Until recently, I’d never been much of a reader of comics or graphic novels. I used to read comics when I was a kid – in fact, I think there’s still a big pile of them in my parents’ garage. When in the Middle East, it was usually Marvel (which I much preferred to DC), but in the UK it was British comics – 2000AD, Starlord, Warlord, Tornado…
In the years since, I’d picked up the odd graphic novel, usually from word of mouth recommendations. Watchmen was superb, and enough to get me interested in the medium (and yes, I’m looking forward to the film). Unfortunately, my next purchase was Batman: Killing Joke, which was less good. I thought the same of Give Me Liberty. So I stopped buying them.
After returning to the UK in 2002, I bought and read The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and Heart of Empire, and was much impressed. After meeting Richard Morgan and reading his debut novel, Altered Carbon, I bought the two miniseries he wrote for Marvel’s Black Widow: Homecoming and The Things They Say About Her. They are excellent. Unfortunately, they didn’t go down so well with most readers of comics – one fan review said something like “if I want to read politics, I’ll read the speeches of George Bush”, which is just wrong in so many ways.
Not long afterwards, I purchased the X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga omnibus, having remembered reading and liking bits of when I was a kid. (That’ll date me.) Sadly, I wasn’t that impressed. It’s true that you can never go back.
Anyway, this year I’ve read more graphic novels than ever before. So here are some of the ones I really like:
The Authority – I’ve only read the first five trade paperback collections in this series so far, and it’s both excellent and infuriating. Created in 1999 by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch, the Authority are a spin-off team from Stormwatch (which I find less good). Unlike most superhero groups, the Authority have taken it upon themselves to right all the world’s wrongs. An ambition that has not gone down well with existing governments – especially that of the US. And this is where it gets infuriating: in order to give the Authority the moral high ground, despite the death and destruction they frequently dish out, the writers often make the villains too evil to be entirely credible. (Well, yes, credible… superheroes… I know. But.)
Tom Strong – after Watchmen and Batman: Killing Joke, I don’t think I’d read any Alan Moore until I picked up the first trade paperback collection of this. And discovered that I loved it. Like much of Moore’s output, it’s post-modern, ironic and clever. Rather than being a superhero, Tom Strong is a “science hero” – and a very knowing take on the concepts and tropes of superhero comics. This is something Moore has done before – in Supreme and Promethea, for example – but I think the Tom Strong series is easily the most fun of them.
Identity Crisis – I’ve not read a lot of DC, much preferring the Marvel universe. But I saw several approving reviews of this one-off by thriller writer Brad Meltzer. So I picked up a copy and… it’s very good indeed. The Elongated Man’s wife, Sue, is murdered. While there’s no evidence at the scene of the crime, a group within the Justice League of America suspect villain Dr Light of the crime. Because years before he had raped Sue, and they had wiped his memory of the event to protect themselves. The DC universe has always struck me as a little bit corny when compared to Marvel, but Meltzger’s strong story handles it with an appealing knowingness – yes, even Batman and Superman. This one is definitely worth buying.
Ministry of Space – after Alan Moore, the comics writer I probably read most is Warren Ellis. And even then I’d be hard-pressed to say who is the better of the two. Ellis, at least, has a more varied output. As this alternate world tale of a British post-war space progamme shows. There’s something greatly appealing about all those old British designs – and we had some world-beating technology in those days: TSR-2, SR.177, Fairey Delta 2, Avro 730… in fact, just look at these. Then we threw it all away. Happily, we didn’t in the world of Ministry of Space. Oh, and there’s an excellent twist in the tale too.
Scarlet Traces – and speaking of alternate world Britains, Ian Edginton & D’Israeli’s Scarlet Traces is one of the best graphic novel takes on the subject. It’s a sequel to HG Wells’ War of the Worlds (which the pair later adapted). After the Martians’ defeat, Britain has reverse-engineered their technology. But there’s something rotten in the heart of Empire… Here’s a preview of Scarlet Traces, so you can see just how good it is. The sequel, Scarlet Traces: The Great Game, takes the story to Mars, which Britain is invading. I was hugely amused to spot Dan Dare and Digby making a cameo in this…
Dan Dare – because I’ve been a fan of Dan Dare since I was a kid. Admittedly, the stories were often poor, and their grasp of science was feeble at best. But Hampson’s artwork looked gorgeous, and I liked the world he’d created. Some of the stories are very good indeed – ‘The Red Moon Mystery’ and ‘Safari in Space’, in particular. Dare has been re-imagined several times, but none of them have really matched the original. 2000AD‘s take seemed to entirely miss the point (although I’d still like to see it collected). Grant Morrison’s revisionist Dare was probably the only successful re-imagining. The more recent version by Garth Ennis for Virgin Comics has been… disappointing.
Trigan Empire – here’s another sf series from my childhood. I remember reading it in Look & Learn, which the school I attended had on subscription. Like Dare, the stories were often terrible, but the artwork was beautiful. For the past few years, the Don Lawrence Collection has been issuing handsome leather-bound collections of the strip – or that version of it produced by original artist Don Lawrence. They’re expensive but definitely collectible.
There are several other graphic novels I like which I’ve not mentioned here – such as those by Alexandro Jodorowsky, or Christin and Mézières’ Valérian Spatio-Temporal Agent. I might write about them at some later date.