SCG Daily – Attack of the Week of Lists, Part 2

Today, Mark’s daily list deals with comics. He presents his Top 5 Comic Books You Might Not Know About… do you agree with his evaluations?

When I first started playing Magic, it was inextricably connected with comics. The fact that I spent most of my youth reading comics was what got me into role-playing games, which in turn got me into Magic. Comic book stores were the places you went to buy the cards, tournaments were sponsored by the stores (and held in their back rooms if space permitted), and comic book people were likely to be your opponents.

These days, it’s a little different. Lots of comic stores still support the game and sponsor the tournaments, but you can buy the cards at Wal-Mart or on eBay if you like, and Magic players are fast becoming poker-types more than comic-types. I had actually given up comics myself a long time ago, but have recently gotten back into them a little. I figure there might be a whole lot more people out there who are in the same boat.

So, for my second part of the Daily, I thought I would suggest some reading to those Magic players out there who aren’t into comics. I went to Alliance Comics in Silver Spring, MD (which used to host Magic tournaments before space considerations intervened), and tried to find …

Top 5 Comic Books You Might Not Know About

Let me be clear: this is not a "best comics in the world" type of list – you want Mike Flores for that one – I’m just trying to make some recommendations to those of you who have quit comics, or never got started on them in the first place. Also be advised that some of the books on this list contain violence or sexual content not appropriate for young children. Finally, note that I chose trade paperbacks because they give more bang for your buck (usually 6-12 issues per book), which is good for people who want to read comic stories but who don’t want to get bogged down by the whole collecting thing.

5. Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and penciled by Dave Gibbons

"[N]ot only do I think Watchmen is the best comic ever printed, I think that if you have read Watchmen – and have a different opinion – you can’t be very smart." Thus spoke Flores in his LiveJournal a few months back; although I might phrase it differently I can’t really argue. There has simply never been a more powerful, better-organized, more mature unity of great writing and great pencils as you’ll find in this landmark book. If you liked The Incredibles – or the Spiderman movies, or Smallville, or any other comic book-type project that has ever taken a serious look at what it means to be a hero – then I can’t imagine that you’ll hate Watchmen.

So why isn’t it atop the list? Well, frankly, Watchmen can be depressing. Moore told The Onion that it came from “a bad mood I was in 15 years ago,” and it shows. Many parts of it suggest that superheroism is actively unhealthy for society (one scathing sequence shows a neo-Nazi newspaper admirably comparing masked heroes to the KKK). From the very first box of dialogue, you’ll be asking yourself, “these are supposed to be the good guys?” and not getting an easy answer. This cynical worldview might appeal to those of you who have never seen a comic before, but it can also be quite a downer.

4. Astonishing X-Men, written by Joss Whedon and penciled by John Cassaday

After reading Watchmen, you’ll probably be in desperate need of a reminder that comics should be fun. Because you’re the sort of person who plays Magic, you probably know that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the most fun TV show possible. So howzabout a comic written by Buffy creator Joss Whedon?

In the same way that many episodes of Buffy were just like comic books, this comic is just like an episode of Buffy: you might think it was a soap opera, if not for the smart dialogue and the splashes of surprising violence that put an exclamation point on the drama. While the central idea of Whedon’s first six issues – that a doctor creates a “cure” for being a mutant – was used as the plot for the most recent X-Men movie, not even Hollywood’s CGI wizardry can compare with Cassaday’s beautiful pencils. If you like the trade paperback, it’s worth noting that Whedon’s run on the X-Men is still going on in the “floppies” as well.

3. Incredible Hulk: Return of the Monster, written by Bruce Jones and penciled by John Romita Jr.

One thing that non-comics people tend to believe is that comic book characters are very one-dimensional. Case in point, the Hulk: you won’t like him when he’s angry, Hulk smash, blah blah blah. Except Marvel Comics editor Axel Alonso realized that it doesn’t have to be that way. The Hulk is actually reminiscent of one of the great literary horror stories – Doctor Bruce Banner is a modern-day Dr. Jekyll trying to hold back his inner Mr. Hyde. Alonso hired famed horror-comics writer Bruce Jones, who re-launched the Hulk in 2001 to much fan enthusiasm before leaving to DC Comics two years later.

This trade collects his first six issues of Jones’ run, which are simply masterful. It’s the shortest book on this list, but in many ways that’s its big strength: like with many great horror movies, you can only draw out the tension for so long before you lose your audience’s interest. Also like many great horror movies, that tension comes from not seeing the monster; you can count on your fingers the number of panels in which the full Hulk is pictured. Instead, the focus is on Banner: not just his efforts to control the monster, but his guilt at the damage the Hulk can do, and his lonely life amongst “normal” people. The larger-than-life pencils of the legendary Romita Jr. might be a little misplaced in telling that kind of story, but they still look great.

2. Ronin, written and penciled by Frank Miller

Sure, I could have pointed you towards the Sin City books, or Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, but this list is for non-comics people, and those books are pretty well known. So, I wanted to point you toward a Frank Miller that you might not know existed: the sci-fi Frank Miller, who tells an oddly gripping story that sends a samurai from feudal Japan into a futuristic New York City.

Except… well, I can’t reveal too much without giving away a key plot twist, but while Miller can draw a samurai swordfight as well as anybody, his goals with this book are much greater. Stephen King once wrote that all fantasy fiction is about power: the bad ones are simply power-gamer wish fulfillment, while the great ones are about people coming to terms with the power that they have or don’t have. Ronin falls into the latter category, and is one of the most rewarding comics I’ve read in that regard. Personally I prefer it over every one of the Sin City stories.

1. Y: The Last Man, written by Brian Vaughan and penciled by Pia Guerra

Not all Magic players are the sort of people who would even want superhero comics recommended to them by a list like this one; for example, from reading Gadiel Szleifer StarCityGames articles I couldn’t see him bothering with Spider-man or Superman. To those people, I give you the best new comic of the past five years (at least), which hasn’t a cape, mask, or superpower to be seen.

Instead, it’s a post-apocalyptic fantasy in which a strange plague kills every man on Earth… except one. Sounds the synopsis of a porn movie, right? Wrong. Vaughan does get his fair share of sexual innuendo out of the premise, but he also brings some moving drama and some thoughtful commentary on what gender roles mean in our society. Like Whedon, he tends to use humor to lighten the mood, before dropping the dramatic hammer with shocking graphic images. Guerra’s naturalistic art is a great tool in this regard; there’s not a lot going on in some of her panels, but at the same time you won’t be able to take your eyes away.

Before I was halfway through the first volume of Y, I was saying to myself, “This book rocks”… and I actually think the first volume is the weakest one I’ve read so far. I don’t care if you like comics or Hemingway or Jane Austen, if you like to read you’ll love this book.

Thanks for sticking with me even though this installment didn’t really have much to do with the “cards” part of being a Magic player. Join me tomorrow, when I’ll be getting back to that with more Sealed Deck thoughts.

Mark Young