Classic Fantastic: Revolutionary Girl Utena

Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format—please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.

What’s it about?

After suffering the terrible loss of her parents at age eight, a despondent Utena falls into a river and nearly drowns. She is rescued by a prince who kisses her tears and praises her noble spirit. The prince gives Utena a ring with a rose signet and tells her that it will one day lead her back to him. Utena’s inspired not to become a princess who needs rescuing, but to be a prince who protects those in need. The signet does indeed lead Utena somewhere—Ohtori Academy, a mysterious school where the student council holds royal status. When Utena witnesses Kyouichi Saionji, the odious student vice-president, abusing Anthy Himemiya, his girlfriend—she is relieved when another member steps in. However, Saonji later humiliates Utena’s roommate and she vows revenge for her friend and for Anthy—thus pulling her into a bizarre ritual involving sword duels in a strange arena where a castle hangs from the sky like a chandelier. When fighting Saonji, a sword emerges from Anthy’s chest and Utena wields it to defeat her enemy. The image of her prince appears above her, she wins the battle—and Anthy as her fiance.

Notable Notes

Chiho Saito is a female manga artist who, as one part of a collective group of artists known as Be Papas, made several shoujo, but Revolutionary Girl Utena is arguably Saito’s masterpiece. Like much shoujo style of the mid-nineties the characters are soft with huge doey eyes and flowing tresses of hair. A majority of the male characters have waist length hair, and the ones who don’t are still drawn in the bishounen (beautiful boy) style. Anthy and her family have darker skin and what appears to be bindis on their foreheads. The grounds of Ohtori are flush with Alphonse Mucha-esque gates and motifs. Shading is used with expertise to display sunlight playing upon the foliage and there are roses are everywhere. The castle which hovers above the dueling arena contains a delicate bouquet of turrets, and sparkles as bright as any princess could wish for.

Significance

Utena provides a unique visceral journey where gender roles are constantly in flux, and has gone on to inspire recent animated hits such as Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe, which references Utena’s signature rose imagery as well as replicating the style of the duelist battles. The themes of women rising up to protect one another from abuse as well as themes of toxic masculinity are as relevant as ever in the #metoo era. 

The very first time we see Utena, she is being rebuked violating her school’s dress code—she prefers to wear a “boys” uniform instead of the skirted style designated for “girls”. Utena fiercely argues for her right to wear the clothing which suits her best and smartly points out that what she is wearing breaks no rules written under school law. This series launched in 1996, and these themes are as relevant as ever as we are continuously moving towards a world which pushes to move past binary gender roles.

Appeal

A girl who wants to be a prince, and a damsel in distress by design. While Sailor Moon is well known as a gateway for anime and manga fans, Utena manages to grab those who’ve finished Usagi’s adventures and are ready for the next level. If Sailor Moon is the milk chocolate of classic “girl power” manga, Utena is the dark chocolate. If Sailor Moon is The Beatles of its genre, Utena is David Bowie. That is to say that both are great and earn their place on every shelf and best of list, but while Sailor Moon is a general crowd pleaser, Utena is a bit on the weird side. It’s not going to appeal to everyone, but it is rightly praised far and wide.

Utena will be snatched up by adults who have come to re-examine what was known as a groundbreaking feminist series and decide if the themes still hold up for them. Newcomers or teen and tween age may peruse the pages in search of the aforementioned Stephen Universe nods.

Though Utena is not an explicitly yuri manga—the anime series presents actualized queer relationships—she is often considered a gay icon.

Why should you own this?

Most classic manga pack volume upon volume of story, but here you won’t need to worry about carving out shelf space. The collector’s edition of the Utena series comes as two thick hardcover volumes bound and fit into a sleek box illustrated by the rose signet motif. These volumes include a supplementary story which is a manga version of an alternate universe story called The Adolescence of Utena.  This was also released as an animated film in 1999. In this version, Utena’s hair is initially worn to look like a short male style making her androgynous at first glance. Anthy has a far less restrained personality and appears hyper feminine. Their relationship is overtly romantic and when Anthy kisses Utena her hair releases to reveal an almost art nouveau version of her original longer style.

With the box set libraries have the opportunity of collecting a robust and notable series in a manageable package. 

Revolutionary Girl Utena
by Chiho Saito and Be Papas
ISBN: 9781421585871
VIZ, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: Teen Plus (16+)

Classic Fantastic: Dungeon

Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format—please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.

What’s it about?

The Eternal Champion is a duck whose magic sword wants him dead. His best friend is a vegetarian dragon named Marvin, his mentor a scheming underlord, his friends steal organs (magically), and he’s fighting to preserve a monstrous dungeon that only exists to tempt and destroy the heroically inclined. Welcome to the darkly comic Dungeon, an epic series of anthropomorphic fantasy heroes created by European comics powerhouses Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim that—in spite of a central conceit lifted from the Dungeon Keeper computer game series—makes post-modern satire and storytelling its serious business.

In the U.S., European comics are usually seen either as children’s comics (Tintin, Moomin, Sardine in Space) or literary fare (The Hunting Party, The Rabbi’s Cat). Sfar in particular has created books that fit into both categories, but in the sprawling Dungeon series you can see the shape of an ambition that combines and transcends traditional audiences and genres. The first volume, Duck Heart, combines sword-and-sorcery with a satirical plot, as cowardly antihero Herbert the Duck accidentally kills a barbarian hero and goes on a quest in his place, attempting to save the Dungeon that employs him from the more sinister and ambitious evil known as the Hooded Ones. The story mines tropes from fantasy novels and Dungeons & Dragons freely, populating the Dungeon and its world with a bewildering variety of wizards, giants, necromancers, brutes, vampires, and the like, but always putting its own twist on the various monsters and imbuing them with personalities and even souls, while “innocent” bystanders like the nearby village of xenophobic rabbits are more mean-spirited than the worst of the Dungeon’s beasts.

Notable Notes

Sfar and Trondheim grow their world in unexpected ways from what looks to be a predictable seed, letting it sprout into multiple timelines with separate protagonists. The stories focused on Herbert and Marvin’s partnership fall into the Zenith timeline, stories of the Dungeon at its height. The Early Years tells the story of the feared Dungeon Keeper’s naive youth as an innocent intellectual named Hyacinth, how he became the masked hero known as The Nightshirt, and how the Dungeon grew from the blend of his bitterness and good intentions. Twilight tells the story of not only the Dungeon’s inevitable decay but its entire world’s, how power has ensnared Herbert, trapping him between choices that seem monstrous and worse. Dungeon Parade deals with Herbert and Marvin’s minor adventures, largely unimportant to the central plot. Monstres is spread out between the separate timelines, largely telling the stories of minor characters, though also looping back to Herbert and his fate in Dungeon: Monstres, vol. 2: The Dark Lord. The intricate story structure makes the series difficult to collect, or even to know where to start reading—I recommend Zenith, then Early Years, then Twilight, with Parade and most of Monstres optional—but is also rewarding, as it allows the creators to establish their characters before demonstrating their unexpected origins, choices, and fates. It also lets readers feel for entities that might come across as unfeeling monstrosities if we had no idea where they came from or how they arrived.

Despite a relatively high barrier to entry, the series is beyond worthwhile. Trondheim and Sfar are both masters of the comics medium, both with iconically messy-but-detailed styles that allow them to create a relatable emotional picture as well as a literal one. While the subject matter may sometimes seem cliched—magical heroes, wizards, and the end of the world– their characters have hidden depths; they live in emotional worlds as nuanced and detailed as the imaginative landscapes that surround them.

It should be noted that Sfar and Trondheim are not the only creators involved with the series, and in later volumes they increasingly farmed out work to other talented artists like Manu Larcenet and Boulet. Even with skilled replacements, the series creators’ presence on these volumes is sometimes missed, as their skills as storytellers and visual comedians are hard to top. Also missing from some of the later volumes is the series approachable sense of humor—Heartbreaker, the 3rd volume of the Monstres series is particularly bereft of laughs. Even so, this smart dark fantastic comedy is worth reading and returning to many times, and is an asset in almost any public library’s Adult comics collection. It is also worth considering for academic collections with an interest in the intersection between European pop culture and post-modernism—a niche to be sure, but one worth studying. Simplifying these books’ collection is the fact that Zenith, Early Years, and Twilight have all been assembled into boxed sets, with the most recent reprint of Twilight in 2017. These volumes are all that are really necessary for a good Dungeon collection, but each volume is worth collecting, both on its own merits and as it enriches the overall story.

Significance

Legendary creators working together to create an epic satire/parable/adventure? Yes please!

Appeal

Lovers of fantasy, comedy, and avant-garde comics will all find plenty to enjoy in Dungeon.

Why should you own this?

Smart, funny, and off most readers radar—this is a series that libraries can shine a spotlight on and get great responses.

Dungeon
by Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim
Art by various
Dungeon: Zenith, vol. 1 ISBN: 9781561634019
Dungeon: The Early Years, vol. 1 ISBN: 9781561634392
Dungeon: Twilight, vol. 1 ISBN: 9781561634606
NBM Publishing, 2005 – 2016
Publisher Age Rating: (16+, Adult)

Classic Fantastic: The Goon

Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format—please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.

What’s it about?

The Goon is a classic anti-hero, the local enforcer of a rundown, miserable part of town where the cops don’t bother to show their faces, but zombies, hags, and other inhuman creatures are at just about every turn. When we first meet Goon and his trusted right-hand man Franky, he is keeping every two-bit con artist, thief and moonshiner in check, and manages to keep a horde of zombies and their leader, the Priest, at bay on Lonely Street. While Goon will put everything into keeping the streets in order, if you owe him money, you can be sure he will collect, likely breaking a few bones if you try to weasel your way out of paying him back.

Goon wasn’t always meant for the miserable life he ended up with. Raised by his Aunt Kizzie, a carnival strongwoman, Goon was supposed to be different from his no-good criminal of a father. Kizzie intended to make sure Goon would turn out to be an honorable man. But as with many men who to try to be honorable, Goon’s fate is deep-seated in a sorrow and darkness he can’t escape. After Kizzie is killed by crossfire meant for Labrazio, a territory boss who took to hiding at the carnival, a young Goon killed Labrazio. He took Labrazio’s things and headed to Labrazio’s territory where he convinced everyone that he was Labrazio’s new enforcer. By the time it comes out that Labrazio was already dead when Goon arrived in town, he has already proved himself to be the man in charge and a force to be reckoned with.

The Goon protects his part of town and the people who live in it, first from the Priest and his zombies, and later with more and more formidable foes. As the years pass, the more it comes to light the the town itself may itself be rooted by a curse. Try as they might, Goon and Franky may never be able to go straight and escape the darkness that surrounds them.

Notable Notes

If you put together film noir, Universal monsters, early comic strips, pin-ups, and a Svengoolie/Elvira crossover episode, you would get The Goon. With this series Eric Powell created an incredibly immersive world that is simultaneously set in the past while still taking influences from the present. Readers get to see many sides of Eric Powell’s storytelling in the series. Powell incorporates elements of horror in a manner that makes it feel like folklore that’s been passed down from generation to generation in Appalachian country. In earlier issues, Powell is writing a funny book with darker elements woven in. Issues are more standalone, with smaller, local trouble as the story’s main focus. But it’s soon clear that Powell has bigger plans for his series. He plants seeds for storylines that grow in a reader’s mind as they are laughing at one-liners about Franky doing degenerate things with an inflatable chicken. Powell lures you in with jokes about overly romanticized vampires with frilly shirts, and then next thing you know you’re left heartbroken by the misery Goon carries with him. There’s a moment in the series where it became clear Powell would take the book in a darker direction, leaning in on Goon’s past and the curse that holds the town hostage. By the end of the series, the tone has shifted completely to embrace the melancholy of the setting and its main character, but it is still feels like The Goon you started with.

A similar progression is evident in Powell’s art style and the colors accompanying it. Early in the series, the artwork is a take on a classic Eisner style. It paired well with the more humorous tone of the series. Likewise, the colors in those early issues match, with a varied, albeit muted, color palette that made The Goon feel like a classic book while evoking the shady side of town it’s set in. Powell’s covers, however, are paintings more akin to sci-fi pulp novels. The Frank Frazetta influence is clearly there, but it is also easy to compare to artists outside of pulp work, particularly post-impressionists. When I look at later The Goon covers, I get a similar feeling as when I look at a Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painting. As the story progressed, Powell’s style evolved into something unique all his own. In the end, even Franky’s Little Orphan Annie eyes effortlessly switch back and forth from humor to heartache. The more the tone shifts in the story, the more Powell’s covers steer away from attempts at naturalistic color, instead working with more restricted and muted tones which better reflect the underlying sickness in Goon’s world. The interior colors also progress this way, and in time they become more similar to Powell’s covers, coming together as a beautifully cohesive book.

Significance

Reading The Goon is a journey where we see a good comic book writer/artist become a great master of the art form. For most fans, the Chinatown storyline is the the clear turn. References to Chinatown are made early in the series, and we quickly learn that whatever happened there seemed to seal Goon’s fate. Similarly, it sealed Powell’s. When Powell finally decided it was time to tackle putting Chinatown to paper, he took a break from regular single issues in order to dedicate his time to the story. It was a risky move, but he knew it was a risk he had to take.

Chinatown was the story that really cemented the humanity of the characters we come to enjoy. In addition to Goon’s personal hardships and heartbreaks, readers get to see how strong the bond between Goon and Franky is. If anyone foolishly questioned whether Franky would be by Goon’s side to the bitter end, the Chinatown book dispelled any doubts. As important as the Chinatown story was in the series’ direction, it is far from being the peak. With every issue, Powell continued to grow as a writer and artist, up until the last arc.

The Goon’s influence has also spread outside of its own world. Goon has had crossovers with Hellboy and animated metal band Dethklok. Among the mini-stories are a few written by Rebecca Sugar, Sugar’s earliest work for a major publisher. (Powell would later publish Sugar’s first comic, Pug David, under his own Albatross Funny Books.) The series has captured the attention of David Fincher, Tom Lennon, and Joe Hill, perfectly reflecting how the series appeals to the weird, funny, and spooky. It’s even been optioned for an animated film by Blur Studios (known for their FX work in several Marvel films and a slew of video games) who created a proof of concept video which has had fans on the edge of their seats for a full movie to be funded.

The Goon is a modern classic; a series in which Eric Powell was able to hone his craft and lift the medium. All while throwing in his fair share of poop jokes. That’s no small feat.

Appeal

The Goon sits comfortably in that cross-section of funny, spooky, creepy, and melancholy, making it a series that can appeal to different genre interests. This is absolutely a book for older readers. Essentially, if someone shouldn’t see an R-rated movie on their own, then they probably shouldn’t read The Goon (yet). The series is filled with violence, and while earlier issues use that violence for humor, as the series goes on, the violence is more visceral and not meant to make you laugh. There is also quite a bit of suggested nudity, and adult language and humor, both of which are self-censored to a degree by Powell.

Why should you own this?

The Goon is a series that showcases what is great about the comic book format, and has certainly set itself as one of the great series of the medium. In it, we see Powell build upon the foundations that those before him created, and molding it into something all his own. When it’s funny, it makes you burst out in laughter with no regard of who may be around you. When it’s heartbreaking, you’ll find yourself crying over what Goon himself would call “one of them funny books”. The perfect mix of low-brow and high-brow, just what a great comic should be. Originally collected into 17 smaller volumes, Dark Horse re-released the entire series in 5 library editions, so the complete set can find a home on the shelf.

The Goon
by Eric Powell
The Goon Library, vol. 1: 9781616558420
The Goon Library, vol. 2: 9781616558437
The Goon Library, vol. 3: 9781616559861
The Goon Library, vol. 4: 9781506700182
The Goon Library, vol. 5: 9781506704012
Dark Horse, 2003
Publisher Age Rating: 16+

Classic Fantastic: Finder

Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format—please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.

What’s it about?

Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder is an eclectic title. While the series does have a nominal protagonist—vagabond anti-hero Jaeger Ayers, part superhero, part outcast, part sexy beast—Finder is really about mapping out McNeil’s complex and remarkable—far future or alien?—world. Each story ricochets to a new setting, and often to new protagonists as well. Heroes such as graduate student/temple prostitute Vary Krishna and cyber-elf god Magri White emerge in their respective corners of existence. McNeil’s stories have taken her readers into the domed city of Anvard, into the unsettling Disneyland parody The Happy Place, onto lush plains grudgingly shared by lion-women and hyper-intelligent dinosaur people, and into the shared dreamspace named Elsewhere. Dubbed an “aboriginal science fiction” by some, Finder follows the lives of a web of characters, with a strand always connecting them back to Jaeger. Finder’s reality is casually miraculous, with wonders around every corner, and with a panoply of unlikely heroes and shocking—sometimes cynical—stories filling it like a pot, ready to spill. At turns funny and tragic, romantic and erotic, inviting and strange, Finder’s world and stories are unlike any others.

Notable Notes

Finder is a one-woman show, and was originally self-published. As such, the comic has been slowly coming out since 1996. Now, more 20 years in, McNeil has created an impressive number of stories, currently available in five volumes from Dark Horse. She has also developed a quiet but passionate fanbase. The first three volumes of the Dark Horse editions of Finder (The Finder Library, vols. 1-2 and Finder: Voice) are in black and white; color was introduced to the series in Finder: Third World with dazzling results. McNeil is a master of her craft. The series has been characterized throughout by McNeil’s compelling and intricate artwork, so full of details that the printed page can barely sustain it. Every story is full to bursting with ideas and as a result McNeil has taken to footnoting each volume with copious notes on the text and artwork that fill in the apparent gaps in her world with commentary that is as entertaining as her stories.

Although Finder is a science fiction series, its stories often transcend or merge genres. Adventure, domestic drama, horror, hard sci-fi, and raunchy humor often exist in close proximity. McNeil has crafted a world with no monoliths, where each society is different, and the rituals, traditions, and individuals she brings to life are often based on deep anthropological and historical research. She considers the implications of technologies—sociological, economic, anthropological—deeply when crafting her societies, often bringing in Jaeger as a combination of outcast fly in the ointment and fly on the wall.

The series is also marked by McNeil’s profound imagination. Jaeger, for example is a tough guy tracker with almost preternatural senses who heals supernaturally fast. He could easily come across as a poor man’s Wolverine if it wasn’t for the combination of his sharp, hilarious personality, his tendency to get his own butt kicked, and the fact that his “powers” also act like an immune disorder—if he doesn’t get hurt badly, regularly, his hyper immune system will turn on his own body as it looks for problems to fix. Other brilliant innovations include the Laeske—a race of feathered dinosaur-ish quadrupeds that lose their minds during mating season, but are tenured professors the rest of the year; the Painwright Museum, where you can learn anyone else’s greatest fears at the price of revealing your own; the aforementioned Elsewhere, a virtual world visited by millions every day but held together by one man’s fragile, perfect memory; and a vast psychic reclamation project where sensitives probe the distant past for fragments of forgotten pop songs and icons. Big ideas and regular people exist side by side in McNeil’s work, just like in the real world. This is a literary series that draws its audience in with its intricate concepts and characters, and immaculate prose. Like Shakespeare and Joyce, McNeil tells her stories with humor and aplomb, and a love for her world and characters that permeates her work and humanizes all but her most disturbing characters.

Significance

McNeil is well loved on the small press circuit and it’s hard to find an indie creators unfamiliar with her work. Finder won a single Eisner Award (for Best Digital Comic/Webcomic in 2009), but has been nominated on seven different occasions. It has also won two Ignatz Awards, the Friends of Lulu’s Kim Yale Award, and the 2011 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. While McNeil is a clear storyteller, the idea density on every page of Finder is remarkable, on par with a modernist classic like Ulysses, where the reader will be quite happy if they get one reference out of every ten. This is a highbrow, literary comic that isn’t afraid to get down in the muck of human existence, and is one of those books that should be pointed to when looking for an example of high art in comics.

Finder is also notable for its representation of different kinds of social outsiders. Jaeger, for example, is the sci-fi equivalent of a kid who grew up on the Native American reservation but, as a half-breed, can never fit in. Other characters include (the equivalent of) a South Asian call girl, a girl artist in search of her art, a mother trying to keep her family safe, a powerful clan of men and women—where every full-blooded man is a drag queen. It’s never been weird to be queer or dark-skinned in McNeil’s fiction, it happens so often that it’s usually unremarked upon. This is truer now in comics than ever before, and McNeil was one of the first to quietly pave the way. There’s a lot for readers of different colors and identities to enjoy in Finder.

Appeal

Finder is foremost a book for adult readers, and in libraries is destined for adult bookshelves. Its humorous treatment of serious subjects could also hold an interest for teen readers, but the book’s sometimes brutal violence combined with McNeil’s unflinching use of nudity marks it clearly as a adult title. Sci-fi fans are sure to appreciate the sheer imagination driving these stories, and literary readers will appreciate the clear characterizations and engaging plots. There’s also plenty there for fans of humor, horror, and even romance. It’s also not for nothing that Jaeger ranked #8 on ComicsAlliance’s list of The 50 Sexiest Male Characters in Comics in 2013.

Why should you own this?

This is my favorite anecdote about Carla: when I first met her in the late 1990s, no one was flocking to her table. She gave me the first single issue of Finder; I read it that night, came back the next morning breathless and bought a copy of everything she had.

Finder is an investment that pays big dividends. The two Dark Horse omnibus The Finder Library collections are each more than 600 pages long, while more recent collections are more standard graphic novel length. As a series, Finder is a part of the foundation of a great comic collection. There are no substitutes or equivalents. Readers who have never been exposed to McNeil’s work will be astounded and will keep coming back to it like a swim in a strange-but-familiar pond.

Finder
by Carla Speed McNeil
The Finder Library, vol. 1 ISBN: 9781595826527
The Finder Library, vol. 2 ISBN: 9781595826534
Finder: Voice ISBN: 9781595826510
Finder: Third World ISBN: 9781616554675
Finder: Chase the Lady ISBN: 9781506705439 (forthcoming)
Dark Horse
Publisher Age Rating: N/A (Adult)

Classic Fantastic: The EC Archives: Panic

Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format—please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.

What’s it about?

Dark Horse has been reprinting EC Comics titles in high quality, hardcover volumes as a part of The EC Archives collection. These editions, resplendent with revitalized coloring (and thankfully acid-free paper), bring an incredible era of comics back to life, making them more accessible than ever to libraries and their readers. EC Comics is considered one of the most historically significant publishers in American comic book history. The company, headed by William Gaines, gained notoriety in the early 1950s when they expanded the comics they published from titles such as Picture Stories from the Bible and Tiny Tot Comics to horror and crime comics such as Crime Suspenstories and Tales from the Crypt. In a time when it seemed like everyone was trying to cash in on the popularity of comic books, the titles EC Comics was publishing broke away from the model of superhero tales with happy endings. These fresh and unique stories featuring violence, suspense, and fear led to a boom in sales and greater attention from the anti-comics crowd. That group included concerned parents, religious groups, politicians, and a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham, who is best known for his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent in which he detailed the supposedly detrimental effects of comic-reading on children. Both Wertham and Gaines testified in the infamous Senate Hearings in April 1954 to determine whether comics contributed to juvenile delinquency. One result of the hearings was the implementation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA) in October of the same year, which was the comic book industry’s attempt to self-censor and reform comics to ensure their continued publication. However, much of the content that the CCA banned was staple in EC’s comics, and is thus considered one of the major factors contributing to the death of all their titles, with the exception of MAD which managed to bypass the code and continue publication in magazine form.

Panic was originally published in the early 1950s, released as an imitation of MAD in the days when MAD was still a comic book. There were twelve issues of Panic, with each issue containing several self-contained stories parodying everything from pop culture icons to famous artwork to drugstore advertisements. (My favorite of the latter is a one page comic touting the power of Pepso-Abysmal.) One story parodies a dozen nursery rhymes with twisted comical endings, another looks at literal variants of sports idioms, and yet another reinterprets a classic movie scene through six different styles of filmmaking. Wordplay and puns rule the pages of Panic alongside bizarre artwork featuring exaggerated expressions and grotesque caricatures. A single story could feature styles ranging from fairly realistic to utterly absurd, from pin-ups lounging on pianos to the “ugliest gal in the world,” with the change in characters carrying the mood of the stories. Many artists worked on Panic, though there were quite a few regulars such as Bill Elder, Wally Wood, Joe Orlando, and Jack Davis. The art is fast-paced and action-packed to keep up with the quick wit of the writers. However, all sorts of jokes and references are worked into the details of the art, for those who take their time to read. The cover of the second issue, featuring a child blowing up a model town, shows that this explosion is the result of the child having access to a “Junior Kem-Kit,” labeled as “educational” and “harmless.” This seems to throw back to EC’s origins as Educational Comics while making fun of the current climate labeling comics as dangerous.

While the comics themselves have their own charm, there is a lot of enjoyment in the other features such as fake articles, interviews, and advice columns, along with advertisements for EC’s other comics. One such advertisement touts a new cover design for MAD that makes it look more like literature, so that instead of looking like an idiot who reads comic books in public, “you can look like an idiot reading high-class literature.”

The comic’s self-awareness makes it easy to trace the struggles that Bill Gaines and EC Comics faced in the 1950s. Issue number 6, the first issue dated after the CCA was formed, is a white cover with a small red asterisk in the center. At the bottom of the cover, the asterisk clarifies “This cover, the result of hours of conference, is E.C.’s final answer to the comic book controversy. Designed to offend no one. It is blank!” Issue 8, published in the spring of 1955, declares in an eye chart style font “This is no magazine,” corresponding to MAD’s change in format from comic (last issue May 1955) to magazine (July 1955).

Notable Notes

As far as I can tell, no content has been censored or softened from the original comics. While this reprint does not act as an exact replica of the original comic book, it stays fairly faithful, with two significant differences: coloring and advertisements.

In the beginning of each volume they note that they wanted to follow the style of the original colorist, Marie Severin, “to retain the integrity of the original EC comic books.” Dark Horse’s reprint provides a bit more consistency with color, some of which was likely not feasible in the print world of the 1950s. The coloring technique for the art is a bit tidier—no colors blur or bleed outside of their lines, and they are printed as solid colors rather than a modern imitation of Ben-Day dots in four color process printing. In the original comics, the color behind the narrative text varied from panel to panel whereas Dark Horse chose one color for each story. Some pages are recolored entirely, notably covers and the pages advertising subscriptions for Panic or other EC comics. A few of these pages that were black and white in the original printing are reprinted in full color. When these choices are made, they generally feel consistent with the rest of the comic, creating a reproduction that’s faithful in intent.

The other major difference comes in the lamentable absence of advertisements. While this is understandable, considering that most comic book collections do not reprint advertisements and there would likely be copyright implications for including them, there is a whole other level of nostalgia and glee present in 1950s comic book ads. Reprint readers will not get the chance to start a “Quick-Cash spare time Shoe Business” (“EVERYBODY wears shoes!”) or order the 1953 “Space Commander” vibro-matic walkie-talkies (two phones for only $1!), but that is probably for the best. Advertisements for other EC titles are mostly retained, though it seems that some editorial decisions were needed depending on the number of advertisement pages that needed to be cut for the reprinted version. For instance, a double-sided advertisement for EC’s “new direction” comic books such as Valor, Aces High, and Psychoanalysis, is shortened to one page presumably to fit the page count.

Significance

While all of EC’s comics are historically significant, Panic is particularly so in its function as a satire publication (or as a parody of a satire publication—however you might consider it). Though its first issue was published well before the creation of the CCA, it still created quite an uproar for its parody of “The Night Before Christmas” in its first issue, which led to a newsstand ban in Massachusetts. The Attorney General took issue with the way the story portrayed Christmas “in a pagan manner.” This incident is recounted by the editors in the “Pan-Mail” feature in issue three. Other officials took issue with Santa’s sleigh bearing a sign that says “Just Divorced.” Funnily enough, the CCA later specified that “Divorce shall not be treated humorously nor represented as desirable,” presumably to appeal to Catholic values. (For more information regarding the reaction to this story, check out this piece from the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.)

Having Panic on library shelves gives readers the opportunity to ask “What content was deemed worthy of censorship in the 1950s?” and would be a great companion to any Banned Book Week programming. Interestingly enough, the last four issues actually carry the CCA‘s seal of approval. This could be used as a teaching exercise in a workshop or a classroom, and ask readers to take note of the restrictions the Code imposed and how later issues may have differed in content from the earlier issues.

Appeal

When it was first published, Panic’s intended audience was fairly broad: anybody with a dime, including children. Today, Panic will appeal strongly to adult readers, academics, and pop culture enthusiasts, though the humor might surprisingly strike a chord with teens. While the stories employ cartoonish violence, a lot of slapstick, some gore, and a handful of sexy pin-ups, the humor is not entirely crude and is often self-aware. A good line comes from a parody of Dick Tracy (Tick Dracy), where one character extols the virtues of a black suit: “You can’t see wrinkles and creases…!” The main character responds: “Besides…it’s easy to draw!” However, today’s younger folks may miss out on some of the references, famous figures, and events being satirized in Panic’s pages. Even the wordplay might be a little bit far removed to make much sense. For instance, the cover’s tagline “humor in a varicose vein” is a play on MAD’s “humor in a jugular vein,” where jugular is used in place of jocular. If you revel in absurdity, Panic is absolutely the comic book for you.

Why should you own this?

The books may be fairly expensive at $49.99 each, but considering the near impossibility of reading the stories in any other way, I think it’s a worthwhile investment. These well-bound hardcovers are printed somewhat larger than the original comics, with very high quality paper and sturdy bindings. Splitting the work into two volumes keeps the collection more manageable with much less stress on the books’ spines.

In an age where comics are becoming an increasingly popular medium, Panic offers a way for readers to take a closer look at the history of comic books. These reprinted archives are an excellent opportunity to experience the thrill of comics when they first peaked. Panic would be well-contextualized in a collection with nonfiction books such as David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague, Amy Kiste Nyberg’s Seal of Approval, and Les Daniels’ Comix: A History of Comic Books in America.

The EC Archives: Panic
by Al Feldstein, Jack Mendelsohn, and others
Art by Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Bill Elder, and others
vol 1 ISBN: 9781616558833
vol 2 ISBN: 9781506702711
Dark Horse, 2016-2017

Classic Fantastic: Ms. Marvel

[Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format—please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.]

What’s it about?

Ms. Marvel is a window into the life of a Pakistani Muslim immigrant family. After a terrigen mist endowed Kamala Khan with superpowers, she became the new Ms. Marvel—a Ms. Marvel whose superhero outfit is a repurposed burkini. Kamala weaves between the worlds of the religious and the secular the same way she weaves between the world of the teen and the world of the superhero: she’s sometimes confident, sometimes uneasy, and never in one place for too long.

Within Kamala’s nuclear family and friend circle, we’re provided a variety of characters who express their faith in a variety of ways. Abu and Ammi, Kamala’s parents, are somewhat secular but strict. They disapprove of drugs, dogs, and dates. On the other hand, Kamala’s brother Aamir rebels through his piety by dressing in traditional dress with a kufi (skullcap). Kamala’s feelings about her faith are complex and contradictory. She’s quick to snark at Sheikh Abdullah’s lecture from the women’s section of the masjid, but she also remembers his wisdom at crucial moments.

Kamala expresses a similar ambivalence about being a supehero. The work takes takes her away from friends, sleep, and her beloved World of Battlecraft videogame, and she’s not thrilled about being treated like a kid sister in the Avengers. On the other hand, she gets to save the world.

What is clear, though, is that there are similarities between religious contemplation and serving as a superhero. Both require humans to think of the world beyond themselves, assess their courses of action, and work on behalf of the greater good.

Kamala’s “greater good” is Jersey City, New Jersey. Jersey City is drawn true to real life, with views of the Freedom Tower poking out from across the Hudson River. Jersey City is home to lots of working-class immigrants representing different waves of immigration. Kamala’s best friend, techie sidekick, and quasi love interest Bruno is white, but he also identifies as an Italian immigrant. Kamala’s and Bruno’s relationship faces its expected turns over the series, including a moment where Bruno reveals his love for Kamala and Kamala, despite being boy-obsessed, tells Bruno she’s not about relationships right now.

Notable Notes

Even though Kamala and Bruno aren’t in love (or not really, or let’s not talk about it), their verbal sparring and references to nerd and gamer culture are delightful. There are references to RPGs, memes that have probably overstayed their welcome (doge, anyone?), and bitcoin, among others. These small moments don’t come across as gimmicky in the slightest, though I see how they easily could tire the reader—instead, they show an attention to craft.

What’s also notable in the Ms. Marvel volumes is the use of setting, color, and space. I have a hard time reading some superhero comics because I feel the action is too crowded on the page. In the interest of making superhero comics “exciting,” some artists lay in lots of scenes with BOOMS and THWACKS and character close-ups from torso up. Ms. Marvel goes the opposite direction. Instead of crisp colors, colorist Ian Herring gave the series a faded palette, and instead of lots of close-ups, we get scenescapes of a long-legged Kamala Khan making her way across Jersey City.

The two artists who drew most of the series, Adrian Alphona and Takeshi Miyazawa, have slightly different interpretations of Ms. Marvel. Alphona’s Ms. Marvel is leggy and gangly, and her poofy hair floats around her head defiantly. Alphona’s lines are sketchy and he attends to details around Jersey City like iron trellises and trash cans. Miyazawa’s Ms. Marvel, on the other hand, is sleeker with bolder lines and bigger gestures. The style feels more sci-fi than PATH train. All artists who have taken a hand to Ms. Marvel are keen on drawing her grimaces, pouts, and frustrations of daily life and superhero duty.

Significance

Ms. Marvel gives readers an opportunity to cheer for a heroine who looks like them and practices their faith. It takes the attention away from superhero duties as a white male act and shows how a woman of color can be a public servant who gets the bad guys, too. It’s not the only comic that portrays a non-white or non-male main character, but it does so with tremendous heart and openness. Wilson has developed a heroine who is so likeable and relatable to teens, because so many of her concerns are teen concerns and so much of her life is teen life. What teen on the planet hasn’t had to negotiate parent expectations, identity, and getting to class on time?

Appeal

Ms. Marvel appeals to new graphic novel readers as well as graphic novel fans who are trying out a new genre. The intent in this series seems to be to find as wide a readership as possible. The plot lines are simple and somewhat modular: the core characters stay somewhat stable and there are new villains and characters in every volume who are introduced. If there are some story lines that carry over from previous volumes, they are contextualized and explained clearly.

I also see Ms. Marvel as a bridge between Japanese comics and American comics. There are times that Kamala’s actions and depictions seem more out of an anime comedy—for example, at times her eyes bug a little bit when she meets somebody famous, and when she gets defensive with a friend, her eyes become pin-like and small. Kamala can be endearing even when she’s at her most annoying.

Why should you own this?

The Ms. Marvel series introduced comic book readers to Kamala Khan, a teen in Jersey City who is just trying to balance school, friends, overbearing parents, and World of Battlecraft. Superheroes have never had this much teen angst before. It’s about time Ms. Marvel became a must-read for every teenager on this planet and on any other alternate universe planets, too.

Ms. Marvel
Written by G. Willow Wilson
Art by Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa, and others
Volume 1: No Normal
ISBN: 9780785190219
Volume 2: Generation Why
ISBN: 9780785190226
Volume 3: Crushed
ISBN: 9780785192275
Volume 4: Last Days
ISBN: 9780785197362
Volume 5: Super Famous
ISBN: 9780785196112
Volume 6: Civil War II
ISBN: 9780785196129
Volume 7: Damage Per Second
ISBN: 9781302903053
Marvel, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: T+

Classic Fantastic: Korgi

Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format—please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.

What’s it about?

Korgi is a series of episodic stories of life in Korgi Hollow, where magical dogs help and companion the woodland folk, called Mollies. Each volume contains a different adventure or new revelation about life in Korgi Hollow, from the dark secrets of its past to current and future enemies. The main characters are young Ivy and her dog Sprout. A little more adventurous than most of their tribe, they often get into trouble (usually because of Sprout’s appetite) but with their own determination and the help of their friends they pull through. Each of the four volumes is introduced by Wart, Korgi Hollow’s historian, and ends with short biographies of all the characters. Other than these features, the stories are wordless. Readers will learn about Ivy’s close encounter with monsters in the woods, her dangerous adventure saving the wings of her fellow Mollies from a creepy alien, the history of Korgi Hollow, and more about the past and present dangers facing the Korgis and Mollies.

Notable Notes

Although Korgi hasn’t won any awards, it has been widely and positively reviewed by library and graphic novel sources. Acclaimed for its unique storytelling style, Slade’s skilled artwork, and the intriguing plot, it’s a strong favorite with many readers as well, especially those who feel more comfortable with art than with words.

Significance

In the small but select company of wordless graphic novels for kids, Korgi stands out as the only series that tells a fairly complex fantasy and tells it extremely well. While many popular graphic novel series for children feature full-color artwork, Slade continues to produce the interior art for Korgi in black and white. Despite this, Korgi is a graphic novel series that kids will want to read.

Appeal

Slade’s black and white art is both charming and gruesome, depicting the strange creatures that inhabit Korgi Hollow and their adventures, quarrels, and history. He manages to make the grisly fates of various monsters both appropriately dark and yet still keep the comic kid-friendly, staying away from more graphic depictions that would frighten younger or more sensitive readers. Korgi is unique in its appeal to a wide range of ages. Marketed as an “all ages” comic, although it was generally reviewed for children and most libraries shelve it in that area, it has enough layers and tantalizing secrets to attract teen and adult readers as well. Fantasy fans who enjoy entering a world and creating their own fan art and fiction will find Korgi Hollow the perfect setting for letting their imaginations roam free.

Why should you own this?

Although Korgi is not necessarily a collection standard like Bone or Amulet, it manages to have wide appeal to all ages, reluctant or struggling readers, and fantasy fans—or teachers—who want to encourage world-building and imagination. The longer period between releases means that there will be new fans to discover the series every time another glimpse into the world of Korgi Hollow is offered. Gatekeepers who are reluctant to allow kids to read graphic novels can be enticed with the suggestion of encouraging kids to write their own accompanying stories; fans of fantasy (and corgis) will need no encouragement.

Korgi
by Christian Slade
Vol. 1: Sprouting Wings
ISBN: 9781891830907
Vol. 2: The Cosmic Collector
ISBN: 9781603090100
Vol. 3: A Hollow Beginning
ISBN: 9781603090629
Vol. 4: The Problem with Potions
ISBN: 9781603094030
Top Shelf, 2007 – 2016

Classic Fantastic: Punisher: Welcome Back, Frank

Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format—please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.


There’s something romantic about Frank Castle. Not in the candlelit dinner, flowers and chocolate sort of way. Rather, his unique worldview that gives him the freedom to gun down evil-doers without a second thought. Many Marvel characters, and almost all other mainstream superheroes for that matter, operate under a familiar “do no harm” code of justice. When Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, and Captain America are still struggling with the morality of their abilities, Frank Castle’s gun barrels have already gone cold. With great power comes great responsibility? Not for The Punisher. There’s a scene in The Punisher movie starring Thomas Jane that perfectly encapsulates Frank’s philosophy—and what makes him so appealing:

“In certain extreme situations, the law is inadequate. In order to shame its inadequacy, it is necessary to act outside the law. To pursue natural justice. This is not vengeance. Revenge is not a valid motive, it’s an emotional response. No, not vengeance. Punishment.”

The Punisher is a man that deals in absolutes. He’s a great character to follow during those moments where one feels powerless against the darker elements of the world. He’s the perfect power fantasy, one that romanticizes the most extreme form of rich, uncompromising vigilante justice.

What’s it about?

Welcome Back, Frankpenned by Preacher duo Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon—reunites the reader with Frank Castle, a Vietnam veteran that was turned into a ruthless vigilante after his wife and child were killed during a mafia shootout. Left with nothing to his name, Frank descends onto New York and sets his sights on the Gnucci crime family with the intent to wipe them off the face of the earth. Sent to stop him is Detective Soap, a sad sack of a precinct detective who is forced into the impossible task of bringing the Punisher to justice by a department that’s keen on letting the soldier do his thing. The Punisher’s resurgence in New York is also cause for a rash in copycat murders, causing three disparate individuals to take up vigilantism by murdering those that do not fit their worldview.

Notable Notes

With Garth Ennis at the helm, one has to expect his off kilter sense of dark humor. After all, this is the same author who created a mutilated character named Arseface in Preacher. Ennis’ style of humor often puts the tone of the work at odds with itself. There are some really cool and thought provoking moments in the graphic novel that are often interrupted by silly sight gags or over the top violence. These gags are amusing and entertaining at their best but at their worst, they are corny and get in the way. 

Take, for example, the scene in which Frank is being chased by Ma Gnucci’s goons at a zoo. As the Punisher survives the tense and violent onslaught, the battle is interspersed with ridiculous imagery including a giant python squeezing a shooter to death and Frank dunking a man head first into a piranha tank before punching a bear in the face. Ennis delights in shocking the reader with grotesque hilarity, which is the sole reason why Ma survives a bear attack and spends the rest of the comic as an angry torso. The climactic confrontation between Ma and Frank ends in such a way that would be completely stupid if it were anyone other than Ennis.

Steve Dillon’s brightly colored and creative visuals enable Ennis’ sense of humor. Rather than riff from the amazing, realistic covers drawn by Tim Bradstreet, Dillon’s artwork gives the material a prime time adult cartoon feel. Like HBO’s Spawn but with a lot less black. Whenever I read this story, a part of me pines to see what a different illustrator, like Ms. Marvel’s Adrian Alphona, Tim Sale, or even Tim Bradstreet, could do with the comic. But that means losing Dillon’s skill at drawing expressions and the best panel in the entire book—the stupefied reaction from the bear after getting punched in the face—and such a thought fills me with sadness.

Significance

Ennis’ Welcome Back, Frank is a significant work because it directly influenced the Punisher’s entrance onto the big screen (that is, if one were to ignore the character’s true debut via the 1989 The Punisher movie starring Dolph Lundgren). 2004’s The Punisher, starring Thomas Jane and John Travolta, was heavily influenced by Ennis’ comic, featuring characters and whole chapters being adapted to the film. One example is the fight between the Punisher and the Russian, a gargantuan strongman capable of throwing his prey through solid walls and disabling a gun with his bare hands. In one of the film’s most enjoyable sequences, Frank is shown using the same ballistic switchblade as in the comic.

In 2005, THQ published The Punisher, a video game developed by Volition. Parts of the game were designed to tie-in with the 2004 film, primarily recasting Thomas Jane as the voice of the character. A level was designed around the battle at the New York zoo, giving players a chance to recreate the piranha attack as they work their way to save Joan the Mouse. Sadly, you don’t get to punch a bear.

The comic was once again used as source material for the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil. There is a tense scene, taken nearly panel for panel from the comic, where the Punisher, played by Walking Dead alumni Jon Bernthal, has captured Matt Murdock on a roof and forces him to decide whether or not to shoot a criminal using a gun taped to his hands. The circumstances of the confrontation are a little different, but the show has Frank use the exact dialogue from the comic.

Appeal

The appeal of Welcome Back, Frank is its virtue of being the perfect place for new readers to start. The comic doesn’t require trudging through the Punisher’s exploits from decades of old Marvel comics to understand or make better sense of his violent crusade. As a matter of fact, the comic doesn’t make a big deal about presenting Frank’s backstory because, ultimately, it’s not that important in the grand scheme of things. The Punisher doesn’t have a complex backstory like Spider-Man, Iron Man, or even Doctor Strange. He’s literally just a man with a gun out to shoot bad guys.

The modus operandi of the Punisher also makes him a good gateway Marvel hero for DC fans to get their feet wet. Frank Castle is quite similar to Batman, a vigilante hero who delivers justice by working outside the law. Batman, however, operates strictly with a “no-kill” rule that, at times, seems nonsensical within his crime-ridden world. With the Punisher, his code is simply “kill all bad guys”, making Frank Castle the perfect cure for those frustrated by the tired antics of the Joker, who’s always allowed to wreak havoc because Batman won’t kill him. In Welcome Back, Frank, the Punisher recognizes that the Gnucci Family is a danger to the city and that’s reason enough to launch a campaign to wipe them off the face of the earth. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the way Batman does things, after all, that’s what separates him from the monsters that regularly ruin people’s lives, but there’s a great thrill in watching the Punisher move against evil people who think they are untouchable.

Why should you own this?

With his increased visibility through his Marvel Cinematic Universe debut in Daredevil and his upcoming standalone series on Netflix, the Punisher is finally getting the attention he deserves. I’ve always been a fan of the character and his unique sense of justice, so it’s fantastic to see the character get his shot in the spotlight. Again, with nothing tying this comic to any particular story arc, this is the best possible place to start. It’s an independent comic that doesn’t have anything to do with Civil War, Civil War II, Secret Wars, or any other crossover. It’s a simple, no fuss, no muss story featuring a lot of action and Garth Ennis style tomfoolery.

Punisher: Welcome Back, Frank
by Garth Ennis
Art by Steve Dillon and Jimmy Palmiotti
ISBN: 9780785157168
Marvel, 2011
Publisher Age Rating: 17+

Classic Fantastic: Astro City

Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format—please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.

***

I’d always felt ashamed that I’d never read Astro City.

I knew of it, certainly. I could speak in broad terms about how it was an anthology series set in a fictional metropolis full of superheroes. I could describe how it is regarded today as the first major artistic rebuttal to the ethos of The Dark Age that dominated American comics in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I could even rattle off facts like an encyclopedia about how it started out at Image Comics in 1995, before moving to the Homage imprint under Wildstorm Comics and lay dormant for a time before being revived in 2013 at Vertigo Comics.

Yes, I could tell you all of that and more. But for many years I couldn’t tell you the first thing about what Astro City was truly about because I’d somehow never gotten around to reading the whole series. I did read the first issue of the new Vertigo series when it came out and moved on to read the very first issue—the one which won The Harvey Award for Best Single Issue in 1996—as a freebie on Comixology. Apart from that, I was living proof of the Mark Twain truism that defined a literary classic as “a book which people praise and don’t read.”

Thankfully, I recently had a chance to work down the list most readers have of “great books I will read someday when I have time” and managed to read the first thirteen Astro City volumes. And now I can now vouch for it’s well-deserved reputation.

What’s it about?

It would be glib to say that Astro City is about a city full of superheroes. It would also be accurate but unhelpful. Unlike most superhero comics, Astro City does not base itself around any one character or group, focusing instead upon a single city and the lives of the people within it. There’s no singular protagonist—no narrator who opens each chapter saying “There are eight million stories in Astro City. This is one of them.”

The heart and soul of Astro City lies in this secret—it’s about people, not superheroes. Yes, some of its stories are about superheroes and some of the stories explore how superpowers would alter the functionalities of a society much like ours. Boiled down to its thematic essence, however, Astro City is about our common humanity in the face of uncommon circumstances.

Notable notes

Astro City is notable for many reasons, but I’ve chosen to focus on three of them—the creative team, the aesthetics and the continuing theme of humanity pulling-through in times of adversity.

It is a rare thing these days for a creative team to stick with a comic book title for any length of time. For that reason alone is Astro City notable for having retained the same writer and artists for over twenty years worth of stories. What is truly astonishing, however, is the collective résumés of Astro City’s creators.

Writer Kurt Busiek is notable for many accomplishments, including a four-year run on The Avengers and reviving Robert E. Howard’s Conan for Dark Horse Comics. Artist Brent Anderson has an equally acclaimed career and is best known for providing the artwork for God Loves, Man Kills—believed by some to be the greatest X-Men story of all time. Cover artist Alex Ross is considered by many to be the greatest painter to ever work in the comics medium, first achieving prominence on the mini-series Marvels (co-created with Busiek) before moving on to co-create Kingdom Come and the 2005 mini-series Justice.

There is a timeless quality to the aesthetics of Astro City. A feeling that seems evocative of a simpler time yet is simultaneously tinged with the hope of a better future. It is the same feeling inspired by Atomic Age science-fiction, showcasing the horrors of the world of tomorrow while simultaneously assuring us that our best days were ahead of us thanks to good, decent people.

It would be easy to dismiss this feeling as the pinings of nostalgia and Astro City itself as a derivative tribute book. Samaritan is an off-brand Superman. The Confessor and Altar Boy are Batman and Robin with a Christian motif. The family of scientific explorers known as The First Family are clearly The Fantastic Four with the serial numbers filed off. (Their home base is on Mount Kirby, for cryin’ out loud!) Scratch the surface, however, and you’ll find something far deeper than any expy-driven fan-fiction telling the stories Marvel Comics and DC Comics would never publish in a million years.

Most of the stories in Astro City’s volumes are brief things—no more than one or two issues, at most. Like the classic Marvel Comics of The Silver Age, some stories focus upon the problems posed by balancing extraordinary powers with an ordinary life. A fine example of this is the two-parter Everyday Life and Adventures In Other Worlds (collected in Astro City, vol. 3: Family Album) in which super-powered tween Astra Furst runs away from home seeking someone who can teach her how to play hopscotch. Her quest to beat a bully at her own game while continuing the masquerade of being an ordinary girl proves more thrilling than the reality-hopping adventures undertaken by her family, who are convinced that Astra was abducted by one of their many enemies.

Much as Terry Pratchett used the trappings and tropes of fantasy literature to show that people are people even if they’re dwarves and trolls, so does writer Kurt Busiek take the common mythology of American superheroes and use it as a mirror to reflect upon humanity. The action of the Astro City comics always remains a secondary consideration to the emotional power of the people involved, be they a petty thug whose life becomes more complicated after learning a hero’s secret identity or a hotel doorman who commits a quiet act of heroism in the middle of a disaster.

Significance

While there’s some debate as to when precisely The Dark Age Of Comics ended (or if it ended at all!), it cannot be denied that Astro City was one of the opening salvos in the battle to take back the comics industry from a movement that promoted quantity over quality and reconstruct the idea of the superhero after Alan Moore and Frank Miller had deconstructed it with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Indeed, Kurt Busiek said as much in an interview with Pop Matters regarding the purpose of Astro City.

Everybody was concerned with pulling apart the superhero, its absurdities and its insanities. And, to my mind, to deconstruct something is to take it apart to see how it works so that you can put it back together again—and then take it out on the highway and see what you can do with it… seeing how to make it run even better.“

Astro City is also significant as one of the most critically acclaimed comic series of all time. It won both The Harvey and The Eisner for Best New Series in 1996. That same year, the first and fourth issues won The Harvey and The Eisner for Best Single Issue respectively. Throughout the nineties the series won more Eisners and Harveys for Best Continuing Series, Kurt Busiek won The Harvey and The Eisner for Best Writer, and Alex Ross also won The Harvey and The Eisner Awards for Best Cover Artist for his work on the series. Several stories also won Comics Buyer’s Guide Fan Awards for Favorite Story Of The Year.

Appeal

Astro City should appeal to a wide variety of readers. Superhero fans will appreciate the novel twists on classic formulas and tropes. Comic history buffs will enjoy picking the stories apart for the countless in-jokes. (Fun Fact: Julius Furst, of The First Family, is modeled on DC Comics’ Editor Julius Schwartz) And individual stories can be shown to those Doubting Thomases who still can’t believe that a comic book can tell a complex and emotionally engaging story for adults. I personally recommend The Nearness Of You (from Astro City, vol. 2: Confession) for such purposes. It’s a sweet, romantic story about a man tormented by dreams of a woman he doesn’t recognize but can’t shake the feeling is important somehow.

Talking of comics for adults, I should note my personal belief that Astro City should be kept in the adult sections of any library. There’s nothing truly objectionable in any of the stories—no excessive violence or gratuitous sexual content. Yet most of the stories require a worldliness and familiarity with classic comics that may prove to be beyond most teen audiences, though the language and content should give them little trouble.

Why should you own this?

Historically, Astro City holds an important role as one of the first books to reconstruct the idea of the superhero in the post-modern era. Artistically, it’s notable for its numerous awards and its status as a long-running project by three of the industry’s greatest creators working together for over two decades. Most importantly, it’s a fantastic series with amazing writing and gorgeous artwork.

Astro City, vol. 1: Life in the Big City (ISBN: 156389551X)
Astro City, vol. 2: Confession (ISBN: 1563895501)
Astro City, vol. 3: Family Album (ISBN: 1563895528)
Astro City, vol. 4: Tarnished Angel (ISBN: 156389663X)
Astro City, vol. 5: Local Heroes (ISBN: 1401202845)
Astro City, vol. 6: The Dark Age Book One: Brothers and Other Strangers (ISBN: 9781401220778)
Astro City, vol. 7: The Dark Age Book Two: Brothers in Arms (ISBN: 9781401228437)
Astro City, vol. 8: Shining Stars (ISBN: 9781401229849)
Astro City, vol. 9: Through Open Doors (ISBN:   9781401247522)
Astro City, vol. 10: Victory (ISBN: 9781401250577)
Astro City, vol. 11: Private Lives (ISBN: 9781401254599)
Astro City, vol. 12: Lovers Quarrel (ISBN: 9781401258252)
Astro City, vol. 13: Honor Guard (ISBN: 9781401263874)
Astro City, vol. 14: Reflections (ISBN: 9781401268299)

Classic Fantastic: Lucifer

Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format — please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.

0Lucifer on TV

Six months before it aired its first episode, the Fox Network television series Lucifer was already generating controversy and protest. Numerous religious groups objected to the show’s premise and drafted petitions demanding the show be canceled before its pilot was even filmed. In the show The Devil Himself – now living on Earth having grown bored with running Hell – turns his considerable powers towards helping the LAPD solve crimes as a consulting detective.

Equally passionate in their annoyance were graphic literature readers, who objected to the show on the grounds that it had nothing to do do with the comics on which Lucifer was reportedly based. While the basic set-up for the show mirrored the background of the literary version of Lucifer seen in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, the plot of the Lucifer TV series wildly diverged from that starting point. The character of Lucifer himself was majorly changed as well, being a wise-cracking bad-boy whereas the comic version was dignified and rarely smiled.

Questions about the television series and how it matched up to the comics prompted me to reread the Vertigo series Lucifer, which followed up on stories from Gaiman’s The Sandman. I’d purchased the series when it came out and still have all the original comics in my personal collection. I was pleased to find that the series held up as well as I remembered and that Mike Carey’s continuation of Lucifer’s story was no mere sequel – it was an epic capable of standing alongside The Sandman on its own terms.

1What’s it About?

Originally known as Samael, Lucifer was one of the first three angels brought into being to oversee the heavenly host. Lucifer came to chafe in his assigned role, wishing freedom to pursue a destiny free of God’s preordained plan. This led to his rebellion and ruling the space that was known as Hell, until he realized that this too was part of God’s plan. Thus did Lucifer abandon his throne and his power, retiring to the city of Los Angeles where he opened a piano bar called Lux.

As Lucifer opens, the ex-angel is approached by an agent of Heaven regarding a dirty job that God needs doing. His reward for this is a Letter of Passage – a backstage pass that will allow Lucifer to travel into the void outside of God’s creation. Armed with this letter, his own considerable powers and no small amount of base cunning, Lucifer is able to build his own universe outside of God’s control.

As before when he first took charge of Hell, Lucifer opens his realm up to any outcast who wishes to live there. The only condition is that they must obey The One Commandment – do not bow your head in worship to anyone. Not even Lucifer himself. Especially not Lucifer himself!

Unfortunately, there are many beings for whom the idea of a new creation free of God’s influence offers many attractions. And as Lucifer must contest with them to protect what he has created, so too must he return to God’s Creation to deal with the unintended side-effects of his departure. In order to save countless souls from total oblivion, Lucifer will find himself cast as both the reluctant hero and as a maker of reluctant heroes.

2Notable Notes

I’m hesitant to describe Lucifer in terms of being a spin-off of The Sandman, due to the negative connotations in the words “spin-off”. And yet it is impossible to tear the two works apart for reasons beyond their shared continuity and characters. There are a number of common themes to both series and the base structure of Mike Carey’s story mirrors that of The Sandman, in that there are an assortment of characters, mortal and supernatural, whose lives are touched by the actions of the titular hero in a wide variety of stories.

Despite this, The Sandman and Lucifer are decidedly different in how we are allowed to view their protagonists. The key difference is that we get direct insight into Dream as a person in The Sandman and, as such, he can be empathized with despite his inhuman nature. By contrast, we get almost no insight into Lucifer’s thoughts. The stories of Lucifer are told exclusively from the viewpoints of other characters in reaction to Lucifer himself, so there is no sympathy for The Devil.

One aspect the series share is the recurring theme of freedom versus responsibility in regard to their protagonists. Both Dream and Lucifer are defined by their responsibilities and their roles as rulers. The key difference between them is that Dream meets obligation for obligation’s sake, obeying the rules his role imposes upon him because the rules must be obeyed. By contrast, Lucifer allows himself to break free of his role yet still clings to his responsibilities out of a personal sense of ethics and a proud refusal to fail.

In this, ironically, Lucifer is a very moral character. Lucifer believes in giving people the freedom that has been denied him, prides himself upon always keeping his promises and never speaking an untrue word. However, this does not stop him from omitting details when telling the truth or offering people just enough rope to hang themselves. The Devil will give you a choice, it’s not his fault if you choose poorly.

When considering Lucifer, I am reminded of two separate works – Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and the television series Fraiser. For as The Sandman begat Lucifer, so too did Shakespeare craft The Merry Wives of Windsor as a vehicle for Falstaff and the stuffy psychiatrist from Cheers found new life as a radio personality in Frasier. These three fictions prove that a creative work can be born from an earlier piece and prove to be a unique construction of quality,

Strangely, that metaphor is Lucifer’s character in a nutshell. He wishes to stand apart from God and be considered on his own merits. He wants to be his own man, more than the role he was assigned or the power that he wields. This is ironic from a metaphysical standpoint, as The Devil in The Tarot is the symbolic card of bondage and repression. Inverted, the card becomes a symbol of freedom and empowerment, which is what Lucifer seeks in abandoning his role.

Significance

Apart from its connection to The Sandman, Lucifer is noteworthy as one of Vertigo Comics’ longest running series, numbering 75 issues, a three-issue mini-series, and the one-off special Nirvana. It was a part of the shared Vertigo Universe, which included such titles as Saga of The Swamp Thing and Hellblazer. Indeed, John Constantine makes a quick cameo early on in Lucifer.

Professionally, it is noteworthy as the first work Mike Carey wrote for Vertigo Comics. Since that time, Carey has gone on to be one of the most critically acclaimed authors working in modern comics. He went onto greater prominence as the writer who brought Red Sonja out of obscurity for Dynamite Comics and for his work on X-Men before returning to Vertigo with his original series, The Unwritten.

In mentioning The Unwritten, another fact of significance comes to mind. Lucifer is also noteworthy for being the first professional pairing of Mike Carey with Peter Gross. While a wide variety of artists worked on Lucifer, Gross is considered the series’ second father, despite not starting work on it until the fifth issue. The two are numbered among those rare creative teams who have worked together on over 100 individual comics. This places Carey and Gross in an elite order, alongside other teams like Stan Lee/Jack Kirby, Brian Michael Bendis/Mark Bagley and Marv Wolfman/George Perez among others.

Appeal

Lucifer should appeal to the same audiences that embrace Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and Christopher Moore. Ignoring the connection to Gaiman’s work (Death, Dream, Destiny, and Delirium all make cameos), there is a similar humor to Carey’s writing as well as a complex mythos built upon a variety of world mythologies. The supporting cast includes characters from the Norse, Shinto, and Abrahamic mythologies as well as original creations such as The Basanos – a sentient Tarot deck that sees all but requires a human host.

I would also recommend the series to readers of a certain maturity level, who enjoy Young Adult fiction featuring female protagonists with supernatural powers. One of Lucifer’s most endearing supporting cast is Elaine Belloc, who starts the series as 12 year old girl with a magic she cannot explain, ghostly grandmothers looking after her, and a best friend whose murder needs solving. Elaine is notable as a heroine for being one of the few beings Lucifer respects and the series is more her story than Lucifer’s in many respects.

I make the above recommendation with the caveat regarding “a certain maturity level “ because Lucifer is intended for mature readers. I know some 13 year old girls who would enjoy it and prove capable of handling it. I know many thirty-somethings who would not. The point must be made that the story does involve rape, murder, torture, disturbing imagery, and a lot of the general unpleasantness that permeates the fabric of the Vertigo Comics shared universe. You have been warned.

5Why Should You Own This

Lucifer is a historically important series, not only for its connections to other works but also for its creative team. More than that, it is an enjoyable read with a riveting plot, interesting characters and amazing visuals. And with the series having been fairly recently reprinted in five volumes, there is little excuse for any library of adult graphic literature not owning it.

Lucifer: Book 1: 9781401240264
Lucifer: Book 2: 9781401242602
Lucifer: Book 3: 9781401246044
Lucifer: Book 4: 9781401246051
Lucifer: Book 5: 9781401249458