Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Coolness for the masses

Coolness for the masses: Thoughts on non-superhero titles (Pt 1)
By Andrew Hawnt

Look, lets get something straight. We're in this business mainly because we're fans of the stuff we sell. If we didn't have a passion for the books, the figures and whatnot, we wouldn't be doing it. We don't always get it right, but we do love the things we sell and thus we always want you to be able to discover something cool you may have missed. We're now looking further afield than the standard superhero graphic novels, for example. Now, we do love our superheroes, but there comes a time when your tastes change a little, and you crave something more than spandex.

Hmm, can't say I've ever actually craved Spandex, but you know what I mean. While the big publishers are content to publish safe superhero material (yeah they are taking more risks in terms of storytelling now but they're still essentially tales about dudes in capes), there are some absolute gems out there that the general graphic novel audience may miss.

These are also things that the casual comics audience may miss, and strangely, some of these non-superhero titles are responsible for bringing more people into the world of comics fandom. Hmm, what comes to mind? I've already talked about WATCHMEN, and I don't really want to include it in this piece as it's a DC title anyway.

Maus would be an obvious one to mention, voted in WIZARD as the best graphic novel ever published. A gritty black and white tale of the holocaust, told entirely with rodents for characters. No, seriously, it is an exquisite work of graphic storytelling. There are a fair few books out there that deal with otherwise taboo subjects, but that's the one everyone knows and is a veritable must-read.

Ghost World is another obvious choice, which boasts a good amount of crossover appeal thanks to its marvellous film adaptation starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson and Steve Buscemi. The graphic novel is a constant good seller, even considering the book is noticeably darker than its celluloid counterpart.

There is a virtually endless supply of quality independent material out there. Granted there are some duds as well, but that is to be expected of anything.

Something I take a great pleasure from myself is web comics, and now a great many of them are available as physical comics and graphic novels. One perfect example is PVP, a strip-based series by Scott Kurtz, set in the offices of a Video Games magazine called Player Vs Player. Now, the thing is hilarious, but in equal measure it has a soul and its characters have their problems. It has created something of a geek icon in the shape of Skull the big blue Troll (the office intern. Why don't more places have big blue trolls for interns? That would rock), but there's a great deal going on in those pages aside from geek in-jokes and Skull farting.

Oh, and I have to mention Liberty Meadows here. Frank Cho is a genius of the highest order. Not only is every panel of his art magnificent (anyone who read his SHANNA series from marvel will agree with me there), but his storytelling skills are also superb. Liberty meadows takes place in an animal sanctuary, populated by talking animals, as well as a very well characterized staff, including the perpetually dorky Frank and the beautiful, amazonian Brandy, with whom Frank is fixated. There was a storyline a few years ago in the pages of Liberty Meadows, involving Brandy being proposed to by her beau, which was a heart-rending arc as we watched Frank try to come to terms with possibly losing the woman he is in love with to someone else, without her even knowing for sure if he cares. The family politics surrounding the engagement are deftly handled, sending Frank spare, and all the while Brandy is having second thoughts about the whole thing, evident when people keep asking why she has her ring on the wrong finger. The thing is, this is all played out surrounded by chaos from the talking animals, who are a madcap bunch of Disneyesque critters with some very odd habits (an OCD Racoon and a literal male chauvinist Pig, for example).

Recently DC have started the MINX line, which, while published by one of the 'Big Three', merits a mention for the quality of its content and its different approach. The books published thus far, The Plain Janes, Clubbing, and Re-Gifters are something of a minor revelation- comics with a heart. There's humour in these black and white tales, but there's also a bittersweet pang of reality to them, with some surprisingly poignant moments in each one, and not a cape in sight.

That's the thing- there is a growing audience who are becoming aware of comics as a form of entertainment that don't have any interest in costumed heroes at all. They're after something a little deeper and more involving. I'm not saying that superhero titles can't provide that, but there is an ever more evident appetite for stories people can relate to on a personal, everyday level.

You know what? I'm glad about that. There is so much talent in this industry that it is a real shame more people aren't aware of it simply because of the stigma that the word 'comics' carries with it. After all these years as a geeks-only concern, its time for people to be shown just what is out there.

I shall cover more of these titles when I get chance, as, quite frankly, I want to share some great stories with you.

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