Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Comic books you should be reading

I started writing Rae Masterson and her friends all those years ago because I wanted to get people who don’t read comic books to start reading comic books. Now I have lots and lots of readers … most of them people who don’t read comic books. Step one is accomplished. So since it’s raining cats out there today (yes, it does happen!), I’ve decided to put together a little list of comics you’ll probably enjoy if you like Masks. Or, in fact, if you don’t. No matter what you’re into, here are some good places to start, with content ratings for the queasy.

1. If you like teenage superhero adventures, you will probably enjoy … Brian K. Vaughn’s Runaways series, which began in 2003. Start from the beginning—you’ll find some of the best stuff there. The first volume, Pride and Joy, chronicles the adventures of a pack of seemingly semi-normal California teenagers who discover that their parents are actually supervillains—crime lords, evil wizards, time-traveling despots, mad scientists, mind-controlling mutants, and aliens bent on world domination. The parents have formed a criminal syndicate called the Pride that’s plotting to destroy the world, and all that stands between them and success is six kids who’ve inherited their parents’ powers and a telepathic dinosaur named Old Lace. PG-13, for rollicking violence and Sister Grimm kissing everyone on the team.

You will probably also enjoy … Young Avengers, at least the early run by Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung. Set during a period of Marvel Comics continuity where the longstanding Avengers team had been dissolved, the comic follows six superpowered teenagers who try to step into some very big shoes, with mixed results. They face active opposition from former Avengers Iron Man and Captain America even as they deal with time-hopping tyrants, an alien invasion, and getting grounded for fighting evil too late on a school night. My favorite line: “This is NOT superhero behavior!” The first collection, Sidekicks, is a great place to start. PG-13, for lots of violence and that thing with Billy and Teddy.

2. If you like snarky superhero adventure, you will probably enjoy … the recent hit “season eight” of Buffy the Vampire Slayer from Dark Horse Comics. Joss Whedon’s pioneering TV series pretty much made it okay for girls to slay monsters and for everyone to be snarky about everything, and the comic continues the cancelled series with a blockbuster budget and some excellent writing, so I encourage everyone who hasn’t yet to pick up the trades, starting with The Long Way Home. Please note: Buffy had a villain named Twilight before the book series had enslaved the masses, which makes what’s going on in the later volumes even funnier … PG-13 again, for Slayers kicking monster butt and the thing with the cinnamon lip gloss.

3. If you like superhero team-ups, you will probably enjoy … Geoff Johns’ triumphant return to the team he made awesome in Justice Society of America. Start with the first trade of the recent reboot, The Next Age. While the JSA has always been something of a magnet for superhero nostalgia buffs—it features the adventures of a superteam that’s been around since World War II, mostly made up of original, very senior members or of modern successors to those who have died—it’s also extremely well-written under Johns. Anybody can write about a kid getting the call to join a big-name team, but only Johns could come up with someone like Maxine Hunkel, a teenage wind witch, JSA fangirl and blue-streak chatterbox whose response to the invitation is … memorable. And how can you not love a comic whose first issue ends with a dead superhero falling through the skylight onto the conference room table? PG-13 again, mostly for the dead guy.

4. If you like cowboys, you will probably enjoy … Dynamite Entertainment’s bestselling Lone Ranger series, beginning with the first volume. It’s hard to do a good Western these days without trying to graft in steampunk or modern politics, but writer Brett Matthews has done it, with a surprising take on the Ranger’s origin story and the best Tonto I’ve seen in years. (Hint: You find out why he’s really running around with this idiot white boy …) Starting with the classic character as the shellshocked survivor of his big brother’s murder puts a promising spin on the hero-sidekick dynamic, and it’s good that someone finally gave black-hat Butch Cavendish a villainous personality worth watching. PG-13, for the pretty graphic results of six-gun action and, eventually, what happens between Linda Reid and ... well, I won't spoil it for you.

5. If you like mythology-infused adventure, you will probably enjoy … J. Michael Straczynski’s multi-award-winning run on Amazing Spider-Man. Beginning with the first volume in the run, Coming Home, and now collected in several hardcovers that are mostly worth the cover price, Straczynski takes Spidey to new and surprising places. Most notably, the JMS run deals with what happens when Peter Parker’s “sweet old Aunt May” finds out, after all these years, that he’s Spider-Man—“I knew you had something in the closet. Could’ve been chiffon. Who knew it was a costume?”—and Spidey’s encounter with the mysterious Ezekiel, a powerful and enigmatic figure who seems to have all of Spidey’s abilities but also a lot more connections to the supernatural than Spidey himself ever thought he had. Watch for appearances by Dr. Strange and Loki, Norse god of the hotfoot. Especially watch for what happens when Loki eats a New York hotdog.PG-13 for wholesale property destruction and paralyzingly funny dialogue.

You will probably also enjoy … Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, now being collected for the billionth time in yet another commemorative edition. This groundbreaking story, which ran for 10 volumes from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, went to startling and fantastic places with the idea of a god of dreams being forced to change. It’s studied in college literature courses, and not just in a “ha ha, I get to read comic books for credit” way. Honestly, I can’t describe this one and do it justice. Just go read it. This one gets an R rating for grown-up stuff.

6. If you like intrigue and high-octane shoot-em-ups, you will probably enjoy … Ed Brubaker’s bazillion-selling run on Captain America. Brubaker took a somewhat dorky patriotic superhero and revamped his comic as a compelling thrill ride of international espionage, with unexpected emotional twists. While the run is now best-known for including the assassination of Captain America in early 2006 and the four years of terrific storytelling it’s pulled off in the absence of the title character, it’s worth your time to go back to the beginning and pick up volumes one and two of the Winter Soldier storyline, which starts with the murder of Cap’s longtime enemy, the Red Skull, and concludes with a reality-warping knock-down, drag-out fight between Cap and the most memorable opponent he’s faced in years—his back-from-the-dead sidekick from World War II.PG-13 for sex, violence, and angst.

7. If you like all-ages superhero fun, you will probably enjoy … Aaron William’s delightful PS238. Billed as “the school for metaprodigy children,” PS238 is a secret elementary school for the children of superheroes and supervillains, a concept so good that Disney has stolen it twice and failed both times to express Williams’ genius. Told mostly from the point of view of Tyler Marlocke, the normal child of two superheroes who so badly want him to develop superpowers that they’re sending him to school with werewolves, aliens, and freaks of science in the hope something will rub off, PS238 combines the schoolyard adventures of Harry Potter with high-flying superhero action and hefty doses of some of the best social and literary criticism you’ll ever read from people in tights. But don’t worry, parents—there’s stuff in there for you, too. G for most issues, PG for the alien invasion and frank talk about a superhero divorce.

8. If you enjoy genre-bending superhero drama, you will probably enjoy … Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, a loving look at “what else happens” in superhero stories. Infrequently published over the last few years, it’s generally worth the wait to read stories about things like life in the section of town populated by vampires and werewolves, or what happens when an enterprising lawyer uses the “evil twin” defense on the case of a non-superpowered client. While the first volume, Life in the Big City, is a masterpiece of vignette storytelling, for my money the best work yet is the second volume, Confession, a coming-of-age narrative about a boy who comes to the city to be a superhero and gets more than he bargained for, on several levels. I have lent my copy of Confession to comics skeptics so many times that the cover’s falling off, and none of them have returned it unimpressed. But some were crying. PG for some violence and a lot of grown-up thinking.

You will probably also enjoy … Warren Ellis’ recently completed Planetary series. Start with the first volume, All Over the World and Other Stories, and get hooked. Planetary’s team of squabbling “mystery archaeologists” travel the world in search of bizarre real-world relics of pop-culture zeitgeist, from the island where all the Godzilla monsters went to die to the rocket that brought a certain alien baby to earth … watch for a conversation beginning, “Did you really kick a rhino over the Grand Canyon?” R rating for violence, nudity, language, and other goodies. You've been warned.

That’s all for this week, class. Do the reading, and next time we’ll discuss the literary significance of wearing your underwear on the outside … Freudians, please stay home.

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