This summer has been replete with comic book movies – Iron Man, Hellboy II, Incredible Hulk, Wanted, that other one with the guy who dresses up as a bat … For those of us in the know (and yes, I’m talking about comic book geeks readers), it’s been a satisfying couple of months of “I told you they were cool!”, “See, the Joker doesn’t need an origin!” and “Look, the first one sucked because there wasn’t enough smashing but this one’s better, honest!”
Yes, it’s a good time to be a geek.
But what about you, faithful trashcan sorter?
Did these movies interest you in reading more comic books? Or reignite the embers of a flame that’s been smoldering for lo these many years since you grew out of them?
Then I’m here to help!
See, there’s two ways that this could go. You could either go the more “mature” way, the grown-up way, and pick up a couple of trade paperbacks or graphic novels from Borders, Barnes and Noble or Amazon (obviously Amazon’s better because that way nobody can see you do it!), or you could go geek. You could head down to your local comic book store – and you probably have one whether you know it or not – and pick up a couple of actual comics.
Most titles come out monthly, but releases are spread out so that there are new comics out every week. Here in the U.S., Wednesday is the regular release date so that’s a busy day in the store. You can expect to see all manner of comic book reader in there on a Wednesday – the professional adult, the retiree, the student and, yes, sometimes that guy who still lives in his mom’s basement. Just because it’s a stereotype doesn’t mean it isn’t true – but that guy’s actually less common than you think. But if you do happen across him, don’t stand next to him in line for the checkout because his mom’s basement may not come with a shower.
Let’s assume for now that you want to go with a trade paperback or graphic novel. Contrary to what you may read, these things are different – at least to us geeks. A trade paperback is a collection of comics originally published in a serial format, either as a mini series (that’s a finite series with a set number of issues dedicated to one story) or as an arc of an ongoing series (that’s usually four to eight issues of a comic that follows a storyline). A graphic novel, on the other hand was never published as individual comics. It came to life complete unto itself, and was born and bred for the format. There are no logical issue breaks or anything along those lines, but the book is a complete story. Like a novel, only with graphics. Duh.
So now that you know that (which, granted, you probably didn’t need to know), let’s take a quick look at what leads off from those movies you caught this summer …
Iron Man – Ah, if ever someone was born to play the martini-swilling playboy inventor we all know and love, it was Robert Downey Jr., wasn’t it? There are a number of good places to go for more of Marvel’s man of iron …
You could start with Demon in a Bottle, a nice hardcover trade of the classic storyline from the late 70s that had Tony Stark battling his alcoholism for the first time. As classic and well regarded as this story is, it’s very much a product of its time. The art (by a young John Romita Jr and long time Iron Man inker/plotter Bob Layton) isn’t up to Romita’s later work, and writer David Michelinie’s script is a tad melodramatic and, if I’m honest, Stark’s alcoholism is wrapped up a little too neatly here. It would take Denny O’Neill’s run on the title some years later to really play out Stark’s descent into hopelessness over a three year run – giving up the armor to James Rhodes (played by Terence Howard in the movie), losing his company and ending up on the streets before finally getting straight and reclaiming his identity. But this isn’t a bad place to start.
For more classic (i.e. kind of cheesy) fun, you could pick up Iron Man vs. Doctor Doom: Doomquest, another little hardcover collection featuring the two armored character’s conflicts across time as they’re transported into Arthurian England and, later, the far future. Then there’s the Essential Iron Man, Vol. 1 – a cheap, phonebook-sized black and white reprint of the armored Avenger’s earliest adventures by the likes of Stan Lee, Don Heck and more. It’s sixties Marvel at it’s huckstering finest – hyperbole filled far-out adventures that are more often than not wrapped up in one issue.
These early works are also contained in a more expensive full color volume – the Iron Man Omnibus. It’s a massive 700-plus pages oversized hardcover volume and, at $100 retail (or $63 through Amazon) it’s not a casual purchase – but its one hell of a paperweight.
On the other hand, if your taste is a little more sophisticated and your wallet a little less prone to splurging, I can recommend Iron Man: Extremis by uber-writer Warren Ellis with art by Adi Granov, who designed the movie’s armors. It’s a collection of their six-issue run from two or three years ago which revitalized the character, updating Stark’s origin and introducing a new threat to the industrialist. Ellis has been on a creative roll in the past five or six years and he’s one of the most outspoken and interesting writers in comics (you can find his blog here). Granov, on the other hand, has a digitally painted style that’s easy on the eye and amazingly detailed. Good stuff.
Incredible Hulk – Thank God it was better than the first snoozefest of a movie, eh? For more of the big green guy, you’ve got the equivalent of the Iron Man Omnibus, The Incredible Hulk Omnibus which collects ol’ greenskin’s adventures back when he started out as ol’ grayskin (the same original stories are also available in the Essential Incredible Hulk, Vol. 1).
Yep, the Hulk started off as gray before he became green, and the gray Hulk has returned many times since – he’s smarter and meaner than the regular ‘Hulk Smash’ version but slightly weaker too. You can see more of him in the beautifully painted Hulk: Gray. Written by Heroes writer Jeph Loeb and illustrated by Tim Sale, the man behind all of the paintings in the show, the book is the third in a series of collaborations looking at the early days of Marvel’s heroes – take a look at the excellent Daredevil: Yellow and Spider-Man: Blue while you’re at it.
Still, if it’s old-fashioned smashing you’re after, you can’t go wrong with Planet Hulk, collecting one of the most acclaimed storylines in recent superhero comics history. Hulk, marooned on a distant planet by people he called friends (conveniently collected in the Prelude to Planet Hulk), finds out that he isn’t the strongest one there is on the alien world and is forced to use all his cunning to survive in a gladiatorial arena … and that’s just the start of it. Hulk returns to Earth with an army in tow to extract his revenge on the people who sent him there – including a certain red and gold Avenger – in World War Hulk. Smashing, as they say, ensues.
Then there’s the excellent Hulk: The End, which collects two tales of the final days of the Incredible Hulk. In one, the Hulk wanders a barren world with only Bruce Banner for company; in another the present day Hulk travels into the future only to find it ruled by his vicious future self. Both these stories are written by Peter David, who had an acclaimed eleven-year run on the book, which is collected in a series of trade paperbacks, starting with
Incredible Hulk Visionaries – Peter David, Vol. 1.
Wanted – If Wanted is more your speed, you could try the comic on which the movie is based – Wanted. It’s a similar premise to the movie but in a world where the super-villains won; there’s a lot of costumes and capes in the comic which didn’t make it into the movie. And let’s just say that hero Wesley is less heroic in the comic and more self-centered. It’s definitely an adults-only read and stars Eminem and Halle Berry – at least they’re clearly who artist JG Jones used as the basis of his version of Wesley and Fox. Take that, McAvoy and Jolie!
The comic was written by Mark Millar, a Scotsman with a long resume in comics both in superheroes and outside the genre. For superheroes, you could do worse than pick up his landmark work with artist Bryan Hitch on a modern re-imagination of the Avengers, The Ultimates (and it’s sequel, the imaginatively titled The Ultimates 2. Or you could pick up an alternative look at Superman – what would happen if Superman landed in Communist Russia – in Superman: Red Son.
Thematically, if you’re more interested in crime comics, pick up Frank Miller’s Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye (you probably remember the movie from a few years ago) or Ed Brubaker’s acclaimed Criminal Volume 1. Or for secret orders, check out Arvid Nelson’s Rex Mundi Volume 1.
Hellboy II – You could always start following up on the movie by picking up Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction (which also comes in a swanky ‘library edition’ that looks all grown-up and includes the second volume) or any of its follow up volumes.
Hellboy‘s creator Mike Mignola also has another series, B.P.R.D., which starting with the first volume, follows the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense – including the amphibian Abe Sapien – in their adventures without the big red guy.
Alternatively, you might like Proof Volume 1: Goatsucker which follows John Prufrock in his work for The Lodge, a mysterious agency which tackles supernatural creatures – such as Proof himself, who happens to be a very well-dressed Bigfoot. Sort of a cross between Hellboy and The X-Files, Proof is a great series which I can’t hype enough.
You might also like Atomic Robo, which follows the adventures of Robo and his team of fighting scientists as they tackle Nazi robots and various other menaces – but good luck finding it; the trade paperback of the first series has been sold out since publishing and is currently floating around the $100 mark due to popularity.
The Dark Knight – Then there’s Batman. I could do an entire list on what you could read, but I’ll try and stick to the essentials.
You can’t go wrong with Frank Miller (behind Sin City and 300) and his work on the character … well, not if you start with Batman: Year One. Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli’s retelling of the origin of Batman rejuvenated the character, revisiting his earliest days and battles. It’s a noir look at the legend, and one that still drives the character’s direction even twenty-plus years after it was published.
At the other end of Batman’s career is Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which takes us into the near future; gangs run riot, Superman’s a stooge for the President and only an underground Bruce Wayne stands tall against the night. It’s a stellar piece of work, absolutely amazing … unfortunately Miller followed it up with the bloated The Dark Knight Strikes Again some fifteen years later, which simply can’t hold a candle to the original. These stories are available together in one oversize volume as well, but to be perfectly honest you’re better off sticking to the first one alone.
Right now, Miller is partnered with super-artist Jim Lee on All-Star Batman and Robin, which is almost a parody of the character. In this book, the goddamn Batman spits every line through gritted teeth as he teaches the youngster the ropes and beds super-women on the side. It’s certainly a different take on the character, but it might be to your liking.
Then there’s the Joker: The Killing Joke is the definitive Joker story, as the mad clown’s past is kind of, maybe revealed as he targets Batman, Commissioner Gordon and Gordon’s daughter Barbara (formerly Batgirl). Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s work on this book is amazing and it’s for mature readers. You could also check out Arkham Asylum for Grant Morrison and artist Dave McKean’s nightmarish take on the Joker and the rest of Batman’s rogues as he heads into the pit of madness.
Two Face takes a prominent role in The Long Halloween (also available in a great oversize ‘Absolute’ edition) and its sequel, Dark Victory, which features the rest of Batman’s villains. Set in the early days of Batman’s career, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale navigate a murder mystery where everyone from Two Face to the Penguin is a likely suspect.
A mystery is also at the center of Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s Hush, which sends Batman in search of a villain with a very personal connection to Bruce Wayne, not to mention the knowledge of his secret identity.
As a final suggestion, if you like the idea of how the police in Gotham might handle themselves, then you could do a lot worse than check out Gotham Central. It’s an excellent series by Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker and artist Michael Lark and well worth checking out – not every hero in Gotham wears a mask, and not every cop likes Batman butting in on their job.
That’s just a sampling of what’s out there for you. Check out your local bookstore’s graphic novel section or head to your local comic shop and ask the owner or staff what they recommend … there’s a lot of good stuff out there.
And that’s not even counting the monthly comics …
Rich Lovatt runs a daily blog, Comic By Comic. He smells good (most of the time), is happily married to a very tolerant wife and moved so far from his mom’s basement that he made it all the way to New York from his native England. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.