One of my favorite indulgences is a glass of wine and a good graphic novel. I have a particular affection for this oft-maligned form of literature.
Comic books, or comix, often get a bad rap for being kiddie stuff, a product of lowbrow pop culture. And, although some titles may conform to that description, there’s a healthy collection of works that fall outside it. Extending far beyond the masked vigilante tropes, these books explore complex themes and real-life problems.
The books in this list carry particular appeal for journalists and freelance writers. The comment either on the craft of writing or the problems that writers attempt to illuminate.
“Green River Killer: A True Detective Story” (Jeff Jensen, Jonathan Case)
This true-crime novel follows Gary Leon Ridgway, the so-called Green River Killer, and Tom Jensen, the detective who doggedly pursued him. Written by the detective’s son, the story reads like a well-plotted thriller. Except, in this case, the story is true.
Journalists will appreciate Tom Jensen’s methodical but determined commitment to the case. They’ll also empathize with him as he attempts to draw out Ridgway’s innermost motivations during a long series of grueling interviews. An ode to persistence and a tireless commitment to the truth.
“Gotham Central, Vol. 1: In the Line of Duty” (Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, Michael Lark)
Card-carrying members of the Batman Fan Club need not apply. Here, the focus sits squarely on the officers of the Gotham City Police Department’s Major Crimes Unit. Batman isn’t a hero to GCPD detectives. Instead, he’s a menace and a threat. The live under the constant awareness that if they can’t solve the case, The Bat will swoop in and solve it for them.
The genius of this book is that it treats Gotham like a true city. The goons and lunatics that usually take center stage in Gotham are, in this book, only supporting characters to the more familiar evils that make the city a byword for sin and misery. This isn’t a superhero comic. It’s a police procedural. More chillingly, it’s a reminder that Gotham is a city very much like your own.
“Ex Machina, Vol. 1: The First Hundred Days” (Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris, Tom Feister, J.D. Mettler)
Political junkies, rejoice: A comic that rejects superhero escapades in favor of in-depth political analysis. Never thought you’d read a comic that explored the pros and cons of school vouchers? Be prepared to be amazed.
Seriously, though, if you love politics, you’re going to love this book. A second-rate superhero gives up the cape and decides to run for Mayor of New York instead. Would you believe me if I told you he ran as an Independent? Would you believe me if I told you he won?
The series is a not-so-subtle commentary on political dysfunction, but it’s so much more. It’s also a critique of the superhero genre itself. Its title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the role that costumed superheroes often play in fiction: As the incredible resolution of all sorts of thorny and seemingly impossible problems, superheroes are the deus ex machina personified. In this case, though, the superhero gives up on the illusion of easy solutions to complex situations. He realizes that politics — messy, confusing, and frustrating though it may be — is the most effective ways to solve human problems.
If comics are the ultimate fantasy, then this is the fantasy of an America frustrated with its own division and dysfunction. It’s relevance has only increased since it was published more than a decade ago, and it’s message is more urgent now.
Do you have comics you’d recommend to fellow journalists and writers? Give a shout out in the comments section below.