I’m always surprised when people react to comic books as though they’re juvenile anti-intellectual anathema. There are SO MANY incredible, life-altering, genius comic books out there these days, and it’s not even like you have to go bask in the nerdery of a comic book store to get them.
Unless you’re me. And you like basking in comic-book-store nerdery. And unplanned hour-long conversations about the minutae of Dave Sim’s “Cerebus,” and is that dude a grotesque misogynist, or WHAT? Wait, I’m not helping matters here. Let’s just get to the list.
1. “Castle Waiting”
If bearded ladies make you uncomfortable, you may want to skip this one. However, if you’re interested in social misfits, and if you enjoy subversive fairy tales, then there are two thick volumes of “Castle Waiting” calling your name. Somehow this series manages to be cute and even family-friendly without being saccahrine or dull.
“Castle Waiting” is both written and drawn by Linda Medley beginning in 1996, with Medley mostly self-publishing new issues as she could afford to do so. The series was mostly a little-known secret except to indie-comics devotees until 2006, when Fantagraphics collected all the existing issues into the first hardcover collection and enabled Medley to continue the series. Volume two was released late last year, so even though the Medley has since put the story back on hiatus, you’ve got plenty to read in the meantime.
2. “La Perdida”
Jessica Abel’s gorgeous graphic novel tells the story of Carla, a young Mexican-American woman who travels to Mexico City to “get in touch” with her heritage and by extension, to come to some sense of closure with regard to her absent Mexican father. Probably unsurprisingly, Carla finds it difficult to sink herself in an “authentic” Mexico in spite of her enthusiasm. Carla eventually abandons the relative comfort of associating with a safe if uninteresting group of other American expats for a life with a band of petty criminals who never let her forget her status as an American tourist.
“La Perdida” is a carefully-drawn tale of social and political conflict, and of the challenges of being an American traveling abroad with idyllic, if not entirely accurate, ideas about absorbing and understanding a different culture. Without giving anything away, what begins as a tourist jaunt becomes suprisingly complex very quickly, turning into a story far more suspenseful than you might expect.
People tend to have strong feelings about Warren Ellis, the man behind “Transmetropolitan,” and its gonzo-journalist protagonist, Spider Jerusalem. Transmet is persistently offensive, hilarious and absurd, and Ellis is a savage satirist of cultural foibles, such that sometimes after reading his work I am caught at the crossroads of laughter and abject despair.
The full series spans 60 issues, throughout which Jerusalem attacks politics, hypocrisy and social norms, featuring a particular hatred of institutional authority figures and elected officials. This is arguably the most traditionally comic-booky offering on this list, so I chose it carefully. Whenever I hear anyone disparage comics as being simplistic, I tend to refer them to “Transmetropolitan.”
“Perseoplis” was made into an Oscar-nominated animated film in 2007, which the books’ original creator, Marjane Satrapi, co-wrote and co-directed. As capable as the film version is, it would be impossible to do full justice to the books in their original form.
“Persepolis” contains Satrapi’s memories of her childhood in Iran in the years prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and during the transition that followed. Not only does Satrapi have to adapt to the new regime and its many rules, but her relatively comfortable and politcally liberal family must as well, pushing their lives underground and ultimately leading to some frightening close calls.
Satrapi’s story vascillates between the hilarious and the devastating, but what makes these books special is her straightforward and unselfconscious way of telling it. Satrapi’s younger self is innocent, curious, rebellious and self-reflective -- as most kids are -- even in the midst of a revolution, and a makes her otherwise foreign (if not unthinkable) circumstances imminently relateable.
5. “The Principles of Uncertainty”
Okay, so Maira Kalman doesn’t really make comics. She makes ... illustrated storybooks for grown-ups. "The Principles of Uncertainty" comes across as part memoir, part scrapbook, and part diary, and I am not overstating matters when I say reading it changed my life.
Kalman leaps from topic to topic in a manner that might feel like intellectual whiplash, if she didn’t always manage to link these stories, ideas, sketches of things she has seen and bits of history together to express some earth-shatteringly simple-yet-brilliant observations about life and the human condition. Kalman has an intensive fondness for little details: the Brighton Beach waitress from whom she orders an apple strudel is slicing a giant radish; a reminsicence of France veers into a note about George Gershwin into an aside about the early death of Kalman’s husband. These stream-of-consciousness journeys make for vingettes that are both vivid and otherworldly, like being inside Kalman’s amazing brain.
Reading Kalman’s perspectives always leaves me feeling extra sensitive to life’s pretty little details, which makes this a rare book that I feel comfortable recommending to everyone, everywhere.
Obviously, this list is incomplete, but we’re just getting started. What are your favorite I-can’t-believe-it’s-comics! comic books?