Ellis, Carey, and Gillen. I do have my writing favourites.

A Life in Comics

I started reading comics far enough back that I’m not sure of the exact age when I began. There have been ups and downs in the decades since then, but I still pop into a comic store every Wednesday to see if there’s something new worth reading. With the western comics industry looking as diverse and healthy as it has ever been, I thought it might be nice exercise to review some of the comics that have stood out for me over the years.

There are loads of comics missed out from the list below, of course, but these are the ones that spring to mind when I try to remember what had the greatest impact on me as a reader and writer. Most of them are still accessible in trade paperback form too, so if you’re looking for something to read, you could do worse.

Asterix: Back around 1980, the library in Downpatrick had a small corner for books that had more pictures than words. Mostly these were picture books for small kids, but mixed in among them were a few Tintin and Asterix books. As interesting as the Tintin books were, it was the more cartoonish Asterix books that were my favourites. Asterix and Obelix and their globetrotting adventures in the midst of the Roman Empire (hmm—I suspect this is where my ongoing fascination with Roman history came from) had hidden depths too. The wonderful English translations of the French originals by Anthea Bell and David Hockridge are packed full of witty jokes and wordplay, and even as an adult they’re fun to come back to.

Spike/Champ/Victor: Back in the 1980s, British newsstand comics were changing with the arrival of 2000AD. My dad, though, had been a DC Thompson comic reader as a kid, so when I started reading a weekly comic it wasn’t the weird 2000AD but rather a new comic called Spike. Something like a grown-up Beano, complete with a rebellious kid mascot, it also featured reprints and reboots of decades-old characters, making it an odd, if appealing read for an eight-year-old kid. It only lasted 67 issues though before it was folded into the more football-focused Champ, which in turn was folded into the war-focused The Victor. They still dwell in boxes in my parents’ attic, but by the time The Victor died in 1992, I wanted something different.

Transformers: I was a kid in the 1980s, so I loved the Transformers. I really wanted to get the comic too, but my dad didn’t see the point since I had The Victor to read. So I didn’t start reading Transformers until #148, which was near the end of a massive crossover with the animated movie. I was hooked. Writer Simon Furman, less inhibited by toy company strictures than his American counterparts, took the opportunity to craft huge epics that had massive body counts and wild time-travel structures. He even got to take over the U.S. series towards the end, and the UK comic ran along with it, eventually ending on #332. Once again though, by that time I’d expanded my comic reading in other directions.

Excalibur: Growing up in Downpatrick, I didn’t have much access to American comics of the Marvel or D.C. type, beyond the occasional reprint. That changed some time around 1991, when I found a newsagent that actually sold American comics. For a few months, most of my meagre pocket money went on sampling as much as I could. Out of this came a deeper interest in comics and a dedication to one title in particular: Excalibur. A weird, U.K.-based offshoot of the X-Men comics, Excalibur had the advantage of occasionally having some amazing creators operating in a little sphere of their own. From the original Chris Claremont/Alan Davis soap opera weirdness, to Alan Davis’s later solo cross-dimensional epic, to Warren Ellis’s more cynical take on what was then a failing title. Excalibur hit massive highs during its 125-issue run, though it sputtered out in 1998. It had been my introduction to a broader world of comics though, and I was deep in the weeds, finding all sorts of interesting things.

Infinity Gauntlet: Around the time I started sampling American comics, Marvel hit one of its all-time highs in the form of the massive Infinity Gauntlet crossover. The writer was Jim Starlin, responsible for some of the most metaphysically interesting comics of the 1970s, and this provided an unusual depth to the “throw them all into the mixer” type of crossover that Marvel and DC had been competing with since Crisis on Infinite Earths and Secret Wars. Infinity Gauntlet was a massive success at the time, and even now it provides the basic elements for the current billion-dollar Marvel Avengers movie crossover series. It has dated a bit, but it’s still worth a read and fondly remembered.

Planetary: If my early forays into American comics were in straight superheroics, it was Warren Ellis who led me to stranger pastures. One of the second wave of British comics writers and already mentioned in relation to Excalibur, by the late 1990s there was no one more influential in the field. His Transmetropolitan was a scabrous look at politics, media, and technology through the eyes of a near-future journalist, and his twelve issues of The Authority rewrote what superhero comics were for the next decade and more. But it was his Planetary that I loved. The story of superhero archaeologists trying to uncover and preserve a better, stranger world, it was much delayed but always beautifully illustrated by John Cassaday. Less immediately influential than the flashier The Authority, I have the feeling that it’s had the longer-lasting impact, now that the former’s “widescreen comics” look and feel has been absorbed into the mainstream.

Lucifer: I more or less missed out on Neil Gaiman’s famous The Sandman, only jumping in at #50 of the 75-issue run. But my first experience of that series was the Season of Mists collected edition, during which the devil quits hell. Gaiman’s Lucifer was an intriguing enough character to be worth following, so when Mike Carey made him the centre of his own 75-issue series, I was on board from the beginning. The reward was a multiversal trip through mythology and morality, focusing as often on characters dragged into the orbit of the solipsistically self-absorbed titular character as it did on Lucifer himself. Unlike The Sandman, Lucifer also benefitted from a largely consistent art team in Peter Gross and Ryan Kelly as Carey depicted the struggles of Lucifer to escape God’s predestination and exercise free will. If not as well known as The Sandman, it’s as well worth your time, as is Carey’s later and unconnected The Unwritten.

Nextwave: By the mid-2000s, Warren Ellis (him again) had a side gig as a writer for hire for Marvel, employing his imagination to refresh characters who’d fallen off the public radar. Nextwave falls into that category—sort of—but it’s also so much more. Ellis took a gaggle of conceptually interesting but clichéd or dull characters and fed them into the wildest story ideas he could come up with. The opening story involved a horny, pants-wearing dragon and it only got madder from there. In twelve issues of unfettered genius, Ellis was ably accompanied by the art of Stuart Immonen, who seemed to take joy in illustrating every insane concept that Ellis presented him with. A fleet of airborne, laser-wielding Stephen Hawking clones springs to mind, but that’s just one image from a single issue. Nextwave is a concentrated burst of comics joy, poking plenty of fun at Marvel’s weirder corners but also revelling in just how enjoyable it could be.

The Wicked + the Divine: By the mid 2010s, I was mostly collecting comics in trade paperbacks rather than single issues. It took quite a lot for me to commit to following a new series in monthly issues. Luckily, The Wicked + The Divine had quite a lot to offer. Written by Kieron Gillen and drawn by Jamie McKelvie, previously responsible for Phonogram and an acclaimed run on Young Avengers, it was a recasting of the idea of superheroes. Here they were reborn gods, empowered and dying over the course of two years, a cycle that repeated every ninety years. The concept alone—in the modern era, the gods are global music stars—offered a ludicrous amount of depth and plenty of opportunity for Gillen to indulge his interest in formal experimentation and thematic exploration. Plus, there’s misdirection and shocks aplenty, and McKelvie is one of the best draughtsmen working in comics today. Right now the series has only a handful of issues left to run, and I have no idea how it’s going to end other than that it’s going to be bloody and I want to know what happens. That’s as strong a recommendation as I can think of.

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