Michael Simpson: 5 Comics and Graphic Novels

Comcis Shelf

This post is part of a series of posts in which students of the English Seminar present their favourite books they have read in 2015. The lists are not restricted to books that were published this year. If you want to participate as well, send your list to zest.editor@gmail.com.

Today’s list comes to you from Michael Simpson.

This year comic anthologies and graphic novels were a wonderful antidote to some of the heavier theory of my master thesis (and heavier moments in life in general!) Here are my 5 recommendations, as well as a bit of my own personal rambling on the joys of queer comics.

Black Hole

Black Hole (2005) by Charles Burns

It’s 1979, and US high school kids are blighted by a sexually transmitted disease which turns them into ugly mutants (lizard tails, shedding skin, boils and additional mouths). We follow the tribulations of a boy and girl who catch the disease and attempt to start their lives over as outsiders.

Black Hole Sample

Black and white “woodcut style” art delves into deep and visceral psychedelia, especially for the dream and sex sequences which are stunningly realized. But at its heart Black Hole is a contemplation of the complex interplay of lust, innocence and outside appearances so important to adolescent relationships.

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V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta (1989) by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

In which a man in a Guy Fawkes mask wages a jihadi war, complete with the symbolic bombing of public landmarks and grotesque public executions. The anarchist V quotes Macbeth and the Rolling Stones as he takes on the fascist state of near-future dystopian UK. I would recommend reading this as a companion piece to the film – the differences are large, but both are compelling. The comic is certainly the more intellectual, exquisitely British its political satire, language and cultural references, riffing off the state of the Thatcherite nation.

V for Vendetta Sample

Atmosphere and story takes precedence in the artwork: V, Evey and Norsefire’s dreaded fingermen stalk a smudgy and shadowy world of piss-stained side-alleys and crackling video recordings, and while the many action scenes are exciting, they are free from onomatopeoic “sound effects”, movement lines and other flashy bits of comics.

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The Sculptor

The Sculptor (2015) by Scott McCloud

The only book I started this year which compelled me like a beautiful narcotic to read it to the very end in one long “sitting” (including commuting, eating in the Mensa, standing on the tram and hanging around the bus stop).

If McCloud’s plotting is genius in its intricacy, the twin stories he begins with are deceptively simple. On the one hand, this is a classic New York love story between the depressive young sculptor David and the bipolar bike courier Meg who rescues him from his loneliness. On the other, it is the fantastical, Faustian tale of David’s quest to make a name for himself in the wake of family tragedy.

The Sculptor Sample

Art itself is a lead character of the novel, in many of its personas: an expression of emotion, of entertainment, a self-reflexive parody, a means for redemption or fulfilment, a political satirical tool or an intellectual statement. And these facets are epitomized by McCloud’s graphic novel itself, a formal masterpiece which, in all its technical trickery, never strays too far from the human experience of love and death.

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Queer Comix

Michael’s Biographical Interlude on Queer Comix

I still can’t quite put my finger on what I find so great about comics as a medium for stories centering around queerness and/or queer characters. And yes, I have thought of that reason, but those looking for a juicier biography will have to look elsewhere : )

It all started when I moved to Switzerland and kept seeing comics from the great Ralf König littering WG bathrooms. I could hardly understand the German but found it pretty cool that my (mostly straight) friends had this stuff which combined obvious silliness with highly explicit gay sex scenes, including a lot of fetishism. As I learnt the language I realized König was an extremely literate storytelling genius with a hilariously filthy mind, and there was something voyeuristic yet liberating about watching his little potato-nosed men pontificate about loving attachment and mortality while they fisted each other.

Then I discovered Alison Bechdel, through her insanely good autobiographical graphic novel Fun Home. Bechdel is a gay American comic artist, a realist at heart. Her work lacks the side-splitting punchlines and grotesqueries of König but on the story level it is a step closer to real life, in terms of style and art but also in terms of my own identification with the humanities-educated worriers who populate her pages.

Both Bechdel and König use the love and lust which inevitably preoccupies of much of their work as a means to reveal essential truths about humanity, and in that sense their work is eminently Shakespearean. (This is even literally true of König, whose comic novel Iago merges Romeo and Juliet with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Othello into one highly metafictive tale of gay actors in Will Shakespeare’s theatre company.)

But aside from all that… the characters in these pages talk about and perform sexuality, gender identity and fucking (in all its “shades of grey”), all on the same page as both the language of the banal everyday and the universal emotion which even vanilla straight guys like me can relate to. If you are relatively new to these worlds, once the initial strangeness and voyeuristic pleasure (or repulsion?) wears off and you get used to these characters’ subcultures and their respective idioms, the effect can be sublimely liberating.

For König, you could begin with Der bewegte Mann, which is a bit lighter on the sex side of things and was also a hit movie with Til Schweiger, or, for more “hardcore” fun, the recently published collection Der Junge König Band 2 (1985-1987): Die Erfindung der Knollennase.

And here are two more great entry points into the field:

No Straight Lines

No Straight Lines – Four Decades of Queer Comics (2013), edited by Justin Hall

This is an anthology of queer comics, predominantly American, a truly fantastic introduction to the field. The editor specifically chose the literary, rather than the pornographic, and also aimed for stand-alone stories rather than extracts from longer works (mostly 2–8 pages long), so there’s a great deal of pleasure to be had getting to know the dozens of artists, from the 70s to the present.

No Straight Lines Sample

The earlier sections contain as much lesbian as gay stuff; boundaries become increasingly blurred in the last third of the book which covers recent classics of the form. I was really happy to find that the simpler stories, focusing on e.g. lost love, coming-out tales or discrimination, didn’t overshadow some of the really innovative, fantastical and sometimes avant-garde stuff.

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Essential Dykes

The Essential Dykes to Watch Out for (2008) by Alison Bechdel

Since this collection is in the English Seminar library, here’s a longer review.

In this collection of around 400 one-page comic strips, a group of lesbian friends and lovers journey from twentysomething life in the early 1980s (when Bechdel began the strip) through to their midlife crises in the 2000s. Bechdel is obsessively consistent in terms of format – each strip is precisely a page long, concentrates on one small cluster of her cast – and also obsessive in her details, with the cultural minutiae which adorn her characters’ melancholies and epiphanies often labelled and footnoted. As a result, the reader is highly sensitive to the many changes as they appear throughout, which makes for a special kind of fascination and compulsion while reading.

The characters change slowly but surely – for example, the lead character Mo is an angst-ridden bookshop employee whose moral crusades for feminist and gay rights activism are clearly partly a means to cover up her social awkwardness; as time goes by, you see her learning to let go, separating her genuine sense of injustice from her aggressively self-critical personality. In terms of story, over the years you can see the young comic artist Bechdel master the complexities of the narrative form she has chosen, which is essentially a comic soap opera in a realist mode, a microscale Comédie humaine. The break-up of one long-standing couple, for instance, is performed excruciatingly over what must have been years of comics as they were published.

Essential Dykes Sample

Purely as a historical artefact, Dykes to Watch Out for is a fascinating insight into a subculture which changed immensely at the end of the 21st century with every minor moral victory gained by Mo and her fellow activists (funnily enough, despite the waves of queerness and genderfluidity which sweep over what started out as a “dyke” comic, there is a strange conservatism to the family unit towards which many of the characters gravitate). But “the love lives of lesbian liberals” doesn’t grab you as a fun history lesson, the stories in which Bechdel expertly weaves American historical events into her narrative as they happen – especially the first Gulf War and 9/11 – will be of high interest to any connoisseur of the interplay between state conflict and individual relationships.

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2 responses to “Michael Simpson: 5 Comics and Graphic Novels

  1. Really interesting article – on a challenging genre.

    • appreciate your comment roger! i should add that for me, even if the topics and formal innovations are sometimes “challenging”, the sheer pleasure of pictures, and dialogue to make a story well told make these books anything but! (although the price-to-reading time ratio is sometimes a challenge for the wallet…!)

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