Tuesday 3 July 2012

Comic Zone: Guest Post by Will Hill (Author of Department 19)

Last week I blogged about the book festival taking place all this week at Tales On Moon Lane, Herne Hill, London. In that blog post I promised a guest piece from Will Hill, author of Department 19, my 2011 Book of the Year, and here it is. Knowing that Will is a huge comics fan I asked if he would be interested in writing something about his favourites, and boy has he delivered something very special for us. If you are free on Thursday evening at 6pm and you are London based then you really should book a seat at the event he is sharing with Marcus Sedgwick - details can be found by clicking here. Now I hand you over to Will:


I’m a comics fan. There, I said it. I buy new comics every week, and my mum’s spare room is full of boxes of issues I bought when I was a teenager.

‘So what?’ you may well be asking. ‘Everyone is into comics these days.’ Well, you’d be half right, and you’d still be half wrong.

Comic characters have become one of THE driving forces of popular culture in the last ten years or so, fuelled by the (seemingly endless) run of big-budget Hollywood films based on them – Spider-Man, Batman, Iron Man, X-Men, Green Lantern, Superman, Fantastic Four, Thor, Daredevil, Captain America, Ghost Rider, Batman (again), Spider-Man (again) and, most notably, Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, which in three months or so has become the third highest-grossing film OF ALL TIME, behind only Titanic and Avatar. And there’s no sign of this trend coming to an end any time soon – Marvel have already announced Thor 2, Iron Man 3, Captain America 2 and The Avengers 2, DC and Warner Bros. are rebooting Superman and planning a Justice League movie and a Wonder Woman TV show, where The Walking Dead already rules the ratings. So comics are everywhere, right?

Well, as I said, yes and no. The CHARACTERS are everywhere, but the comics themselves are still a marginal art form – sales of monthly comic books have declined steadily since their high points in the mid 1990s, and the two main companies, Marvel and DC, have been on a constant mission to recruit new readers for the last ten years or so, culminating in DC restarting their entire universe and starting all their titles again with brand new issue ones.

Now, I like a lot of the films I mentioned above. But I don’t think that any of them have ever delivered the quality of storytelling that the best comic series have been able to offer. The reasons for this are what you would expect – the demands of studios and big-name stars, the need to tie in with fast food companies and toy lines, the requirement that the films be accessible to an audience that may know nothing more than the name of the main character. All of which is understandable. But is still annoying.

So – I’m going to list five of the greatest superhero comic stories ever told, and five of the best superhero titles being published today. You might not like them all, but hopefully if you give some of them a chance, you’ll find something that will make you want to keep reading. And then you can go and find the comics that you like, the ones that appeal to you – that’s the part that’s the most fun…


NOTE: These classic stories are all available in collected editions, from comic shops or online retailers (Book Zone note: Will very kindly took the time to provide links to these books. Clicking the images will take you to the relevant Amazon listing)

Batman: Year One (DC, 1987)

Frank Miller, one of the finest comic book writers of all time, and artist David Mazzucchelli team up to tell the parallel stories of the beginning of Bruce Wayne’s career as Batman and the arrival of a young Jim Gordon to the Gotham City Police Department. Determinedly gritty and realistic, this is one of the direct inspirations for Christopher Nolan’s series of films, and regularly acclaimed as the greatest Batman story ever told.

See also: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (DC) and Batman: The Long Halloween (DC)

X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga (Marvel, 1980)

Created by arguably the greatest team ever to work on the X-Men, Chris Claremont and John Byrne, this is the most iconic storyline from their legendary run on the characters. Jean Grey’s limitless potential power is let loose by a cosmic accident, and targeted and corrupted by villains who want it for themselves. Her transformation into the Dark Phoenix and the devastation that she wreaks across the galaxy are still as harrowing as when the books were originally published, and the ending still delivers a brutal emotional stomach punch.

See also: X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills (Marvel) and X-Men: Days Of Future Past (Marvel)

Superman: Red Son (DC, 2003)

This is perhaps the greatest ‘what if?” in the history of comics, and one of the most brilliantly simple – what if Superman had crashed to earth in the USSR instead of the American Midwest? Mark Millar explores the idea brilliantly – Superman triggers a superbeings arms race in the 1950s and the expansion of Soviet influence through the world in the 1960s and ‘70s – but never lets it get too preachy or pretentious, keeping it focused on the story in hand.

Watchmen (DC, 1986-7)

Thousands and thousands of pages of analysis have been written about Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ masterpiece that ranks as one of the most influential comics of all time. In an alternate world where costumed vigilantes have been made illegal, the former members of a costumed team investigate the death of an old colleague, and uncover a plot to bring about a global nuclear war. Of course, it’s about so much more than that – empathy, villainy, paranoia, anxiety, retirement, redundancy, and what it means to be a hero. It’s a tough, uncompromising read, but it is every bit the work of genius that everyone says it is.

Marvels (Marvel, 1994)

Alex Ross’s astonishing painted artwork (quite understandably) became the main talking point of this four-issue series, but Kurt Busiek’s story of the birth and life of the Marvel universe through the eyes of an everyman news photographer remains perhaps the greatest examination of what living in a world full of superheroes would really be like for ordinary men and women. Showing classic moments from Marvel history from a new perspective, it’s both a clever reinterpretation and a way for new readers to learn the origins of some of the most famous comic book heroes. And the art is truly amazing.

See also: Kingdom Come (DC)


NOTE: These titles have all been launched or relaunched in the last year or so – meaning they all have recent first issues that are natural jumping-on points. They’re all available digitally through either ComiXology (or their app) or the Marvel and DC apps as single issues, or as collected editions from comic shops or online retailers.

Batman (DC)

Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s run on one of the flagship DC titles is already being talked about alongside the greatest periods in Batman’s long history, and with good reason. Snyder examines the role of the Wayne family in the history of Gotham City, and conjures up a new villain to sit alongside the greats that the caped crusader has fought over his long career, while Capullo’s artwork moves the story effortlessly along. It’s truly great work.

Animal Man (DC)

Jeff Lemire is one of the best writers and artists working today, and this, his relaunch of one of the veteran DC characters, is an absolute joy. Buddy Baker can borrow the attributes of animals, and Lemire shows us a happily-married family man who fights crime when his wife lets him. But when his daughter is revealed as the harbinger of something terrible, the family go are forced to go on the run. It’s dark, bloody stuff, probably too much for younger readers, but is one of the very best of the newly relaunched DC titles.

Wonder Woman (DC)

A character that has too often been reduced to eye candy is treated with the seriousness and reverence that she deserves under the watchful eye of writer Brian Azzarello, who remakes the story of Diana, formerly an Amazonian warrior princess but now the demi-goddess daughter of Zeus and Hippolyta, into a full-blown classical horror tale. Cliff Chiang’s artwork brings to life every last god, demon and monster with simple clarity.

Wolverine and the X-Men (Marvel)

The problem with trying to read any of the X-Men books has always been the groaning weight of continuity that hangs over them, making it almost impossible to just pick an issue up and give it a try. With this in mind, Marvel relaunched the two flagship X books, starting them again at new issue ones, and splitting the huge number of characters between the two books. Wolverine and the X-Men follows Wolverine’s attempt to reopen Professor X’s school for young mutants, with surprisingly hilarious results – it’s one of the funniest comics now being published, full of adventure and action and beautiful Chris Bachalo artwork.

Note: Kieron Gillen’s work on Uncanny X-Men is also outstanding, but perhaps not as accessible as its sister title.

Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man (Marvel)

The Ultimates line of comics was a way for Marvel to strip away the continuity from their superhero universe, and tell new stories with classic characters. This title was highly controversial, as it depicts a Spider-Man who is not only NOT Peter Parker, but who is also (SHOCK! HORROR!) mixed-race – the half-Latino, half African-American Miles Morales. Apparently that still matters to some people, sadly. Thankfully, the book itself turned out to be excellent – a clever, convincing look at an ordinary New York teenager trying to juggle his normal life with the demands of being a superhero, brought beautifully to life by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli.

So there you go – go into a comic shop, pick something up and see what you make of it. Or download an issue onto your laptop, or your iPad, or your phone. Go and see where the characters that have taken over the world of pop culture actually came from, and why they’re proven to be so enduringly popular. And then when the next watered-down Hollywood adaptation is released, you can join me in telling anyone who’ll listen that it wasn’t as good as the comics…


Huge, huge, huge thanks to Will for taking the time to write this epic guest post for us. The launch of the DC New 52 was the push I needed to start buying comics as well as collected editions, and although I have not yet tried Ultimate Comics: Spiderman, I can wholeheartedly agree with Will's other comic recommendations as I am still really enjoying every one of them. Comics are a great way to get boys excited about reading, especially when they get into a story and spend weeks looking forward to reading the next monthly issue, and these days it doesn't matter if you don't live anywhere near a comic store. As Will said, they can be enjoyed just as much on an ipad or computer screen and with superheroes now a massive part of our everyday popular culture there has never been a better time to start buying them for your kids. 


  1. Awesome post! Never really been much of a comic fan but this post has persuaded me that maybe I should be! Definitely going to check a few out!

  2. Of course, there's also British editions of superhero comics sold in WH Smith, which often cost only a little more but run 2-4 stories in serialised form.
    And then of course there's British comics themselves, of the "two main companies" in those, one will shortly be cancelling their longest-running title as it's no longer profitable, and the other gave up on comics entirely 10 years ago.
    Of course, this isn't helped by certain media figures writing off all British comics as "Like Eagle in the 50's" (if only!), and the traitors in our newspapers, on the left and right, giving British comics a harder time than any other form of media, expecting perfect historical accuracy in war stories and Da Vinci-quality art in comedy strips.

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