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Comic Book Wednesdays: The Return of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman

Welcome back, gals and pals, to another Comic Book Wednesday. This week I want to talk about one of the most exciting things in comics this year: the return of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman with a six-issue miniseries titled The Sandman: Overture.

The Sandman: Overture, written by Neil Gaiman and drawn by J.H. Williams III (of Batwoman fame), is the first new Sandman material since 2003’s graphic novel The Sandman: Endless Nights. Now, this doesn’t mean that Vertigo/DC Comics hasn’t been putting out Sandman-related material since 2003.

Sandman is arguably the most successful and popular title that Vertigo represents. As far as I’m aware, Sandman has never once been taken out of print, but its success goes far beyond just the sale of the original comics. Since its publication it has inspired several spin-offs  (Lucifer, Dead Boy DetectivesThessaly, and, of course, Death), special edition publications (Absolute Sandman and The Annotated Sandman), merchandise, academic publications (The Sandman Papers and The Sandman Companion), and a comic-book adaptation of Gaiman and Yoshitaka Amano’s illustrated novella Sandman: The Dreamhunters for the 20th Anniversary.

But despite all of this, Neil himself has never returned to the characters he created since 2003, that is until the 25th Anniversary of The Sandman rolled around. Last year, at San Diego Comic Con ’12, Karen Berger (then still the Editor-in-Chief at Vertigo Comics) announced that Gaiman and Williams would be collaborating on brand new Sandman material and showed this video:

Gaiman announced that The Sandman: Overture would actually take place immediately before The Sandman begins, taking us through the events that lead up to Morpheus’ capture and sets the entire story arc of the series in motion. He said:

“When I finished writing THE SANDMAN, there was one tale still untold. The story of what had happened to Morpheus to allow him to be so easily captured in THE SANDMAN #1, and why he was returned from far away, exhausted beyond imagining, and dressed for war. It was a story that we discussed telling for SANDMAN’s 20th anniversary… but the time got away from us. And now, with SANDMAN’s 25th anniversary year coming up, I’m delighted, and nervous, that that story is finally going to be told.”

This was a year and a half ago, and now 25 years after the very first issue of The Sandman came out in October 1988, The Sandman: Overture has graced the shelves of comic shops all over the world. The story of how Dream was weakened enough to be trapped by Roderick Burgess is finally here.

Oh, guys. It was worth the wait.

First, the art. The art. Oh good lord, the art. J.H. Williams III has always blown me away with his work on Batwoman, creating some of the most breathtaking comic art that I’ve seen in a long time. With that said, the work Williams has done on Overture makes Batwoman look mediocre.

Yesterday, Comic Book Resources posted a few preview images of Overture that need to be seen.


 


Williams really gave it his all on this book, from the layouts to the astounding pencils. Every last detail is well thought out and executed perfectly. He thought not only about how each panel flows on the page, but how each page flows into the next one. The result is something that feels organic, even when the scenes shift dramatically between tones, point of views, and locations. It gives it an appropriate dreamlike feel as you’re pulled through the story, unsure of what (or who) will manifest next.

Then there’s the colors. Dave Stewart deserves a special mention for the incredible work that he has done on this book. Williams’ art wouldn’t be nearly as breathtaking without Stewart’s colors. They’re rich when they need to be, understated when they need to be, bright, and dark, and ten kinds of wonderful. The colors set the immediate tone for each scene. They help move your eye around Williams’ delightfully unique layouts in the way that the artist intended. Colorists so often get the shaft when it comes to praise, which is always a huge shame, but anyone who leaves out Stewart when talking about this book is doing the man a great disservice.

Now for the story.

I teared up at the end of this book, not because of anything that happened in the book, but because reading this story feels so much like meeting an old friend that you thought you would never see again. This isn’t a return to The Sandman or a look back at The Sandman or a revisit of The Sandman. This is The Sandman. It feels like Gaiman never left the book, like the story never ended, like the last 10 years between Endless Nights and this never happened.

I’ll be honest, I was really worried about this book. Don’t get me wrong, I was super excited from the second it was announced, but I was still worried. There have been many, many creators who have returned to old characters and series, only for the result to be disjointed and disappointing. I think a lot of creators lose touch with their older creations as they change with their current work. This isn’t a bad thing, writers change, but sometimes it just makes the return impossible. Gaiman hasn’t regularly done comics for years, let alone The Sandman. It was completely possible that the strands of the story had slipped through his fingers and been lost to the ether.

But it seems that just like Dream and the Endless have not left the hearts of comic readers everywhere, they haven’t left Neil Gaiman either.

This story feels like the very best issues of The Sandman: engaging, mysterious, magical, and just a little bit bizarre. The story opens with the dreams of a sentient carnivorous plant on a far away planet and a version of Dream as a giant flower. Something like that could only exist in this book, and I’m grateful to see that Gaiman hasn’t lost his touch. It must be insane to return to The Sandman after becoming the writer that he has.

Before The Sandman he was just a comic book writer, journalist, and all of twenty-seven years old. Today, he is one of the most significant voices in contemporary fantastic fiction and an international superstar. Now the whole world is watching what he does, which added a lot of pressure for this book. Even he was nervous to how this would all turn out. ScienceFiction.Com quoted him as saying:

At a time when I would have thought everyone would have completely forgotten about me and ‘Sandman’ … the world is even more excited and interested. Now I’m doing it for millions of people, and in my head they’re all looking over my shoulder while I write and they’re all going, ‘This better be worth waiting for. It better be good.’

And it is good. It’s really good. It’s down right amazing. Gaiman has managed to tell a brand new story, one that is rooted deeply in the mythology that he established but also has a life of its own. I won’t say more than that about the plot (besides the carnivorous, dreaming plant) because you really should read this, not hear about it. Gaiman has been tight-lipped on what this story is going to be, and for good reason. This isn’t the kind of story you want ruined for you. This is something that should be experienced, and I encourage all of you to go to your Local Comic Shop and pick up this first issue.

Welcome back, Neil. Welcome back, Dream. We missed you.

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That’s all for this Comic Book Wednesday! Who’s read Overture? Who hasn’t? Who wants to? Who doesn’t want to? Is anyone waiting for the collected edition? Is anyone hoping they’ll do an oversized edition that will match with their current Sandman library? I know I certainly am.

This was originally posted on GroupThink under my username fightinginfishnets.

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Comic Book Wednesdays: Superheroes and ‘Literary Merit’

 

Welcome back, gals and pals, to another C0mic Book Wednesday! This week I’d like to talk about superhero stories as literature. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since Peabody’s excellent post on women and comics (which if you haven’t read, you really should). One of the conversations that popped up was about comics being considered “real literature”–a term that bothers me from the get-go–and questioning if comics really are a worthwhile art form. Now, obviously a lot of people stepped in and said their piece: comics are literature, comics are art, the term “real literature” is a load of crap. However, I was saddened by the number of people who said something like “Yeah, superhero comics aren’t at that level but…”. I understand that a lot of people feel that way, but the truth of the matter is, like every genre, there are superhero comics that are as complex and interesting as something like Sandman or Saga. 

So, what is Fishnets to do? Well, rather than gnash my teeth and be grumpy, I figured that I can share with everyone some great superhero books that I believe have literary merit.

But first I want to discuss the terms “literary merit” and “real literature”. I don’t like them. I don’t like using them. I hate that there’s this idea of entertainment versus art, or real versus fake. What does fake literature even mean? Does it mean that someone wrote it for a paycheck? Well, that doesn’t work. Plenty of people wrote for paychecks: Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle. Is it a genre thing? Nothing speculative? No, cause then we’ve got to cut out Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells. Is it a time thing? Nah, I took a whole bunch of contemporary literature classes in college.

Classifying certain things as entertainment and certain things as art just serves to create an unnecessary divide, one that keeps people from remembering that art and entertainment need each other to exist. Michael Chabon wrote a fantastic article called “Trickster in a Suit of Light: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story” in which he discusses the relationship between art and entertainment. He writes:

No self-respecting literary genius, even an occasional maker of avowed entertainments like Graham Greene, would ever describe him- or herself as primarily an “entertainer.” An entertainer is a man in a sequined dinner jacket, singing “She’s a Lady” to a hall filled with women rubber-banding their underpants up onto the stage

Yet entertainment–as I define it, pleasure and all–remains the only sure means we have of bridging, or at least of feeling as if we have bridged, the gulf of consciousness that separates each of us from everybody else. The best response to those who would cheapen and exploit it is not to disparage or repudiate but to reclaim entertainment as a job fit for artists and for audiences, a two-way exchange of attention, experience, and the universal hunger for connection.

The truth of the matter is that really the only thing we can study about literature is the content and the craft. And when I say content, I don’t mean “is there a dude running around in his underoos?” I mean what is going on behind the text. What is the story really about? What is the author presenting here, and what can we take away from it? Art is all about objectivity and is entirely reliant on the audience and the response of the audience. So, if we think about literature this way, of course superhero comics can be literature. Anything can be literature. As long as it goes above and beyond telling a surface level story, then it’s worth a second look, regardless of genre.

There are some examples that are easily cited for superhero books as literature. Just look at Watchmen. That book is absolutely, one hundred precent a superhero book. I mean, for christ’s sake, it involves an evil mastermind plot involving a giant squid alien creature destroying Manhattan. Does that mean that it’s not absolutely brilliant and shouldn’t be on Time’s 100 Best Novels list? Of course not. Superhero comics are a genre, and while not all superhero books will stand the test of time, that same sentiment applies to n0n-superhero comics too, and to prose, and to music, and movies, and all of popular culture. Remember guys, while 90% of everything may be crap, there’s always that 10% worth engaging with.

So, lets look at three superhero comics that belong in that 10%, that are worth reading over and over, and that marry the concepts of art and entertainment.

1. “What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?” (words by Joe Kelly, art by Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo)

 


This single issue Superman story is one of the best Superman books I’ve ever read. We all know about the big, blue boy scout. The good natured boy from Kansas (who’s really from space) who goes out of his way to fight for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. And the fact is that a lot of people make fun of the character for it. People say that Superman is boring, one dimensional, and overpowered, without realizing how juxtaposing that insane power level with a life amongst every day humans gives the character a beautiful depth. How do you remain human when it would be so easy to be a god? What does it mean to be human? How hard is it to always make the right decisions, rather than the easy ones?

These questions are what writer Joe Kelly and artists Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo seek to tackle in this book. The premise is simple: a group of so-called heroes called The Elite appears on the scene, only they have no regard for life, safety, or the people they’re supposedly protecting. They have no problem racking up oodles of collateral damage and deem themselves judge, jury, and executioner. They find Superman, and those of his ilk, to be irrelevant and useless. In their minds, Superman and other heroes like him have all this power, so they should use it to mold the world’s view into what their version of right is. Superman is forced to evaluate if there is a place for his moral code in the ever-changing world. Through this book, Kelly asks readers to consider where the line should be drawn in terms of violence, especially in the face of comics like The Authority gaining popularity.

Many superhero books ruminate on power, how power should be used, and what it should be used for; but there’s something unique about What’s So Funny. It’s not just about power, but about how power goes hand and hand with an individual’s moral code and world view. Often, conflicts aren’t about who did what to who, but with how our views differ from each other. And like Superman, we often have to battle with figuring out which decisions are right and which are easy, and if they can ever be the same decision.

2. Spider-Man: Blue (words by Jeph Joeb, art by Tim Sale)

 

Now, we all know the themes that Spider-Man stories focus around, right? Power? Responsibility? Uh… clever remarks? More responsibility? Yes, these are the themes that are constantly addressed in Spider-Man books, and one of the really nice things about Spider-Man: Blue is that it doesn’t really do that. Instead, we find a Spidey book that’s full of themes on remembrance, grief, and love.

Spider-Man: Blue is part of a group of miniseries often referred to as “The Color Books” (the other two are Daredevil: Yellow and Hulk: Grey). These books, written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by Tim Sale, all take classic Marvel characters and focus on a specific part of their early days as a superhero, seeking to highlight why these characters are who they are. All of them are wonderful, but Spider-Man: Blue really stands out. Rather than take the obvious path and tell a story relating to Uncle-Ben’s death, Loeb and Sale instead decide to focus on the character of Gwen Stacy. Even more surprisingly, the book does not focus on her death scene (an issue for feminism and comics, as can be seen here), but rather on her life and how she and Peter fell in love.

The comic is brilliant for a number of reasons (it fits in perfectly with the original Stan Lee Spidey issues, it’s great for new readers and die-hard fans, etc.), but perhaps the reason it’s so fascinating from a literary standpoint is the use of the framing device. The whole story is actually Peter looking back and writing a letter to Gwen on Valentine’s Day, years after her death as well as years after his marriage to Mary Jane. The result is that this beautiful little love story has a wistful melancholy tone to it. We see Peter overjoyed with finally getting the girl he loves, but we know that one day he will lose her, one day she will die, and that’s heartbreaking. But it stresses the importance of how remembrance often breathes new life into those long gone, and how grief is not a thing that is there one day and gone the next, it comes and goes for our whole lives.

Is it worth remembering such beautiful things if they’re only going to hurt later? How does a person’s life leave a lasting impact after they’re gone? In the case of Gwen Stacy, does a life matter more than a death in the terms of a narrative? These are the questions that Spider-Man: Blue seeks to find answers for.

3. Starman (words by James Robinson, art by Tony Harris) 

 

A big theme in superhero books is legacy: Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman and Wonder Girl, Flash and Kid Flash, Black Canary and Black Canary. We love the story of the young pupil taking on the mantle, continuing the mission. But what happens when someone just doesn’t want to take on that mantle? What happens when someone wants to pull away from the family?

Family is the key theme in James Robinson and Tony Harris‘ Starman. Back in the golden age of superheroes, Ted Knight donned the costume of Starman and protected Opal City from the villains that threatened it. Now, he’s old and retired, and he has two sons: David, who jumps at the chance to be Starman, and Jack, who wants absolutely nothing to do with the whole thing. Jack wants to run his antique shop in peace, away from the capes and tights of the superhero world. He’s more than happy to let his brother go off and play hero. But then David is killed as part of a vendetta against Starman’s old nemesis The Mist, and Jack is forced to step into the hero role to save his father, his city, and himself. After this, Jack takes on the mantle of Starman (sans tights) and the rest of the series focuses on his unique way of being a hero, which often conflicts with his father’s way.

Starman goes all over the place with its stories and themes, but it always comes back to one thing: family, specifically Jack and his father. The two men are radically different, but at their core they’re the same, and that causes conflict between the two. The relationship between the the Knights asks the reader to consider numerous questions. How do we deal with family when our desires seem so different than their desires? What obligations do we owe our parents and their legacy? What obligations do they owe us? How do we reconcile with things that seem impossible? How do we step out of the shadow of family and become our own individual?

I’ll be honest, I’m still in the middle of Starman, but from what I know from those who have read the series, the questions raised in the earlier issues carry all the way through, resulting in a book that tries it’s damned hardest to define what family is.

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While these three books were the ones I chose to write about, I considered a long list of possible stories to spend time babbling about. For those of you interested, this list includes: Batman: The Long Halloween, Kingdom Come, Planetary, Ex Machina, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, Death of Captain Marvel, Rising Stars, Green Arrow: The Archer’s Quest, and many, many more. For those of you who may have had doubts about the superhero genre, I hope you feel like there’s now something for you to explore. Superhero comics are indeed often about the “BAM! BOOM! POW!” but sometimes they can be about so much more. 

What about you guys? What are your favorite stories with strong literary themes? What are some of yours that are just awesome? What do you think about idea that some things are “real” literature and others aren’t?

See you all next Comic Book Wednesday!

This post originally appeared on GroupThink under my username fightinginfishnets.

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Comic Book Wednesdays: Spotlight on Emma Rios

Welcome back, gals and pals, to another Comic Book Wednesday! Last time I did a spotlight piece it was on a fairly well known and popular artist. I wish that all talented female creators could be as famous as Amanda Conner or Gail Simone, but that’s simply not the case right now. I’d like to see more creators gain that recognition though, and the only way to make someone well known is by talking about them and supporting their work.

So, without further ado, I’d like to shine the spotlight on one of the most talented artists in the industry: the incredible Emma Ríos!

 

What has she done? 

Emma Ríos is a Spanish artist who originated in the European comics scene and has crossed over to the American one. Early on, when she still had a day job as an architect, Ríos was working with the Galician comic collective Polaqia (their Spanish language website can be viewed here). She has done a lot of work with them, and still has a strong connection to the group. Her major works with Polaqia are contributions to the magazine Barsowia, which includes both cover art and interior work, and a very well-recieved sci-fi miniseries called A Prueba de Balas [Bulletproof].

Ríos began her career as a full-time comics artist when she landed a job with BOOM! Studios, illustrating the miniseries Hexed in 2008. The series was co-created with author Michael Alan Nelson, who continues to do work for BOOM!. The series was only four issues, but it was given good reviews, with no small thanks to the fantastic art by Emma Ríos. Her art had a fresh, unique feel to it, and it radically differed from the typical ‘house-style’ of American comics. Just the cover alone serves as an excellent hook for both the art and story inside. While the book reached a fairly small audience, it was enough for Ríos to get her foot in the door and begin her rise to the top of American comics.

After working with BOOM!, Ríos began working primarily for Marvel Comics. She has done lots of work for them over the past few years. Her artist credits include the Doctor Strange miniseries Strange, written by Mark Waid; the Spider-Island tie-in miniseries Cloak and Dagger, written by Nick Spencer; and the miniseries Osborn: Evil Incarcerated, written by Kelly Sue Deconnick.

She has also done numerous one-shots and guest artist appearances for Marvel Comics, including work on Captain Marvel, RunawaysAmazing Spider-Man, Elektra, Firestar, Heralds, and Girl Comics.

Her biggest project for Marvel has been the OGN (original graphic novel) Doctor Strange: Season One, written by Greg Pak. The Season One line is a series of graphic novels that are meant to retell and modernize the origin stories of popular Marvel characters. For the most part, I’ve found them to be pretty mediocre. However, Doctor Strange was a beautifully drawn and written diamond in the rough, and was one of the most well reviewed Season One books. And while it is a good story, the book would not be nearly half as good without Ríos’ art.

Ríos also has a new book coming out this fall, called Pretty Deadly, which I am extremely excited for.

So, let’s take a closer look at her art:

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Why Should I Love Her?

There are many reasons to love Emma Ríos. A major one is her style. Ríos manages to mix chaos and precision in each page she draws. Her pencils are angular and detailed but her pages, as whole pieces, are full of busy activity and kinetic motion. Yet, despite all the activity, Ríos always knows how to draw your eye to exactly where it needs to focus. She takes your hand and guides you through the delightful and frightening insanity of her world, and with each step you are able to enjoy every last, meticulously thought out detail. 

Ríos has worked with some really fantastic writers, but I’d argue that Ríos is able to tell a story all on her own without any help from a writer. She is amazing at conveying emotion, tone, and character just with a few strokes from her pencil. Let’s take a look at this page:

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I love this page (from her Cloak and Dagger miniseries). What words are needed here? Just by looking at the page you can tell who these characters are, what they’ve been through, how it has impacted who they are now, and how connected they are. There’s a real sense of loneliness here, but the kind of loneliness that drives you to seek out another person who has been through the same thing. With her intricate details and complex compositions, Ríos manages to convey a story in a way that many of us would never have dreamed up.

One of the other really amazing things about Ríos’ art is her incredible mastery of motion. Motion and creating the illusion of movement is essential to a good comic. How else can you convey the wonder of flying, the power of a punch, or the excitement of a chase? A good comic creates a kind of mental animation, so that you forget that you’re looking at a series of still images. A good comic will take your brain from panel to panel and from page to page without you ever even realizing it. Not every artist has the talent to do this, no matter how beautiful their art is (sorry, Alex Ross). Emma Ríos, however, is a master.

I don’t know if it’s a combination of the delicate pencils and super bold inks or if it’s the super attention to how motion affects everything, but Ríos’ art has some of the best kinetic motion I’ve ever seen in a comic. Maybe it’s the architect in her, but every last little detail that conveys motion is present in her work (how hair and clothing is affected, how the environment id affected. For example, in these Captain Marvel panels you can almost see the motorcycle barreling down the road or feel the tension as Carol leaps over the banister. It’s really difficult to pull of these poses with such fluidity, but Ríos does it.

I am thrilled that Emma Ríos has entered the American comics scene. I think she has the capacity to be a total superstar artist in time, along with other foreign artists like Oliver Copiel (French), Francis Lenil Yu (Filipino), Gabriel Bá (Brazilian), and Fabio Moon (Brazilian). I’d argue that we need more and more creators from different backgrounds in comics, that’s the only way that comics will evolve and change as an art form.

So, f you’re interested in Emma Ríos I recommend starting with her Doctor Strange work (both Strange and Doctor Strange: Season One) as well as her work on Cloak and Dagger, which can be found in the Spider-Island Companion book. I also recommend putting a reminder on your calendar that Pretty Deadly will be making its way to your local comic shop on October 23rd. Trust me, you want to be on the ground floor for this book. I’ve got a really good feeling that this book is going to be huge.

For more Emma Ríos art, you can check out her personal blog here. There was also a great interview she did with Multiversity Comics yesterday, which you can read here. Also, if any of you have cash to burn, you can buy (or at least browse) Ríos’ original art at Cadence Comic Art.

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I had a lot of fun writing this spotlight. Emma Ríos is one of my favorite artists, and I love seeing her get more and more attention each year. I’m curious how many people knew about her before this article. Also, who are some of your favorite artists (male or female)? Who would you like to read a spotlight on?

See you next Wednesday!

I would also like to give a shout-out to the colorist that Emma Ríos often works with, the fantastically talented Jordie Bellaire. Bellaire will also be working on Pretty Deadly!

Also, a big thank you from Mr. Fishnets for reading his article last week. You guys are the best!

This piece originally appeared on GroupThink under my username fightinginfishnets.

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Comic Book Wednesdays: Comics, Kids, and Literacy

 

Welcome back to Comic Book Wednesday, gals and pals! This week, I’d like to change things up from the usual recommendations and spotlights and instead have some good old fashioned musings. Today, I want to talk about something that matters a lot to me: kids learning to read through comic books.

First, a little story. About five years ago, when I was relatively new to the comic shop I work at, a mom and her daughter came in to the store. The girl was about six and, like most six year olds who walk in, immediately started running around looking at the toys. She started begging her mother to buy her a whole bunch of them. Her mother, completely unfazed, said “Okay. You can have one small toy or you can have as many comic books as you want.”

It was like a switch had been hit in the little girl. She did an about face and made a beeline towards the comic book racks. Her mother saw me watching and smiled at me. “I’m not spending a lot of money on toys,” she told me. “But if she’s reading? That I don’t mind spending money on.”

I ended up helping them find a big stack of books, and both mom and daughter left happy.

This story has always stuck with me, how this mom didn’t care so much what her daughter was reading but that she was reading. Comics have often gotten a bad rep in terms of literacy. Parents and teachers alike have considered them not “real” books, and have dismissed them, or worse have been adamantly against them. Type into google search “comics are bad”. The first auto-filled results are “comics are bad for children” and “comics are bad for kids.” Why is that? Why do we consider comic books to be so harmful?

The idea of comics being bad for kids is not anything new. One of the earliest examples is the psychologist Dr. Fredric Wertham whose crusade against comic books resulted in the book The Seduction of the Innocent, a text that is full of wild accusations about comics causing all of societies “ills”. Jamie Coville writes about this in a series of articles he did for Penn State:

 Dr. Wertham stated that in his studies with children, he found comic books to be a major cause of juvenile delinquency. This assertion was based mostly on guilt by association. The vast majority of kids in those days read comic books, including the ones who became delinquents. But according to Dr. Wertham, comic books caused the children to become delinquents.

But comics went much further than just turning kids into juvenile delinquents. According to Wertham, comic books were giving kids wrong ideas about the laws of physics, because Superman could fly! He also charged that comic books were implementing and re-enforcing homosexual thoughts because Robin was drawn with bare legs, that were often wide open, and that Robin seemed devoted and attached to only Batman. Dr. Wertham also stated that Wonder Woman was giving little girls the “wrong ideas” about a woman’s place in society.

Now, obviously most people don’t think like this anymore, but I would argue that a lot of the anti-comic frenzy that got whipped up in the late 40’s and in the 50’s has had a lasting effect on how people view comics and the way that kids read comics. We as a culture haven’t quite managed to shake this idea that comics aren’t “real books”. Sure, it’s easy to say that comics have violence and scary things and some sexuality, but isn’t it true that that stuff is contained in a lot of the prose-books that kids read? Just thinking back to my own childhood, teachers never seemed to scoff when a kid was reading a Goosebumps book in the library or a Star Wars novel. So let’s take the content stuff completely out of the equation when discussing literacy.

As far as I can see, there’s no good reason to stop kids from reading comics. In fact, comic books can often be used as an amazing tool to motivate kids who don’t like reading or who just struggle with reading.

Meet the Tiny TitansThese guys made a huge difference for me when I was an elementary school tutor. I was working with a fantastic program that tutored ESL students after school (since they would miss some of class for ESL lessons). I was assigned to a wonderful group of boys, with whom I worked starting in Kindergarten and going through First Grade. They were all smart kids, but none of them had really any interest in reading.

They always wanted to talk about cartoons or video games. Reading didn’t really hold much of an appeal for them, and they all seemed to struggle with it. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of this has to do with that this is the age in which kids are often learning how to read, but I noticed that there also wasn’t any real desire to read. It wasn’t fun for them. It was homework. I ended up going to the head of my program and asking if it was alright if I bought some comic books to bring in. She said okay, and a few weeks later I brought in a whole stack of Tiny Titans.

It really was the first time I had seen them interested in some kind of written material. After we finished working on homework, instead of begging to play with their toys or wanting to run around the room, the boys were happy to flip through the comics. For the most part, they didn’t really read them that first time. It was a lot of looking through the pages and going “That’s Robin! That’s Batgirl! That’s Flash! Who is that?” but they were engaging with material, and it didn’t feel like work.

At the end of the year, all of them were far more interested in reading, and I had, more than once, needed to staple the comics back together as they had been read so many times that they were falling apart. Again, this is not to say that comics were entirely responsible for their interest in reading or was what taught them to read, but I like to think that those Tiny Titans books helped. It showed my boys that there was material that they could engage with, that they liked, and in some ways was already familiar to them because they had some idea of who the characters were.

This experience is absolutely not unique to me and the boys that I worked with. In a New York Times article about comic books and education, the author sat down at an after-school comics making program and spoke with some of the kids:

Gabriel Cid, 10, agreed that “reading is kind of boring,” but said comics were different.

“Superheroes, comics, that’s when it gets interesting because you get to see all the cool stuff,” he said.

In the same article, several educators agree that comics are something that is good for literacy. Lisa Von Drasek, a children’s librarian, says:

“Not a semester goes by that not a parent or a teacher expresses a concern about a comic-format book that their child has taken out or is using for their reading time.” Usually, she said, the critics come around. “What we say is, ‘Whatever works.’”

And the then-superintendent of the Maryland schools, Nancy S. Grasmick, adds:

“We’re trying to open the eyes of teachers and educators to this as a possibility, this as something that might really help children and is good education.”

Comics can be a useful literacy tool for a lot of reasons, not just because comics are something that kids like to read. Comics are written in a way that it is easy for kids to comprehend elements like pacing, the movement of time, and other story factors that may go over their heads in a piece of traditional prose.

Andrew Miller, from the site Edutopia, talks about how comics can be used in the classroom and how comics can be used to develop Higher-Order Thinking Skills (HOTS), which are skills that much of standardized testing is based on. He writes:

Reading standards … can be built through the complex analysis and evaluation of graphic novels and comics. Have students look at how the authors and illustrators use colors, textures, words, text boxes, frames and camera angles; then make connections between these elements and evaluated their effectiveness.

Because of the accessibility of the medium, it’s easy for kids to view and understand the different elements of a story, and even better: it’s easy for them to replicate that kind of storytelling. I know that I loved making comics when I was a kid. I would staple a bunch of printer paper together into a little book and fill it up with comics. I came up with characters that I used over and over. I learned how to develop a character without even realizing that I was doing it! Many schools and libraries now have comic book clubs, where students are encouraged to make their own comics, which means they get to practice their writing skills and storytelling skills at the same time that they’re practicing their reading skills.

Literacy is not just about learning how to read, it’s about writing too. And using comics as a literacy tool isn’t just about learning how to read and learning to love reading, it’s also a great tool to learn what storytelling is, how it works, and how it can be used. Comics are good for kids and they are good for literacy. I hope as time goes forward we see more and more comics in the library and in the classroom.

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So, what stories do you guys have about comics and literacy? Have you ever thought that comics were bad for people? Do you still think that? What do you think about how some people classify books as “real books” and others as “not real”?

As always, I look forward to your comments! Also a sincere thank you to everyone who understood why there was no CBW last week. Your support means a lot.

See you next Wednesday!

Art/Photo Credits:

Header photo found on this wordpress blog.

Tiny Titans art done by Art Baltazar.

Kid reading a comic in the classroom from Comics Beat.

This post was originally published on GroupThink under my username fightinginfishnets.

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5 Comics You Should Read (But Most Likely Haven’t Heard Of)

Note: This article originally appeared on GroupThink under my kinja username “fightinginfishnets”. GroupThink is part of the Gawker Media Group.  

So, gals and pals, a lot of you read comics, and some very good comics I might add. In fact, many of the comics I see people discussing are some of my favorite comics ever. So, what happens when you’ve read all the comics that you want to read/heard of/Amazon has recommend? Does that mean that you are out of comics to read? That there are no more comics EVER?!

Hell no.

Some you may know that one of my two jobs is at a comic shop. This is a job I’ve been doing since I was 17 (I’m going to be 23 in a couple of months), and there’s one game I’m really good at– the recommendation game. Usually, it’s easy, usually I’ve got one of my go-to books “Fables, Invincible, Runaways, Gotham Central” etc. But then are the days where I get someone who’s response to every one of them is “read it”, but does Fishnets give up on a challenge? No, she does not. Goddammit, I will find you something you haven’t read and you will enjoy it or I will eat my hat.

I actually love those moments, because that’s when I’m able to give that person who thinks they’ve seen it all something special. And, since you of GT are folks of discerning taste, I’d like to share some of those recommendations with you.

Before we begin, I’d like to make a request. If any of these books interest you, please go to your Local Comic Shop and see if you can find it there before ordering it online. LCS’s are the heart of the comic book community and it is the sales from those independently owned stores that keep great books like these from being cancelled. And your support is what keeps the doors of LCS’s open. Yes, it is often cheaper to buy it on Amazon, but take the time to help out a local business. It’s worth paying the full retail price.

So, in no particular order, here are 5 great comics you should totally read.

1. The Books of Magic (written by Neil Gaiman. Art by John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess, and Paul Johnson)

“But Clare,” you say, “we know Neil Gaiman. Even if we haven’t read it, we’ve at least heard of Sandman!”

Well, yes, but have you heard of The Books of Magic? The answer is most likely no, and there’s a reason for this. The Books of Magic was out of print for a very long time. I knew about it, and it still took several years for me to get my hands on a copy (mine has a 2001 print date, the book originally came out in ’90). But now, Vertigo has put out a shiny new printing that is not only a HC, but is oversized to make the pretty art even prettier.

So, what is Books of Magic? Well, there’s this black haired, glasses wearing British kid named Timothy Hunter, who seems to be a whole lot of nothing special (again this came out in 1990 for those calling HP ripoff). But he’s being followed by four very interesting people, some of the most important members of the magical community in DC Comics– The Phantom Stranger, John Constantine, Dr. Occult, and Mister E. Apparently, Timothy has the potential to become the most power adept of magic ever, but he must decide to choose magic. And so he can make this informed choice, they are going to show him the past, present, future of magic in the mortal realm as well as magic in Faerie.

Books of Magic is amazing for a couple of reasons, the first being that it’s a wonderful romp through magic and the role of magic in the DC Universe. Long time comic readers will take pleasure in seeing characters like Zatanna and Doctor Fate, and new readers will take pleasure in meeting them for the first time, the same way Timothy is. The second is the art, each chapter is done by a different artist, which really helps illustrate the concept that Timothy is seeing all different facets of magic. The third is that there’s an owl named Yo-Yo, thus named because he was at first a yo-yo.

2. Nextwave (written by Warren Ellis, art by Stuart Immonen)

If you’d like to go in the completely opposite direction, then I’d recommend NextWave. 

NextWave is quite possibly one of the most ridiculous things I have ever read. Seriously, I don’t want to give too much away, but in one scene the villain of the piece screams “HOMICIDE CRABS!” which are pretty much exactly what you think they are.

NextWave was thought up by the brilliant and bizarre Warren Ellis. In a world where superhero  comics focus on large, insane story arcs, Mr. Ellis wanted to see what would happen if there was a book where the story arcs never really exceeded two issues. Also, what would happen if the premise for the comic was off-the-wall-batshit-insane? The result is this book. The premise is that a group of D-List Marvel characters (Photon, Elsa Bloodstone, The Captain, Machine Man,  and Boom Boom) start working for this agency H.A.T.E. (Highest Anti-Terrorist Effort) only to discover it’s secretly funded by a bunch of terrorists! Oh the cruel irony! They then set off to fight this terrorist organization and hilarity ensues.

As Mr. Ellis said in an interview: “It’s an absolute distillation of the superhero genre. No plot lines, characters, emotions, nothing whatsoever. It’s people posing in the street for no good reason. It is people getting kicked, and then exploding. It is a pure comic book, and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. And afterwards, they will explode.” Plus, the Stuart Immonen art is gorgeous, and the first baddie they fight is the dragon Fing Fang Foom wearing a diaper. ‘Nuff said.

3. Love and Capes (art and words by Thom Zahler)

Ah, what can I say about Love and Capes? Do you like super heroes? Do you like lovingly crafted satire? Do you like situation comedies? Do you like brilliant sit-coms like Parks and Rec?

Well, I’ve got the book for you. Simply put, this is the best Superman/Lois Lane story that’s not actually about those characters you’ll ever read (now say that three times fast). The story begins when Abby (bookshop owner by day, kickass lady by always) finds out that the sweet, mild-mannered accountant Mark she’s been dating is The Crusader, the most powerful hero in a world full of powerful heroes. While the world is full of capes and flying and heroics, Love and Capes is at its heart a story about relationships, about learning how to be comfortable with each other, about dealing with exes, about meeting each other’s families.

Mr. Zahler is also blessed with the gift of perfect comedic timing. He brilliantly breaks down all his pages into eight panels, all with the same rhythm- beat, beat, beat, punchline, beat, beat, beat, punchline. It’s like watching a well-crafted sitcom, yes you are aware that there is a formula, but at the same time you could really care less because it is so well done that the formula only serves to enhance the story, rather than detract from it. And like any well-crafted sitcom, he knows when to break away from the formula.

The eight panel breakdown also serves another purpose! Mr. Zahler makes all of his material available free online (although, the online content is staggered, so the print copies always have newer material. For example, the current stuff he’s posting is from the third collection, while four exist). So, please, take the time to check it out. I can’t explain just how dear this book is to me, just read it and see for yourself. Then buy it. Buy all of it.

4. Friends With Boys (art and words by Faith Erin Hicks)


Friends with Boys was one of those books that came completely out of left field for me. I didn’t know much about First Second, the publisher, but this book was given to me during an informational interview with them. I read it, went to work, and immediately sold out every copy we had in the store.

The story is about a girl named Maggie, who after being home-schooled her whole life, is starting at the local high school. All her older brothers did the same thing (home-school and then public high school), and they’re all really excited to see their baby sister grow up. All of them were also taught by their mom, who has just recently walked out on the family. So, with all of this family drama going on Maggie has to go to a new school where there are friends to be made, bullies to be avoided, and boys who make her feel all funny inside. Oh, and did I mention that she’s haunted by a ghost?

As far as hauntings go, the ghost, a nineteenth century widow, is pretty tame. She mostly just shows up, hangs out around Maggie, and looks kinda sad. Maggie’s been seeing her since she was seven (where she has the most adorable reaction ever: “I gots a Mars Bar.”) But still, there’s the question, why is she bothering Maggie? Ms. Hicks’ art, all black and white ink work, is super expressive and sets the perfect tone. This book is charming beyond words, and should be mandatory reading for any pre-teen/teenager.  It’s also mandatory reading for you. Go buy a copy.

and last, but not least….

5. Beasts of Burden (written by Evan Dorkin, art by Jill Thompson)


Before we begin, I’d like to make a note. Yes, this is a book about animals solving paranormal mysteries. No, this is not a children’s book. Please, please, please, do not give this to anyone under the age of 14. It is not for them. The first few stories seem pretty simple and cute, but then it gets legitimately scary. The last page of the last one-shot that came out is one of the freakiest things I’ve ever seen in a comic. I still get shivers when I think about it. If anyone would like me to recommend some spooky, age appropriate things, I would be happy too.

Anyway, moving on. Beasts of Burden is incredible. It centers around a group of dogs (and one wonderful cat named Orphan) who live in the neighborhood of Burden Hill, and circumstances bring them together to investigate and solve paranormal mysteries. For some reason, Burden Hill seems to be a hotspot of paranormal activity and the pets always have plenty of work to do. From demons to ghost sheep, they face it all, with the help of the older “Wise Dogs” of the neighborhood of course. Yes, this is indeed Buffy With Animals.

Evan Dorkin finds the perfect character voice for each pet, but the real star of this book is the breathtaking watercolors by Jill Thompson. Those of you who have read Sandman may recognize her from the story arc “Brief Lives” which is great, but I really do think that this is the best work of Jill’s career. When things are cute, they’re squee worthy; when things are funny, they’re hilarious; and when things are scary, your stomach turns and you want to pee your pants.

Beasts of Burden is more of an episodic comic, due to the fact that there has never been a fairly regular series, but is instead often featured in anthology books like Dark Horse Presents. However, the majority of the stories are collected in the Animal Rites hardcover featured above. If your Local Comic Shop has a good back issues section, they also may be able to help you find the recent one-shot “Neighborhood Watch.”

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Well, that’s all folks. I hope you enjoyed my list, and learned about some books you may not have heard of before. If anyone is interested/liked this, I’ll happily do more. If not, well, I suppose I’ll just hide under my bed and cry.

Happy reading, everyone! And remember to shop at your Local Comic Shop! Don’t know where that is? Thankfully the handy-dandy comic shop locater does!

Also, the article image is from the hilarious webcomic Our Valued Customers by Mr. Tim.

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