby" is heartbreakingly realistic: Portia, an introverted 10-year-old, is new to her neighborhood and having trouble making friends. Then one night, she finds an adorable puppy-eyed monster in the woods behind her house, who asks her (through pantomime) to feed him tuna sandwiches and to stick up for the kid being bullied on the playground. It has echoes of "Calvin and Hobbes," definitely, but while I'd argue that Hobbes helped Calvin shield himself from the world, Jellaby helps Portia be brave enough to face it head-on.
SPOILER: I cried the entire time I read it. Big surprise there.
All of these series are currently still in-progress, so my end game is to get you all addicted to them. The anticipation just makes each monthly installment sweeter, I promise!
Are there titles I left off this list that you'd recommend to comic newbies? Do you want to yell at me about how much I love "Saga?" Let me know in the comments or on Twitter: @katchatters.