For avid bookworms it can be easy to fall into a reading rut, sticking with the same author or genre for stretches at a time. No longer, friends, no longer. I beseech you to shrug off that dusty shroud of predictability and pry open the doors of something unexpected: graphic novels.
If ever the thought crossed your mind that graphic novels were strictly the realm of superheroes, Manga, and plots as uncomplicated as a “Family Circus” strip (not that there’s anything wrong with that), banish the notion from your mind. There’s a lot to love in all those illustrated panels, and some complex stories to boot. Here are a few suggestions to ease you into the pace, style, and possibilities of storytelling with text and images, before you just dive right in to Watchmen.
Yes, yes, this is almost so obvious it doesn’t bear repeating, so let’s knock it out of the way first. Judging solely by the TV ratings, every last one of you spends your Sundays watching Rick Grimes and his merry band of postapocalyptic whiners ritually disembowel, disgorge, and dissect hordes of Walkers. The boon for readers of the comic are the variations between book and screen; if you detested the Grimes gang’s summer vacation on Hershel’s farm of Eden, Kirkman’s got you covered. Of course, some things stay the same: No one is safe, and Carl probably isn’t going to stay in the house.
Sometimes the easiest way to try something new is to do it with an old friend by your side. Who better to fill that role than everyone’s favorite master of macabre myth, Neil Gaiman? The Sandman series, centering on Morpheus, Lord of Dreams, essentially made the DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint, which has built its bread and butter on stories that step out of the superhero vein. Gaiman’s story of the dream king mixes mythology, fairy tales, and legends (allusions, allusions as far as the eye can see!) in the masterful way he has in any format, except this time he has the help of some truly, well, graphic imagery. (And if you start plowing through the stories now, you’ll be all caught up in time for the release of the new prequel series, The Sandman: Overture, in October.)
So you think you’re ready for some superheroes? Good, let’s transition with the help of our friend Gaiman again, as he runs over to Marvel to send their characters on a surprising new track. As could be deduced from the title, the age of heroes has come a bit early—400 years early. It’s the time of Queen Elizabeth I, and something’s afoot in jolly old England. Thankfully, there’s a whole host of familiar characters to save the day, even for those not well-versed in comic lore—including Nick Fury, the X-Men, Thor, and Daredevil just to name a few. It’s alt-history heroics, and the beautiful illustrations make suspending belief easy.
And now for something completely different. Maus, at once genre-bending and utterly involving, is all the proof necessary of graphic novels’ capacity for complex, challenging stories. It’s the Holocaust told through mice instead of men. Really, all there is to be said is that Maus is one of the most moving depictions of the period this side of Night. (In a similar, slightly, slightly more lighthearted vein is Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.)
Once you’ve acclimated to the world of graphic novels and comics, Frank Miller is a name you’re going to come across time and time again. (Special shout-out to Batman: Year One.) Here, he presents SPARTA before we knew that, indeed, THIS IS SPARTA. Zach Snyder, director of the 2007 film adaptation, has nothing on Lynn Varley’s intense illustrations of the Battle of Thermopylae. A good general has a grasp of strategy, logistics, and battlefield command. And Miller’s a pretty good general.