Dispatches

20 Comics That Can Change Your Life

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 DISPATCHES
Alias by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos

Marvel Comics heroine Jessica Jones is a tough-talking private eye, a modern-day female Humphrey Bogart. But she’s also a woman with a past — as a pink-haired young superhero who fought alongside the Avengers, then quit for reasons she’s ashamed to reveal. In the first issue of Alias (unrelated to the Jennifer Garner show, incidentally), Jessica punches a client through a window, gets wasted at a local bar and initiates rough sex with a man from her superhero past. Here is a woman who began her life with a clear, noble purpose, only to have it taken away by the complications of the real world. When I was reading Alias, I’d just graduated from college, I couldn’t find a job, and my idealistic ambitions were dying on the vine. Jessica’s candy-colored superhero memories looked a little like mine; her sarcastic, vodka-drinking, ex-boyfriend-fucking mindset looked a whole lot like mine. Jessica Jones never goes back to being a superhero, but over the course of the comic, she learns to take her screwed-up, all-wrong life and run with it. And that’s a good skill for anyone in their early twenties to learn. — Gwynne Watkins

Preacher by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon
This epic Western about a young man named Jesse Custer hunting down God to hold him accountable for the mess he made of Earth is equal parts high comedy and horrific sadism. When the first issue hit stands in 1995, it scared the crap out of me. Glenn Fabry’s painted covers of burning Southern mansions, leather-masked gimps and torn-off faces were plain too much. But I got hooked when Jesse, his girlfriend Tulip and his foul friend Cassidy headed south to New Orleans to consult a voodoo priest. This was the perfect Western — it was about friendship and love against all odds and protecting your own all the way to the end of the world. Ennis’ dialogue was thick with stranger’s voices I wanted to meet; Dillon’s sweating faces showed me the sort of pain I never wanted to know and the kind of orgasms everyone deserves to have. — John Constantine

"Bomb Scare," Optic Nerve #8 by Adrian Tomine

I’m borderline-obsessed with angsty high-school stories — movies, music, books, you name it — and yet I’ve never read anything that felt as muted and true as "Bomb Scare." What struck me is how uncomfortable it made me, and yet how much I didn’t want it to end. The comic depicts two teens — a bookish loner named Scotty, a party girl named Cammie — linked by their after-school job at a fast-food joint. Their young lives, like most, are full of shame and suckitude. But what Tomine really nails is how subterranean and baffling their own feelings are. By the time the story ends, I feel so unsettled and confused that I just don’t know what to do. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much how I felt in high school, too. — Sarah Hepola

Hate by Peter Bagge
I loved Peter Bagge‘s Hate when it first came out. I think I was attracted to Buddy, the slacker loser hero — attracted as in, I wanted to date him. I dimly recall some image of Buddy having sex with his girlfriend and leaving his socks on, and perhaps not even being all that enthusiastic about it in the first place. The ways in which the comic was gross (clothes riding up; hair in weird places; sweat) seemed scary in a not entirely unpleasant way. I later did date men like Buddy. It was just like I’d been led to expect by Peter Bagge, except with duller dialogue. At least the sex was better. — Ada Calhoun
Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis
This comic about gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem in futuristic America manages to achieve exactly what all great political journalism does: shame you into paying attention and giving a damn. I started reading this in 2003, right around the time I was starting to wonder why I’d voted at all in 2000 and 2002. Spider’s column "I Hate It Here" — full of sermons to the people of the City, calling them out for their indecision and ignorance — made me itch with embarrassment. Ellis’ city and Darick Robertson’s images of just what the Information Age would evolve into didn’t feel like the future; it felt sickeningly like right now. — JC

           

  

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Heavy Liquid/100% by Paul Pope

Paul Pope’s art is unlike anything else in comics. It feels like you’ve been awake until dawn, like dancing, like kissing someone before you know their name. Liquid is about a young man addicted to a dark substance that circulates the black market; it came from a meteor and gives the user a trip greater than any drug made by man. But the story is less about the intrigues of criminals and users as it is about lost love and addiction. 100% is less frenetic than Heavy Liquid, but it explores the same themes in a more direct fashion, through six characters finding love and making art. Pope’s art brings future New York to life in hallucinatory washed-out strokes, but it seems so real that you can almost smell the rot coming out of the sidewalk grates. When I go up on my roof some nights, I can see Pope’s city growing and his characters being born. — JC

Diary of a Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner
When fictional teenage girls have sex, it’s usually because they’re trying to manipulate someone, or are desperate for love and validation. When actual teenage girls have sex, it’s usually more complicated. For Minnie, the narrator of Diary of a Teenage Girl, sex is not a means to an end; it’s an important aspect of her life, as is the pleasure, power and fear that accompany it. Gloeckner’s book, based on her own adolescent writing, inverts all expectations of a teenage diary: instead of angsty poetry, initialed crushes and doodles of hearts, we get frank prose, graphic sex scenes and graphic-novel versions of Minnie’s memories. Gloeckner’s technical skill as an artist is unsurpassed (she has a background in medical illustration), but her unflinching illustrations of Minnie’s most private, awkward moments are more than skillful; they’re storytelling at its bravest. Read the Nerve interview with Phoebe Gloeckner here. — GW

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi‘s coming-of-age memoir, about growing up through the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, got much attention in the mainstream media’s traditional "Comics can be serious art!" fashion. It deserved the hype. As the child Marjane discovers punk rock and grows increasingly skeptical of the Islamist regime, the adult’s sharp and tender re-creation of her precocious youth brings a vivid humanity to a piece of recent history many readers might think of as another world. Originally written in French, the book has since been translated into twelve languages, a fine measure of its universality. An animated film, directed by Satrapi, comes out this year. — PS

Blue Monday by Chynna Clugston
When I was younger, my closest friends were women. We had a lot of fun for the better part of a year (which, when you’re seventeen, feels far more like a decade), and even when sex inevitably intervened, it was healthy and comfortable. Just not for very long. Awkwardness and hurt feelings ultimately destroyed what we shared. I did very well at forgetting the troubles of home until I started reading Chynna Clugston’s Blue Monday. The trials and travails of Bleu Finnegan, the book’s teenage heroine, and her friends Clover, Victor, and Alan read like stories you traded with friends on Monday morning your sophomore year of high school. I’ve kept reading over the past six years, finding myself repeatedly charmed and pained by Clugston’s forgiving romances, and every time the series stops again, I find myself wanting to pick up the phone and call one of my old friends. I don’t, though. I’ve never figured out what to say. — JC
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
First my mom made my dad read Fun Home. Then my dad made me read it. I made my girlfriend read it, and she made her mom read it, who made her dad and other daughter read it. Now I’m making you read it. Check out an interview with author Alison Bechdel here. — Peter Smith

  

           

  

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Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron by Daniel Clowes
You could say Glove is about a man named Clay looking for his wife — but only in the same way you could say that nightmares are about monsters living in your TV. It was the first time that I realized that comics could be as surreal and psychologically unsettling as mixing scotch with David Lynch. I rarely see my copy of Glove anymore. It’s always getting handed off to the next friend I hear saying they don’t like comics because superheroes are dumb. — JC

Fortune and Glory by Brian Michael Bendis
We’ve all had fantasies about fame. My personal delusions of grandeur were effectively extinguished by Brian Michael Bendis’ memoir. Bendis started out writing and illustrating gritty noir comics; eventually, one of his works got optioned by a Hollywood studio. Glory follows his perilous journey through Hollywood, with its constant train of bullshit: the agents, the studio execs, the endless series of pointless meetings with pointless people in suits. It reads like a conversation between old friends, but also manages to make you squeamish, and it was so plainly earnest and funny that I walked away feeling more idealistic about art and love than I was before reading it. — JC

Kabuki by David Mack

David Mack’s series about a masked government assassin began as a black-and-white homage to Japanese storytelling. However, as the story’s focus shifted to the heroine’s interior life, the art began to take on a life of its own. Now every labor-intensive issue of Kabuki is a combination of painting, drawings, photographs and ephemera, all collaged in Mack’s distinctive style. And the series has metamorphosed along with the art; it’s no longer about government espionage, but about the blurred lines between fantasy and reality, and the struggle to find one’s identity in a world full of masks. If you’ve ever looked back at your life and felt like you’ve been a dozen different people, you’re bound to relate. — GW

Love and Rockets by Los Bros Hernandez
This soap-operatic Fantagraphics series was the darkest, most passionate of alternative comics. It ushered in a whole new kind of sex symbol, a busty-but-not-like-Wonder-Woman girl mechanic-turned-apartment manager with mixed romantic luck. L&R has been said to embody Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism, and I think that’s fair. But the comics were also just so mysteriously, dangerously sexy that they always seemed like they should come in a brown wrapper. — AC
Sandman by Neil Gaiman, et. al.

When I was fifteen, Sandman made me torture men for sport. Read how and why here. — AC

  

           

  

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Miracleman by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, et al.
How does Miracleman end? It is a question that has haunted me for years, ever since I finished the final existing issue of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman’s epic collaboration. It’s the story of three real-life superheroes, each genetically enhanced by the government during WWII drug experiments. When one uses his powers to single-handedly destroy the world, the other two use theirs to rebuild it into a utopia, with themselves as rulers. The later, Gaiman-penned issues of Miracleman focus on individual lives inside this objectively perfect society. There are seeds of unrest, but only seeds — yet one has the impression that something is about to go horribly wrong. For a perfectionist, this is torture: given a glimpse at the perfect world we all struggle to achieve, knowing something is not quite right and then — what? What? How does it end? I’ll probably never know (the Miracleman character has been tied up in a lawsuit for years), but I still love the series — maybe even more so for its non-ending, with all of the tantalizing possibilities frozen in time. — GW
Zippy the Pinhead by Bill Griffith
Who needs drugs as long as there are Zippy the Pinhead anthologies? The hero
of Bill Griffith’s long-running Mad-Libs-esque strip ambles through American
wastelands spouting pop-culture saturated non-sequiturs like “Thank God
miniature golf survives unscathed!” Baffled but game, he winds up in odd
sexual situations that he greets with good humor and surreally appropriate
remarks such as, “My pants just went to high school in the Carlsbad Caverns!” We
could all approach dating with a little more of Zippy’s delirious
enthusiasm.
— AC

Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai
My Japanophilia wasn’t born of anime or video games. It started with this comic, a strange meeting of Charles Schultz and Akira Kurosawa that’s as much a portrait of early-seventeenth-century Japan as it is high fantasy. Despite the fact that every character in Usagi Yojimbo is an anthropomorphic, Stan Sakai (who’s been writing and drawing every issue himself since 1984) does an exhaustive amount of research to guarantee that every single corner of his Japan is an accurate historical representation. When Miyamoto Usagi, Sakai’s ronin protagonist, stares across an open valley in the dead of winter, Sakai’s penciling transports you to an austere and pure moment of storytelling. It isn’t escapism. It’s time travel. — JC
Fantastic Four Issues #1-#102 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Back in the mid ’60s, The Fantastic Four was a monthly guarantee that you could pay ten cents for twenty-some-odd pages and witness the most batshit insane spectacles imaginable. Outside of religious text and Greek epics, Four was the only place where you could see a building-sized, purple-crowned man descending from the sky and threatening to eat the planet, and where the only people who could stop him were invisible or on fire. It was unbridled imagination. Whenever I stop and consider anything that’s ever entertained our generation, I can see Lee and Kirby’s touch all over it. — JC

Planetary by Warren Ellis
Put simply, Planetary is about the weight of our collective history and humanity realizing its potential. And it’s about comics. Elijah Snow, like a select number of other unique individuals in Warren Ellis’ world of Planetary, was born at midnight on January 1st, 1900. In 1999, he is part of a group that scours the world, documenting the strange and preserving it, an archaeologist of the twentieth century itself. There’s a great deal more to say about the book itself, but it’s one of the very few on this list that giving away even a hint would ruin the joy of reading it. — JC

  

           

 

31 Comments

Gah! TWO Bendis titles? Jaysus. Too much Gaiman, Ellis and Ennis (all totally overrated), somewhat second-rate Moore, no Rick Veitch or Bryan Talbot, no Moebius, Wrightson, Herriman, McKay. And Blue Monday? Blecch. Pulp all copies. Most overrated female voice in comics (manga by Westerners is particularly awful to boot). Only one title per writer, too! No fair! Kudos on Peter Bagge (doesn’t get enough praise, even though Hate got overhyped at one point) and Jack Kirby (a true mad genius, and that cretin Stan Lee continues to fly around on the back of his corpse like his own private Learjet). Too many Americans! Too many Englishmen! There are other people in Europe, you know. Why no (non-Western) Japanese?

JC commented on 02/14

Hey, JC, nobody said they’re the ONLY comics that can change your life. (And I challenge anyone who calls Miracleman “second rate”– I think it’s the best thing either Moore or Gaiman ever wrote.) Great list!

GM commented on 02/14

Promethea didn’t make your list, so all I can say is that you should be off somewhere, right now, reading Promethea.

RLM commented on 02/14

Where’s Grant Morrison’s Invisibles on this list? It’s the only series I know of that is almost invariably recommended because it will change the readers life. Alias might be the best reinterpretation of the superhero mythos since Watchmen but I don’t see any communities like Barbelith sprouting up around it.

JCW commented on 02/14

There isn’t a single Grant Morrison book in the list. I’d definitively add ‘Invisibles’ to the list. It changed my life BIG time. And ‘Animal Man’ too.

JSC commented on 02/15

Believe it or not, The Invisibles was in fact on the list before it went up on Tuesday. Here’s the entry:

The Invisibles- “What if it were all real?” My first issue of The Invisibles by Grant Morrison posed that very question and it went ahead and popped my fourteen year-old brain. While most young folk find that certain piece of art that they identify with a bit too much, they usually find it somewhere else. Being the young brooding Catholic school boy, lord knows I was easy prey for JD Salinger, but it was Morrison’s extrauniversal-conspiracy-by-way-of-psychedlic-pulp comic that grabbed me. The Invisibles is about trangender shamans and the end of the world, spies and magic and evil monsters made of thought out to destroy individuality. At the outset of the story, when Dane McGowan is inducted into the ongoing war between the overlapping universes that form ours he has to take on his Invisible name Jack Frost. The choice had power in it. Shortly after I turned sixteen, I changed my name to John Constantine, the name of a comic character, had that summer that changed everything, got full on pre-millennial tension, lost my virginity, all that good fun. Morrison claims that The Invisibles itself was an incantation meant to kick-start the new millennium. It worked for me.- John Constantine

John commented on 02/15

No Chris Ware? You’re daft!

Gsky commented on 02/15

Not to mention Watchmen, which I read as a preteen. After reading it, I stopped looking at comic books the same way. The Invisibles, however, changed my life. The lead character goes from being an angry disaffected youth, into a more open, sensitive human being. His conciousness raises and he stops seeing the world as the enemy. That made a difference in my life and my viewpoint of the world.

pw commented on 02/17

What? How can you mention all of these comics and not include Matt Wagner’s “Grendel”, or for that matter “Mage” within this list? Arggh! You want life changing, introspective and half the time just plain “I can’t believe they just did that.”, you have to read Grendel.

JBF commented on 02/17

Really? No “Daddy’s Girl?” Really? I’ve read a LOT of comics in my day, and that is probably the only one that’s reduced me to a crying heap of fetal position. And as far as “Optic Nerve” goes, “Summer Blonde” hit me harder than the the title selected. Oh well. At least I know other girls are indeed reading comics.

sls commented on 02/23

Even more than the Invisibles… FLEX MENTALLO (also by Morrison) needs to be in that list.

F.S. commented on 03/10

Oh look.. They left off “The Watchmen” & “Maus”.

Discuss.

SMC commented on 04/22

SMC – my thoughts exactly. I was looking for the next page which would have had them on. I also missed V for Vendetta on this list. Much as I love Promethea, I don’t think it changed my life. Hmm.

SW commented on 04/22

This list lacked two important entries, in my humble opinion. M.A.U.S. and The Watchmen.

xo

ss commented on 04/22

My runners-up would also be:

Tank Girl, Schizo, Milk n’ Cheese, Strangers in Paradise, and Dirty Plotte.

ss commented on 04/22

What no “Invisibles” !?

MW commented on 04/22

I would expect “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” by Art Spiegelman to appear on such a list.

qaz commented on 04/22

I liked your list, but I saddened to see Artie Spegielmans “Maus” wasn’t on the list. It was the first time I realized that comic art can truly be art. The storyline left me emotional.

SCM commented on 04/22

No Cerebus? No Maus? Not one comic from 2000 AD? No >Pogo, no Krazy Kat, no ZAP comix, no Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers? Nothing by Robert Crumb? Nothing by Will Eisner? No Batman: Killing Joke or Batman: The Dark Night Returns? No Chris Claremont-era Uncanny X-Men? What about Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, or its sequels? What about Larry Marder’s Tales of the Beanworld? Tony Millionaire’s Maakies or Sock Monkey? What about Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth? Your list is a good start, but there are too many egregious gaps.

JG commented on 04/22

How can you leave off “the Watchmen” or “Maus”???????? Criminal.

RA commented on 04/22

HOW did you miss “Watchmen”?

CS commented on 04/23

No Watchmen? Crap article.

F.U. commented on 04/23

Cages – Dave McKean?

-saf commented on 04/23

well the chick books (ugh)
the johimbo – expected
and I’m too old to find any redeeming aspect of high school bombings – must be a generational thing.
why fantastic four?
why not superman – the
mister miracle was always better than miracle men (my opinion)
and who cares about zippy ? he was just a clown version of howard the duck…

i have been around comics for 30 years

I will say you missed some unique books and some major ones too; including anything from wildstorm. I mean the company only changed the quality, style and face of comics FOREVER… They revolutionized to art styles, new inking meathods and printing quality – but yea zippy the blunder clown hmm umm hmm

but to each his/her own

gjm commented on 04/27

…so where’s “The Invisibles”?

VP commented on 05/30

Watchmen is pretty obvious. More personally i’d say Promethea is the bigger oversight. That book did some things to me. Weird things.

Maybe even some Animal Man.

TSB commented on 03/31

Oh. And The Maxx. I think that book did some things for a lot of people. All theses THINGS

TSB commented on 03/31

I used to have the game based on Usagi Yojimbo for the commadore 64!

commented on 11/03

what about grant morrisons “the invisibles”????????

rc commented on 06/03

Neil Gaiman’s run on Miracle Man was trash compared to Alan Moore’s

GH commented on 09/07

I cant believe you didnt mention Y: The Last Man, that comics change my life, Im a 20 something guy from the Dominican Republic

E.T commented on 09/13

 

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