Things in Print Thursday :: a sampling of notable comics for a hypothetical college course

9 Jul

Since the list of “adult” non-superhero comics I have read is basically limited to a lot of the “classics” from last week’s post, a lot of the suggested graphic novel reading lists for college students is useless to me. Instead, I’m going to talk about some graphic novels that I would pick for a class that discusses the evolving nature of the genre: how more recent books, particularly those written by women and/or writers of color, have worked to redefine the genre and address topics that couldn’t be addressed in the past.

  • Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud is a must-read for someone who wants to learn about the unique artistry that goes into telling a story in comic form. I didn’t read it until I had already been reading comics for several years, but it still taught me quite a bit about the storytelling form. For instance, I hadn’t thought about it, but in one section of the book McCloud points out that in the space between panels, your brain is doing the work to fill in the action. In some cases, this is more of a leap than others – a character starting to take a step in one panel and then turning back in the next panel is less of a dramatic action than a character standing still and then roundhouse kicking another character in the next panel, but both actions require your brain to fill in the gap. It’s a fascinating explanation of an underappreciated art form and it would be mandatory for a student studying the genre. While not all of the information necessarily applies to newer comics, it’s an important tool.
  • I have yet to read Allen Heinberg’s Young Avengers (2003), which introduced (I believe?) the first gay teenage couple in Hulkling and Wiccan, but that seems important to mention. And it’s also worth mentioning that apparently Kieron Gillan’s 2013 run on the series revealed that nearly every single one of the team members is either gay or bisexual. This, on top of being fairly racially diverse and an even ratio of genders.
  • Brian K. Vaughan’s Runaways is something I will never ever shut up about probably, but it’s actually relevant for this topic because not only is it a fairly diverse team (for early ‘00s especially), but it features a lesbian character, Karolina Dean (who is an alien and her alien form is rainbow NO REALLY), who ends up in a relationship with a Skrull character named Xavin. Xavin generally gets categorized as a transgender character, although I don’t think this is accurate, because Skrulls can change appearance at will, including gender. When Xavin appears on Earth in a male form to tell Karolina that they are betrothed, Karolina apologizes and explains that she’s into women, to which Xavin shrugs and shifts into the female form she occupies for most of the series. She counts as a gender-variant character, though, which is relevant for the purposes of the hypothetical class. Also, Runaways is just a damn good series.
  • Marjorie Liu’s run on Astonishing X-Men was a bit uneven, but the story collected in Northstar is notable due to its focus on longstanding gay character Jean-Paul “Northstar” Beaubier, who is finally marrying his partner Kyle. Jean-Paul is having some doubts about whether or not Kyle will be safe with him, considering his life as an X-Man. And then some aliens attack because of course they do, but by the end all is well. At the time of its publication, this issue got a lot of shit because this was its cover, and, you know, gay things are scary.
  • Most things Kelly Sue DeConnick has written would be worth looking at, honestly, but her work on Captain Marvel is notable in how it took Carol Danvers, a character who has been historically shit on over and over again for plot reasons, and remade her into a badass ex-Air Force pilot who can shoot energy beams from her hands and has a tendency to leap before she looks. Carol’s near-ubiquitous presence in Marvel fandom is largely thanks to DeConnick, and the first trade (In Pursuit of Flight) is notable for telling a story both about Carol and her mentor and a story about Carol and a group of young female WWII fighter pilots.
  • On a similar note, Bitch Planet is her most recent series, set in a dystopian future where “non-compliant” women are sent to a prison planet until they repent of their sins. The cast features a variety of races, sexualities, and sizes, and DeConnick explains that she started writing it when people got outspokenly upset about her Captain Marvel work: “‘I wasn’t like, writing feminist pamphlets, you know. I was writing stories about this lady who shoots beams out of her hands. But I had the gall to have inter-generational female friendships and a largely female cast and, you know, every once in a while, a joke. It ruffled feathers and I thought, Well, if that’s what we’re going to talk about, then let’s talk about it.’” (source) I’m not entirely caught up on the series, and it’s a bit 101 in the same way as Mad Max: Fury Road, but it’s an important comic all the same.
  • Not to bring up Brian K. Vaughan again, but Saga is the most interesting comic of the last 10 years and I will fight everybody who disagrees. It is, essentially, a space opera/family drama/war story/revenge tale all in one. It addresses themes of intercultural conflict, colonialization, war and its effect on every aspect of society, family and what is defined as family, class differences, and probably at least a dozen other things that I’m forgetting. It is, thus far, one of the best stories I have ever read.
  • Finally, Ms. Marvel is a unique series in that it is written by a white American Muslim woman (G. Willow Wilson) and created with the help of an Indian-American Muslim woman (Sana Amanat), about a Pakistani-American teenager named Kamala Khan. Kamala is a great character because she is brave and good-hearted, but she makes dumb mistakes and oversteps her boundaries and her actions have consequences. I keep using the word “important” but I think she’s the most important of anything on this list.

This list turned into an LGBTQ studies in comics class, ft. gender and race, but still. That’s a sampling of books I would want to include.

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