Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Taster's Choice or I Read Comic Books (And So Can You)!

Comics have a bad reputation in the academic world--if you want a professor to take them seriously, you first have to pretentiously re-label them graphic novels. But the truth is that while comics appear effortlessly digestible, they're often intellectually rich and challenging. So, instead of cracking open the "classics" this summer, why not read a comic book that promises both stunning visuals and a satisfying story? Here's my list of must read comics:

 
1. Chew
Written by John Layman, Drawn by Rob Guillory

 
 

I'm personally not a big fan of superhero comics--Chew is as about as close as it gets to a superhero comic without actually being a superhero comic. It tells the story of cibopath detective, Tony Chu, as he solves various crimes/mysteries in a time where much of the population has succumbed to a deadly mutation of the bird flu (as such, chicken is illegal to cook, sell, and eat). If you don't know what a cibopath is, you're not alone--I think it's Layman's own invention. Basically, a cibopath receives psychic impressions from any food s/he puts in his/her mouth, except for canned beets for some bizarre reason . As a cibopathic cop, Tony is forced to do much of his investigative work through the tasting of various pieces of evidence (edible or not). As you can imagine, Tony's unique ability makes for some interesting and cannibalistic situations that are both disturbing and entertaining. Honestly, that's half the fun of this series!

 
Chew is an important and relevant read in our Western culture now. It reflects many of the apprehensions we have about the processing and origins of our food. Tony struggles with eating any meat, because when he does eat meat, he receives a graphic vision of the animal's slaughter. He struggles with eating food handled at restaurants after he receives a vision of a cook spitting into his soup. These are some of the struggles we all face in a culture where eating meat is no longer ethically or environmentally viable, especially with the emergence of giant, corporate owned farms. But the ethical treatment of our food isn't our only concern. We can't take a bite of anything without worrying about genetic modification, pesticides, local farming, ethical farming, sustainable farming, obesity, organic vs. inorganic, germs and disease. It is quite literally a lot to take-in. Chew plays on these anxieties quite well and gives you a lot to chew on without shoving any one particular stand point down your throat.

 
Besides the fantastic story line and hilarious food puns, Chew's art is refreshing and quirky. It has a distinct style without falling into the trap of too-similar-looking characters (*Cough* Walking Dead *Cough*). Each character is unique in his/her own way. I also enjoyed the fact that Tony Chu is a minority character (Asian)--you don't see that very often and I'm happy to see representation of people of colour.

 

2. Afterlife with Archie
Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, drawn by Francesco Francavilla


 
I grew up reading Archie comics and, full disclosure, sometimes I still read them. Yes, they're often corny and formulaic, but they can be surprisingly sophisticated. Afterlife with Archie, while perhaps not canonical, is certainly sophisticated, if not downright disturbing. The story begins in Riverdale with all the classic Archie characters we have come to know and love: Archie, Betty, Veronica, Reggie, Jughead, and even Sabrina. My heart swelled with nostalgia...and then the bloodbath began. Afterlife with Archie isn't your typical Archie story. In this comic, now available as a trade, Archie and his gang face a fast-moving zombie outbreak and all of the mayhem that comes with it. Ok, so zombies have been done-to-death, but this is a fresh parody that Archie, zombie, and comic book fans can get behind. I especially love the zombie outbreak origin story which is revealed in the first comic. It's original and fits well with Archie canon.

 
My only disappointment is the art--and let me qualify that statement. Francavilla went with an original and fairly dark art style. I'm not sure if this was a creative choice or if it had something to do with disassociating the adult content of Afterlife with Archie from the Archie comics that are typically targeted at a pre-teen and teen audience. Although the characters are recognizable, I think the original Archie style would have made the comic more uncomfortably remarkable and, therefore, more disquieting, especially for Archie fans. Regardless, Francavilla's technique and style are mostly well received on my end and fit nicely with the plot.

 

3. Battle Angel Alita
Written and drawn by Yukito Kishiro


 
Although Battle Angel Alita had its original run in the 90s, it has recently been re-released as an ominbus. It has also re-entered the spotlight of late since James Cameron reportedly plans on making the series into a live action film (fingers crossed this happens).

 
Battle Angel Alita is a dystopic Manga series (Japanese graphic novel) that takes place in the distant future, as dystopias often do. The majority of humanity lives in squalor on polluted Earth. Earth people are the slave class who supply food, power, and waste disposal to a minority of privileged people who live in a safe sky city called Tiphares. In order to survive on Earth, humans enhance their bodies with cyborg modifications, nanotechnology, and drugs. The cyborg technology is so advanced, in fact, that the entire human body (except for the brain, of course) can be replaced with metal. It's all very cyberpunk. The protagonist of this cyberpunk narrative is the mysterious and sexy, Alita. Ido, an ex-Tipharean doctor, discovers Alita's unconscious and badly damaged mechanical body in a scrap yard. Ido has an intense fatherly instinct (it's almost patronizing, actually) and so, he takes Alita home, repairs and adopts her. When she wakes up, she has no memory of her past, though it is quickly revealed that she has the strength, instincts, and training of a warrior. While some of the novel is dedicated to unveiling Alita's mysterious identity, much of the story concerns her misadventures in the scrap yard as she defends organic (unmodified) and weak humans.
 



 
Unfortunately, much of the "soul" of Battle Angel Alita all but disappears after the first four volumes (and there are nine volumes altogether). However, it is worth at least one read-through for its themes about family, the soul, identity and embodiment, religion, and class. I was particularly intrigued by the idea that embodiment can shape our personalities, realities, and identities. Alita seems to change bodies once per volume (sometimes twice) and her personality is often effected as well. For example, in the first volume, Ido gifts Alita with a feminine cyborg body--the body came from a gynoid prostitute, the arms are intricately designed, and the shape of the body is distinctly female. As a result, Alita becomes innocent and childish. She clearly takes on the role of young daughter and she is infantilized by those around her despite her impressive abilities. Later, Ido surgically connects Alita to a weaponized berserker body which was once used by Tipharean soldiers. When Alita sheds her gynoid body, she sheds her stereotypically feminine personality in favour of a more masculine one. The idea that our biological bodies (or technological ones, in this case) shape our reality really makes you think about how we form identity even in our culture now.

 
Battle Angel Alita's dystopic landscapes are captivating, if not depressing in kind with Blade Runner's landscapes. Being that this is a cyberpunk narrative, there is plenty of body-horror, including outright gore and murder. Brains, limbs, and organs are strewn about the city disembodied, glistening with sticky fluids, and available for a price. Alita lives in a world where human beings mutilate their organic bodies, kill for spinal columns, and beg for drugs on the street. It isn't a happy story, but it's a good one.

 

4. "His Face All Red"
Written and drawn by Emily Carroll

 

Emily Carroll's comics are web based and free to anyone with an internet connection, which is very in-line with the "of-the-people" nature of comics, I think. Not only are they available for free, they're also skillfully executed. Emily Carroll creates mostly one-shot horror comics that leave the reader silently petrified. "His Face All Red" is a one-shot that is particularly unsettling in its vagueness and subtly. The horror is never stated outright in its entirety and so readers must actively think on it. Carroll's story-telling is frustrating--because I just want the story to keep going--but effective.

 
To avoid revealing the whole plot (and the twist ending), I'll keep my description short and general. Basically, two brothers, one brave and one cowardly, and much like biblical brothers Cain and Abel (hint, hint), head into the woods to hunt a beast that has been killing the village's livestock. Once deep in the woods, the brothers come upon an inexplicable and perplexingly deep hole in the ground. That's when things get weird. And by weird, I mean terrifying.

 
Because Carroll is presenting her comic on a website, she is able to format the comic in a minimalist way (there's no clutter, no links, etc., just a black page with strips of the comic). Each "page" of the comic is presented on a black screen. When you click on the page, the next strip appears. This format suits the story well in that you feel that you are yourself sinking down into an infinite, dark hole as you scroll down the page. Overall, this comic is incredibly well-thought out.

 

 
Honourable Mentions:

 

Skydoll: Skydoll's story sucks (God, it sucks so bad), but the art is beyond words. Buy this series just to stare open-mouthed at the breathtaking colours and line work. Or just take a look at the art available online.

Sailor Moon manga series: Sailor moon is making a comeback in a big way this summer (redesigned and everything). And, really, who doesn't love a magical girl who eats and sleeps as excessively as a regular girl (or was that just me eating and sleeping excessively...)?

Uzumaki: Are you in the mood for terror? Are you tired of sleeping peacefully each and every night? Read this deliciously strange manga and say goodbye to your peace of mind!

 

That's my list for now. Do you have any comic book suggestions? Please feel free to add them in the comment section below. I'm always looking for a good read.

Image from Uzumaki

1 comment:

  1. Since I teach mostly middle grade as of right now and maybe even elementary next year, I've started reading the Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi. Good so far!

    ReplyDelete