That’s Peter Parker in the picture above. I doubt anybody reading this will be unfamiliar with that name, even before Hollywood deigned him worthy of making them millions upon millions of dollars, everyone in the world knew him as the Amazing Spider-Man. Everyone can name him, everyone can tell you the classic secret identity of Batman, Superman, Iron Man and a fair few could probably tell you the names of a handful of X-Men. What about Daredevil though? Who wears the cape and cowl of Batman these days? What’s odd about Spider-Man’s marriage? How did the Punisher die and what happened to him afterwards? If you can answer all those questions congratulations! First and foremost you are a nerd! But secondly you’ve experienced a wealth of deep and engaging story-telling that a vast swath of the adult population has not and probably never will. Everyone knows the basics because of their childhoods, Saturday morning cartoons and the modern movies cashing in on your nostalgia but that’s where it ends for most isn’t it? Childhood. Comics and cartoons are a thing of the past, something to be boxed away or foisted on other kids at criminally low prices at car boot sales. It leaves the lonely few who still carry on feel like we’re speaking an alien and less sophisticated language like Peter up there who manages to so accurately, like he’s done since the early sixties, connect to the reader’s way of thinking. Spider-Man is an everyman, just an everyman who can lift cars and swing around the New York skyline. The fact that so many of us stop thinking that’s totally frigging awesome is truly lamentable.
So as you probably know (and if not you’ve figured it out by now) I’m a comics nerd. And a cartoon nerd. Even the banner at the top of this blog is cut from the cover of Amazing Spider-Man number 600.
That was released last year. I’m bang up to date and I can bore you with countless details on the ins and outs of the Spider-Man canon. You just don’t want to hear it that’s all. When you ‘grow up’ out of comics and cartoons you lose an imagination and a sense of humour that no other medium can provide. Frank McConnell in his spoilerific foreword to Neil Gaiman’s Kindly Ones (volume nine of the perfect Sandman library, more on that later) describes comics as portraying an honesty that cannot be rivalled by any other story-telling method. In a film an actor is pretending to feel or look a certain way under the supervision of a director, a book will only describe how a character feels or looks. In comics that feeling or that look is there for you to see in the most raw manner possible. An intricate plot complemented by a talented artist can make a reading experience that, for my money, is equal to or greater than many English language novels considered to be the best ever.
That’s not to say they’re perfect, of course they’re not. If comics are to be judged on the same level as books, television and cinema then they will always have their towering works of genius (their Godfathers let’s say) and their crass lumps of shite (their Anything with Hulk Hogan in its let’s say). For every John Romita Jr there is a Rob Liefield. For every Alan Moore there is a Jeph Loeb after he got crap. For every Frank Miller there is… er Frank Miller after he got crap. Again, like any other medium however, you wouldn’t judge it on its worst articles. If you somehow met a bizarre impossible creature who had never seen a feature length film you wouldn’t immediately grab Glitter by way of introduction. Similarly I wouldn’t suggest anything from the embarrassing ‘darker and edgier’ period all comics went through during the 1990s. Rather I would suggest:
Amazing Spider-Man Volume One – Coming Home (J. Michael Straczynski and John Romita Jr.)
Spider-Man will always be my favourite comic book hero. As I mentioned before he is a super-powered everyman and one of the first to be written that way. Peter Parker’s everyday life forces him to put up with the same struggles we do (as evidenced by the irritatingly NOW plan of having him get fired in soon-to-be-released issues with the word ECONOMY every other sentence) but nobody has ever written him with as much humility and humanity as JMS has. This volume introduces major plots in the Spider-Man world that JMS would run with all the way up until his departure and is a great jumping on point if, like me, you’re familiar with the character but want something with substance to sink your teeth into. There are about ten volumes out there from the same creative team and they’re all a blast.
Watchmen (Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons)
This is a no-brainer. The holy bible for graphic novels written by the godfather of graphic novels. I don’t think I need to go into too much depth as to why this is so great, there are so many people who can tell you in more eloquent ways. Moore is probably the finest comics writer ever and this deconstruction of the entire idea of a super-hero changed comics forever. Forget the film. Compared to this it’s trash. Well that’s maybe a little uncharitable. It’s a good film but there was no way they could have captured everything Moore intended to say with the book. For the longest time I considered it the unfilmable film. They had a good whack at it but read the book first. Seriously the best thing I’ve ever read.
Sandman (Neil Gaiman et al)
There’s no body of work in comics quite like the Sandman series. At ten volumes it’ll set you back a bit but you won’t be disappointed. I’ve been preaching about this one for years. It’s a vast and complicated saga centred around a main character who is the embodiment of the idea of dreaming. Wait where are you going? Yes it’s a weird concept to get your head around but if you’re familiar with Gaiman’s writing you’ll know how expertly he can tie disparate threads of a story together along with dozens of different cultures’ mythologies and legends. Satisfying and adult, Sandman is a beast that demands your attention. And it will stick with you for a while too, it’s quite disturbing in places.
Anyway, I’m not going to turn this into a ‘here are all the things I think you should read’ piece, I’d be here all night. Those are certainly the three I would suggest as starting points and I think they represent three very different styles of comics. They shouldn’t be the exclusive property of kids, they deserve the same respect and in some cases reverence as ‘proper novels’. The only difference is they can get away with all kinds of batshit insane stuff lumped right alongside their character development. And sometimes they have massive Nazi war machines too.
But cartoons are more tricky aren’t they? It’s hard to come up with a cartoon aimed at adults, not about super-heroes and not totally puerile I can talk about in such hushed tones as Watchmen up there. The most successful examples are obviously The Simpsons and Family Guy but they were never meant to be taken seriously (besides, both have turned into hideous parodies of themselves these days). Every so often you’ll get something intended for kids that ends up being so stylish and interesting that adults latch onto it and it stands the test of time. As a happy little cross over the early 1990’s Batman: The Animated Series is this cartoon. I still adore it to this day. It has a style and a mood all its own that no cartoon has ever been able to accurately emulate and Kevin Conroy just IS Batman. In fact all of the voice acting in the cartoon was so spot on that most of the cast reprised their roles for last year’s awesome Batman – Arkham Asylum video game. There’s another much overlooked profession, voice-acting. Where would Mark Hamil be without it?
So what can I recommend to convince people that cartoons are a worthy medium in this day and age? Everyone accepts Disney cartoons in a way they’ll never accept Ren and Stimpy but in my perfect world I know which one would be the most revered. If you’re looking for Ren and Stimpy’s modern day successors then it’s a short list to be sure but I would point you in the direction of The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. It’s been described as Spongebob Squarepants only on even more drugs. It’s weird, anarchic, non-sensical, at times disturbing but most importantly hysterical.
The logical progression cartoons have gone through over the last decade or so has been a process of self-parody. Sometimes woefully lazy (see Simpsons and Family Guy) and sometimes right on the money. As an example of the latter I present The Venture Bros. Starting life as a merciless ‘what if the cast of Johnny Quest grew up and fucked up’ kind of affair, it has spanned out into one of the most effectively realised little universes in cartoon history. Look up any fansite and you will see literal essays on how well written, acted and developed Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick’s characters are. They’re not wrong, it’s just brilliant. Any series with a butterfly themed arch nemesis called The Monarch is alright with me.
And finally if you can’t sit and watch an episode of Tom and Jerry without grinning like a fool from ear to ear I don’t want to know you as a human being. I’m serious. This brings me round to poor ol’ Peter Parker up at the top there and the reason I wrote this entry in the first place. I can’t imagine going through life without the memories of Looney Tunes and Tex Avery classics in my head. Many is the time I’ve unleashed a line or reference to one of those masterpieces and received the reception like Petey did (once a Rover Dangerfield line. That’s right I attempted a Rover Dangerfield reference and wondered why the silence was eating me whole). This is one of the rare occasions I’m not a miserable old bastard. I just can’t bring myself to be moody or upset around comics and cartoons because they still spark that joy and wonder they did the first time I ever read a Spider-Man comic. Call it juvenile, call it escapism (and it certainly is) but don’t judge them until you’ve read a comic or watched a cartoon that truly made your jaw drop and believe me, you will find one, everyone does.