Comic books: The medium that birthed the superhero, among other things. Comic book adaptions are doing well on the big and small screen, but the comic book industry is certainly not at its hight. In the interest of getting more people to read the source material, here are 7 comic books you need on your shelf right now.
Saga of the Swamp Thing
Swamp Thing was a character created in the ’70s for DC comics. His title had a pulpy, horror feel, with some existential drama sprinkled in. It centred on a scientist who was transformed into a walking swamp creature in a lab accident. In the mid-’80s, writer Alan Moore was assigned the book and allowed to reimagine it as he saw fit. He brought a literary sensibility to the book, though retained some of the horror elements.
He also brought a romantic element to the book, depicting a relationship between the titular Swamp Thing and long-running character of the series, Abby Arcane. The book also delved deep into the metaphysical and existential implications of the character, retooling ‘him’ from a scientist transformed into a vegetable, to a vegetable that had essentially absorbed the scientist’s memories, believing itself to have once been human.
Justice League: International
The Justice League is one of the premier teams in superhero comic books usually comprised of heavy-hitters like Wonder Woman, Superman, and The Flash. This book isn’t about those guys. In 1987 most of these characters were unable to be used in a Justice League title, so a team was made up of a bunch of second-stringers like Booster Gold, Blue Beetle, and Fire and Ice.
In the interest of doing something new, and given the lineup, writers Keith Giffen J.M. DeMatteis handled the book with a light touch, giving it a comedic, satirical, and post-modern feel. It plays almost like a sit-com, focusing on character dynamics and interplay with a backdrop of superhero exploits. The team is assembled by businessman Maxwell Lord in order to function as a UN-sanctioned team, superheroes for the world stage. Hilarity ensues.
To give these lesser-known characters some clout, Batman and Martian Manhunter are also made part of the team. There’s an arrogant, stand-offish, and rude Green Lantern on the team named Guy Gardner, and Blue Beetle and Booster Gold often act like goofballs. So Batman is often depicted as very stressed out and irritable parent. Playing Batman as the straight-man to everyone else’s comic relief was a stroke of genius and they get a lot of mileage out of that.
Batman: Mad Love and Other Stories
You’ve probably heard of Harley Quinn. Folks who haven’t been exposed to the comic books or even the films know who she is. People dress up her without even knowing the first thing about her. She’s permeated pop culture. She was first created for Batman: The Animated Series during the ’90s. At first intended as a one-off, hench-woman character, her popularity saw her make repeat appearances. In the comic book tie-in to the show, an origin was given to her.
Written by Paul Dini and pencilled by Bruce Timm, Harley’s co-creators, it depicts the story of Harleen Quinzel, a psychiatrist who’s manipulated by and falls in love with the Joker. Dini is an incredibly deft writer, being able to balance witty back-and-forths while also depicting how truly sad and cruel Harley’s relationship with Joker is. Complimentary to this is Timm’s energetic and expressive art style.
Along with this tale, it featured other stories, most illustrated by Timm and all written by Dini.
This is considered by many to be the magnum opus of Superman comic books. Written by Grant Morrison, it’s an epic 12 issue series, an all-encompassing look at Superman’s mythology. It’s a celebration of his history, embracing every era as legitimate and important. The premise established in the first issue is that after being overexposed to yellow-sun energy, Superman finds that he has around only a year to live. The remaining issues depict him getting his affairs in order.
Although it is heavily entrenched in Superman continuity, I think it’s an enjoyable read even to casual fans and people with a passing knowledge of the character, because so many of the characters and tropes are known to people. Having said that, a lot of people feel like they know Superman just from the image that they glean from pop culture, and call him boring. This book showcases all of the character’s potential. Whimsical, esoteric, pulpy, and a mind-bending brand of sci-fi.
Above all, it brilliantly shows the character’s ability, both in-story and in the real world, to inspire hope and the best in people.
Batman: Court of Owls
This arc relaunched Batman in 2011, as writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo were assigned the title. It deals with a Batman at his peak. He’s fought countless villains and saved the city multiple times. He feels like he knows Gotham like the back of his hand. This story is a rude awakening for him. The Court of Owls is an Illuminati-like group, made up of the rich elite, that control Gotham from the shadows.
Batman believed them to be nothing more than a myth, so this encounter with them turns his world upside down. His identity, his sanity, and his city are all at stake. The book has some horror undertones along with its action-thriller vibes. The artwork presents a moody and streamlined version of Batman and his world. A fine entry point for the Batman comic books.
Action Comics: New 52 Vol. 1-3
We come back to Superman and Grant Morrison. With All-Star Superman, he was taking a broad look at the character. This is a somewhat stripped down version. This is in some part a reinvention, but Morrisons’s goal was to return Superman to the roots of his comic books. In his inception in 1938, Superman was described as a champion of the oppressed. He took on gangsters, crooked union bosses, wife beaters, and corrupt politicians. Morrison presents a bare essentials rendition in that original vein.
This is a Superman at the start of his career. As Clark Kent, he’s a crusading, freelance, and underpaid journalist, seeking to expose the corruption in his city. As Superman, dressed in a t-shirt, cape, and jeans, he fights for the everyman. The arc starts off in this grounded place but as the issues go on it gets more and more metaphysical and far-out. Morrison tackles the question of how a character that’s owned by a massive corporation can possibly be an icon for the little people.
Morrison’s run on the title has been collected in 3 volumes. I’d recommend it to anyone who thinks that Superman is unrelatable and that his stories are boring.
Dark Night: A True Batman Story
This is an autobiographical tale with a twist. Written by Paul Dini, it depicts a mugging that happened to him while he was writing for Batman: The Animated Series in 1993. It was a sudden, harrowing experience for him, and going back to writing Batman afterwards was difficult. It felt cruel, writing about a character who swoops in to save people when the people who had harmed him had gotten away with it.
The crux of the story is that night, framed by Dini explaining it to someone, but he also takes us to his childhood, showing the genesis of his love of genre fiction. It paints a picture of his adult life in Los Angeles, seemingly living his dream. He’s writing for animated shows like Batman and he’s dating pretty actresses. After the mugging, he’s forced to re-assess his life.
Helping him along the way is Batman. Dini depicts Batman and his villains talking to him, symbolising his internal struggle. Batman and Joker act like an angel and devil on his shoulder, one urging him to keep on fighting, the other tempting him to give in. It’s a beautifully written book, not only showcasing Dini’s talents but also the power of Batman as a fictional character.