'Newspaper Headlines Written By Poets': Graphic Novels
Published on 20th January 2012
Once derided as a literary medium for 'children and the simple-minded', comic books or graphic novels have become a respected and respectable literary genre in their own right. Any condescension seems to be a peculiarly Anglo/Hiberno prejudice as comics are fully incorporated into the literary heritage of many countries, most notably the USA, Japan, and France. Things seem to be changing here in Ireland with noted writers such as Peter Murphy and Kevin Barry championing the format as well as a small but vibrant domestic scene (which shall be the subject of a future blog).
Graphic novels are prohibitively expensive to buy but Dublin City Public Libraries has an excellent collection for both children and adults. The following selection is largely aimed at the adult reader taking their first exploratory steps into a format they may have ignored since their days of reading The Beano and The Dandy. Explore and enjoy.
From Hell, Being A Melodrama In Sixteen Parts by Alan Moore/Eddie Campbell (1989)
From Hell is a watershed publication in the history of graphic novels and its macabre power remains undimmed. Ostensibly a forensic examination of the 'Jack the Ripper' murders of 1888, it quickly moves beyond the restrictions of the police-procedural genre to present an all-encompassing account of London society at the end of the nineteenth century taking in Fenianism, Victorian surgery, the rise of the gutter press, Freemasonry, and the submerged demonic histories of Hawksmoor's churches. From the beginning, Moore identifies the Ripper as Sir William Gull, a physician dispatched by Queen Victoria to remove a potential threat to the establishment in the form of an illegitimate royal baby. Gull's ritualistic murders of five London prostitutes are covered up by Buckingham Palace and the Metropolitan Police. As Gull moves throughout Victorian society on his infernal quest, he encounters John 'The Elephant Man' Merrick, a young Aleister Crowley, Oscar Wilde, and William Butler Yeats who receives a ticking off as a mere 'dabbler' in the occult through his involvement in the peurile Order of the Golden Dawn. Copious annotations supplement and enrich the story. Alan Moore mischievously (and accurately) described it as 'wrapping up miserable little killings in supernatural twaddle' but reading From Hell is an immersive and deeply unsettling experience.
Maggie the Mechanic: A Love & Rockets Book by Jaime Hernandez (collected 2007)
The Love & Rockets series was created by the Hernandez brothers in the early 1980s. Coming out of the vibrant Californian punk scene of the time (they designed album covers for Big Black and Agent Orange amongst others), they created their own netherworld from a variety of influences including punk, graffiti, pulp science-fiction, and Latino gang culture. Maggie the Mechanic is an ideal entry-point to this unique and vicacious world where mechanics and female wrestlers are the dominant cultural icons. Featuring over sixty-four characters (including horned billionaire H.R. Costigan, himbo extraordinaire Rand Race, and wrestler/revolutionary Rena Titanon), it focuses on the adventures of rocket-ship mechanic Maggie and her girlfriends - "Las Locas" - as they mix with the great and not-so-great in their idiosyncratic Mondo Bizarro. Less tricksy and self-consciously experimental than many of its peers, the Love & Rockets series is always effervescent and impossible to read without an ever-widening grin.
Charley's War by Pat Mills/Joe Colquhoun (1979-)
First published in the British weekly Battle, Charley's War is the most brutal series ever published in a mainstream comic. Pat Mills was determined to create an historically accurate account of the First World War in comic strip form. Charley's War follows the life of a young conscript Charley Bourne through the trenches of Flanders from 1916 to the 1918 Armistice. Mills used the strip to make a simple point; the Great War was the greatest systematic betrayal of the British working classes by their 'betters'. The tone is savage. Scenes include Charley carrying around the remains of his best friend Ginger in a bag looking for a place to bury him, Charley being haunted by a ghost clad in the Union Jack demanding his 'blood sacrifice' for King and Country, Charley being forced to shoot conscientious objectors, and many, many more. Titan books have collected and beautifully re-issued the stories in six volumes with detailed historical notes and a gloriously spiky and unrepentent series commentary by Pat Mills. Mills reveals that his research for Charley's War included Donegal writer Patrick McGill's novels The Big Push (1916) and The Red Horizon (1916) and singles out General Maxwell - who bombed the tenements of Dublin during the 1916 Rising - as typical of a ruling class that marched hundreds of thousands to their deaths. It is a depressing thought that there is no chance that something like Charley's War would be allowed to be published for children today. When I was a young fella, Charley's War was the talk of our playground. Read it and you will understand why many historians believe that Charley's War should be taught in classrooms today. For a French take on The Great War see Jacques Tardi's classic It Was The War Of The Trenches.
Ethel & Ernest by Raymond Briggs (1998)
Raymond Briggs is best known as the creator of The Snowman and Fungus the Bogeyman. His personal favourite among his publications is the peerless Ethel & Ernest. It tells the story of Briggs' parents Ernest (a milkman) and Ethel (a housewife) and their life in Britain from their initial courtship in the late 1920s to their eventual deaths within months of each other in 1971. It is one of the greatest works of social realism published in post-war Britain. There seems to be a curious conceit in some literary circles that 'ordinary' lives - marriage, work, raising kids, retirement - are somehow dull on the page. Ethel & Ernest is the best possible rejoinder to this sneer. Briggs' loving yet unsentimental portrait of his parents is one of literature's greatest expressions of filial love. I can't imagine how he felt when he drew their respective death scenes. This is art of the highest order. If the final pages do not move you beyond words then check if you still have a pulse. Read and recommend to anyone you care about. Raymond Briggs once claimed that Chris Ware's heartbreaking Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid On Earth was the greatest graphic novel ever published. He's wrong. Ethel & Ernest is.
The Boys by Garth Ennis/Darick Robertson (2006-)
County Down's Garth Ennis is one of the most distinctive writers to have emerged from this island in the past twenty years. He made his mark on the comics scene with his much lauded Hellblazer (1990-1994) and Preacher series (1995-2000). The Boys is his hate-tribute to the superhero genre. Although Ennis's work is characterised by profanity and extreme violence, he is a deeply moral writer. For Ennis, the superhero genre was utterly discredited by 9/11 and subsequent events. The Boys is his attempt to, as one commentator put it, 'slather the whole genre in filth'.
The Boys is set in an all-too-familiar America where the government is in thrall to big business and private interests dictate military operations. Superheros are in the pocket of corporations and are largely (and this is explicitly illustrated) amoral degenerates. 'The Boys' are a group of CIA operatives who keep the superheros in line through ultraviolence. Ennis's intention to debase an entire genre would not be so interesting if it wasn't so funny. Strictly for adults, this is satire with an iron fist. Seriously, this is STRICTLY FOR ADULTS.
100 Bullets: First Shot, Last Call by Brian Azzarello/Eduardo Risso (1999-)
Imagine the complexity of HBO's The Wire crossed with the hard-boiled noir of Richard Stark and you are somewhere close to describing the scintillating 100 Bullets series. A mysterious character - 'Agent Graves' - approaches a variety of individuals whose lives have been ruined with the contact details of those responsible, an untraceble gun, and one hundred bullets. A complex tale of shadowy organisations and hitmen with shifting allegiances builds from this simple ingenious concept. Featuring the justly-lauded artwork of Eduardo Risso, this is a high-octane, bloodsoaked saga.
DMZ by Brian Wood/Riccardo Burchielli (2005-)
When the DMZ series concluded recently, readers were able to appreciate how monumental an undertaking it was. It is at once a love-letter to New York and an allegory of America's foreign policy in the past decade. Set in the near future, it posits Manhattan Island as the DMZ of the warring sides as the Second American Civil War between the United States and the secessionist 'Free States' reaches stalemate. A young journalist Matty Roth is trapped in the DMZ and begins broadcasting the news that nobody wants to hear. In parallel with the general public's growing disenchantment with news corporations, Matty slowly breaks links with his parent organisation Liberty News. Small wonder that DMZ has found some of its most vocal advocates among journalists. Wood and Burchielli use the story to bring home the repercussions of America's foreign policy by replaying events on domestic soil. For example, the horrors of Haditha are revisited on Americans by Americans. This is highly-charged and inventive political writing. The sinister 'Trustwell' Corporation that is rebuilding the DMZ bears more than a passing resemblance to Haliburton. One narrative arc considers a Hugo Chavez-type figure running as Governor of the DMZ and raises the decidedly un-American notion of 'class warfare'. DMZ surely stands alongside Sebastian Junger's War, The Hurt Locker, and Bruce Springsteen's Magic as a powerful commentary on America at war in the twenty-first century.
1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die by Paul Gravett (ed.) (2011)
This is an excellent single-volume reference guide to the comic/graphic novel from The Adventures of Mr Obadiah Oldbuck (1837) to Craig Thompson's monumental Habibi (2011). It throws up a few surprises (e.g. the great surrealist painter Max Ernst published a graphic novel) but its real value is the entries on non-English language material from Asia and Africa. This is as close as those of us who are linguistically-challenged will get to these. Be warned - this book could seriously damage your wallet as you begin to hunt down such gems as Charlie Adlard's White Death, Dave McKean's Cages, and Jack Kirby's Fourth World/New Gods. On the other hand, you could ask your friendly neighbourhood librarian to order them for you....