So we're doing Comic Week here on Moviepilot? Why not share more top lists of comics? I could go into a long (and probably boring) story about why I'm obsessed with comics and have close to 1,000 comic books in my library - but maybe we'll do that next time. How about I simply share my top 5 alternative comics (at this moment, anyway)? That is, a DC/Marvel-free version.
#5 – Rat Queens
I'm at a point in my comic research phase where I move more and more into the past. I read less recent comics lately. But every now and then, a recent issue is put on my table that surprises me a lot. The latest installment of that is Image Comic's Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Wiebe with art by Roc Upchurch. What a joy this comic book is!
Let me start with a quick confession. I spent a lot of my youth playing RPGs games. I crawled through dungeons and loved it. And so I explored and tried a lot of comics in that area (from the recent Conan comics all the way to satires like Dungeon), but none really stuck with me (except #3 later on this list). But now there's Rat Queens.
If you've ever been a roleplaying gamer, you've probably thought, "Man, I wish last night's session could be a movie or a book!" Now you can have it as a comic. The setting is simple, straightforward and doesn't even try to be sophisticated. The Rat Queens are a group of all-female adventurers, accepting quests, talking trash, and creating all kinds of chaos.
Wiebe once described it as "Lord of the Rings meets Bridesmaids" and a love letter to his D&D times. And that's exactly what it is to me. A pleasant surprise, unexpected, unpredictable, and so funny.
#4 – Sharaz-De
Whenever I travel, I try to find a local comic book store to get a feel for the local comic book scene. A couple of years back, I've visited Dubai but I couldn't find any shops, but was fortunate enough to stumble upon a Kinokuniya store at the Dubai Mall. They have a huge selection of English books (as well as Chinese and Japanese), but, more importantly, a small but decent selection of comics and graphic novels.
Being in the Emirates, I was looking for something from or about the Arabic culture. Sadly, it seems like there is not a big comic culture in the Middle East, but then again, that would explain why I couldn't find a comic book store. Anyway, after browsing for a while - and skipping the omnipresent Habibi - I found a book by the late Italian author Sergio Toppi, Sharaz-De: Tales From The Arabian Nights.
The stories in Sharaz-De are inspired by - or rather is an adaptation of - One Thousand and One Nights (or Arabian Nights). Sharaz-De, originally named Scheherazade, is held captive by a Persian king. Before, when the king found out that is first wife was unfaithful, he beheaded her. From that day on, he asked for a new wife every night. As soon as the next morning dawns, his new wife gets executed so none can be unfaithful to him again. Sharaz-De volunteers to spend one night with the King, against her father's will. Once she's in the chambers of the king, she tells her first story of a prince and his falcon. In the original Arabian Nights, Scheherazade stopped her story halfway through as the new day began and it was time for her to be beheaded. The King spared her life for one day to hear the end of the story. But each night, whenever Scheherazade finished one story, she told the next one, only to stop half way again at the new morning. This went on for 1001 nights. In Toppi's version, each night is one chapter and one story; the book spawns eleven stories in total. After each story, the King demands to hear another one, and therefore lets Sharaz-De live another day.
I was stoked and in awe looking at the wonderful artwork. Toppi has a remarkable way of drawing. And while I haven't read any other comic from him, it's apparent that his style supports the exotic and foreign setting of Arabian Nights. Most of the pages are in black & white; only two chapters are (unnecessarily) in color. The official synopsis says that the stories are filled with evil spirits, treasures, risk, and danger, but with ever at their center the passions of gods and men. And that's quite precise.
Sharaz-De is a special piece of my collection. I have very few books that are so unique in style and yet so beautiful to look at.
#3 – Mouse Guard
Mouse Guard - a brotherhood of mice, living in an medieval mice kingdom and protecting its inhabitants from the fierce nature all around them. Set in a world of sentient mice, it is an ultra-realistic interpretation of human medieval history - at least, as realistic as a bunch of speaking mice can be.
David Petersen carefully built a wonderful world of with a distinctive style and amazing dialog. The book appeals to kids as much as to adults and rightfully received an Eisner Award as "Best Publication for Kids". Peterson describes the story as follows
The mice struggle to live safely and prosper among all of the world’s harsh conditions and predators. Thus the Mouse Guard was formed. After persevering against a weasel warlord in the winter war of 1149, the territories are no longer as troubled. True, the day to day dangers exist, but no longer are the Guard soldiers, instead they are escorts, pathfinders, weather watchers, scouts and body guards for the mice who live among the territories. Many skills are necessary for the guard to keep the borders safe. They must find new safeways and paths from village to village, lead shipments of goods from one town to another and, in case of attack, guard against all evil and harm to their territories.
Mouse Guard has branched into several stories by now. The Legend of the Guards collects short stories from various areas and mice kingdoms - most of them written by guest artists. The Black Axe focuses on one legendary character of the guard, while the main story is started in Fall 1152 and continued in the sequel Winter 1152.
Beside the wonderful [Bone](movie:353889) - which I had to leave off this list (I know, absolutely incomprehensible) - this is my top pick to start reading comics with my baby son and a great way to ignite a love for comics in young readers.
#2 – Blankets
One other list of comics that I have in my draft folder right now is a list of Top Comic Book Classics. I was struggling with where to put this book, in particular. Craig Thompson received so much praise for this comic that his next project, Habibi, was slightly overhyped and fell a little short - at least in my opinion. But Blankets is on its way to becoming an absolute classic. Still, I decided to put it in this list.
Blankets is the ideal start into the world of comics for someone who read books, but hasn't been exposed to graphic literature yet. It is an autobiography of the young Craig, his relationship with his brother, first love, discovery of his sexuality, and spirituality. The pace of the comic is remarkable and it is one of these comics that deserve and strengthen the word "novel" in "graphic novel." It's nearly 600 pages interweave art and words in a way that showcases the expressive power of the art form that is comic books.
Time magazine ranked it #1 in its 2003 Best Comics of the Year list and #8 in its 10 Best Comics of the Decade. Time also claimed that Blankets had set new bars for the medium not just in length, but breadth. And I agree, this comic helped the industry in way that only classics like Maus, Sandman or Watchmen did. Maybe I might need to read it again to finally put it in my "classics shelf". For now it remains on this list, but it definitely earned the number two spot on my top alternative comic book list.
#1 – Blacksad
If there is a perfect comic, for me Blacksad is closest to it. It ticks all the boxes that make a great comic. A unique style of writing, unique way of drawing, unique setting, and a great story that isn't dragged out for too long. Blacksad was originally created for a French audience by by two Spanish guys named Juan Díaz Canales (writer) and Juanjo Guarnido (artist). The first volume was released in 2000 and the latest story - Amarillo - has been released recently.
Blacksad takes place in a noir setting in the late 1950s. The influence of A Rebel Without A Cause and other movies from that area is obvious, but the author manages to break free from the influence enough to create a very unique and independent setting. Each character is represented by an animal and shares their characteristics, which in theory might sound quite unsophisticated but works really well.
The stories focus on Blacksad, a private detective, and range from very personal stories (like Volume 1 and 4) to more political ones (Volume 2 and 3). All volumes share a dark, cinematic and realistic drawing style with great water coloring.
I find it hard to express the joy I had reading this comic. And while it was easy to pinpoint why I love Rat Queens or Mouse Guard, it's impossible for me to explain what it is that makes Blacksad so fantastic. And maybe that's the reason why it's the number one on my list. Because isn't that love? It's not one thing that sticks out; it's such an overall well-rounded piece of art that leaves me speechless. And two more volumes are scheduled for 2016. I cannot wait.