Reading Around Comics - The Best Comics Reference Books

If you’ve ever had the nagging sensation you’re not getting something in comics, or you just want to know more about a broad and complex range of books, genres, characters and creators, you’re certainly not alone. Here to help is a list of the best books to help get to grips with all of the above. To make this list as broad as possible, I’ve mostly stayed away from books on creating comics - this will be a separate post further down the line. This will focus on comics theory, history, and some broad reference books. A list like this can never be comprehensive - if you think I’ve missed something, leave a comment or shout at us on Twitter.


Understanding Comics

By Scott McCloud

Understanding Comics Scott McCloudIf you want one book that covers as much comic theory as you could possibly need to get started, this is it. It’s presented as a comic itself with McCloud appearing as a guide-slash-lecturer, and covers art and literature theory, perception of space and time in comics, before trying to present a “unified theory of the language of comics”. This is the one book that will inform you the most on comics theory.

Comics and Sequential Art

By Will Eisner

Before Scott McCloud had a go at it, the godfather of comics, Will Eisner, presented his theories on the comic as an artform. This focuses mostly on art and composition, but it’s fully accessible to non-artists. Eisner was one of the most consistently inventive comics artists of the 20th Century, and what he has to say here is worth reading.


By Art Spiegelman

MetamausObviously recommended only if you’ve first read Maus, this is a hugely-detailed companion to the first graphic novel to get recognition outside of comics fandom. It’s full of the  interviews, notes, and research that went into Maus - if you don’t mind making some of the connections for yourself, this is a great look at comic creation.

Tintin and the Secret of Literature

By Tom McCarthy

This book takes a good stab at applying straight-up literary theory to Tintin, reading around the themes, Hergé’s biography, and global geopolitics at the time the books were being written. The result will appeal only to the degree that you can digest such rarefied efforts, but it’s a well-written and well-handled take on an analytical approach rarely applied to comics. English graduates may get more from it than the rest of us.


By Grant Morrison

This is not pure theory - it’s a mixture of Grant Morrison’s life story and his thoughts on (mostly superhero) comics. Given his employment history, it naturally focuses mostly on DC, but Morrison has never shied from using superheroes as a canvas for grand, mythic, and frequently flat-out psychedelic tales, and he goes into this aspect of comics storytelling in a far broader sense than just covering his own work. He’s as mad as a sack of stoats, but he has plenty of interesting ideas.


Men of Tomorrow - Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book

By Gerard Jones

Men of TomorrowThe early comics industry was one of dirty deeds done dirt cheap, and that’s the focus of this book - the unlikely alliance of the earliest sci-fi fans and the hustlers of the 1930s that created the comic book industry. The prose isn’t dazzling, but it’s packed with anecdotes and is a robust history of the time.

Anyone who has read Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay will recognise many of the anecdotes here, Chabon having borrowed them (from the original participants) for Joe and Sam’s story.

Marvel Comics - The Untold Story

By Sean Howe

A detailed history of Marvel from their inception as Timely Comics in the 1930s right up to the present day, Sean Howe’s book is a fascinating look at the personalities that shaped Marvel. Some of it is already well-known, but it’s all so well-told here as to be utterly compelling. It also features my favourite footnote of all time: “Blade was born in an English brothel and trained in hand-to-hand combat by a jazz trumpeter.”

Wordless Books

By David A. Beronä

Wordless BooksThis is a bit niche, but in the early 20th century a small group of writers experimented with woodcut novels, similar to wordless comics. This book is an overview and history of the authors, as well as a showcase for some of the spectacular artwork.

The Golden Age of DC Comics

By Paul Levitz

This is a puff piece, but what a puff piece. Produced by DC and art publisher Taschen, this is a giant, glossy hardback full of high-quality art from the Golden Age. Don’t expect balance, but it’s a glorious artefact. It is only the first of five planned volumes covering the history of DC though, so it could become a costly purchase.

Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936 - 1941

Edited by Greg Sadowski

Essentially, this is a collection of superhero tales from the guys who didn’t make it big. If you enjoy the strong pulp of the early days of comics, this is a good collection. There are some big names in the mix like Jack Cole, Will Eisner, and Siegel and Shuster, but mostly these are comics by the uncelebrated workhorses of the early funny book industry. A companion volume, I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets focuses on lunatic visionary Fletcher Hanks, who has one demented story in this volume.


Art by Jiro Kuwata, Edited and curated by Chip Kidd, with Geoff Spear and Saul Ferris

Bat Manga Chip KiddThe second title worthy of a self-appointed exclamation mark, Bat-Manga! is a collection of licensed Japanese Batman comics produced in the 60s by Jiro Kuwata based on the Adam West TV show. Author, designer and Batman scholar (a CV that suggests there is such a thing as a charmed life) Chip Kidd was already a collector of Japanese Bat-memorablia and comics when he decided to translate and publish the comics in English. The resulting collection is scattershot and frequently bizarre, but there are few books that are this much fun.

Kirby - King of Comics!

By Mark Evanier

And again with the exclamations. If you’re a fan of Jack ‘King’ Kirby, this is a potted history of the man and his career, with some large-scale reproductions of his original linework. Unless IDW do a Jack Kirby Artist’s Edition, this is probably the best way to see his work in reproduction.


Reading Comics

By Douglas Wolk

This is the book that will give you a shopping list a mile long. The first third of the book is dedicated to a general overview of comics, while the latter two-thirds is a series of essays on notable creators, spanning a range from the oh-so-serious indie auteurs, to people like Gene Colan and Jim Starlin. While Wolk treats the subject seriously, the whole thing is filled with fan-ish enthusiasm, and it’s this that sticks. This book will make you read things you never would have considered before picking it up.

McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern Issue 13

Various authors, Edited by Chris Ware

McSweeneys Issue 13For one thing, this is full of comics by great creators like Dan Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Chester Brown, and, as they say, many more. A lot of them are excerpts from then-upcoming books, all of which are now available. The more interesting stuff, though, is loaded at the front of the book - lots of historical nuggets like early sketches for Peanuts and Krazy Kat, a history of Rodolphe Topffer, the man who invented the comic form without really knowing it, and essays from very serious people like Ira Glass and John Updike.

1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die

Edited by Paul Gravett

This is a really wide-reaching and well-researched book. Broadly split by era, it takes in the mainstream and indie US and UK comics (the primary audience seems to be assumed to be a UK reader), but it also covers a lot of manga and less-well-known European and South American comics. It’s another book that’s hard to flick through without coming away with a huge reading list.

The Subtle Art of the Reboot

Swamp Thing Reboot WingsLong-term comic readers, at least those who read the superhero output from Marvel and DC, will be used to the ground shifting under their feet. New readers are vital to the industry, bringing in new money, but the long-term readers reliably provide cash as well, and have huge emotional and financial investments in the characters and universes they enjoy. Surely there must be a way to satisfy these new readers, with a cursory notion of the characters and a need for a gentle introduction to a complex, long-running storyline, and still keep those older fans and their prolonged engagement with those characters, stories, and creators? Not really. But there are reboots. Some better than others. In the tussle between art and commerce, art doesn’t often come off well.

In the 80s, Marvel’s then-editor Jim Shooter decide to introduce the New Universe, an entirely separate continuity and set of stories. It was never great, and it was cancelled after 170 issues across a range of titles. In the 90s they decided to reboot their main characters into a bubble universe called ‘Heroes Reborn’ in a bit of narrative wrangling designed to get former Marvel stalwarts (and highly popular artists) Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee back onboard. This continued from where the stories were at the time, but reset everything to a new beginning via some genuinely torturous logic. It ran for a few years, but then everything quietly got shuffled back into the main continuity again via the same hand-wavey non-logic that started it in the first place (that Lee and Liefeld were as late with their art as they had been as full-time Marvel employees probably played a part). Possibly the most egregious attempt to reboot a character was the Spider-Man story The Clone Saga, a story designed to wipe out Spider-Man’s marriage by revealing that a clone from a storyline in the 70s was the real Spider-Man, meaning that he was still single, carefree, and far more commercially viable. And if that makes your skin crawl it’s not your Spider-Sense tingling. That this attempted reboot and simplification was just overwhelmingly complicated and long-winded was the final insult (until the One More Day storyline wiped out Spidey's marriage again a few years ago).

Like, whoa. Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, art by Steve Bisette

In the early 80s, Alan Moore effectively rebooted the third-tier character Swamp Thing when it was handed to him to write. He took what was a character born out of the horror movie culture of the 70s and 80s and made it something far more interesting, converting the character from a confused monster into an avatar of all plant life on the planet. He kept a lot of the horror tropes, but introduced philosophical and psychedelic elements that broadened the series from a story about monsters punching each other into something much more interesting. It told the sort of dark, smart stories that formed the foundation of the DC’s Vertigo imprint. A few years later Grant Morrison pulled the same trick with Animal Man, taking a character that had never really been popular and creating a critically and commercially-successful comic by rewriting a goofy superhero story into a weird metatextual story in which the author and main character frequently interacted, even argued. Neither of these takes was the original, but they were huge improvements on how the characters had been used before, and both proved more commercially successful as well.

Since then there have been various Crises and other cataclysmic events bringing changes and refreshing the publishing lines of the big two publishers, but 2012 was notable for bringing two big relaunches near-simultaneously, with DC’s complete line revamp, The New 52 and Marvel’s Marvel Now! comics designed to bring in new readers.

Now both Swamp Thing and Animal Man have been re-rebooted as part of The New 52. These titles used to be second-or-third stringers, but now they're beloved representatives of what mainstream comics can be, and the early works of two of comics' most-lauded creators. And yet both reboots have been (great) critical and (moderate) sales successes. Swamp Thing is handled by Scott Snyder, a proven horror writer who knows how to get to the Southern Gothic notes that work so well for the character. Yanick Paquette brings a more mainstream illustration style than normally used with the character, but it works.

Animal Man Jeff Lemire

Animal Man takes a character that was never as well thought-of after Grant Morrison's run ended, and turns it into something it had never really approached before - Cronenbergian body-horror. Jeff Lemire has plenty of experience with weird horror in titles like Sweet Tooth, and this was well matched in ghoulish illustration by initial artist Travel Foreman.

Both series do something new, are well-written and play to the strengths of their respective writers and artists. "Take the characters, give them to good writers and artists, and let them take creative risks" might seem like an obvious bit of advice to give, but the execution is the hard part. Gail Simone turned an enormous backlash at the rebooted Batgirl into a massive outpouring of support when she was removed from the title. Conversely, Grant Morrison on Action Comics / Superman should have been a sure thing, but it fizzled out impressively. Still, the bold reinvention seems to be the closest thing to a formula for success when a character is absolutely going to be rewritten - Marvel have seen similar success with bold reboots of Hawkeye and Captain Marvel.

Much as it would be great for every writer and artist to be working on brand-new trailblazing ideas, an old character well-written is still an enjoyable and frequently interesting thing to read. And frankly, as long as Batman and chums get people into the comic shops, it's helping to keep the whole industry healthy.

Fatale Roughs Up Gender Tropes in a Dark Alley

A brief note: I’m using noir in this context to refer to both film noir and noir-ish detective novels, because otherwise it’s just an exhausting exercise in drawing ever more granular distinctions that no one bar three obsessives cares about, and it also fails to inform upon this context. Still here? Good. Let’s go. Fatale

Noir has a troubled relationship with women. Yes, its heroes are meant to be flawed. Greek legend levels of flawed. These people get stuff wrong, a lot, and I appreciate. A lot of noir is still fiercely misogynist, which is problematic, in an enjoying problematic things way. There’s plenty to love about those stories, but the general treatment of women is not one of them.

Fatale (by Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips, who together know more than most about crime fiction) takes the weary femme fatale archetype and subverts it brilliantly. Josephine, the titular character, is a femme fatale that has the role thrust upon her - a murkily-defined ritual has given her the power to manipulate men, and has left her on the run from people far scarier than the usual mobsters and hitmen (of course, these figure). She resents it, fights against it, reluctantly employs it when it’s a matter of using it or surviving. It’s not a million miles away from the usual sad, desperate and manipulative women of noir stories, but it’s that closeness when combined with the crucial differences that makes it a worthwhile comparison.

In creating a character that is aware of her own role in the story, Fatale allows Brubaker not to just use the trope in a modern setting, but also examine and deconstruct it in a dramatic setting. There’s nothing especially campy about Fatale (as there usually is with any post-modern take on noir or pulp), it's just a pulp story told in a framework that allows it to both treat the story and the genre with a certain authenticity (give or take some cosmic horror), while allowing its female lead to be a stronger and more interesting character than the form usually allows.

It’s not the first comic to attempt it. Brian Michael Bendis’ Alias places a female character in the gumshoe role (in the Marvel Universe no less), and doesn’t clean it up in any way. It strays in some ways (superpowered rape analogies, for one thing), but it's still an interesting take on the genre. Both are worth reading, but Fatale is worth picking up now. It's recently been expanded into an ongoing series, and with good reason. Beyond all the clever deconstruction, it's also just an excellent crime / horror tale.

All the Hawkeye That's Fit to Print

Okay... This looks bad

Okay... This Looks Bad.

A little-loved character, popularity buoyed by a recent highly-succesful film, suddenly granted his own series when traditionally he’s never engendered either sales or acclaim - it sounds like the absolute worst sort of cash-in. The signs to the contrary were there already  though - Marvel could have taken advantage of the huge popularity of Tom Hiddlestone’s take on Loki after Thor and The Avengers, but instead Kieron Gillen was allowed to do something far more interesting with the character in Journey into Mystery - something that doesn’t resemble the cinematic Loki in the slightest.

Hawkeye This Looks Bad

Hawkeye’s the same. Rather than go with something resembling Jeremy Renner’s pouting, dubiously-capable take on the character, Matt Fraction (writer), David Aja (main artist) and Matt Hollingsworth (colourist - an awesome one) are free to craft a freewheeling comic action caper that draws more on cop shows than on superhero comics for its tone.

And it works so well. So incredibly well.

There are two Hawkeyes now. Superheroes have an appalling capacity for death and resurrection, and during one of Clint’s periods of extended expiration the young, rich Kate Bishop took up the mantle. This new series sees them (both still called Hawkeye) working together as a dysfunctional team, Clint the older more experienced character who is still far, far too feckless to be an effective mentor, Kate someone who won’t make his life an easier if she can help it. This unexpected central dynamic is key to the book working so well. Clint is someone who tries to do the right thing no matter how outclassed and out-matched he is, doubly so when someone’s watching.

David Aja’s art looks simplistic at first glance, but behind the simple lines and Matt Hollingsworth’s minimalist colouring is a fantastic understanding of anatomy and motion. Here’s a look at a single page from thumbnail to final, coloured version.

Hawkeye Page Process

Aja’s the main artist on the series, but some issues are being handled by others, like Javier Pulido on issues 4 - 5. Fill-in artists are rarely thought of kindly, especially popping up in the middle of an acclaimed run, but Pulido is an effective replacement for Aja, and the fact that he’s been used for a standalone mini-arc seems like a excellent use of a second artist when you need to keep a book on a monthly schedule.

The covers are as good as anything on the shelves right now - heavily stylised, minimally coloured, incredibly striking. They also reflect the colours in the book. Red has started to creep into the minimalist palette as of issue three, and the second volume - read “trade paperback” - has shifted from purple to red as its main defining colour. It’s a small thing, but it’s the sort of detail that makes Hawkeye both coherent and fun.

Hawkeye Covers 1- 8

Basically, buy this comic. Even if you don’t like superhero stuff, buy this comic. I don’t even buy single issues, and I buy this comic. It’s fun, it’s smart, it’s made by people who clearly love and care about what they’re doing. In a time when almost all coverage of the big publishers is negative, it’s just great to see people doing good work and clearly enjoying doing it.

The Hawkeye Initiative

I shouldn’t mention Hawkeye without talking about his other bold reinvention - that as a tireless pointer-out of sexism in comics. The Hawkeye Initiative takes the worst, most spine-bending, ludicrously sexualised images of women in comics and replaces them with... well, Hawkeye. The results are as funny and unsettling as you’d expect. Despite broad coverage, it doesn’t seem to have triggered the usual ultradefensive reaction from those fans that feel any criticism of the comics field is a personal attack. Or worse, those that genuinely don’t recognise that this problem exists. There are the odd one or two people who don’t get it, of course, but they’re always there.

It’s good to see that the unlikeliest Avenger can be a force for good in the real world too.