Indispensable Issues: Digital Comics on a Budget
In this regularly updated column, I will be giving very brief plugs for digital comics that can be purchased on Comixology for $1 to $10 (along with a few free ones, too!). Over time, I want to build up a good list of affordable comics for those new to the art form or for those comic book fans who want to find hidden gems on Comixology.
I hope to feature plenty of independent comics, both new and old, though I will not avoid DC and Marvel. I merely won’t give them preference. Also, though I might include superhero comics, this list will reflect a wide variety of genres from the autobiographical to the western to SFF.
Here are my guidelines for inclusion in this column:
- Great One-shots (“one-offs”)
- Great First Issues
- Free Comics
- Great stand-alone single issues or great stand-alone short story arcs in the middle of a series
- Limited-run series that cost at most $10. These are usually three-, four-, or five-issue stories ($2 an issue).
If you are new to comics, the best book to read is Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. It the most-often used textbook in college courses on comic books. And, best of all, it’s written as a comic book! However, if you are new to comics, you probably are not ready to spend money on or take the time to read an entire book on reading comics. So, for these readers, I have written a series of essays on How to Read Comics (scroll down to the bottom of this link to get to Part One). I hope you will read and enjoy the entire series, but at the very least, please read parts one through four of this essay to increase your appreciation of the art form. This series of essays emerged out of preliminary lectures in my college courses to prepare students to get the most out of reading and studying comics for the first time.
Finally, if you are new to comics, I want to tell you so much, but I will resist the urge to tell you why I think sequential art — what we call comic books — is one of the two great twentieth-century American art forms along with Jazz. I will not go on and on in this column about its educational importance in K-12 schools and on into college (you can read my Manifesto! On Why You Should Read Comics if you are interested). I also will not tell you about its important, unusual history as a product of Jewish immigrants, nor how these Jewish writers and artists, who so recently fled to the United States, found their new art form being denounced as immoral and burned publicly as vile trash across this free country of the U.S — less than ten years after Hitler was defeated. And I certainly won’t tell you that comic books for adults are not new, but are merely a return to what was an adult art form until a strict censorship was imposed upon it — a censorship that started in 1954 and did not become fully obsolete, almost unbelievably, until 2011. This so rarely discussed art history and its connection to anti-Semitism and McCarthyism should be studied by anybody interested in American art.
But I won’t talk about all that in this column. Here is not the place. All that matters for now is that we read more comics because, in addition to their educational value, they offer as wide a variety of pleasures and thought-provoking ideas as do any other type of narrative art form. However, as much as many of us have been taught to think of them as lesser-than-movies and lesser-than-novels, they offer an artistic experience that cannot be found in either novels or movies, that can be described but never understood until someone actually takes the time to read comics and to get lost in those oddly captivating panels magically mixing the verbal with the visual.
A Note On Comixology: Amazon now owns Comixology, so you can login to Comixology with your Amazon account, and most digital comics that you purchase at Amazon can be read on Comixology; however, whenever possible, you will want read digital comics via Comixology’s website or app and not through the Kindle app. Why? Because Comixology has a fantastic guided viewer, and Amazon does not. How big of a difference does it make? To me, it’s the difference between listening to classical music in mono versus in stereo. To make use of their guided viewer, I recommend that you use the following settings for an ideal experience: NOT fit to width, .6 seconds transitions, default letter boxing, and show page on enter AND exit. If you are on the app, double-tap to turn guided view on and off. If you are on the website, when you close the settings and are getting ready to read a comic, select “guided view” and “full screen.” Then use the right arrow key and be prepared to be amazed, particularly if you are reading on a large computer monitor. However, their guided viewer is so well-designed that you can read most comics quite easily on a good phone. Final note: Your digital comics, just like Kindle digital books, are kept on a free cloud. You can download them whenever you want.
The newest comic book reviews added to the list are placed at the top, so that the oldest entries are found at the end of this constantly growing column. This week’s feature comic is Farm School by Jason Turner:
Farm School by Jason Turner (2013 36 pages). Though Farm School is described in the Comixology blurb as post-apocalyptic, I think it would be described best as post-post-apocalyptic. I don’t know if that’s a category, but it should be, because I think it describes well the difference between the hell of post-apocalypse that is often described in fiction and film and the day-to-day new normality that sets in after all the immediate craziness stops and everybody settles down and quits running around like maniacs. In much post-post-apocalyptic fiction, we see overly organized dystopian worlds limiting the freedoms of the masses in a dark, urban environment, but in Farm School, the world seems more grass roots, rural, mundane, and independent, though there is a collaborative attitude shared by most we see. And there’s a hint of ominousness in the air. I’m spending a lot of time describing the mood of this comic because it can be seen as a beautiful, slow mood piece in one sense, and a character piece on the other. It doesn’t take long to read, but it should be read slowly, I think. There is nothing even said until the last panel of the third page: “I brought a deer.” The speaker is Hester, the main character — a strong, self-sufficient, self-reliant woman who hunts on her own and travels on her own, hiking with a large backpack from place to place. She is reticent and lets others do the talking. Most people in this world seem to stay in one place as much as possible, and they seem to rely on those like Hester whenever they can: Hester is asked to return a library book (the library is several days’ walk away), and she is asked to accompany to town a talkative young girl named Patty. She helps people along the way, and we get vague references to her past and something bad that happened to her specifically. That we don’t ever get a full explanation is not frustrating — it adds depth to the character and enhances the sense that we’ve dropped in on what might be a typical day-in-the-life of this future world. However, we do get resolution in the end. Like much else in the book, it not clearly-stated, but is a perfect ending to this thoughtful story. If you want dramatic storylines and lots of punches and bright colors, this comic isn’t for you. But if you want to read and enjoy, and perhaps learn what a well-crafted independent comic can do in 36 pages, then you really should give Farm School by Jason Turner a chance. And like all great literature, it holds up to multiple readings. ($3)
Jazz: Midnight by Gary Scott Beatty (2011 59 pages). Jazz: Midnight came out in 2011, but I just found it this week because it was released for the first time on Comixology (Nov. 2016). As a fan of 1950s and 1960s jazz, I couldn’t pass up a comic book that not only has characters based on musicians from that time period, but also has art that pays homage to the classic album cover designs of records released then. Jazz: Midnight more than met my expectations. Jazz: Midnight presents five interrelated stories, or perhaps vignettes is the better word, and Gary Scott Beatty uses the language of the time to let the characters tell their own stories. The character who runs throughout the stories is pianist Dean Fontessa, whose name is a reference to the incredible album Fontessa by the Modern Jazz Quartet. We also meet a trumpet player roughly based on Chet Baker who would later have serious drug problems and who rose to fame early on playing with sax musician Gerry Mulligan. This character’s name is Gerry Baker, a combination of Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. There is also the story of Rose, based on Rosemary Clooney, but many of the other characters are not referencing any one single musician. A jazz fan will find the fictional characters resonating with multiple familiar stories, though personally I find it hard to place all those references with consistent accuracy. Gary Scott Beatty, though he relies on these biographies, creates fictional characters of his own imagination. I find the characters are given depth even though each story is a brief one. I particularly like the story of the old big band trumpet player who watches with despair as his beloved jazz changes over and over again, ending in West Coast Jazz, a death knell of jazz for many fans (though not for me!). We also meet a trumpet player practicing out on a bridge, much like Sonny Rollins was known to do in order to develop his musical chops on the saxophone. As much as I like these vignettes, however, the art is what makes me love this book as much as I do. After I read it, I was describing it to a friend, and I didn’t mention that the art is in black and white because I had forgotten! I only remembered when I went back to read it the next day. So, obviously, the black and white does not detract at all in the way you might suspect if you are picturing those classic album covers in your mind. The art starts with references to Martin Denny, Les Baxter, Arthur Lyman and the Tikki culture fad that accompanied and was a part of their exotic lounge music (look closely at the background image on the right-hand side of the comic book cover). But my favorite art elements in the comic resemble the 1950s album covers put out by Atlantic, Blue Note, and Prestige Records, among others. I am particularly reminded of the early albums released by musicians such as Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk for Prestige. Finally, the author/artist includes an interesting concluding essay, discussing music from Dean Fontessa’s perspective in 1957. I cannot believe that this book costs only $3. How can you pass it up? And if you are a comic book fan AND a jazz fan, you should feel obligated to purchase what is without a doubt a labor of love written and drawn by a man passionate about the music and the aesthetics that are inextricably intertwined in the minds of people like me, people who have spent countless hours listening to jazz while holding those precious record covers. And if you are like me in your love of jazz, you will feel as if this book were made just for you. I think it was. ($3)
Stray Bullets #1 by David Lapham (1995 33 pages). Dare I recommend this comic? It truly is one of the best crime fiction comics I’ve ever read, perhaps even better than 100 Bullets and perhaps even equal to the best of Ed Brubaker, the best and most consistent crime fiction writer in comics. However, be warned if you decide to read it: In many ways, it’s harsher than Pulp Fiction and Sin City. And yet, I think it has more heart than either of those movies/comics do. Frank Miller’s Sin City comic book series and excellent first movie seem to parody without critique the worst of pulp fiction — Mickey Spillane’s offensive Mike Hammer novels are a major influence on Miller — and Pulp Fiction offers homage to the pulp hard-boiled tradition with some tender moments and some humor. But Stray Bullets actually gets us to care about characters that we should care about, but often don’t want to care about, and this required empathy makes it difficult to read of their struggles. Most of the issues can be read as one-offs, and issue #1 is no exception. This first issue is mainly dark humor without the heart I’m referring to — you have to read more of the series to get to this deeper empathetic level. For example, the young man in the first issue that we really don’t like? We get his backstory later in the series, and you will be led to understand why he has become the man he is in issue #1 (His picture is on the cover). So, reading a few random issues of Stray Bullets will remind you of Pulp Fiction and Sin City, but reading the entire series will lead you on to a great appreciation of David Lapham’s art and writing — he shoots heart-shaped bullets. Unfortunately, they still kill. (Free!)
The Mire by Becky Cloonan (2012 27 pages). Cloonan is a much praised writer-artist who has worked for all the major publishers as both a writer and artist; however, The Mire is one of her self-published comics and, in my opinion, the best one. This fantasy story in an unspecified past starts off with Sir Owain sitting at his desk writing a letter, calling for young squire Aiden. The time? On the eve of battle. The curious Aiden is ready to come of age in war, but is disappointed when Sir Owain sends him off to deliver his letter — a full two-days’ journey there and back. Sir Owain explains the importance, the nobility, of this task, but action-ready Aiden remains unconvinced. However, he is loyal and sets off on his journey. Sir Owain will not tell him anything about the letter — only that it means the difference between life and death. The comic book is the story of Aiden’s journey, his quest. It is beautifully illustrated in black and white, and the story is narrated by Aiden as he makes his way through the mire toward his destination. The narrative tension is built quickly and sustained fully. Appropriately, the mire offers obstacles along the way. What Aiden eventually discovers is quite a surprise to him and to us. It is also just as much a coming of age as the one Aiden had hoped for at Sir Owain’s side in battle. ($1)
The Conversation #1 by James Kochalka and Craig Thompson (2004 51 pages). The Conversation is an independent, black-and-white, nonfiction comic and is about art, god, and nature, among other wide-ranging subjects. Craig Thompson and James Kochalka have collaborated on a comic offering a series of verbal and visual exchanges that begin as they consider possible definitions and purposes of art. The first page is drawn and written by Kochalka. The second page is a response written and drawn by Craig Thompson. And they go back-and-forth, providing us with an artistic conversation about art. Eventually, however, their characters begin meeting together on the same page, getting into more and more of an engaged debate. It’s clever and thought-provoking, and best of all, it leaves us with more questions than answers, as is perhaps appropriate when discussing such broad philosophical topics in fifty-one pages! One of my favorite parts is that all the birds and animals keep making sarcastic comments about the two authors’ declarations, keeping us in doubt about how seriously we should take each claim. If you like a neat-and-tidy, satisfying ending, this book isn’t for you. In fact, if you want to read only books with character development and plot, you will want to avoid Conversation. However, if you enjoy light, but thoughtful, philosophical discussions, I think you will like this little book quite a bit, especially since the visual elements make the authors’ claims all the more meaningful. And, if you find that you like issue #1, you are in luck — Conversation #2 is available. But as far as I know, the series is only a two-issue one so far. It’s a unique comic, and I’ve never seen another one quite like it. ($4)
Planetary #1 by Warren Ellis (1998 25 pages). Planetary is one of my all-time favorite series, and you can read here my longer review of trade collection volume one. I’m reviewing issue #1 in this column for several reasons: First, it’s free, so why not read it? Second, it is a great first issue to a fantastic series. Third, it stands on its own as a one-off even if you don’t continue to read the rest of the series. In fact, most of the Planetary issues are written to stand on their own as single stories within a larger framework. And here’s the narrative framework: There are three characters, along within an unknown fourth, who are the group Planetary. This unknown fourth man — whom they drolly refer to as “the fourth man” — has unlimited resources for the other Planetary members to use, and there are Planetary offices across the world, so the team seems to have a home-base no matter where they go for their missions. The missions they go on are fascinating and reminiscent of old pulp stories (but told for a contemporary audience): The members of the Planetary team are “mystery archeologists,” attempting to uncover the hidden culture of the twentieth century. In issue #1, you get to go on a full mission without needing to read on to issue two for closure. The art is also fantastic. However, to be honest, I think the reason I like this book so much is because of the humorous, lively conversations between the three members of Planetary. With this much praise, how can you not read Planetary? (Free!)