Self-identified literary snobs often thumb their noses at comic books — I should know, because I used to be one of them. I viewed illustrated stories as a lesser form of storytelling... until I cracked Neil Gaiman's wildly popular Sandman chronicles.
I did everything I could to avoid it at first — and Gaiman had plenty of other more traditional novels to occupy my fancy. But like a bad penny, The Sandman continued to turn up. So, after shelving the Dostoevsky tome I had been toting around in my purse, I picked up The Absolute Sandman: Volume 1 and, checking my preconceived notions of the comic book genre at the door, I dove in. Fifty-two issues later, I have yet to come up for air.
Saturday marks Free Comic Book Day, so now's the time to take full advantage of the illuminating wonders that this oft-belittled medium has to offer. Graphic novels aren't merely “picture books,” but immersive and discursive storytelling experiences, many of which are the cerebral equivalent to conventionally accepted works of literature. The final product is an assortment of visual and intellectual experiences that are expertly crafted to artistic perfection. (And if I can be convinced, anyone can.)
That kind of challenging reading experience is kind of your bag, yeah? So, you're in. But how in Zod’s name you’re going to figure out where to start? Bam: How to choose your first graphic novel adventure:
If you like: feminism, smashing the patriarchy, railing against heteronormativity in modern culture
Why you'll enjoy it: You want your comic book to reflect the reality of the world around you? These works are your cup of tea.
We've already freaked out quite a lot over the enormously significant announcement of a new Ms. Marvel series, written by G. Willow Wilson and starring Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teenage girl from New Jersey. I mean, how often do get a refreshingly positive portrayal of someone from New Jersey?
In all seriousness, Ms. Marvel sets the groundwork for an exhilarating new age in the conventionally machismo Marvelverse of superhero comics, one that more democratically examines race and gender representation. This is one bandwagon you’ll want to hitch onto ASAP.
You’ve heard of the Bechdel Test, but have you read The Rule, the 1985 comic from which the test received its name? Now, you can. And you should.
While you’re at it, you can sift through the entirety of cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For series, which follows the lives, loves, and losses of a group of lesbians, making its mark as one of the earliest and most important portrayals of gay women in modern American culture. Originally syndicated in various newspapers as standalone comic strips, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For gathers selections from 11 Dykes volumes and 60 of the newest strips.
If you like: epic, mythological explorations of the fundamental human condition
Check out: The Sandman
Why you’ll enjoy it: This dark fantasy incorporates scintillating elements of magical realism. Gaiman has the gifted storyteller's knack for making the surreal seem so very real.
The experience of reading a Neil Gaiman novel feels like the experience of (I’d imagine) receiving an age-old prophecy, and the vivid illustrations of the comicbook medium allow the reader to become even more dizzyingly immersed in Gaiman’s fantastical, mythological universe. By personifying and metaphorically humanizing concepts such as Death, Dream, Desire, Delirium, and Destiny, Gaiman tackles weighty philosophical themes and apotheosizes the significance of storytelling of every shape and form.
If you like: insufferably reminding people that it’s a cardinal sin to see the movie or television series without having read the book
Why you’ll enjoy it: Your inner hipster is screaming for attention.
Comic book-writer Robert Kirkman developed the first Walking Dead issue with illustrator Tony Moore back in 2003. Picked up by Frank Darabont in 2010, The Walking Dead debuted on AMC to both popular and critical acclaim. Though the television show is known for its unabashedly gaudy gore, the more streamlined comic series is presented in black and white. In a way, this literally stark view of a zombie-infested, post-apocalyptic setting is even more affecting than its small-screen counterpart.
To kick-start your Walking Dead binge, you can view the first issue online for free — but you’ll need to quickly stock up on The Walking Dead compendiums if you want to catch up to issue #127 before the TV series returns on October 12.)
As far as movie adaptions go, the Wachowski brothers’ 2005 V for Vendetta succeeds as a darkly political thriller, and Hugo Weaving’s portrayal of the eponymous ‘V’ garnered praise from first-time viewers and comic book diehards alike. But the graphic novel’s esteemed writer, Alan Moore, played no part in the adaptation of the film, and the movie tends to sacrifice Moore’s subtle character development for familiar Hollywood plot tropes. Unburdened by big blockbuster conventions, the graphic novel manages to more effectively flesh out a deeper, more sinister world.
If you like: ‘90s nostalgia
Why you’ll enjoy it: Ah, to be a prepubescent teenybopper!
Okay, Archie comics aren't exactly a staple of the 1990s — the first edition was published back in 1941. But what former sleepaway camper doesn’t recall eagerly tearing open camp packages in the hopes of setting eyes on a new set of comics about the fun-loving, Riverdale teens? As a Gold sponsor of Free Comic Book Day, the Archie Comics brand is offering readers of all ages access to numerous adventures of America’s beloved redhead, so if you’re looking for a trip down nostalgia lane, here’s your chance.
But if teens of the reptilian variety were more your style, hearken back to the eccentric Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series to prepare for this summer’s movie. Originally conceived by writers/artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird as a gag, the brand took off beyond the duo’s wildest expectations.
If you like: multi-platform storytelling
Why you’ll enjoy it: You get to enjoy your favorite stories and characters in a different medium, and creators will often use graphic novels to expand upon details only hinted at in the original stories. It's sort of like fanfiction but, you know, official.
The Star Trek series follows the adventures of the starship Enterprise in J. J. Abrams’s rebooted Star Trek universe. It features plots and baddies that are familiar to original Trekkies, while also profiling new faces and new places. Volume 1 picks up right where the 2009 Star Trek movie left off, and the most recent issue — Volume 7 — is set in the post-Star Trek: Into Darkness (2012) era.
With the smashing success of HBO’s television adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones novels, how could there not be a subsequent comic book adaptation? Sure enough, Martin collaborated with author Daniel Abraham and illustrator Tommy Patterson to produce three volumes (to date) of six to seven issues each. Each page of text from the original books condenses to roughly one page of art.
If you like: classics
Why you’ll enjoy it: Gotta stock up on your comic book references for cocktail parties.
A literary connoisseur need look no further than Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the only graphic novel to earn a spot on TIME’s 2005 “100 Greatest Novels” list. Widely considered to be “the greatest superhero comic ever,” Watchmen is an all-around tour de force, the complete package of eye-popping art, probing themes, and acerbic dialogue.
Batman: The Killing Joke is another Alan Moore oeuvre (are you sensing a theme here?), and another graphic novel bequeathed with the “greatest ever” epithet — this time, as the greatest-ever Joker story. Moore’s one-shot tale throws conceptions of sanity and insanity into sharp relief, constructing a masterful and intricate examination of human psychology in the process.
If you like: history and culture
Why you’ll enjoy it: Not into the bulging biceps of the superhero genre of comic books? These works are more grounded, exploring historically resonant themes within a uniquely visual medium.
Capturing the depths of the horrors of the Holocaust may seem like an impossible task, but Art Spiegelman’s Maus comes as close as any Holocaust narrative possibly can, constructing a poignant metaphor through which we can attempt to understand the tribulations of war-torn Europe. Persepolis, a memoir by Marjane Satrapi that recounts her coming of age during Iran’s Islamic Revolution, imparts a similar saga of small-scale courage amidst large-scale chaos.
As the famous Marshall McLuhan quote goes, the medium is the message — so pass it along to all your lit-loving friends, you convert, you.