Okay, you think you know everything about comics. You’ve read the classic DC and Marvel runs, studied Kirby and Ditko, and know the first appearance of the Black Panther and the Red Tornado–but there comes a time when you have to go beyond reading comics and start learning about them. Here’s five books to get you started.
Edited by Frank Plowright
My comic bible. By far the best comic reference guide available. A critical assessment of over 5,000 titles and graphic novels. Virtually every comic published in America from the 1930’s to the early 00’s, including small presses. There’s also an index of creators and a section where the critics pick their favorite comics of all time. Most fans are not aware of this treasure trove, which is sadly out of print, although there are plenty of used copies available on Amazon. I keep my copy on my night stand so it’s close by at all times. If you buy only one book off this list, make sure it’s this one.
Here’s my choice for best academic book about a comic creator. Hatfield examines Kirby’s aesthetic philosophy, which he calls the technological sublime, and analyzes Kirby’s famous runs on Fantastic Four, Fourth World, and several other series. This is one of the most engrossing scholarly books I’ve ever read. My only criticism is that Hatfield brushes over Kirby’s more experimental period, the later years of career. I’d love to see him write a follow-up text which evaluates 2001 (one of the most mind blowing, insane comics I’ve ever read) and his underrated Captain America run. Who knew critical scholarship could be this fun.
I wanted to include a book written by a creator. Morrison’s book is half autobiography, half evaluation of the superhero as modern mythology. This is a riveting read, a great look into the mind of one of comic’s true enigmatic geniuses. Morrison delves into his past, recounting his use of psychedelic drugs and his supposed alien abduction, among other things. His chapter on Wonder Woman alone is worth the cover price. The paperback edition has an extra chapter. An engrossing read which is both intellectually challenging and entertaining.
David Bishop, a long time editor of the mag, gives you a behind the scenes, no holds-barred look at the chaotic history of Brian’s most popular sci-fi comic. 2000 AD has been home to Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Alan Davis, Peter Milligan, David Gibbons and so many, many other creators over the years. If you don’t what the term Prog means or Tharg!, don’t worry, Bishop has you covered. Tied with Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (which really should be on this list) as the best book about the internal bickerings of a comic book company.
Wolk is one of the best comic critics working today. I urge anyone who’s interested in 2000 AD to check out his Judge Dredd blog, which covers every Dredd comic in print. Reading Comics is broken into two sections: theory and history, and reviews and commentary. His book is not meant to be a comprehensive overview; rather, Wolk chooses to focus on works which he personally finds compelling. There are chapters devoted to Eisner and Miller, Alan Moore, Steve Ditko, the Hernandez Brothers, Chris Ware, Chester Brown, and many more. A great read which you can find for dirt cheap on Amazon.
Understanding Comics Scott McCloud
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story Sean Howe
The Best American Comic Criticism edited by Ben Schwartz
So what do you think of my list? Did I leave something out? Let me know below.