Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Comics for the Casual

I'm a big reader of comics, which is probably not a surprise to anyone who reads this. I know, though, that getting into comics nowadays can be very tough, especially for people who don't want to have to deal with 50 years of continuity: How many characters are related to Scott Summers? How many times has Jean Grey died? When did Spiderman stop having a relationship with Mary Jane? Which version of the Avengers are we on? How many Robins has Batman been through? How did Superman died, but not really, but then come back, but not really, and then turn into some electric guy? And what the hell is Final Crisis, and why is it so complicated?

All this kind of stuff is a pain to have to make your way through, and a lot of people are put off by the very idea of having to read through it - even if they want to get to some of the most classic stories in comics. So I thought I'd put together a small list of cool comics that, thus far, have a fairly limited run, and don't go on forever. Sometimes they're personal favorites, some of them are recommended by friends, and some of them are just because I have always had good luck with a particular writer or character. In any case, the list is this:

Planetary, by Warren Ellis. This takes place in the Wildstorm comic universe, but as a comic it is remarkably self-contained. It is collected in four volumes, and tells the story of the field team of the Planetary foundation, a trio, sometimes quartet, of superpowered people looking to uncover the secret history of the world. It has interesting riffs on many other popular comics; League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, justice League, Fantastic Four, Tarzan, the Incredible Hulk, and probably a few others, and deals with some truly bizarre encounters - a character from a fictional universe entering their own, an island of Godzilla-like monsters, a voyage to the moon by Victorian explorers, and hidden cities in Africa. It's well-written, fun to read, and always keeps my interest.

Invincible, by Robert Kirkman. Invincible is a comic set in the Image universe about a boy who discovers, one day, that he has superpowers, just like his father. And then finds out that his father is far, far different than he ever imagined. Invincible is a little like Superman, if Superman discovered that not only was he Kryptonian, but that Krypton was alive - and it wanted to conquer Earth, the planet Superman is sworn to protect. It mixes a story about a teenager becoming a man and the trouble that brings with a story about being the most powerful guardian of your world - and knowing that might not be powerful enough. Kirkman seems to have a lot of fun writing this, and it shows; Invincible is one of the best comics still running at the moment.

Fables, by Bill Willingham. Fables is a comic in the Vertigo universe, and has a spinoff, Jack of Fables. Fables is a comic about characters straight out of fairy tales and children's stories - Cinderella, Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf - and how they are refugees on our world, driven out of their own homeworlds by a great Adversary. They live, in secret, in a small community in New York City, with a farm upstate for those who cannot pass as human, and they live their extremely long lives. Some plot to get their old homes back, some look for ways to come to power in the modern world, and some just want to be left alone. Familiar characters from the fables and stories we knew as kids come to life and become much more interesting in this series, which eventually manages to defeat its great Adversary, at great cost. It's a great twist on old characters, and immensely enjoyable to read.

Global Frequency, by Warren Ellis. Global Frequency is a comic set in no set universe; it is a comic about an organization called Global Frequency, an independently funded and run group of experts on any number of things that gets called in to handle strange occurences. From the implications of creating actual cybernetic soldiers to doctors driven mad by bio-toxins who then turn their patients into freakish works of art, Global Frequency handles it. It only ran for 12 issues, but it's a good comic of speculative fiction and the kinds of things we humans can get into if we start messing around.

Powers, by Brian Michael Bendis. Powers is a comic initially published by Image Comics, and later on by Icon, a Marvel Comics imprint. It is the story of two detectives in a world where superpowers are real, though uncommon - and one of the detectives used to be a superhero. The storyline of Powers is part police procedural, part superhero tale, part 'VH1: Behind the Music'. It is sometimes funny, sometimes brutal, and sometimes just bizarre, but it is always entertaining to read, and the way it treats the superpowered community is something that isn't seen very often in comics.

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