For a better experience on MUBI, update your browser.

Ten Comic book Creators as good as or better than your favorite filmmaker

by Mike Spence
Ten Comic book Creators as good as or better than your favorite filmmaker by Mike Spence
Comics, or Graphic Novels, are the most exciting medium on the planet right now. Much of the hype is premature due to the likes of Entertainment Weekly or Spin with their comics illiterate reviewers praising anything that looks like it might be optioned by Robert Rodriguez, but the medium has certainly come a long way in the past couple of decades. Those of you who like challenging, independent cinema can find a lot on the shelves that will provide you with experiences as rich as the finest films. The following is a starter course: 1. Jaime Hernandez – One half of a duo commonly referred to as Los Bros Hernandez (his brother Gilbert’s work… Read more

Comics, or Graphic Novels, are the most exciting medium on the planet right now. Much of the hype is premature due to the likes of Entertainment Weekly or Spin with their comics illiterate reviewers praising anything that looks like it might be optioned by Robert Rodriguez, but the medium has certainly come a long way in the past couple of decades. Those of you who like challenging, independent cinema can find a lot on the shelves that will provide you with experiences as rich as the finest films. The following is a starter course:

1. Jaime Hernandez – One half of a duo commonly referred to as Los Bros Hernandez (his brother Gilbert’s work is also brilliant and worth seeking out), Jaime mainly tells quietly powerful stories about young hispanic women and men dealing with life after the punk era in Los Angeles. A supreme draftsman whose sense of anatomy and facial expression is unparalleled, his stories build organically and never seem to have a clear plot but when they are over you have the sense of having been a fly on the wall hearing bits and pieces of richly lived lives. Before Daniel Clowes explored similar terrain in Ghost World, Jaime was showing us that the emotional ups and downs of a realistically imagined twenty-something girl were more complex and interesting than any tale of heroism.

What to look for:

Locas 1 and 2 pretty much cover the mammoth complexity of Jaime’s world but if you want to take it slower there are plenty of smaller collections under the Love and Rockets (the title of the Bros. regular comic series, ripped off by that lousy band) banner.

2. Robert Crumb – Terry Zwigoff’s doc only scratched the surface. Crumbs best work is like a raw id exposed to sunlight. The man has no inhibitions and explores every nasty felling he has while somehow turning this exposure into art. The detail of his line work and crosshatching reveals the incredible passion behind every panel. He rarely tells stories over 30 pages long ( although he just completed a long work based on the Book of Genesis, by the same title) but his short works will have you laughing, cursing and sympathizing with him, often at the same time.

What to look for:

Volumes of The Complete Crumb Comics. Start with number 3 as the first 2 feature very early work that might only appeal to completists.

3. Eddie Campbell – Influenced by the beat writings of Kerouac and one of the few impressionist cartoonists in independent comics (most cartoonists seem to favor expressionism of a sort), Campbell began over 20 years ago telling semi-autobiographical tales of his alter-ego Alec McGarry. Campbell is the most subtle of comics masters. His stories, mostly set in his native England, careen all over the place and seem to at first be just about drinking in pubs and chasing girls. Before you can even tell what’s happening you sense the sadness under the seemingly happy-go-lucky veneer. He never becomes maudlin, however, and his cartooning gives you such sly hints of the faces and bodies involved that the emotions, while not muted, resist easy labeling through a profound sense of humor.

What to look for:

Alec: The Years have Pants is a complete collection and it’s worth it. If not, try Graffiti Kitchen, possibly the most poignant 48 pages of comics out there.

Eddie Campbell @ POPstore (Parma, Italy) 1/2 from mind the closure on Vimeo.

4. Joe Sacco – Sacco is part storyteller, part reporter. He has created graphic narratives based on traveling to places like Palestine and Bosnia and telling us about what he saw and letting the people he meets tells us what they have seen and experienced. If that’s all he did he wouldn’t be on this list but what makes hims great is that he is not a passive bystander but a part of the story. His character is insecure, selfish, and sometimes misanthropic. There is a lot of dialogue in Sacco’s tales because they are mostly conversations and some monologues based on the people he met. He doesn’t look at the big picture except in the way the small ones add up to reveal it. His drawing is powerful, but with enough subtle detail to add meaning.

What to look for:

Safe Area Gorazde

5.Chris Ware – Ware’s most famous work is Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth, a tale of three generations of Corrigan men who have trouble connecting with the world around them and sometimes retreat into a fantasy world. His an astonishing sense of design has often made people overlook the genius of his storytelling, such as the way he builds pictures from a small detail into a panorama. Jimmy Corrigan is his most complete project but it does suffer somewhat from it’s focus on three lonely men. His newest work is sure to deliver on the promise of this still monumental early success. Ware has a work in progress called Rusty Brown, still focused on a lonely man but with a larger cast of characters which allows greater complexity for this artist, and Building Stories, a series of vignettes about a, you guessed it, lonely woman who lives in an run down apartment building. His work in these stories beautifully integrates stellar design and poetic storytelling and may end up being his finest.

What to look for:

Start with Acme Comics Library number 18, a self-contained and perfect example of Building Stories.

6. Lynda Barry – Barr’ys best characters are teenage or preteen girls and boys who speak think and act the way real adolescents do, in a spastic, unformed rush of brusque pronouncements and tenuous passions. Her drawing mirror her characters ages in their childlike quality. What Barry’s character’s say is less important than what they do. They are unsure of themselves but her confident cartooning is not. The art my look unprofessional to those used to the garishly stylized renderings of a Frank Miller but each line cuts a deep wound of recognition for anyone who hasn’t forgotten what being young is really like.

What to look for:

The Fun House

7. Yuichi Yokoyama – Yuichi Yokoyama’s work looks like standard manga from a distance but he is working with such a unique set of obsessions he cannot be lumped with any genre, style or movement. His work is mostly silent, featuring maybe five words in a long form graphic tale. In a story called Combat, Yokoyama uses abstractly human characters in a fight scene wherein the swordplay cuts books open and the pictures within the books seem to hint at a greater story than the one we’re reading. In the incredible Travel, Yokoyama shows us three “men” on a train trip to a destination. In 200 pages the men board the train ride the train and exit with no words spoken. By highlighting tiny details such as the turning of a knob the author suggests that the most ordinary journey is as epic as any trek across Middle Earth.

What to look for:


From New Engineering

8. Harvey Pekar – Forget the movie. American Spendor the comic is a national treasure. The late Harvey Pekar told short tales, or interludes about people he worked with or knows in a small area of Cleveland. Many of the shorts are just conversations he happens into that may not have any point or end. Pekar’s influences were the great novelists such as Balzac, Elliot, or Zola rather than any comics. He is not an artist and uses artist of varying talents (Crumb has illustrated many). Nothing seems to happens in these stories even “under the surface” because for Pekar there was no under the surface, there’s just normal life and the people you interact with.

What to look for:

Any American Splendor collection

9. Brian Chippendale – Chippendale was a part of an art collective in the 90’s knwon as Fort Thunder. They lived in a huge warehouse and drew, painted, made music or all of the above (Chippendale is also the drummer for a hard/noise rock band called Lightning Bolt). The two best results were Chippendale and Mat Brinkman, whose Teratoid Heights is also essential. Chippendale’s early work remained an obscure legend for years until being published a couple of years ago. Maggots is a tiny 400 page book in which sometimes indistinguishable characters roam around and get lost or abused in a seemingly endless structure. It combines the mundane with the fantastical and never really tries to distinguish between the two. At it’s heart, it’s the story of the time the artist spent within the walls of Fort Thunder before the whole thing ended. Chippendale’s art is very small and very black which almost makes it seem as though the figures are struggling to stay visible within the murk. His comics are often difficult to read not only for their size but because he doesn’t follow the standard reading path but instead has his panel follow a snake like pattern wherein the lat panel at the end of the right of a page leads to the panel just below it. The work you put into reading this amazing book mirrors the work the characters go through in navigating Chippendale’s universe.

What to look for:


10. Ben Katchor – Katchor is a multi-talented individual who, since winning the MacCarthur grant has created plays as well as comics. He is best known for one page tales involving a Real Estate Photographer called Julius Knipl. Knipl’s wanderings through New York allow Katchor to explore the quaintly bizarre minutia and rarely noticed underpinnings of a city. The one page tales are crammed with words that threaten to overtake the drawings because Katchor finds much poetry in simple things like the markings on a bottle of Ketchup. He humorously depicts the way slight changes or unnoticed alleyways can seem like a minor conspiracy to sleepy or careless city dwellers. His only long story to date, The Jew of New York, features many characters in a tale centered around Mordecai Noah, a politician and playwright looking to reunite the lost tribes of Israel to an island near Buffalo. The plot is another excuse for Katchor to muse over the strangeness of the city and it’s inhabitants.

What to look for:

The Jew of New York, but the Knipl collections are also choice. Also, if you can find it, there was a short piece in the late lamented comics anthology, Raw magazine, called The Smell on Exterior Street that is a perfect introduction to Katchor’s obsessions.

These works would mostly defy translation into film or other media because they fully utilize their medium to tell their tales. If you only know independent comics through Sin City, i urge you to check out some of the really important works of this constantly growing medium.

Addendum – There is no great place for comics criticism. The best one out these is Domingos Isabelinho who you can find here Unlike many comics critics he doesn’t wallow in nostalgia for poor artists who were great craftsmen and fawn over early Fantastic Four comics. He respects the medium enough to ask the same of it he would great film or literature and, if it’s found lacking, he says so.

Addendum 2 Chris commented about The Comics Journal which has many worthwhile articles but isn’t consistent enough for me these days. I do recommend an upcoming book however called Comics as Art: We told You So which is a history of Fantagraphics Books, the small company that introduced the world to The Hernandez Brothers, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware and many other greats, as well as the publisher of The Comics Journal. It should be an inspiring read.

Another recommendation is a book called Unpopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s by Bart Beaty, a former Comics Journal contributor who is an expert of sorts on the world of European comics, a culture that grew up a lot faster than American comics culture did.

Addendum 3 Other creators I’d recommend wholeheartedly include: Carol Tyler David B. Kevin Huizenga Chester Brown (mostly Louis Riel, I Never Like You and The Playboy) Art Spiegelman’s Maus Pheobe Glockner Yoshihiro Tatsumi Posy Simmonds Gary Panter Justin Green Spain (autobiographical stuff) Julie Doucet Pete Bagge John Porcelino Peter Blegvad, Dominique Goblet,Lorenzo Mattotti, Ben Jones, and Tony Millionaire.

Addendum 4 (1/30/10) There is a new book called The Comics of Chris Ware coming out on April 10, 2010. I don’t know how useful it will be but it has a nice cover. It’s 288 pages. There was a shorter book about Ware’s work before that was pretty useless so be on the look out for this one.

NEWS! The new Acme Novelty Library (number 20) from Chris Ware comes out November 9, 2010
NEWS! The new graphic novel, Garden, from Yuichi Yokoyama comes our November 30, 2010
NEWS! Actually, it’s kind of old news, Joe Sacco’s latest graphic novel, Footnotes from Gaza came out a while back.
UPDATE! Yokoyama’s new book, Garden, has been pushed back until May 2011.
NEWS! Ben Katchor’s new collection, The Cardboard Valise will be released in April 2011. Here is the product description from Amazon:
Emile Delilah is a young xenophile (lover of foreign nations) so addicted to traveling to the exotic regions of Outer Canthus that the government pays him a monthly stipend just so he can continue his visits. Liv ing in the same tenement as Emile are Boreal Rince, the exiled king of Outer Canthus, and Elijah Salamis, a supranationalist determined to erase the cultural and geographic boundaries that separate the citizens of the Earth. Although they rarely meet, their lives in tertwine through the elaborate fictions they construct and inhabit: a vast panorama of humane hamburger stands, exquisitely ethereal ethnic restaurants, ancient restroom ruins, and wild tracts of land that fit neatly next to high-rise hotels. The Cardboard Valise is a graphic novel as travelogue; a canvas of semi-surrealism; and a poetic, whimsical, beguiling work of Ben Katchor’s dazzling imagination.

The list of films below is only meant to be a comparative list of works that are similar in some way to the comics listed above.

Read less