What makes a great comic?

PrintE-mail Written by P.M. Buchan Wednesday, 04 May 2011

Adventures on Alternative Earths - by P.M Buchan

I love comics.  National newspapers might still feel the need to preface graphic novel reviews with disclaimers that most comics are mindless rubbish, and it might have taken the cinema screen to lend Scott Pilgrim mainstream credibility, but in my heart I know that sequential art is the boldest and most vibrant medium on the planet.  Sales figures have plummeted since X-Men #1 became the greatest selling comic of all time in 1991 and Tokyopop’s empire might be crumbling, but as far as I’m concerned there has NEVER been a better time to be reading comics and I’m going to prove it by telling you about some of the greatest comics that I have read.


What makes a great comic?  Greatness is a subjective thing, especially in the highly-opinionated world of comics.  Most Western lists place Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen as the greatest graphic novel of all time, but I see this as a fallacy of the Direct Market.  Try offering Watchmen to somebody that isn’t already well-versed in superhero tropes and the only reaction that you’re likely to get is disappointment.  “This is as good as it gets,” they’ll ask you, “a bunch of middle-aged men in capes fighting to stay relevant?”  Force them to acknowledge Watchmen’s finer points and they’re likely to counter by asking you why they had to sit through those mind-numbing pirate sub-plots.  If superheroes are the reason that you read comics then Watchmen is a great graphic novel that deconstructs the assumptions necessary to enjoy superheroes, but to everybody else it’s the cynical swansong of a writer ready to turn his back on the mainstream.


Now that I’ve got that off my chest, let’s talk about the first great comic that I urge you to rush out and read.  Beginning syndication in 1994, Tony Millionaire’s Maakies is a weekly comic strip that represents the pinnacle of what a man can achieve with an alcoholic monkey and Crow.  Without ever seeming mean-spirited, Millionaire brings a timeless joy to themes of suicide, misanthropy and the failure of humanity on every level.  Starring Uncle Gabbie and Drinky Crow in a series of nautical, period adventures, Maakies is the perfect strip for anybody accustomed to defeat or smart enough to accept that booze offers escape in one hand and self-loathing in the other.  I love Maakies so passionately that I would probably sacrifice every other book on my shelves to save my Maakies collections.  To qualify the claim that these are great comics I’ll tell you that Tony Millionaire’s experiments with other formats are good but inconsistent.  His Sock Monkey books for children re-imagine Uncle Gabbie and Drinky Crow as Victorian toys in stories that would never have been published if Millionaire hadn’t already established a loyal contingent of fans to buy them.  Billy Hazelnuts is another experiment in feature-length storytelling, but we’re talking about a man that has spent nearly twenty years perfecting the art of telling jokes in five panels.  Sock Monkey and Billy Hazelnuts are good comics, but Maakies are great ones and I’d recommend them unreservedly to anybody that thinks humour and nihilism can go hand in hand.


You might begin to notice a theme to my tastes at this point.  The next great comic that I want to talk about is published by Vertigo, DC’s stable of adult comics that gave the world Preacher and Sandman.  As far as I’m concerned Scalped, written by Jason Aaron and illustrated by R. M. Guéra, is the best ongoing comic still being published.  Filled with brutal stories about troubled people coming to bad endings, there’s a richness to every aspect of Scalped. Aaron masterfully manipulates our sympathies from issue to issue so the young father so close to our hearts in one story might damn his family in the next, confirming the suspicions of his peers and confounding our hopes that he would go on to a better life. The murky, exaggerated art reflects the subject matter perfectly, creating a package that has literally never disappointed me.  Scalped is a great comic and one that presents a compelling argument for writers and artists focussing on their own creations.  Although Aaron has been flagged as an Architect at Marvel Comics, one of the writers steering continuity and writing important storylines for the future, his writing for that company is enjoyable but largely forgettable.  He writes a good Wolverine, but after the richness of the characters on the Prairie Rose Reservation in Scalped this work-for-hire seems superficial.  This is at least a step up from the period when brilliant writers like Robert Kirkman and Brian K Vaughan took turns running Marvel’s Ultimate X-Men into the ground; filling the title with pedestrian stories about characters that, it felt like, they neither understood nor cared about.  I can say this with a clear conscience because Kirkman has since made a stand against talented creators paying homage to licensed characters when they should be creating original works, and BKV has shown almost limitless talent in every comic featuring his original characters.  I can take or leave Jason Aaron’s Wolverine, but I’m not sure I could cope if I weren’t able to see Scalped through to the end.


If Scalped is the adult, creator-oriented face of DC Comics, I’d be remiss not to talk about the true creative freedom offered by independent publishers like Slave Labor Graphics.  Published between 1995 and 1997 Johnny The Homicidal Maniac by Jhonen Vasquez is a great comic.  Johnny is a bitter psychopath encouraged to paint his walls with blood to stave off hellish creatures intent on entering our world.  As a comic JTHM is hilarious, drenched in gore and completely aware of its limitations, but it becomes something more when viewed alongside the autobiographical comics so common among independent creators.  Where other independent artists create comics about tragic first dates, Vasquez has created the ultimate expression of rage against conformity and the futility and self-defeating nature of teen alienation.  JTHM is a flawed comic and a reflection of the internal world of its creator 15 years ago, but it is also a great comic that will never age precisely because it is so personal and uncompromised.  On the other end of the spectrum lies Black Hole by Charles Burns, a hypnotic account of teen alienation in the 1970s, told by an adult that has grown into the skills necessary to create a convincing account of a fictional adolescence.  The emotions and humid fervour of this community plagued by a sexually transmitted disease that turns people into monsters are so persuasive and believable that rather than capture a snapshot of his own life as a teen, Burns elicits that frustration and apathy of growing up that so many of us deny in hindsight.  Vasquez has absolutely no distance from his own biases and makes his warped perspective his greatest asset, while Burns channels these same feelings years later at the height of his artistic powers, yet both create great comics that should appeal to anybody that ever felt angry, excluded or lost when they were growing up.


After delving into the underbelly of great comics I think it’s time to look at the mainstream before you all stop reading.  One of the highest profile pairings of creators in American comics is writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips.  Criminal, published through Marvel’s creator-owned imprint Icon, is their most accomplished work to date, a collection of noir tales with an adult sophistication so intrinsic to the story and art that you’ll want to frame each page and hang them on your walls.  Occupying a similar imaginative space to television series like The Wire or films like Double Indemnity, Brubaker and Phillips create a world populated by characters painted in shades of grey.  I knew that Criminal would be something special in the first storyline when I read about a pickpocket that couldn't walk away from a life of crime because it was the only means that he had to care for a heroin-addict with Alzheimer’s.  Brubaker's characters are defined by their realistic motivations, a trait that elevates good stories to become unforgettable ones.  Brubaker and Phillips’ earlier work together, Sleeper, is also incredibly accomplished; applying their love of crime to a superhero narrative that gave readers a reason to care about the fictional Wildstorm universe that it was set in.  This pairing of writer and artist is an interesting one, because together they’re unstoppable but for some reason I just don’t like it when Sean Phillips draws traditional superheroes.  It seems amazing that I could feel so subjectively about an artist, but storytelling is key to my enjoyment of all different media, so I sometimes feel like not even an exceptional artist can save a story that I can't connect to emotionally.  Where artists are often at the mercy of writers I find that writers sometimes suffer in service of their plots.  There are individual issues of Brubaker’s runs on Daredevil and Captain America that seem bland and pedestrian when read in isolation, but put them together and his run on Captain America will probably amount to one of the greatest runs on any Marvel Character, ever.  This is where long-form storytelling really excels; in the hands of a talented writer that can take the reader on a journey and build a world of characters and events that retain an internal logic while covering fantastical situations.


The rule about individual comic issues serving longer storylines is a common problem, but more-so at the big companies like Marvel and DC than smaller publishers like Dark Horse that rely on sheer talent to keep them afloat.  Eric Powell’s The Goon might not come out regularly, but when it does it is always a great comic. ALWAYS.  Beginning as an already accomplished work that was written, pencilled and inked by Powell in a visual style reminiscent of classic horror artists like Bernie Wrightson, the subject matter that he tackled and the way that he tackled it imbued the characters and stories with a vitality and deranged humour that feels timeless.  Slapstick episodes about giant spiders addicted to gambling gave way to experimentation with a broad range of visual techniques that saw The Goon win Eisner awards for Best Single Issue, Best Continuing Series, Best Humour Publication, Best Writer/Artist – Humour and Best Painter or Multimedia Artist.  No mean feat for a creator that projects a public persona of a tequila-swigging idiot, but somehow Powell covers the complete emotional spectrum in the pages of The Goon and makes it feel OK to laugh at slack-jawed idiots and grown men pimping lipstick-wearing horses!  Eric Powell is the perfect example of why I generally pay more attention to the creators of a book than the characters on the front covers.  Wonder Woman might hold a special place in your heart but it's hard to care about her when a different writer comes in every six issues and jettisons all the aspects that you loved.


On the subject of characters versus creators, I have to admit to my own complete hypocrisy.  I'll always amend my standing order to reflect changes in writer and artist, unless we happen to be talking about the X-Men, who I love as dearly as my own family.  It's crazy, I know, but my relationship with Marvel's mutants gives me something that I couldn’t get in any other medium; a story that has been going on for as long as I've lived and that will likely continue after I die.  It's easy to understand why a lot of people feel that we should be supporting creator-owned comics and there's a certain punk logic about supporting artists with your wallets, but when it comes to the X-Men I have to defend the other side of the argument.  Where else in the world can you find a body of fictional character that have been explored and interpreted in so many different permutations?  Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963, their initial cast of 6 characters has swelled into thousands, with such a body of stories that the complex histories of the characters and their family trees are almost biblical in scale.  It's insane that I would devote such a chunk of my life to reading about the X-Men, but it doesn't end with the main plots of the comics, because there have also been a myriad number of alternate-earth re-imaginings of these characters, scattered across convoluted timelines, told by a ridiculous number of people and serving just as many different agendas.  A significant proportion of comics featuring the X-Men have been criminally bad, but as a combined body of work they mesmerise me.  It seems incredible to look at the way Chris Claremont, John Byrne and Dave Cockrum reinvented the X-Men in 1975 and make them feel like the most important comics to ever have been published, and it's just as fascinating to watch how over time Claremont refused to conform to popular interpretations of his characters, so that his many returns to the franchise have felt out of synch with canon.  It doesn’t matter how many bad X-comics I buy, words can't describe how excited I am to pre-order the recently solicited Chris Claremont and Jim Lee omnibus.  It’s an addiction that I’m powerless to fight.


The last distinctive aspect of a shared universe like Marvel or DC is continuity.  Sometimes the cumulative weight of half a century of storytelling stifles creativity and renders writers and artists impotent to tell new stories.  Nobody in their right mind could justify committing the Joker to Arkham Asylum knowing how many times he has broken free and, if you read enough issues, Spider-Man's life begins to feel like Groundhog Day. But sometimes you'll meet that rare creator that feels just as passionately as you do about these characters, and it's a beautiful thing.  Geoff Johns is the very definition of a writer that makes continuity work for him and every comic that he writes is great.  I'm doing a lot of people a disservice when I say this, but I honestly believe that Geoff Johns revived the DC universe on the strength of his adherence to and respect for continuity.  He takes preposterous characters and storylines that nobody in their right mind should care about and weaves them into coherent and compelling stories that reinvigorate your interest in plots that you once laughed at.  I haven't picked up an issue of Brightest Day yet but I understand that in the pages of that book Johns is even making Aquaman a character that people will want to read about.  The imminent Green Lantern film would be inconceivable if Johns hadn't ended an extended run on the Flash in 2004 and plunged straight into Green Lantern: Rebirth.  I had never read an issue of Green Lantern in my life until that point but after that I bought it diligently for 6 years, stopping only when I started a family and had to decimate my standing order.  Geoff Johns has never written a bad story.  He doesn't care that you've never heard of his favourite characters because he's prepared to show you exactly why they're so cool and sum up their convoluted back-stories into something that you'll understand.  Ask me why I know more about the Flash's rogue gallery than I do the Avengers:  Geoff Johns.  If he can take a character like Captain Cold and flesh him out into a blue-collar supervillain with a tragic past, I'm willing to recommend every book that he's written; because if you're looking for good stories in the DC Universe Geoff Johns will not disappoint you.


I hope that by telling you about some of the greatest comics that I’ve read you’ll feel inspired to go out and tell the world about the comics that you cherish.  There is no formula that will create a great comic, but once you've read one it will stay with you for the rest of your life.  You might feel like the creative team on a monthly book aren't giving you your money's worth, maybe you felt like Bendis and Bagley were treading water with Ultimate Spider-Man, but then one day you'll reread all of those issues and realise that they were committed to a sustained vision in storytelling the likes of which had never been done before.  Sometimes you'll pick up a graphic novel like Last of The Independents by Matt Fraction and Kieron Dwyer and spend the next five years talking about it to anyone that will listen.  The next week when you're hanging around your local comic store and somebody tells you that Matt Fraction is writing the big Marvel event comic this year, you'll know why, and you'll know that he earned it.  The most important thing is that you find a reason to love comics, that rather than picking up another issue of Batman out of habit you listen to the girl who tells you that Batwoman: Elegy is the best book DC have ever created.  She’s right.


If you or anybody that you know has been affected by the issues discussed in this column then you can contact me at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or follow me on Twitter @FrancisSobriety.  I don’t feel particularly inclined to defend the comics that I love, but if you’re reading something that you feel passionately about then I’d love to hear about it.


Sean Phillips



Ed Brubaker



Jason Aaron



Jhonen Vasquez



Eric Powell



Geoff Johns



Dave Gibbons



Robert Kirkman






Matt Fraction



Kieron Dwyer




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+2 #3 Phillip Buchan 2011-05-16 16:12
Thanks Graham, feedback is ALWAYS appreciated, nothing is worse than writing in a vacuum!

I like to think that where comics are concerned I'll read anything as long as it's good. Genres and characters aren't important, but if somebody recommends a comic then that always makes me take note.
0 #2 Mr Cheese 2011-05-15 14:02
that should read "looking forwardto following your column".
+1 #1 Mr Cheese 2011-05-15 14:01
Great piece, really looking to following your column and reading the comics you've recommended.

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Other articles in Adventures on Alternative Earths - by P.M Buchan

A Love Letter To Japan 14 November 2011

Antidotes to DC Comics 14 October 2011

All Comics Are Created Equal 14 September 2011

X-Men: Road to Schism 14 August 2011

52 First Issues?!? 14 July 2011

Teen Angst, Talking Corpses & Pompous Frogs 14 June 2011

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