Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Key Comic Book Series That Taught Me The Most

There's an old saying, "There is no knowledge that is not power."

As much as I learned from the classics, I also had an excellent exposure to the ideas of the world through a number of comic book series of the 1980s and 1990s, and I think it's only fair to acknowledge them, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I want my younger audiences to feel comfortable drawing on the ideas they find in all of the works around them, and not always, merely, the serious, heavy, onerous tomes of yore.

The Question, handled by Dennis O'Neil. During the 1990s, Dennis O'Neil was really in his element as he took the character of The Question and made him an amoral (but not necessarily immoral) reporter who was driven not by a quest for justice, but merely answers and the truth.

Considering each issue also included a great recommended reading list that cited far more serious works ranging from Sun Tzu's The Art of War to Fritjof Capra's The Dancing Wu Li Masters or so many others, it's been a long time since we've seen a character as interesting as this. 

Alas, a recent return by O'Neil to The Question in the 2000s showed even he couldn't recapture the imaginative storyline and thoughtfulness that suffused this marvelous series. And that, too, serves as a sobering reminder to me as a writer.

G.I. Joe, when written by Larry Hama. Reinventing the G.I. Joe franchise for the 1980s was daunting enough, but Hama hit it out of the ballpark with an inventive and innovative way of embedding philosophy, history, vocabulary and a grunt's perspective to the popular toy line. It jumped the shark towards the final issues of the Marvel comics run, but what a ride it was until then!

The Demon, by Matt Wagner. I've talked about this series before, but I'll say it again. In four issues, Matt Wagner took one of Jack Kirby's cheesier characters and turned it into a fascinating exploration that resonated deeply with me as a transcultural adoptee and an Asian American. It was a tale of two people trying to be free of each other, exhausted and driven not so much by a quest for justice or revenge, even, but merely freedom.

The fact that Etrigan the Demon now rhymed was merely icing on the cake for my poet's sensibilities. ;)

The Prisoner, by Dean Motter and Mark Askwith was a highly underrated 'sequel' to the Prisoner tv series of Patrick McGoohan. And you may start to see a pattern here in my choices, as we see a the protagonists each grappling with the idea of freedom in an age of surveillance and secrecy. 

And for me, this was one of the great essays on the importance of individuality at all costs. Of course, some may say this also had its costs for me, but I have no regrets. From a TV/Media perspective, I think a pairing of The Prisoner with Papillon would make for a great night.

The Shadow, by Andrew Helfer. Following the Howard Chaykin update on the pulp fiction hero known as the Shadow, Andrew Helfer created a modern, noir and darkly comedic figure that has been, in my opinion, unjustly maligned by die-hard fans. 

Helfer's take on the Shadow left a great influence on me on the integration of humor and deep chracterization and imagination, and the freedom of occasional absurdity.

Why I Hate Saturn, by Kyle Baker. To this day, it remains the quintessential graphic novel to me as a writer. 

Yes, heretical as it sounds, I do love this far more than The Watchmen, although in all fairness, The Watchmen left me with a great sense of what comics could do, as did Batman: Arkham Asylum, A Serious House on Serious Earth, The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke.

SKREEMER by Peter Milligan. Almost 20 years later, this still remains one of the peculiar documents I still contemplate for the way it taught me about: James Joyce, Giambattista Vico and his Scienza Nuova, Finnegan's Wake and predestination. All  of this wrapped up in a stylish retro-future noir gangster epic. 

I've never seen anything since that comes even close. Alas, the collected edition is deeply disappointing, printed on an inferior grade of paper compared to the single issues. Go figure.

Matt Wagner created a character known as Grendel back in the day, and since then, a lot of writers have handled him, but in my mind, the finest was Devils and Deaths, by Darko Macan and Edvin Biukovic, who used the universe as an excellent stand-in for examining the late wars of 20th Century Europe and its effects on both sides. 

If I ever took on a fictionalized series about the war for Laos, without a doubt, Devils and Deaths would be an influence on my approach. 

Although it comes quite later in the game, I'm also going to give a nod to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, despite the horrible, horrible movie that it inspired. This remains to date, in my mind, Moore's masterpiece.  

Mike Mignola's Hellboy and B.P.R.D. series also remain great personal favorites of mine, mixing folklore, H.P. Lovecraft and an amazing art style that never fail to entertain.

This is far from a comprehensive list, but the above series definitely come with my highest recommendations for any generation. 

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