When asked the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions comic books, I’d warrant a guess that many people think “superheroes.” You know the type – square jawed and muscular, super-human talents and tights.
I mean, this association isn’t wrong, but it’s where many literature enthusiasts I know often draw the line between books and comics – the superhero thing just doesn’t do it for those who get swept up in fantasy and folklore.
Good news, everyone – there’s so much more to comics than superheroes (duh). I, too, love fantasy and folklore, and I cut my literature-loving teeth on picture books with princesses and palaces and far off places. As an adult, I found that these graphic novels featuring some slightly more grown up themes were a natural graduation from childhood favorites.
Here’s my five favorites to get your fantasy-loving feet wet in the comic book world.
|Bone. Here’s an easy one for lovers of classic epics: Jeff Smith’s Bone has been compared to Lord of The Rings ever since it first hit the scene in 1991. Like Tolkien’s tale, Bone also features a group of friends out on an epic quest, complete with dragons, princesses, and rat-beasts (some of whom are obsessed with quiches). (Okay, maybe LOTR didn’t have rat-beasts, but you get what I mean). The Bone family – Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone – have dynamics that rival Merry, Pippin, Sam, and Frodo, including the odd misdeed (Pip and Merry stole too, right?) and uniquely important roles to play in their adventure. Don’t be fooled by the cuddly art (though I think it’s flipping awesome) – there’s magic, mystery and some creeptastic elements, and the unassuming Fone Bone is just too good a main character to pass up. Volume to try: Just pick up the complete series volume.|
|Fables. When I was a kid, I practically lived in the fairytale section of my local library. I loved all the variations of the iconic princes and princesses I had come to know from Disney tales. To my great delight as an adult, I discovered Bill Willingham’s Fables, which takes all those iconic characters and gives them a very epic, adult spin. Set in modern day New York, Snow White, Prince Charming, the Big Bad Wolf (called Bigby in this series) and hundreds of others have escaped the fairy tale world they once resided and live in hiding among humans. Sound familiar? TV drama Once Upon a Time has a remarkably similar premise, but I think it TOTALLY pales in comparison to this series. Skip it and try this comic – you’ll totally fall for Bigby and Boy Blue. Bonus: there’s a number of spin offs from Fables, which all are great – Fairest focuses on the secret (I think you mean secretly badass) history of princesses like Rapunzel and Cinderella; Jack of Fables gives a peek into the life of Jack (beanstalk, jack-be-nimble, Jack Horner, etc.), a classic rouge and scam artist; and The Wolf Among Us is a video game based on Bigby’s adventures prior to becoming the sheriff of Fabletown. Volume to try: Legends in Exile, but I urge you to continue to volume 2, Animal Farm, to start diving into real plot.|
|Hellboy. If you’ve seen either of the Guillermo Del Toro flicks featuring Big Red, you already have an idea of how creative and weird Hellboy is. However, the movies only scratch the surface of what is a creepy, gritty paranormal noir of a comic – and fail to capture what a badass Abe Sapien is. Summoned out of hell by Rasputin and the Nazis to bring hell on earth (which doesn’t exactly work out for them), Hellboy is an investigator and ass-kicker who banishes baddies and solves mysteries for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Not only is the artwork, created by Mike Mignola, wonderfully gritty and gorgeous, the stories add elements from ancient legends, myths and folklore from all over the world. Baba Yaga? Ain’t got nothing on Big Red. Volume to try: Seed of Destruction (for the origin story) or The Chained Coffin and Others (for some great HB short stories)|
|Sandman. Not for the faint of heart. Sandman is one of my all-time favorite series, and it’s well… a little dark. And a lot weird. But honestly, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. Neil Gaiman takes characters from everything from Shakespeare to ancient Egypt to the Bible and posits that they are all real and presided over by the Endless. The series focuses on Dream of the Endless, also known as Sandman, who is lord of dreams and sleep – and as anyone who has ever had a dream can attest, dreams are some pretty weird shit. Thus, the strangeness of the series (and lack of a plot synopsis. Honestly, it’s kind of hard to summarize). It’s all artfully knit together with an incredible cast of recurring characters and some truly 90’s-looking artwork. Volume to try: Preludes and Nocturnes|
|The New 52! Wonder Woman. I know, I said that this list was fantasy and folklore, not superheroes and tights. Surprise! Everyone’s favorite Amazon princess actually fits into both worlds. Brian Azzarello’s story leans heavily on Greek mythology – specifically, Zeus’s must-sleep-with-everyone shenanigans, Hera’s woman-scorned revenge, and Wonder Woman’s untold Amazon heritage – all with new twists for anyone familiar with Wondy’s story and origins (though note that the twists on the origins aren’t really my favorite – I prefer her original made-of-clay, raised by goddesses story). Beautifully and bad-ass-ishly illustrated by Cliff Chiang, the 35-issue story line chronicles Greek god family drama in an epic and amusing fashion, with Diana stoically doing her best to protect the innocent. Despite some less-than-feminist tweaks, I think this story is still pretty good due to the addition of some great supporting characters and because it leaves out other DC heroes and gives Di a posse of her own. Though, if you’re really into the tights and superpowers, rumor has it that this series will be the backbone for Wondy’s story in the upcoming Batman vs. Superman franchise. Volume to try: Blood (note that the New 52 series continues, but this particular story line by Azzarello/Chiang ends at issue 35/volume 6)|