Comics that Make You a Better Person
We’ve had some fun, here at VR, but I wanted to take the zaniness down a notch and discuss something with a little more depth.
See, we have the comics that are fun. They bask in the escapism of superhero adventures, the misadventures of a misanthrope with a poor attitude, the hapless wandering of silly animals, or any combination of these and a million other strange and fantastic themes.
However, not all comics are about heroes and villains, the struggle with societal norms by antisocial loners, or funny animals doing funny things. Some aspire to move beyond the standard memes of comicdom and deliver tales that revolve around realistic, sometimes even real, events. These comics build upon the medium; straining to reach a higher level of the sequential artform.
These are the comics you can show people when they say comics are for kids.
I feel a distinct sense of schadenfreude when I speak to some music, film, or art snob about A Tale of One Bad Rat or Maus and watch as every close-minded assumption they have had about comics begins to shatter. Could I actually be giving them an example of comics that reach beyond the tights and capes crowd to match the precious artistry they hold so dear?
This aside, the books that follow represent the beauty, intricacy, intellectualism, and creativity that can happen within the pages of the sequential art of comics. They step outside of the medium to equal the level of emotion that the other great works of history have achieved. They establish a connection with the audience that is powerful and moving.
Reading these, be default, makes you a better human being.
Pride of Baghdad (w. Brian K. Vaughn, a. Niko Henrichon, 2006)
The first work I am talking about is also the one that nearly didn’t make the list. It has a lot of action. It has heroes and talking animals (not that that really stopped me, see below). However, the background that led to the creation of this amazing series is based on an astounding and sadly true story.
In 2003, a pride of four African lions escaped from the Baghdad Zoo and into the bombed city. They were shot by U.S. Soldiers, but the story was something unique and Vaughn and Henrichon saw something greater in it.
The story revolves around the pride, a family of lions who has their own issues. As they find themselves freed, they begin a journey that leads them to encounter a number of unusual and dangerous creatures that can be found on the outskirts of Baghdad. As they move along their unknown path, the lions each discover the importance of their role in the family unit.
Although more fantastic than anything else I am presenting here, Pride of Baghdad is a powerful tale based, however loosely, on a true story that can conjure real emotion from the reader.
A Tale of One Bad Rat (Bryan Talbot, 1994)
Perhaps one of my favorite comic stories of all time, The Tale of One Bad Rat is the story of Helen Potter, a runaway in London whose only friend is a rat she has managed to tame. She is obsessed with the works of Beatrix Potter and dreams of following the path of her hero to learn of Beatrix’s journey.
As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Helen is deeply troubled due to terrible things that happened to her from the time she was a small child. Her imagination is spotlit over the course of the story, coming to life in amazing and terrifying ways. The true beauty of this story is in Helen’s journey for herself. As her character develops, the reader can see a real transformation, for her.
Bryan Talbot’s beautiful art and fantastic understanding of the human condition bring The Tale of One Bad Rat to life. It stands as Talbot’s seminal work and, arguably, his greatest accomplishment as a writer and artist.
Maus (Art Spiegelman, 1991)
If you are, in any way shape or form, interested in the type of comics work that I am speaking of, in this article, you need, need, NEED to buy and read Maus. Then loan it to your mother/father/sibling/teacher/uncle/friend, etcetera, until everyone you know has experienced the powerful tale of a man seeking to understand the stories of his father who experienced World War II as a Jewish man in Poland.
In Spiegelman’s powerful story-telling style, he opens up, emotionally, to the reader, baring himself before us in a way few writers, in the medium, ever have. In addition, he brings his father to life, on the page, in a way that is awe-striking. As another layer, the story of Vladek Spiegelman’s journey through the ghetto to ghetto in Poland to Auschwitz to his eventual path to freedom and survival, shows a remarkable and heart-wrenching narrative. The story builds each of the three layers on one another, enough so that, at the end, the reader feels as though they have gone through each of them, on their own.
Maus won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, the first and only comic book to do so. If that doesn’t mean it’s being put on your must-read list, I don’t know what will convince you. Chances are, if you are reading this article, in the first place, you’ve already read it.
Daytripper (w. Fábio Moon, a. Gabriel Bá, 2010)
The newest of the books on this list and the one I have most recently read, Daytripper was the inspiration behind writing this, in the first place. My father, with whom I was long estranged, gave it to me, this past Christmas. In building a relationship with my father, I have come to realize that he and I have a great deal in common. Daytripper, however, makes me want to explore that relationship…
… Because you never know when it’s going to be too late.
Daytripper moves along a non-linear path in the life of Brás de Oliva Domingos, an aspiring writer who, when we first encounter him, is writing obituaries in Rio. Throughout the story, Brás’ life unfolds in amazing ways, as we are treated to his loves, friendships and family, and his deaths.
In the end, we can see through the unusual circumstances of Brás’ tale, perhaps a little of ourselves. When you see my dad, thank him for sharing this amazing story with me.
A Contract With God, and Other Tenement Stories (Will Eisner, 1978)
With the exception of Pride of Baghdad, the other comics on this list can all be describes as “Eisner Award-winning.”
That’s the same Eisner that wrote A Contract with God. That’s right. The award, by which all comics can hope to be compared with was named for the guy that wrote this. Contract is considered to be Eisner’s greatest work and he’s the guy whose name has been lent to the Oscar, Emmy, or Grammy of comicdom.
How’s that for a pitch?
Contract tells four stories from a specific tenement in the Bronx. Set in the 1930s, the stories are intense and unflinching tales which are pulled from those Eisner, himself, grew up hearing. They open up the heart of the unique people that one may have encountered in such a place as a 30s tenement in New York. They give us a view of humanity which is rarely seen in comics.
The tales are unflinching. They do not cater to sensibilities or ideals beyond those that existed in the era, which can be shocking for a modern audience. However, the stories of the people who lived in 55 Dropsie Avenue give a window into another world; one from the past whose tales may have disappeared forever, without the efforts of a genius named Will Eisner.
“The following stories are based on life in the tenements during the 1930’s… the dirty thirties! They are true stories.
“Only the telling and the portrayals have converted them to fiction.”
- Will Eisner
So, there you have it. A sampling of some of the amazing graphic stories you can find that don’t have capes, or laser vision, or cosmically-powered rings. Okay, maybe it’s a bit much to say these could help make you a better person, but reading works such as these may help you look at comics or even life, a little differently.