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Maggie’s World 028: Comics Introductions

The Sandman: Dream Country

Is this an easy introduction to comic books? TM & © DC Comics

“You know graphic novels. What one should we read?” I was attending a meeting of an area book club, and one of the members threw this challenge to me.

It doesn’t happen often, but I was overwhelmed at the size of the challenge and at a loss for words.

Then, I shot back with this recommendation: The Sandman, Volume 3: Dream Country. It was the same recommendation Glen Weldon had made to National Public Radio’s Pop Culture Happy Hour “I Will if You Will” book club project in 2011—and I should have been warned by memories of what happened next. Bright, articulate Linda Holmes is incredibly canny and well-read, and among her comments on the final story, “Façade,” was, “I really tried, I did. But I am a trifle confused. And by ‘a trifle,’ I kind of mean ‘really really.’” That should have made an ominous clatter in my brain. But no. I went ahead and suggested Dream Country.

Attendance at my own book-club discussion the following month was at an all-time low, and the sole attendee (a school superintendent, no less) challenged me as to why on earth I’d picked the book.

I explained:

(1) More than once, I’d talked with someone who’d expressed curiosity about comics in general, “but I’ve only really followed Sandman.” So even non-comics buffs can find it an entry point to the art form. Given that,

(2) Dream Country is a brilliant collection that contains, not just one, but four short stories—which lets the new reader begin to get an idea of the different approaches that a change in artist can mean.

(3) The bonus afterword shows what a story may look like in the beginning, before the artist interprets it. And,

(4) It contains one of my favorites (“Dream of a Thousand Cats”) of the entire series—and the World Fantasy Award-winning “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” A natural, right?

Not so fast.

It was just too hard.

What’s Going On?

In the course of that 2011 NPR blog discussion, Linda Holmes commented that, since many comics “exist in this larger universe that rewards not only familiarity with other works by the same writer, but works by other people who have written about a character, it may help explain why the barrier to entry sometimes does seem pretty high.”

At a guess, what happened is that not only do I have decades of experience in reading comic books, but I’ve also been reading fantasy and science fiction for that many years. In the years when reporters would quiz me about the “adult” nature of comic books and whether kids should be allowed to read them, I’d cited bookstores. “You wouldn’t walk into a bookstore, close your eyes, and figure that the first book you touched would be appropriate for all readers,” I’d say.

And I think this may be what happened here. When I asked, “You didn’t even like ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’?”—the response was, “Oh, I wasn’t really into Shakespeare, so it didn’t have much of an impact.”

Ever since, I’ve tried second-guessing myself without much success. Floundering, I wondered whether looking at Eisner Award winners might provide an approach. The titles of those results going all the way back to 1988 are available online, but remember that, again, these are recommendations from industry pros. That means the folks who chose those winners already cope easily with some of the trickiest storytelling of which the art form is capable. There’s Sandman again—and before that, Watchmen. Classics fill the lists but aren’t necessarily easy intros.

Lynd Ward Wild Pilgrimage

Lynd Ward’s wordless Wild Pilgrimage differentiated between real life (in black) and fantasy (in orange) in 1932. © 1932 Lynd Ward

Other Approaches

How about a look at early comics: those published even before comics racks proliferated in general stores around the country? Lynd Ward (1905-1985), probably best known to the general public for his Caldecott Medal for The Biggest Bear (1953), produced a series of six wordless novels for adults and one for children. Of those, Wild Pilgrimage (1932) is one of the best known. It’s an acknowledged pioneering work in the field. But his wordless novels are (as noted) wordless. That makes me question them as the best first steps for someone who’s trying to grasp what’s being talked about in the context of current graphic novels.

In earlier years, newspaper strips were logical first steps, so how about the justifiably beloved collections of Charles Schulz’ Peanuts or Bill Watterson’s The Complete Calvin and Hobbes? Tremendous fun, defendably defined as graphic novels—but, again, not something the questioner would identify as what he or she was looking for.

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Maus won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. © 2015 Art Spiegelman

Brainstorming the Question

Would something like Fables be a bit more newbie-friendly? One person I chatted with made that suggestion. Hmm. I’ve already loaned Saga to a long-time reader and am captivated myself by Locke & Key, which I hadn’t read until recently. Maybe an anthology would do what I was trying to do with Sandman: Dark Horse Presents has the “Best Anthology” Eisner Award for the last three years, and there’s an annual Best American Comics series. And there’s online, which requires no investment. Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half and Matthew Inman’s The Oatmeal have produced books. No-cost best of both worlds, perhaps? More than one person told me I should have suggested Art Spiegelman’s ground-breaking Maus.

Or maybe I should have provided a transition by suggesting a comic-book adaptation of an existing work, so they could see what the comics art form adds. So Darwyn Cooke’s wonderful morphing of “Richard Stark’s” Parker novels and Eric Shanower and Skottie Young’s treatment of L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels? How about those?

Or …

OK, pause. Deep breath. I suddenly flash back on a project I came up with several years ago—in response to a similar question. Folks were repeatedly asking me what comics I’d recommend for kids to read, and I came up with the answer by consulting a couple of experts, who not only provided the information but also introduced me (with all those decades of experience) to dozens of comics I’d never seen before.

Which is to say that there were all kinds of comics—for all kinds of readers.

To pick the perfect introduction to comics for a new reader, maybe the first step is to find out what that new reader already enjoys: Fantasy? Super-hero movies? Biography? Mysteries? Wild humor? Memoir?

Then make your suggestions.

Maggie’s World by Maggie Thompson appears the first Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!