Rafer Roberts’ 7 of the Best: Timely Comic Books Enjoyed At Ideal Moments In Life
Written by Rafer Roberts
TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES #2 (Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird. Mirage Studios)
The comic shop I went to as a kid racked independent and mainstream superhero books on the same shelves, so I never really saw much of a difference between the two. I didn’t realize until many years later just how unusual of an occurrence that was. It certainly led me to picking up some strange and interesting comics. One such book was TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES #2.
I had been reading mostly FANTASTIC FOUR and X-MEN at the time, but discovering this odd comic with an angry turtle charging at me on the first page (telling me to kiss my butt goodbye) was an epiphany. It was as if the heavens opened up and let me in on one of the greatest lessons I’ve ever learned: “comics don’t need to be about super-heroes”. With its over the top action, robots, and parodies of Marvel comics, TMNT #2 was everything the 8-year old me wanted.
The roughness of the artwork, the well-choreographed fight scenes, and the in-your-face dialogue introduced me to a less-polished and more immediate form of comics. I went to read this issue a hundred times. It was the perfect transitional comic bridging the super-hero comics of my youth to the more grown-up comics of my later childhood (assuming that one can describe a comic with four giant talking turtles as “grown-up”.)
It certainly didn’t hurt that the characters were fun to draw, and I drew them all the damn time.
DEADWORLD #1 (Stuart Kerr, Vince Locke)
I’m not sure how many “best of” lists that DEADWORLD #1 has any business being part of, but this was the first comic I ever got into trouble for buying.
The story is fairly simple: a bunch of kids are trying to survive a zombie apocalypse and a gang of motorcycle riding zombies are trying to kill them. What struck me at an early age was the unrepentant punk rock level of dialogue and artwork. Locke’s linework could have come from the notebook of that quiet kid who sat in the back of class. Kerr’s profanity-riddled dialogue was straight out of a late-night B-movie. It was the kind of comic that I snuck into class to pass around to all of my friends.
Of course, that’s what got me into trouble. The comic was confiscated and my parents were called. In the end, I was forced to give the comic back to the store where I bought it. That was my first experience seeing how a piece of artwork (a single comic with violence and curse words) could anger adults. I was hooked.
CEREBUS #115 (Dave Sim, Gerhard)
This was a weird issue to start with. It was the second issue of a new storyline. It was mostly text, and the main character barely appeared (if at all). I loved it from the moment I started reading it.
I was vaguely aware of CEREBUS from his guest appearance in TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES #8, though I hadn’t sought out the character past that. I had heard that the series was good, but it was already 100 issues in and it just looked too weird. It wasn’t until Sim began publishing CEREBUS as a series of bi-weekly reprints that I became interested. To prepare myself for the reprint series, I decided to dig in to the then-current series.
I was immediately struck by the slow, methodical pacing. I was entranced by how much attention was paid to a woman’s slow walk across a courtyard, or the unchanging expression of the shopkeeper watching her as she approaches. My mind expanded at the inventiveness of the narrative structure, placing that shopkeeper’s thoughts as text separate from the artwork, poetic and repetitive, just really hammering down the quiet existence of these unknown characters. CEREBUS introduced me to the concept of comics as fine art; as actual literature, rather than simple escapism.
The art itself was insane. Perfectly and simply rendered characters over the most detailed and realistic backgrounds I had ever seen. I had no clue what in the hell I was reading, but I knew I wanted more.
STRAY BULLETS #10 (David Lapham)
This one messed me up real bad for a while.
STRAY BULLETS is the tale of a few dozen people, most of whom are up to no good, and the various ways in which their lives intersect and destroy one another. One such character (Virginia Applejack) daydreams about an idealized version of herself named Amy Racecar. The Amy Racecar issues are basically extended dream sequences, having little to do with the overall plot, with no explanation that what you are reading is a so-called “imaginary story.”
I was not ready for what I was about to read. For twenty-two pages I was thrust into the middle of a gang war where our hero (Amy Racecar) was being hunted by circus assassins who she picked off one by one, while simultaneously seducing (and then killing) another hit man. None of it made any sense. I loved every moment.
Then I read issue 11 which had none of the characters from 10 and didn’t even appear to even exist in the same reality. I went back and reread 10, I sought out the collections and any back issues I could find, reading them over and over trying to figure it out. What I discovered is that every time I read a new issue of STRAY BULLETS, issue 10 read like a brand new comic. Additional context and knowledge was altering my perception of a static work. I doubt that David Lapham intended for issue 10 to be read this way, but it impressed upon me the ever shifting perception of a narrative based upon the reader’s current state. The audience may change, but the song remains the same. Except, y’know, with comics.
DORK #7 (Evan Dorkin)
I had been reading MILK AND CHEESE and DORK from the beginning, but DORK #7 was a shock to the system. Previous issues were straight comedy; short stories about The Murder Family or The Eltingville Club or any number of short comedy gems. DORK #7 went full-on introspective autobiography, detailing the author’s mental health issues, intense insecurity and doubts about his work. Told through a breakneck stream of consciousness style, Dorkin argues with various aspects of his personality in what I assume was as much therapy to create as it was uncomfortable to read.
I can’t recall exactly when I first read it, but it was during a time when I was having difficulty writing and drawing my own comics. Every panel of this comic hit close to home and cut me to my very soul. Even now, flipping through the comic so I can accurately describe it, I find myself wincing at certain passages, recognizing myself in Dorkin’s cartoon avatar.
And that’s why DORK #7 makes this list. Up until this point, I had an image in my mind of professional comic creators being well-adjusted and, well, happy. I was neither of those things and my own self-doubt was killing my creativity. DORK #7 made me realize that other people have brains as broken as mine. Not only that, but one of my favorite cartoonists had self-doubts and fear of failure.
Gaining this knowledge, that I was not alone, was surprisingly reassuring. I started writing and drawing again shortly thereafter and haven’t stopped since.
LOSE #4 (Michael DeForge)
I was never into art comics; those comics with strange abstract illustrations, a lack of straightforward narrative, and a way of making the reader feel either stupid or angry for not connecting with the work. For all of my enjoyment of weirder comics, I couldn’t get into the avant-garde.
LOSE #4 changed that. I can’t even remember why I picked it up, other than because my friends wouldn’t shut up about this DeForge guy. To me, it looked too ugly, too weird. Perhaps to prove them wrong I picked up the fourth issue at a Small Press Expo expecting to hate it.
Instead, I discovered one of my favorite single issues of all time.
The art was odder than I was used to, sure, but the simple panel layouts and stripped-down character design were the perfect delivery system for unexpected humor and pathos. Scott McCloud discusses in UNDERSTANDING COMICS how complex ideas are more easily digested when presented through simple images. DeForge seemed to have taken that theory all the way to the end because reading LOSE for the first time was like getting my brain plugged into the Matrix. This will sound like some hippie nonsense, but I felt a physical reaction like a near out-of-body experience while interacting with this comic. I forgot I had a body. There was only my mind, and LOSE. Reaching the last page was like waking up from a dream.
I’ve never had such an experience with a comic before or since. I will spend the rest of my life trying to find another comic that hits me this hard (and the rest of my creative time trying to replicate the experience for other readers.)
CAPTAIN VICTORY, all of them (Jack Kirby, Mike Royer, etc.)
I started reading comics when I was 6 or 7, and I started trying to make my own not long after. I started, as most kids do, with the superheroes, moving into the undergrounds, exploring the punk rock side of things, the fine art side, the serious, and the avant-garde. I began to look down on super-heroes. I laughed and ridiculed adults who still read the latest adventures of some spandex-clad action star. I forgot what made super-heroes cool. I forgot why I started reading comics in the first place.
Five years ago, when I was deep into my serious comics phase, a friend handed me a random copy of CAPTAIN VICTORY. I had read FANTASTIC FOUR, X-MEN and THOR (and nearly everything the man had done in the 60s.) I was intrigued by this “later era” Kirby, but I felt like I already knew what Kirby was all about. I was wrong.
My friend opened to a double-page spread showing a giant hand floating in space with a brain in the palm and an eyeball in the wrist and beams of light blasting from each fingertip. A spaceship was approaching and the hand was shouting at it, “Are you cast in my image?” At that moment I realized that I had found the culmination of everything I loved about comics, everything that I wanted to see in comics, and everything I wanted to do in comics.
There was big weird action, there was mind-bending psychedelia, there was an in-your-face yet avant-garde art style. Most importantly, it was fun. Captain Victory was an action hero who battled his way across every issue, fighting strange insect creatures and bizarre aliens, and discussing the nature of higher realities and inter-dimensional consciousness. It was exciting, it was fun to look at, and fun to read out loud to anyone unlucky enough to be within earshot.
Discovering CAPTAIN VICTORY caused me to re-examine the comics I had been reading my entire life. I went back and reread the comics of my youth, seeing them in an entire new context much the way that each individual issue of STRAY BULLETS affected the understanding of every other issue. I no longer looked at old super-hero books from a position of elitism, but as a fan, as a reader. Everything old became new again and my mind became open to all possibilities being fair game in comics. It was a much needed blast of fresh air, and one I continue to ride as best I can.
So now, a few years later, I sit and wait for a new book to come along and radically change my perception of comics. I’m in no real rush for it to arrive. Like the others, I’m sure it will show up at the exact right time.