“Atypical” Comics

We interrupt our normally scheduled Yakmala/Law & Order/ Stallone Diary update for a rant.

While preparing for CBR’s Comic Reel yesterday morning, I came across Deadline‘s article about Showtime’s planned adaptation of 100 Bullets. That site’s TV writer, Nellie Andreeva used some wording that really stuck in my craw. “While lauded as one of the best comic books/graphic novels of the past decade 100 Bullets is an atypical comic as it features no superheroes, magic, supernatural elements or a sci-fi twist,” she wrote. Clearly, Andreeva knows very little about the medium outside of what gets bought for film and TV exploitation. Now, while I love me some comics with all of the above fantastical elements, I really took exception to her notion that comic books without them are somehow unusual. Those titles just don’t get developed into cable TV shows or $100 million dollar movies.

For a moment, let’s pretend the films Ghost World, American Splendor, Road to Perdition, or High School Confidential do not exist. (Actually, can we always pretend the last two don’t exist?) and look at some great comic books that do not feature superheroes, magic, supernatural elements, or a sci-fi twist.

Seriously, this "film" can bite me.

THE BALLAD OF DR. RICHARDSON

While artist/writer Paul Pope is the champion of all things fantastical in comics, his early efforts are much more naturalistic stories about people just trying to cope with living. The Ballad of Dr. Richardson is superb precisely for this reason. It tells the tale of an uptight professor who awkwardly comes out of his shell one night and learns to love life a little. Pope’s art style is as conservative as his protagonist here. He’s overtly influenced here by his love of Italian comics, but it just underscores the simple virtue of the story. Since it does have a certain college-project air about it, don’t expect it to ever get optioned as an HBO series. That said, it’s a beautiful little story that proves just how versatile Pope can be. Sadly, the only way to you can read this book is to be my friend and let me lord over you as you read my copy. It is way, way, out of print.

EDDIE CAMPBELL’S ALEC

Eddie Campbell was my gateway into naturalistic biographical comics. Since the mid-80s, Campbell loosely fictionalized his life in a reoccurring strip called “Alec.” It’s first success became the long-form novel, “The King Canute Crowd” and told the story of his love affair with a particular bar. There are no car chases, major infidelities, or an alien to be found … but the charm of the tale is irresistible. Heading into the new century, Campbell stopped using the “Alec” veneer to tell stories of his kids, becoming a self-publisher, and his exploration into the origin of humor. He eventually reversed that decision as “Alec” gave him the distance to be more honest in his comics. Campbell’s art style is scratchy and suggestive. It might even be off-putting to some, but watching it evolve over twenty-five years of story is certainly something to behold. Campbell currently offers the complete Alec as an omnibus called The Years Have Pants.

WHITEOUT

Ignore your memories of a mediocre action movie of the same name and seek out this great duo of books from Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber. The Premise: a murder mystery at the South Pole. It has atmosphere, tense reversals, and a loveable crabby central character in the form of US Marshal Carrie Stetko. Both Whiteout and its sequel, Whiteout: Melt, feature tried and true crime novel plots, but Rucka uses them with such skill that they’re brand new in the most hostile environment our planet has to offer. Lieber’s art style is not unlike Campbell’s, if a bit more polished and varied depending on the mood of the scene. Rucka, also a crime novelist, has gone on to use comics to tell spy stories (Queen & Country) and lighter-hearted mysteries (Stumptown). He even brought these talents into a largely superhero-less DC Comic by the name of Gotham Central. Both Whiteout books are easily obtainable at better comic book stores.

BLANKETS

Craig Thompson’s large graphic novel is autobiographical, but concerns itself with the author’s struggle with Christianity.

Wait, you say, a comic book that discusses Christianity? Indeed. As Thompson chronicles the years, his relationship with his family’s brand of faith becomes more and more strained. He eventually rejects his spiritual upbringing and pays the price in social banishment. He also experiences first love. I know plenty of people who derided the book as “Black & White Filth.” Many of them only saying it jokingly as Thompson’s honesty about his experiences are at times too much to handle. Like a high school yearbook, it can also be embarrassing to look back on. At times, one needs to get some ironic distance from the raw feelings portrayed in its pages. I think that speaks to its ultimate strength: it feels real. Naturally, it could never be a movie. Blankets is also available at a good comic shop.

MISS: BETTER LIVING THROUGH CRIME

Now this book has been optioned for film treatment, but I doubt it’ll ever get made. The plot concerns itself with a pair of interracial hired guns in the 1920s and 30s. It’s equal parts crime and love story featuring the most unlikely of partners. I don’t want to spoil too much about this one as it’s a real treat. It’s also the first book on this list to come from Europe, where the medium suffers much less of a bias and comics can feature just about any kind of story. You might have a tougher time finding this book though. It was published in the US by the first American iteration of Humanoids, a company better known for releasing Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Incal series. Copies are available in the Amazon Marketplace.

CORTO MALTESE

I’ve never been able to read a Corto Maltese book because English translations are extremely rare. I do have a couple of tales in French and the art is just amazing. Italian Comics master Hugo Pratt began telling stories about the adventuring sea captain in the late 60s. If you need a genre, I’d call it historical adventure. Corto gets into some pretty tense pickles and occasionally fights little land wars between 1900 and 1920. There are a few English reprints floating around. I once saw some at Golden Apple in Hollywood, but like a fool, I didn’t scoop them up. If you ever encounter one, grab it immediately. Just from looking at the pages of my French editions, I can tell you it’s a very different tone and pace from the sort of comics we’re used to in the States.

These are just a handful of the THOUSANDS of “atypical” comics out there. The medium is as diverse as any other and while fantastical elements have a natural home in comics, there’s also plenty of room for any sort of story you’d like to tell.  Readers and would-be filmmakers just need to have the patience to find something different, special, and interesting.

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About Erik

Erik Amaya is the host of Tread Perilously and the former Head Film/TV writer at Bleeding Cool. He has also contributed to sites like CBR, Comics Alliance and Fanbase Press. He is also the voice of Puppet Tommy on "The Room Responds."
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