Ronell Whitaker (@misterwhitaker) (www.thecomicbookteacher.com) and I were challenged by ComicsVerse to list 15 comics/graphic novels that we would love to teach whether we’d be able to or not, so we had the following conversation that sort of turned into a fantasy comics’ draft. Check it out, and let us know who you think would win the championship if this were a fantasy comics’ league! We are very proud of our selections, and we hope that through this list, we open you up to a few new titles that you will eventually love. I kick things off:
Eric: My first selection is Pride of Baghdad; Brian K. Vaughn creates an amazing story about a pride of lions exploring war-torn Baghdad after zoo walls are demolished in a bombing. The story is great. The art is amazing. I will teach this book eventually…I need to teach this book eventually! Love. Loss. Humanity. Death. It’s all there.
Ronell: I love Pride of Baghdad! Great way to humanize the war…through animals. My pick is Blankets: Craig Thompson. One of the most important graphic novels I’ve ever read because it so encapsulates the human condition. Thompson’s art style is light and fluid, yet it supports the gravity of this unique and beautiful coming-of-age story.
Eric: Blankets was my next pick…so I guess I’ll go with Essex County. Jeff Lemire’s amazing story is right up there with Blankets anyway! I feel like we are drafting a fantasy team; that’s how I’m going into this now. Maybe we can let the readers decide who drafts the best team after all is said and done. Pick well, Mr. Whitaker. Essex County, might be just as emotional as Blankets, and the intertwining of narrative is amazing.
Ronell: Aargh! I was hoping to pick Essex County! One of the only books to ever make me tear up. Well played, sir. I’m going to go with John Lewis’ graphic memoir March with writing and art help from Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. Graphic non-fiction has really exploded recently, and this graphic re-telling of Lewis’ time as a civil rights pioneer is way at the top of the list of great graphic non-fiction. Powell’s art and the storytelling place the reader right in the middle of boycotts, sit-ins and…history! Can’t say I’ve read a more inspiring book in a long time.
Eric: I have not read that one, but I plan to. For my fifth pick, I’m going with the newly revamped Scott Pilgrim color hardcover versions! I’d never be able to teach it since the books would cost waaay too much (unless I had digital versions), but Scott Pilgrim is beautifully written and drawn, and the color version is bigger in size so…easier to read, and come on…it’s Scott Pilgrim. Lessons in love, life, and video gaming. And when the sixth one comes out this summer, you could teach an entire semester of Pilgrim and Pilgrim related stories, movies, etc.; it’s a cultural time-capsule.
Ronell: I’m glad you went light with that last pick. Let’s throw some superheroes in here: Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday. One might make the argument that this run is what showed Marvel films what Whedon could do with a superhero movie, and they’d be right. Astonishing X-Men is kept out of the classroom because it, too, is a bit over-budget for the full collection, but man is it great. Cassaday’s art is dynamic throughout and really helps get across some of the more Whedon-y moments in the book. Oh, and let’s not forget: Foppish Wolverine.
Eric: I’ll get to my hero book later. For now, I’m going to pick Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan Smartest Kid on Earth. An amazing tale by an amazing Chicago author. The first graphic novel that I read in college, Jimmy Corrigan is amazing, thought provoking, and has plot connections and reveals that are similar to Essex County but with an art style that is out-of-this-world unique. If you have not read Chris Ware, go buy some…today!
Ronell: I used to love reading Ware’s stuff in the Chicago Reader, really groundbreaking storyteller. I’m going to switch gears and go a little dark with my next pick: My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf. I teach a class called Man, Myth, Monster and this book would be great to get into the origins of a real life monster. Backderf grew up with Jeffery Dahmer and the comic focuses specifically on their time together in high school when Dahmer’s predilections were still in their infant stages. “My Friend Dahmer” is a haunting, and human examination of a man turn monster.
Eric: OK. Since we are discussing villains, a book that I would love to get into the hands of mature college readers is The Cape by Joe Hill. Sort of a hero book, The Cape really gets into issues of what if a not-so-nice person ended up with powers. Hill’s story-telling is fantastic, and the deluxe version comes with the original short prose story that the graphic novel was created from. The differences allow for excellent discussion. Keep this book out of the high schools, but don’t shy away from this disturbing tale of evil and revenge, unless that’s not your thing. Happy Halloween and all…
Ronell: Why not continue with Joe Hill, huh? His Locke and Key series is some of the most inventive writing I’ve read in a long while, and Gabriel Rodriguez’ art really grounds the surreal nature of the story in reality. This book is not appropriate for the classroom, but I definitely recommend it for the student who loves to read, and would like to dig into a little horror. Hill’s dad is Stephen King, and while there is a little shared sensibility for story between father and son, Hill’s ability to put heart into horror is second to none.
Eric: Maaaaaaan, you know I love me some Locke and Key. Rodriguez is AMAZING! My next pick is a kid’s book: Monster on the Hill by Rob Harrell. Monster on the Hill is appropriate for almost all audiences, so that’s cool. But the main reason that I love this book is the concept: every town in the story has a monster that terrifies the town, and the people of the town love it and take pride in it, so much that if their monster gets lazy and stops attacking, the people of the town get offended and protest. It’s all about getting the monster Rayburn out of his funk. It’s fun, funny, and extremely cute.
Ronell: You’ve been telling me about that book forever! I need to get that into my life, soon! I’d like to stay in the fantasy realm and add Fables by Bill Willingham. Fables brings fairytale characters like Pinnochio, Snow White, and the Big Bad Wolf (Bigby Wolf, natch), to the modern world, where they are trying to escape the BIGGEST of Big Bads, but now have to deal with things like government bureaucracy, and relationship drama. Fables is a great examination of where our stories come from, and I love how Willingham turns everything on its head.
Eric: Ah, Fables is one of those books that’s been on my shelf for a good amount of time now that I need to get to. I’m going to kick-it super-hero style and say my next pick is Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye series. Hawkeye is one of the best on-going books, period. The artistic style mixed with the writing and disjointed story-telling makes this book a must-read for any comic fan. For those not familiar with the book, imagine Hawkeye when he’s not fighting super-crime with The Avengers, and you have the Fraction Hawkeye. From fighting thugs outside of his apartment building to feeding his dog, and arguing with his girlfriend, Hawkeye brings home an interesting, thought-provoking story-line that only a review packed with hyphenated-words can bring.
Ronell: Bro! Good pick, bro. My final pick is a book I could NEVER use in the high school classroom, but I feel like it has a place right up there with books like The Great Gatsby, or plays like The Glass Menagerie. I’m speaking of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. Like Thompson’s Blankets, there are some frank and honest depictions of sexuality, and there are parents who would have a problem with that. But also like Blankets, Fun Home is a bonafide masterpiece. Bechdel’s story about her childhood with a closeted homosexual father, and her discovery of her own homosexuality unspools languidly around itself until the reader is deeply enveloped within its folds and creases. I cannot recommend this story enough.
Eric: I guess I’ll end with one that I could never teach as well: Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s WE3. This book finds an amazing balance of disturbing and beautiful. In a future where animals are kidnapped and turned into talking war-machines, a dog, a cat, and a rabbit escape certain death by the hands of their creators and attempt to find shelter in a world looking to eliminate them. This book hovers around so many societal issues, it’s crazy. The violence is extreme, but when is war in any shape not evidently violent? This book is wild…you have been warned.
Well, there you have it! What do you think? Who wins the fantasy comics’ cup?