Don't Call 'Em Comics

An image of The Question by artists Denys Cowan and Bill Sienkiewicz from an upcoming collected edit

An image of The Question by artists Denys Cowan and Bill Sienkiewicz from an upcoming collected edition of the series. Courtesy DC Comics hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy DC Comics

There are still some people out there who believe comic books are nothing more than, well, comic books. But the true cognoscenti know graphic novels are — at their best — an amazing blend of art literature and the theater of the mind.

When people talk about the Platinum Age of the new comic book era, they look back fondly on a period from the mid-1980s to the early '90s. It was in that time frame when the likes of Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and Marvels were bestowed upon us. The temptation for those who are new to the genre is to go find themselves a trade paperback or back issues — or these days, an Absolute Edition — of those series and get themselves acclimated.

I say, if you really want to discover comics at their best, go find copies of the 1987-1990 DC Comics series of The Question. It's the ongoing saga of Victor Sage, a crusading reporter in Hub City who moonlights as The Question — a sort of Batman-lite who wears a mask that obliterates all the features of his face.

What makes the series so great is not the super-heroics — The Question has no powers — but the stark grayness of the storytelling. Heroes weren't always heroic, nor were bad guys always bad. And doing good did not always result in good things happening. It wasn't always as uplifting as a Superman story, and in many ways it built on the Marvel paradigm. However, writer Dennis O'Neil's stories of moral ambiguity matched with Denys Cowan's fluid visual style made for a complex series that was, at that point, very much new to the DC universe. At 36 issues, you ought to be able to get the whole series from your local comic book shop. Considering the quality of the work, it's worth checking out.

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Wonderful session! I'm an artist whose created a team a characters back in the mid 90's and I want to learn more about writing comic scripts so that I can bring them to life. Any suggestions?

Sent by Ralph E Chambers | 7:00 AM | 3-25-2008

I just heard this mornings talk about comic books, very cool. HOWEVER! The lady writing for Wonder Woman should do more research if she thinks that Wonderwoman was invented as an excuse to provide young boys with more boobage. I'm no expert, but I'm fairly positive that Wonderwoman was invented to serve feminist goals. Check out what B*TCH magazine has to say about her.

Sent by Mark Hambrecht | 9:08 AM | 3-25-2008

Among current comic series, I would highly recommend "Crossing Midnight". It follows a teenage brother and sister who have been gifted (or perhaps cursed) with supernatural powers. When you get to the end of the first volume, it feels like you've read an epic story, only to discover it is just the beginning of a much grander tale.

Sent by Harold Neal | 9:24 AM | 3-25-2008

In regards to your piece on comics and non-industry writers, the reason Jodi Picoult and others are invited to write comics is because of the efforts of writers like Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman to invest comics with some literary power. And the reason that Moore and Spiegelman were able to do that was because of the efforts of others like Will Eisner and Winsor McCay to make comics beautiful or powerful instead of keeping them banal and commercial. The New York Times Book Review covers graphic novels now because of a great many people trying to bring some meaning to a very pervasive and commercial element of American publishing - people who go far less sung than the Picoults who vacation in comics without ever really becoming true residents, dabbling but never really committed to adding to the literary tradition of a much-derided medium. It's far easier for a renowned novelist to write a comic than it is for a life-long comic writer to pass through the eye of mainstream publishing's restrictive and overly sharp needle.

Sent by Dan Kelly | 12:00 PM | 3-25-2008

Unfortunately, Renee M. got one crucial fact wrong... WEDNESDAY is traditionally "new comic book day", not Tuesdays. Take it from a fangirl, I noticed the mistake.

Sent by A.j. Michel | 1:10 PM | 3-25-2008

Wonder Woman was created as kind of a bondage-fetish fantasy by a psychologist with odd ideas about sublimating desires (at least according to a might fine history of comics called Men of Tomorrow). Anyway, as another novelist who's recently started working in comics, I wanted to drop by and say thanks to John Ridley for doing this piece.

And to address Dan Kelly's comment above, haven't Warren Ellis and Mike Carey both recently written well-reviewed prose novels? The interaction between sequential and prose narrative has become much more of a two-way street in recent years.

Sent by Alex Irvine | 1:38 PM | 3-25-2008

With all due respect, comics are no more a "genre" than movies are. Comics are a medium. Superheroic fantasy, science fiction and horror; "those" are genres.

And speaking as someone who actually works in the comics industry full-time, I'm more than a little tired of hearing how wonderful prose authors are for deigning to dip their toes into our long derided literary pool.

Sent by Lisa R. Jonte | 2:19 PM | 3-25-2008

Graphic novels are a format, NOT a genre, as Ms Picoult misrepresented. Just look at the mix of authors Ridley interviewed - Whedon, Picoult, and Carey. Comics embrace EVERY genre imaginable. Superhero comics - now there's a genre, and yes, Wonder Woman fits into that genre. But don't equate that one genre with the entirety of what's available in graphic novel form. There's great stuff out there, especially if you go beyond the Big Two (Marvel and DC) and explore some of the smaller presses. I love a lot of the books Oni Press publishes - including Whiteout (which is an upcoming movie), also Top Shelf (the original publisher of Blankets by Craig Thompson). And there are some great all-ages titles out there, too: Amelia Rules! by Jimmy Gownley for one, and of course Bone by Jeff Smith, the brand-new Jellaby by Kean Soo, Amulet: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi, even books for the youngest readers, such as Benny and Penny in Just Pretend (from Toon Books, published by art spiegelman and Francoise Mouly) and Silly Lilly. And much, much more.

Sent by Kat Kan | 2:54 PM | 3-25-2008

I enjoyed your piece on Graphic Novels and it's fandom. Have you considered attending one of the fan conventions such as Dragon*Con in Atlanta? Many writers and artists from this genre attend to meet and greet their fans. I would enjoy seeing you there!

Sent by Beth R. | 6:09 PM | 3-25-2008

I'm always happy to see NPR cover comics, but the tone of this piece was that comics were becoming respectable because of outside writing talent. Actually it's the reverse: the new respectability of comics (due to earlier writers like Moore, Gaiman, and Miller) is what is attracting these writers from outside the field.

Sent by Mark Sullivan | 7:58 PM | 3-25-2008

Thanks, John, for reporting on this new development in the comics world. Yes, it's great that popular authors are getting involved in this wonderful MEDIUM. Maybe they'll inspire their fans (young and old) to try creating comics, too?

As Ms. Picault mentions, the power of comics comes from their emphasis on creative visualization and visual explanation. This is challenging and rewarding for ALL artists, whether you're a best-selling author, an earnest seven-year-old, or anything in between! The more people who figure this out and try their hands at comics, the stronger the medium becomes...

Maybe DC wants ALL comics to have busty skin-tight costumes because they think that's what sells, but when readers can get their hands on intelligent, meaningful comics of ALL genres, then the revolution will really begin!

Sent by Marek Bennett | 9:47 PM | 3-25-2008

The Question was an excellent and largely underrated series. O'Neil also included some mostly non-graphic literature reading recommendations in the letter column of each issue that I remember chasing after. Also, thanks for pointing people toward a "superhero" book (albeit a non-traditional one) rather than, in typical NPR fashion, focusing on Maus or something from Harvey Pekar. Not to discount these works, but if you truly want to show how amazing this medium is you have to demonstrate how well the creators have done with the superhero stories in order to break the mindset that they are just for kids.

Sent by Mark DeSantis | 6:59 AM | 4-1-2008

To Mr. Ridley,

I caught your radio program with Joss Wheldon and Jodi Piccault, and I had a couple of issues with Ms. Piccault's view; That We only read Wonder Woman for the boobs, and why the character was created. When I saw that she was writing Wonder Woman, I said well hey, I never read any of her books, but I know she's a well-known author, and I've seen the result of others like J. Michael Straczynski, and Joss Wheldon, and I liked them, (I've also read the paperbacks of various superheroes, and thought they were really good), so I thought I'd give it a crack.
After listening to the program, I'd have to agree with one of the earlier comments: Ms Piccault needs to get her facts straight about Wonder Woman! Based on what I've read, she was created as the exact opposite of what she was implying; That she was created by William Moulton Marston and his wife as a POSITIVE role model for girls in the 40's in an area sorely lacking in superhero women (that he and his wife were freaks is beside the point:)).People no less than Gloria Steimen have praised the character as being a positive role model. As to her costume, I'm not going to lie; I grew up with Lynda Carter, and I'm not going to say that she wasn't fine! :) But I grew to respect the character. And people have tried to change her costume over the years, and they've lasted as long as the changes to Superman, Batman, and
Spider-man.
Now Ms. Piccault is entitled to her opinion just as much as I am. I just thought that she would have researched it more.

Kirk Van Irvin
Fan for Life!

Sent by Kirk Van irvin | 4:08 PM | 4-2-2008