The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts October 7, 2005

Wanton Distraction

Four graphic novels you don’t have to be a nerd to read

If you have made the foolish decision of reading this article, then I want you to turn to the man/woman/child/sleestak in the closest vicinity to your person and proclaim: “I like comic books.”

If you happen to be a confident person with lots of self-esteem, please jump in front of an oncoming bus. For the rest of us self-loathing people, the aforementioned proclamation does not exactly resound with the coolness of statements such as, “I got laid last weekend,” or, “Why, yes, I do own Guam.”

For a medium that’s about 80 years old, where’s the respect? Sure, they might be easier to read than conventional books, but comics require both writing and artistic talent put together in a way in which the reader can follow action that doesn’t necessarily follow the standard “left-right, top-bottom” structure.

And while some comics are rather easy to follow, such as the X-Men having to battle the mutant flu, other comics, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, are slightly more textured.

Despite comics’ ability to reach into any genre or tell any story just as well as movies or literature can, comics carry a negative stigma in the United States. When you browse the majority of today’s mainstream output, it’s not difficult to see why.

The two largest distributors of comics are DC and Marvel and the majority of their books are superhero stories that rely on the most ridiculous gimmicks. A good friend of mine worked at Marvel this summer and, while at this point it’s only a joke, I feel it is only a matter of time until we have a 12-month series spanning six different titles about whether Spider-Man’s real father is Wolverine or Captain America only to find out that it is actually, oh, let’s say Wonder Woman.

So why bother? Why not put down the thinly disguised tales of homoerotic fascism featuring nightmares of human anatomy and just say you’re in the middle of reading Das Kapital? Because then you would be missing out on great series like these:

Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis, art by Darick Robertson

All the President’s Men can go screw. This is the book that makes journalism cool. Transmet (as the cool kids call it) is a futuristic tale which follows the renegade journalist Spider Jerusalem, a recluse who reluctantly comes back to the city he hates in order to find enough material for a new book that will finish out his contract and keep him in money and out of jail.

Ellis does not put much thought into his future society as a logical entity (for instance, people can turn themselves into electrons, but don’t take over the Earth), but rather as a social construct where a self-destructive journalist hates on society with devilish glee. Spider sees the hypocrisies, the lies and the cruelty and dishes it all back, armed with his words, a ray-gun that makes people loosen their bowels and two female bodyguards/assistants who hate his guts. I wish I had more words to explain why this is my favorite comic, but I’ll just finish up by saying that every time I meet someone who has a false sense of authority, I think of a heavily armed and insane Spider Jerusalem.

The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, et al.

Neil Gaiman’s masterwork of myth is worth more than just one ExCo credit. It’s one of the smartest, textually-rich modern stories, but will most likely remain ignored because it’s also a story that needs art. The various artists used to paint portraits of hell, heaven, the worlds in between and the worlds beyond allow Gaiman creative freedom he would not have had otherwise.

The ten books cover various stories, all featuring a character named Morpheus/Dream as one of the seven Endless, the other six being Death, Delirium, Desire, Despair, Destruction and Destiny. Read Gaiman’s description of Desire’s home and marvel at the sublime symbolism he and his artists employ. There are few stories that truly do honor to the art of storytelling. The Sandman is one of those few stories.

100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello, art by Eduardo Risso

A grizzled old man in a suit approaches you. He carries a black briefcase. He tells you that the hardship in your life can be traced back to one person and the evidence to prove it is inside the briefcase. The briefcase also contains one semi-automatic pistol and one hundred rounds of untraceable ammunition. What you do with this information and the weapon provided is entirely up to you.

This is the premise of Brian Azzarello’s brilliant ongoing series that quickly evolves from simple morality tale to American conspiracy all wrapped in a chewy noir shell. Azzarello and Risso paint a world of lowlifes and degenerates so stylish that the sweat of the characters almost drips off the page. 100 Bullets — it’s steamy, it’s seedy and it’s smart. Fans of noir should give this story a look if they haven’t already.

Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughn, art by Pia Guerra

The idea of being the last man on Earth seems fairly sexy until you realize that about half of the world’s population just turned to corpses, and that doesn’t include the women who decided to fly the friendly skies, drive the open highway or sail the seven seas with a man at the helm. It turns out that an apocalypse doesn’t need to take out most of the population. About half will do the trick.

While at first glance, Vaughn’s post-apocalyptic tale may seem sexist by having the fate of humanity rest on a single male. The fact that there’s a story and that there’s hope for humanity is a big plus for women. If the sexes were reversed in this scenario, Earth would become Oz (the prison, not the Merry Old Land of).

And who will save humanity with their mighty sperm? Yorick Brown, an unemployed magician practicing as an escape artist, while also training a male helper monkey, Ampersand, for extra cash.

The plague hits, and these two happen to be the only mammals with Y-chromosomes that live to say, “Did you feel that?” (or, roughly translated, “oohk, ahk, ahk, eek, eek”). But with the help of a special ops agent and a medical specialist, Yorick and & should be able to save humanity...provided that the self-proclaimed Amazonians, militant Israelis and pretty much the rest of the world doesn’t kill them first.





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