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COVER STORY

Serious about comics

A guide for those who are ready to embrace, or return, to graphic novels.

November 17, 2005|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

ONCE upon a time, you could safely speak up at a dinner party and mock comic books as the empty calories of a juvenile diet, the brightly colored cotton candy of the magazine rack. Those days are gone. Comic books (sorry -- graphic novels) are now treated in some quarters as museum pieces -- that is quite literally the case at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Hammer Museum, which, starting Sunday, will co-host an exhibit that anoints and annotates the "Masters of American Comics."

Graphic novels seem to be everywhere. At USC and UCLA, students (and some professors) arrive at class with Japanese manga novels tucked in their backpacks. In Silver Lake, the coffeehouse crowd mixes its espresso with comics of hipster ennui by artists such as Dan Clowes and Adrian Tomine. At Hollywood meetings, graphic novels are handed across tables as ready-made movie pitches with word balloons -- and not just the superhero stuff, either, as proved by "A History of Violence," "Sin City," "American Splendor," "Road to Perdition" and plenty of other non-spandex films.

Perhaps it's time to set aside your bias and concede that, just maybe, comics have evolved since you said goodbye to "Archie" in seventh grade. After all, the graphic novel "Maus" did win a Pulitzer Prize -- 13 years ago.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday December 02, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Graphic novels -- An article in the Nov. 17 Calendar Weekend section about long-form comic books said that genre pioneer Will Eisner coined the term "graphic novels." Although Eisner is the one who popularized the term and created the early landmark work "A Contract with God," in 1978, the term had been used by others as early as the 1960s.

If you are willing to indulge in a different sort of narrative, you'll need to know where and how to start. What follows is a highly subjective guide of some of the best graphic novels (or compilations of classics) published in the last two decades and some suggestions on where to find them.

The old masters

The exhibit at MOCA and the Hammer Museum celebrates some of the pioneers who date to the 1940s Golden Age of comic books, among them Will Eisner, Jack Kirby and Harvey Kurtzman. To check out their work, you can track down original copies and spend tens of thousands of dollars to buy them -- or you can take advantage of the recent flurry of deluxe reprints that have been collected and packaged in handsome hardcover editions.

Assuming you opt for that latter approach, a good place to start browsing through comic-book history is Book Soup, Sunset Boulevard's independent bookshop of renown. Founded 30 years ago, the landmark has been a stable brand name on the ever-churning Sunset Strip. Star maps, rare first editions, restaurant guides -- the shelves at Book Soup have a spot for just about everything. To find the graphic novels and classic reprints, walk in, veer to the right and -- in the prime shelf property between books on L.A. history and culture and the humor section -- you'll find colorful editions that also make pretty cool eye candy for the coffee table.

There's no better book to decorate with than "The New Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Stories," a sampler plate for a first-time visitor to the comics world. It's almost 400 pages and has a smart design. Bob Callahan, editor of the book, makes bold choices in this rundown of American comic books that somehow manages to exclude Superman, the old E.C. horror comics and any pre-1960 superhero work. Instead, this volume captures the lightning moments as comics pushed to become more mature in theme and literary in voice.

The emphasis in the Smithsonian book is on the new and the underground, represented by the political dispatches of Joe Sacco and the washed-out world view of Clowes, but there's also some smartly selected classic material, such as Joe Kubert's 1960s military melodrama "Enemy Ace" and Jim Steranko's ambitiously stylized take on Captain America from the end of the same decade.

If you are looking to understand where the graphic novel is today, you can start at its beginnings. And its beginnings can be summed up in one name: Will Eisner. No name from pioneering years of comics has been more celebrated in recent years than Eisner, who died earlier this year and has set such a standard of craft and innovation that the highest comics-industry award bears his name. Among the many Eisner titles, an essential volume is "A Contract With God," which is viewed by many as the blueprint for the graphic novel (a term, by the way, that Eisner coined).

If Eisner was the Frank Capra of the American graphic novel, Osama Tezuka was the Akira Kirosawa of the Japanese scene that eventually became the manga phenomenon of today. Comic-book creator and historian Scott McCloud says that that alone is a reason to check out "Buddha: Kapilavastu," the 400-page first volume of a hardcover series that collects up the serialized 1970s stories from "the irrepressible imagination of Japan's 'god of comics,' " as McCloud puts it. In this rollicking tale of adventure, the life of Siddhartha is the core of an epic that goes far and wide.

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