Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Great Recommendation Experiment

As an unabashed fan of superhero comics from the "big two", I admit I have a rather narrow perspective as to what makes for good comics. While I've never needed anything more than a simple "tights and fights" type storyline with some believable character moments sprinkled throughout, comics as a medium provide a realm of infinite storytelling potential. With that belief in mind, I recently began a little experiment to branch out from the traditional stories I so often enjoy. So in addition to my usual pulls, I am going to try the big "it" books of the moment. While many of the books I've been trying still come from the more mainstream companies, their themes are a bit more diversified than another "Spidey saves New York" type of yarn.

This desire to try the new books comes from two places mostly, the first of which is sheer boredom with my current collection. I know other readers out there feel me when I say that even your most favorite of heroes can become a bit stale after awhile. The second (and more important) reason for trying something different is that I want to find out for myself why certain books seem to garner universal critical acclaim. There are books that always top the critics' "best of" lists every year, many of which I've never even seen in person, or have tried and hated, or was just never impressed by. I mean, is it just me? Or are thousands of other people wrong about this stuff? It's probably the other people.....

So with all this in mind, I started checking out a few of the "Mature Readers" only books I've avoided for so long. Taking the attitude that I'm in it for the story, I'm willing to overlook the cursing, sex, and graphic violence that pervade these titles. Given my feeling that many people in the comic book world automatically translate these "adult situations" into good storytelling, I wanted to put aside any biases I may have and look to see if there was something I was really missing.

So with inhibitions cast aside, will you join me as I survey some of the initial "recommendations" I checked out?

Recommendation: Chew (Image Comics)
Recommended By: My friend Matt, as well as a slew of other comic review sites.
# of Issues Read: Just the first one. It was $1.00.
Synopsis: Detective Tony Chu is Cibopathic, which means he has psychic visions about whatever food he eats, tracing it back to its origins. The only food he can eat without tasting all the chemicals, pesticides, additives, etc. is beets. Things get a little wonky when he eats a soup prepared by a serial killer and sees all of the guy's former victims. He then ends up cannibalizing the perp to find about ALL of the victims. Apparently this catches the eyes of the government who hire him as a special agent.
Thoughts:This is one of the only series where I didn't get to read the whole first arc. I thought this book was okay, and Chu's powers lend themselves to some interesting "what ifs", but I wasn't blown away. With its cartoonish art offsetting the gruesome nature of Chu's powers, there is a "black comedy" (the Gross Pointe Blank kind, not the Death at a Funeral kind) vibe throughout the whole issue. However, I had a really hard time thinking I could stomach (pun intended) reading a monthly about a guy who eats people. I could see trying the first trade, but I honestly could take it or leave it.
Verdict: I could see why people would like it, but I wasn't in awe.

Recommendation: Scalped (DC/Vertigo)
Recommended By: The reviewers of Comic Book Club, a lot of famous writers, and I'm assuming Satan.
Issues Read: 1-12 (and I picked up three other trades to read this weekend)
Synopsis: Taking place on an Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Scalped follows young Daishell Bad Horse, a full blooded Native American who left his reservation at the age of 13, as he returns home after a 15 year absence. Bad Horse is a bad MOFO, and he gets hired on by the corrupt chief to be a tribal cop. The twist is that Bad Horse is working for the government to bring down the corrupt chief.
Thoughts: This is the grittiest comic book I've ever read. Every other word is an F-bomb, plenty of heads are blown off, drugs are smoked/snorted/injected, and of course there's plenty of shacking up. Even the protagonist is a junkie killer who in one seen unloads two full clips of ammo on another undercover agent before shooting him in the genitals and brain. It's truly horrifying to think I'm even reading this.....BUT...There is something totally compelling about it all. Writer Jason Aaron has crafted such an atmospheric book that you really feel like you're part of the prison that is the "Rez" (what they call the reservation in the comic). None of the characters would be likable as real people, but you find yourself caring for them. The storyline is a big cat-and-mouse game, with each of the characters using the others for their own agenda. I think Ed Brubaker said it best in his introduction to volume 4 that good crime stories are about people falling down and going about as low as possible, and Scalped delivers this in epic fashion. Every page has a feeling of heaviness, accentuated mostly by the use of harsh language and deep inks.
Verdict: I'm still reading it, in fact I can hardly put it down. If you have no qualms about reading about the absolute pits of depravity, you may like this book. Also if you really like anything HBO or FX has ever done, you'll probably like this book.

Recommendation: Y: The Last Man (DC/Vertigo)
Recommended By: Marc, and Society at Large
# of Issues Read: 10 (first two volumes)
Synopsis: A mysterious virus kills everything on earth that has a Y-Chromosome, except for a young man named Yorick and his pet monkey. Now in a post-apocalyptic (a.k.a. Estrogen flooded) world, Yorick and some of his compatriots have to figure out how to save the human race from extinction.
Thoughts: There has been talks of this being made into a movie for a long time, and now I see why. This book provides an interesting look at issues of gender, politics, and society without getting too preachy. There are little nuances about the manless world that I never would have been considered. Because most of the mechanical/engineering jobs in the world are held by males, it's an interesting idea to think that all that kind of support could be lost in an instant. We also have the fact that most politicians are male, and the whole notion that maybe some women WOULDN'T want men in the world. Writer Brain K. Vaughn excels at creating a tense world which asks a lot of good questions, beckoning readers to examine the mysteries themselves. While the art is good enough, it is the one thing I've always thought was kind of lacking in Y. It just seems so plain, but it helps set the tone by maintaining a realistic feel.
Verdict: This is my new favorite comic book. I admit it everyone, you were right. I just wish I would have got into this back when I lived in Michigan, since the library there had all the trades. Oh well, now I'll just have to buy them all. Yorick's everyman (pun totally intended) quality mixed with the mystery of just what the heck happened to everyone, along with the ever present danger of the world make for a darn good read. And although I've only read 2 trades, I have to say my favorite character is Y's sister Hero.

Recommendation: The Walking Dead (Image)
Recommended By: My friend Nathan, Spike TV, and anyone who just started reading comics in the last 5 years (except JT for some reason).
# of issues read: 1-12 (first 2 volumes)
Synopsis: We follow a group of survivors of a zombie apocalypse as they simply try to survive.
Thoughts: I've known about this title for a long time, but always avoided it. Mostly due to the violence and language, but also because I was quite over the "zombies are awesome!" trend before it even started(I was all into Screamo at the time). But after watching the AMC show I jumped on the bandwagon, purchased some trades, and was quite impressed to find an interesting, character-driven comic that really manages to create something out of nothing. I mean, you know the people are going to run into zombies in different locales every issue, but it's always manages to put me on the edge of my seat. And the black and white art adds a nice touch to the overall feel of the book. I still don't have complete confidence in Robert Kirkman as a writer, but he has crafted a zombie book that is at the very least his own.
Verdict: I'm into this book now, but I have a feeling that as the excitement about the show wanes so will my heightened interest in filling up my collection with more of this series.

Recommendation: Sweet Tooth (DC/Vertigo)
Recommended by: Unanimous geek approval across the internet/ comic review sites. Oh and Geoff Johns has a quote on the cover calling this a "must read."
# of Issues Read: 1-5 (volume 1)
Synopsis: This takes place in a post-apocalyptic (are you sensing a theme here?) world and stars a youngin named Gus, who is a deer/boy hybrid. After living a sheltered life with his father, Gus finally ventures out of the forest and is hunted due to his Hybrid status. Gus is saved by a punisher-esque character named Jeppard, who promises to take him to a Hybrid reserve. Violence ensues, and Gus and Jeppard build a unique rapport.
Thoughts: Along with Y, this was one of the less graphic books I tried. While there are plenty of scenes of violence, some interaction at a brothel, and some naughty words, there is an innocence to this book. Mainly due to the naivete of the main character Gus, a.k.a "Sweet Tooth", we can't help but see the world of darkness through the eyes of a child (he's 9). With the juxtaposition of the gruff and deadly Jeppard, there is an undercurrent of warmth in the danger the two share.
Verdict: I read this through last week and I really didn't know what to think. People LOVE this book, and they think Jeff Lemire needs to be put on the $5 bill, but I can't figure out why. It's good, but maybe I'm not savvy enough to see how it's the greatest comic ever. I'll try the second volume at some point to see what happens with Jeppard, who is the main reason for me buying this trade.

So that's it for now. I also bought the first volume of Ex Machina, a few issues of Brubaker's Criminal, and I'm currently eyeing other titles such as Joe Kelly's I Kill Giants and Brian Azzarello's 100 Bullets. What do you guys think out there? Are there any books you get tired of hearing about as being the greatest thing since sliced bread? And are there any of the titles above that you've tried? Let me know. And until next time, Long Live Our Legion!


  1. I'm glad you took a look at all these different books, Kello. It's always great to expand your comic book horizons.

    I'm really happy you liked Y: The Last Man, which along with Ex Machina is my favorite comics book series. I think Pia Guerra's understated art style adds a lot to the book, which I think you'll probably see more over time. It's supposed to look sort of plain because the characters are normal people -- it wouldn't work if, say, Bryan Hitch were drawing it.

    I think I actually like Ex Machina a little better, just because its narrative structure is more interesting (although they're very similar). I can't wait to hear what you think about that series, especially the first issue. My jaw dropped through the floor when I finished it.

    I did read the first issue of Scalped a few years ago and really liked it (though I can't for the life of me remember what happens in it), and I have yet to follow up on the series for some reason. I think I didn't want to get too invested at the time since there was only one trade out so far, and I like to hold off on certain series until there are a few trades so I can read them all at once. So anyway, thanks for reminding me that I should get back into it. I love everything I've read by Jason Aaron, so it's kind of surprising I haven't picked up Scalped sooner.

    I've read the first two trades of Walking Dead and I liked it, but I kind of lost some interest when I realized that Kirkman doesn't have any real endgame for the series, which is something I love about series like Y, Ex Machina, and 100 Bullets. And as I've mentioned before, I like Tony Moore better than Charlie Adlard, which makes me less anxious to pick up future volumes.

    Speaking of Tony Moore, I'm currently reading a Vertigo series he worked on a few years ago, called The Extreminators. It's pretty good, and the whole series is only four trades.

    I haven't read Sweet Tooth yet, probably because I'm not huge into fantasy. I'll read it eventually though; I liked Lemire's other work that I've read. And from what I've heard, I think you'll like I Kill Giants. I have it myself, but haven't read it yet. And 100 Bullets is a really good series; I've read about half of it so far. I reviewed the first Criminal trade on my blog (it was one of my first reviews, I think) -- I liked it, but that's as far as I've read. I'd recommend starting from the beginning, since I hear each arc builds on previous ones in interesting ways, even if they don't always feature the same characters.

    As for other recommendations...hmm. It seems like you've got a lot on your plate already, and I wouldn't want to distract you from the awesomeness that is Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina. But when you're done with those (and since you weren't totally put off by the "adult content" in Scalped), I would recommend you check out Preacher. You'll either love it or hate it -- the trick to loving it is to keep in mind that it's satire, and in order to deliver its message it's crucial for it to skewer literally everything having to do with modern religious thought and popular culture in general. Personally, I think it's the single best comic book series of the 1990s.

    Any other titles you're considering looking into? Maybe we can give you some more feedback based on that.

  2. Well Marc, it took me 3 hours to read your whole comment (thanks!), but I think I'm ready to respond.

    I agree about your comment on the art in Y. It keeps the series grounded in a sense of realism and I should appreciate it more. I just thought that I could draw as well as the artist in a few of the panels, and I never think like that when reading a comic done by professionals.

    I actually did read Ex Machina, but didn't include it here for fear people would be bored by an even longer post. I really, really liked the first volume. I was surprised by the end of the first issue, and I think the ensemble of the book is really engaging. It's like Aaron Sorkin meets superheroes, but I'm actually enjoying it! I'd like

    It sounds like you and I feel the same about The Walking Dead, although I have a feeling Kirkman knows for sure what will happen to Rick Grimes. I think the rest of it is his play thing, allowing him to add and subtract as he likes. I don't claim to be any expert on the series, that's just what I take from reading these issues and the introduction by Kirkman.

    Sweet Tooth is....hard for me to really care about too much. I just feel like it doesn't offer too much insight into whats really going on with any of the characters/ the world. Especially considering I read 5 issues of the thing, not too much happened. Perhaps its the whole "looking at a brand new world" angle that Gus has, but I really don't know what to make of it.

    Preacher is one book I've always resisted trying, mostly because of its more blasphemous moments. I'm sure it's pretty entertaining though.

    And It's one book that I'll read from the library, but if I ever bought it and put it on my shelves, I would probably catch on fire or something. It's good in one of those "I would never want anything to do with this lifestyle, but watching it fall apart is fascinating" ways.

    Man, I don't know what else to pick up. I'm open to suggestion, but nothing will top Y in my opinion.

  3. Well, I'll certainly be looking forward to another post like this one if you do end up picking up a few new books. For now I guess I'd say to keep reading Y and Ex Machina, and perhaps try out 100 Bullets since you seem to have an interest in that. And like I said, Exterminators is a good series from what I've read so far, and people tell me it ends pretty well too.

    You might also look into The Boys, which is sort of like Preacher (it's by Garth Ennis as well) but is a commentary on superheroes rather than religion. I haven't read it, but it is constantly raved about. I have read the first trade of The Unwritten, though, which is absolutely wonderful; I would definitely recommend it. There was only that first trade out when I read it, but now I think there are three.

  4. On a sort of related note, I've decided that I'm going to re-read all of Y: The Last Man over my Christmas break. And if I manage to get my hands on the final Ex Machina trade, I'd like to read that series straight through in one day, if possible. I can't wait to see how it ends.

    Maybe I'll finally get on one of these other series that I've been meaning to read too...Scalped seems the most likely choice at present.