Superheroes 101?

Over in LiveJournal land, I've been reading a bunch of posts about superhero stories, mostly in the form of forty-odd years of comic books on DVD (mentioned in locked posts on a pseudonymous LJ, so no link for you). I end up reading these posts with a sort of detached interst, because I don't really get the whole superhero thing, particularly in comic form. I think the last time I regularly followed superhero stuff was when the "Superfriends" show was on tv on Saturday mornings.

It's a little weird, because I like some stories that riff off the idea of superheroes (Watchmen), and I've enjoyed some of the recent crop of superhero movies. I look at the shelves of the "graphic novel" section of the local chain store, groaning under the weight of umpty-zillion superhero books, though, and I invariably decide I have better things to do with my time.

I think the main problem is one of time scale: Watchmen is a complete story, told in a finite number of pages, whereas something like Spiderman or X-Men seems to require a willingness to put up with thirty years of backstory and numerous re-launches, and I'm just not willing to make that committment, particulary at the rate of twenty bucks for an hour of entertainment.

It's not just attention span, though: a large part of it is that I just don't quite see the attraction of superhero stories in general. They work fine as Summer Movies, but I go to those for the spectacle, not the literary qualities. Superhero comics just seem kind of... dopey to me. And yet, there are smart people whose tastes I otherwise respect who spend an awful lot of time reading these. So, there's got to be something I'm not seeing, here.

So here's the question: If you were going to try to convince me that there's some merit to the whole genre, what one book would you recommend that I read?

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While Planetary is great, it is heavily layered with meta-references to both pulp and Victorian-era fiction and superhero comics, so it might not be as great for you as it is for the general comic book audience.

For people in your general situation (occasional comic book readers, but not huge fans) I've had the most success with two titles, Sandman and Astro City. Sandman is probably the most successful and literary comic in the history of the genre (and at 75 issues is large, but contained). It is not however a 'superhero' book, and that seems to be what you really want to try to understand.

To that end I highly recommend the Astro City collections. The first one is Astro City: Life in the Big City. Loaded with brightly 4-colored superheros, they demonstrate and distill the attraction of the genre better than anything else I've ever read. There are 4 collections to date (about 30 issues) and it is ongoing, although only at a rate of about 4 issues per year, so it is quite manageable.

There are other many other books I could recommend that are more traditional DC/Marvel-esque works, but I really think you should start with Astro City. If you find it doesn't work for you just post why and I'll be glad to give you a revised recommendation based on your taste.

Not only have we read _Sandman_, we have vol. 1 of the fancy recolored large-size reissue that we got for Christmas waiting to be (re-)read.

However, it is so very much not a superhero comic that I can understand why it doesn't appear in Chad's post.

Failing Watchmen, which you have already read, perhaps Kingdom Come, which is a four issue story collected into a single volume. It has the advantage of having some of the best art that I've ever seen in comic books, too-- Alex Ross doesn't do drawings, he does fricking paintings. And has more than enough artistic ability to make his faces look like they're almost photographic quality.

By John Novak (not verified) on 01 Feb 2007 #permalink

The decades-of-continuity thing is a big turnoff for me wrt superhero comics, too. And I have a certain fondness for the genre in general.

I could recommend some that *I* like, but I don't really see *you* liking them. So, instead, I'll suggest forgetting comics entirely and Netflixing the Justice League cartoon that aired on Cartoon Network for a few years (ending last year IIRC). Either that or Batman: the Animated Series.

As a former devoted reader of comics, the problem with the mainstream heroes is that one eventually wants to see the character grow, and evolve, and the mainstream heroes marketability comes from keeping them as much the same as they ever were. This is the reason I fell out of love with most of the 'classics'. A number of series over the years, however, have been written by single authors or have had a limited run which allowed real storytelling. Some of my personal favs:

1. Hitman, by Garth Ennis (~50 issues). Set in the DC universe, it follows a hard-drinking Irish hitman who specializes in super-powered hits. Extremely funny, and EXTREMELY violent, it makes fun of some of the DC universe's main heroes (and has one of the best Superman tales ever.) 'Zombie night in Gotham aquarium' not to be missed.

2. Suicide Squad, by various (~60 issues). Also DC, follows a collection of B-list villains 'volunteered' by the government into undertaking stunningly dangerous missions. Lots of moral ambiguity, great character development of otherwise useless villains, and you never knew who would get it!

3. Captain America, by Mark Gruenwald (~100 issues). Mark Gruenwald ran Captain America for a record run of over 100 issues, and demonstrated how a superhero could be both human and vulnerable and butt-kicking at the same time. Mark introduced villains that were subtle or not-so-subtle metaphors for problems facing the U.S., including immigration, vigilanteism, and anti-Americanism. Though others took over 'Cap afterwards (and immediately ruined him), Mark retired his version in a unique, and touching way.

4. Savage Dragon (~140+) by Erik Larsen. An almost traditional superhero comic by a man who has nearly been drawing and writing comics his entire life, SD's early issues focus on a gritty Chicago superhero/cop cleaning up the city. Some very clever storylines and engaging characters (including the villain Powerhouse, with the body of a superman and the head of a chicken), and an issue involving a fistfight between God and the Devil that's pretty hysterical.

A mainstream hero is nowadays mainly a revenue generator, and an issue you read today will be not much different than one 20 years ago. On the sidelines and in the dark corners, however, are books that can legitimately be called 'graphic novels'.

Sorry about the post length!

Kurt Busiek's _Astro City_ is, hands down, the best example of the superhero genre. Try _Life in the Big City_ (a collection of stand-alone stories) and _Confession_ (a single story arc) first.

J. Michael Straczynski's (of Babylon 5 fame) _Supreme Power_ and _Rising Stars_ are both worth reading, for different versions of his take on the "first generation of superheroes" sub-genre.

If you're looking for works set in the DC/Marvel universes, there are a number of good books that require only a basic understanding of the universe and the people involved.

_Kingdom Come_ gives a deeper reading experience with in-depth knowledge of what's going on, but the first time I read it, I was captivated even though I had only a pop-culture level of knowledge of the DC universe. (Near future of the DC universe; Superman retires and everything goes to hell.)

Frank Miller's _Batman: The Dark Knight Returns_ read a lot better when the Cold War was still going on, but it's still worth a read. By no means should you read any purported sequels to this book.

You may also enjoy stories set in a superhero universe, where the superheroics aren't the main focus, and the backstory isn't that important.

Bendis' _Powers_ is a police-procedural set in a superhero universe of its own.

Brubaker's _Sleeper_ is a cloak-and-dagger spy story set in the Wildstorm universe.

Bendis' _Alias_ is a private detective series set in the Marvel universe.

If you have a liking for the Marvel universe, you may enjoy Marvel's Ultimate books, which attempt a more realistic and baggage-free take on those characters. Unfortunately, I believe _Ultimate Spider-man_ is up to ~15 trade paperbacks, so it might be a little bit beyond the point of being backstory-free at this point. I enjoy _Ultimates_ (an alternate take on the Avengers: Captain America, Iron Man, that bunch), and it comes out infrequently enough that there only a few tpbs out.

As far as current on-going series go, I have a fondness for Vaughan's _Runaways_ (which will shortly be taken over by Joss Whedon), the story of a group of kids who discover that their parents are actually a group of supervillains.

Aside from superhero stories, Gaiman's _Sandman_ has already been mentioned. Willingham's _Fables_ is also a good read, as is Ellis' _Transmetropolitan_.

By Brian Gibbons (not verified) on 01 Feb 2007 #permalink

The best "superhero" comics that are pretty self-contained that I've read are:
The Dark Knight Returns (the first one, not the awful sequel)
Batman: Year One
Kingdom Come
1602 (Marvel)

The nice thing about the two Batman books are that they don't have the huge back-story problem, since DKR is set in an alternate universe and Year One is a reboot of the story. Kingdom Come has some in-jokes and references, but you don't need to recognize them to enjoy the really well-written story and beautiful art; it's set in an alternate universe, as well. 1602 doesn't require too much backstory, but it requires more. It's written by Neil Gaiman for the Marvel universe, set in an alternate universe as well.

I get the feeling that the main reason I like these is because the alternate reality stuff or the reboots mean that the authors don't have to deal with the backstory to write a compelling plot and explore the characters. I don't read comics regularly, so I don't want to have to "keep up" in order to enjoy a read.

By UndergradChemist (not verified) on 01 Feb 2007 #permalink

It's been a long time since I spent any time in a comic store, and the shelves full of Superman, Batman and Standard Marvel Heroes at the Local Chain Bookstore are an instant turn off, so I'm about 8 years out of date.

With that in mind, I second the recommendations for Powers and Rising Stars.

I haven't seen the Paul Jenkins/Jae Lee version of Inhumans mentioned. It's largely self contained (as in, there probably is some backstory that would make certain things more obvious) 12 issue story.

Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier, available in two paperbacks or one big fancy volume like Sandman. It's self-contained, and places the DC Silver Age heroes in the fifties when they were first introduced, to fight alien creatures as all auper-heroes should.

Or there's Nextwave, Agents of H.A.T.E., which is just a goofy parody of the entire genre.

Watchmen>, Chapter IV, page 8, bottom. Enlarged in a photocopier and strategically placed over the lightswitch in a lab housing a 10 kW plasma diddler. Morale booster.

Aeon Flux is the contemporary archetype: use, lose, resurrect; repeat. Process becomes product.

Others have already covered The Dark Knight Returns; I'll add in to maybe pick up Preacher in collected format; while noting that Preacher puts the "graphic" in "graphic novel."

By Kurt Montandon (not verified) on 01 Feb 2007 #permalink

The attraction of superhero comics, to me, is in large part that there exists this whole large Marvel Universe, full of all sorts of people existing in occasionally intersecting orbits, with decades and decades of real history behind them (even if the history tends to get a bit confused and contradictory at times). It's an epic sub-creation on a scale that you'll essentially never see anywhere else -- Big Fat Fantasy series don't have even a fraction of the story or characters of collected comicdom.

And, of course, there are other virtues to the comics -- plots and characters that are capable of being very interesting, art that's capable of being beautiful, writing that's capable of being hilariously funny or deeply moving or whatever else writing is capable of. And if those virtues aren't present all (or even most) of the time, well, hey, welcome to Sturgeon's Law.

But of course, if you never really got into comics when you were in your personal Golden Age, a large part of what makes them attractive to me is going to make them off-putting to you -- it's one thing to jump into the middle of a vast continuity when you're a kid and are used to not understanding anything completely (related story: In sixth grade, I picked up The Return of the King without having read any of the earlier books, and read it all the way through with only slight bits of confusion); it's another thing when you're an adult, and not used to reading stories starting in the middle.

My recommendation is Kurt Busiek's Astro City (the first volume of which is Life in the Big City -- the volumes are relatively standalone, so you're not committing yourself to anything by reading it), which uniquely captures the virtues of superhero comics in a way that's self-contained and appealing to non-comic-reading adults. It's an extraordinarily well-written comic book that (like Watchmen) transcends the superhero genre while (unlike Watchmen) being thoroughly part of it.

A lot of the other recommendations you're getting are things that are famous for subverting expectations of superheroes, and depend on you already having the expectations that come from having read lots of superhero comics. They're justly popular in superhero-reading circles, but I don't know that they'd hold much attraction for a neophyte. (Busiek's Marvels is maybe the best example of that sort of thing; it can damn near bring a tear to my eye, but if events like the death of Gwen Stacy aren't hugely significant to at least some portion of your brain, you're not going to get it at all.)

I can't really help with your main question, but as someone who hates superhero comics and really liked Watchmen, I would like to strongly suggest you read "Red Son".

"Red Son" is a totally self-contained alternate-universe story about Superman and how he would have turned out had things been just ever so slightly different, and is basically perfect for, well, the kind of person who doesn't like superhero comics and really liked Watchmen.

As Kate said, in addition to Watchmen, I've read all of Sandman, which is completely not a superhero book of the sort I'm talking about. It's much more of a novel-in-pictures, with a well-defined plot arc that brings things to a fairly conclusive end.

I've also read the Sadman follow-on Lucifer (except for the last volume, which isn't out yet), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (liked the first volume, hated the second), V for Vendetta, and one vloume of Hellblazer.

Regarding a couple of the things that have been mentioned, I read 1602 a while back, and didn't think much of it. It's Neil Gaiman in self-indulgent in-jokey mode, and that doesn't really work for me. It was hard to concentrate on the plot due to the sound of jokes whistling over my head the whole time.

The Fables collection that came out recently (the 1001 Nights thing) and has made a bunch of best-of lists sounds interesting, but I've leafed through the first couple of collections in the store, and they didn't really grab me.

A big part of the problem here is that I balk at the cost of most comic book collections. They're 3/4 of the price of a hardcover book, and they take 1/5 as long to read. That's a tough starting point for an author trying to get me to part with beer money...

Superheros, manga and manhwa, well, much of all comics, is culturally contingent - and I don't 'get' the superhero genre in general. Manga is much more appealing, at least after getting used to non-realistic graphics.

So yes, of your local comics I recommend Preacher, Watchmen, Sandman, Goon. But why not look at similar mangas to get into that scene? The classic Lone Wolf and Cub is a sort of manga Batman in style, except for the dopey stuff such as no maiming or killing. It could be a gentle (but violent!) introduction.

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 01 Feb 2007 #permalink

For calibration, I thought League was an interesting premise with an unexciting implementation; V for Vendetta was a sort of interesting historical document, the sort that should be required reading in a course on 1980s Britain, but not awesomely compelling otherwise; Hellblazer was bad; 1602 was a mildly enjoyable alterna-Marvel-Universe thing, but not even particularly great as Marvel superhero comics go; and Fables is a neat concept that suffers from weak execution.

As for the price, no, they're definitely not cheap. But you can always justify things by just comparing them to something else: An Astro City trade paperback is about the price of a bottle of wine and will last rather longer.

For calibration, I thought League was an interesting premise with an unexciting implementation; V for Vendetta was a sort of interesting historical document, the sort that should be required reading in a course on 1980s Britain, but not awesomely compelling otherwise; Hellblazer was bad; 1602 was a mildly enjoyable alterna-Marvel-Universe thing, but not even particularly great as Marvel superhero comics go; and Fables is a neat concept that suffers from weak execution.

Weirdly, we agree on most of those. I thought a little more highly of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen than you did (somebody really ought to make a movie of that...), but other than that, I agree where we overlap.

As for the price, no, they're definitely not cheap. But you can always justify things by just comparing them to something else: An Astro City trade paperback is about the price of a bottle of wine and will last rather longer.

You mean, it will sit around unread for ten years before we open it, and find it's turned to vinegar?

(We don't go through a lot of wine at Chateau Steelypips...)

Torbjörn @ 18:

I've read some manga (booklogged under the catch-all "sequential art", but so far I haven't completed a series that I'd unreservedly recommend to Chad. _Saiyuki_ comes close, but it's not that good either art- or story-wise in the first volume, and the ninth volume is only a partial conclusion before _Saiyuki Reload_ (still in progress).

Anyway, manga is as much off the point of Chad's question as _Sandman_ was, really.

I'd definitely not recommend Preacher, especially if that one volume of Hellblazer was also by Ennis. Preacher has a good story on his pet themes of friendship and manhood, but it's buried under volumes of shit and sex jokes. I didn't make it past the first book when I was paying $20 a pop for them - it wan't until I borrowed them from a friend that I finished them, and "free" is about what that story was worth. And of course, Preacher is even less superheoric than Sandman, so it doesn't really apply.

The closest I get to manga is a couple of good Western stuff in that influence - namely My Faith in Frankie, a single book by the guy who wrote Lucifer, and the Scott Pilgrim series, three volumes of some of the funniest stuff I've read in a while.

Anything by Will Eisner. His 'Spirit' series/character is a very curious look at the super hero. the Spirit was an odd superhero in that the only thing that really made him a super hero was the mask, and it wasn't even much of a mask.

(for a non superhero comic of his, I just read this, a good debunking of the protocols of zion myth.)

(if you can find it, the goodwin/simonson manhunter from '73/'74. a good example of the short subject comic series, (though the last chapter involves batman.) broke a lot of ground in visual story telling)

Eisner, of course! And perhaps Modesty Blaise - she could be my superhero any day. (And then one can continue and read the books too.)


Recommending manga could be difficult; I haven't read too much of Lone Wolf and Cub, or other manga, myself. What moved me is the difference in culture, graphics and mindset.

Whether asian portrayal of its martial art is superhero type or not is hard to tell. The "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" type of flying or sword play is as the manga style emoticons often beside realism. I definitely see parallels between LW&C and Batman & young Robins in several of the characteristics.

But of course, if "superheros" by definition are US superheros, manga is out.


"Preacher" is definitely out to shock and provoke, which explains the elements of sex, realistic wounds and heavy criticism of religion. (And my liking. :-) It makes a clean break with much of the asexual, et cetera, superhero and comics genre. The superhero forces are also not taking over the story so realistic parts and more drama can be kept. (Which of course is another reason behind my liking.)

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 01 Feb 2007 #permalink

I can't find time to read traditional super hero comics, but I've been extremely captivated by Brian K. Vaughan's Y: The Last Man. A nail-biting genetics-infused non-superhero comic about the extinction of every male mammal on the planet, except for our (anti) hero Yorick Brown and his pet monkey! It's up to issue 60, but i'm quite sure it has a finite story arc.

I'll recommend Bendis and Oemings's Powers, too. It's a terrific book about two cops who police the super-hero community.

If you're just going for a good graphic novel (or trade collection of a comic) that isn't necessarily a good superhero story, I'd like to put my vote in for Y: The Last Man. A fascinating story, but not at all superhero-y. I also really enjoyed The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but it's got a lot of literary inside information that might not be to your taste. (BTW - the did make a movie about The League with Sean Connery - good movie, but didn't do very well so it's unlikely we'll see another.)

Don't know how all these brainy types could have forgotten a classic, self-contained superhero comic like Ben Edlund's "The Tick"...

Alan Moore's "Hill-Street-Blues-meets-Superheroes" series Top Ten is an awful lot of fun, not the least because of the visuals. There are two relatively self-contained volumes (i.e., neither ends on a cliffhanger requiring you to read further), and they are worth reading more than once -- not least because you probably won't catch all the little background sight gags and grace notes the first time around ("Wait... that's a flying monkey from The Wizard of Oz, isn't it?"). Note that these sight gags are not essential for the story, nor do they detract from things; they're just added entertainment.

There's a "prequel" volume which is also good (Top Ten: Forty-Niners), though I'd sort of recommend reading it after the two "present-day" volumes. There's also an additional set of comics written by Paul di Filippo, which are nowhere near as good as the Moore-scripted originals.

I'll admit that this is more like Watchmen in being a riff on the superhero genre (in a more humorous than grim mood) rather than true-blue superhero comics a la Astro City.

For mainstream marvel fair my favorite was always the dark phoenix series.

Dark Knight was good, or basically anything by Frank Miller.

Also, I've discovered that my local public library carries lots of graphic novels (eg, i read their copy of the League of extraordinary etc ). Works well with the short reading time.