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Top Nine: Watson's Choice
Alasdair Watson is one of the three founders of Ninth Art, alongside Antony Johnston and Andrew Wheeler. He provided the technical expertise behind the workings of the site, as well as participating in the Forecast, being one third of the Triple A round tables, and writing his editorial series Camera Obscura for three years. Now he reveals the reasons he reads comics - in the form of his nine favourite books.
Like everyone else who's done one of these, I've had a bastard of a time trying to narrow it down to just nine comics. But in the process of doing so, I think I've come to the clearest articulation of both why I love comics and why I loathe 90% of the ones that are made.
Comics are more or less the last mass medium left in which it is possible to speak honestly. Film, TV and radio have all had their testicles/ovaries/other generative parts cut off. They have accepted a tiny range of formats, and have bent over for advertisers.
Comics, for all they are small and poisoned and doing their level best to sell out because that's where the money is, haven't quite managed it yet. There's still a better chance of hearing what an actual human thinks if you pick a comic at random than if you flip on the TV at random. And that's all it takes to make me love something: a single human, however mad and damaged, telling me what they honestly think.
So with that in mind, my top nine comics, in, like everyone else's, no particular order:
A DISEASE OF LANGUAGE
I think the first Alan Moore work I remember reading is a chunk of SWAMP THING, when I was about 18, and y'know, I remember it being pretty special, because it contained issue #34, 'Rites of Spring'. You know, the psychedelic love poem where a woman and some giant talking lettuce have sex. I thought that was quite impressive. Mad as a bastard, but impressive. And the thing is, he's only got better as he's gone on.
Still, it has to be said: Alan Moore is at least half-mad. I read a quote with no attribution a few years back that claimed he believes he's the reincarnation of William Blake. I have no idea if it's true, but the idea's got an odd pull. I'm not remotely qualified to measure their respective talents against each other, but what they've got in common is that they've both gone wandering some distance from their era's conventional mental topographies, and have then done their level best to talk about it. And in doing so they've both produced work that stands head and shoulders above that of their contemporaries.
So here's Moore, more-than-ably assisted by Campbell's illustrations, taking a bit of time to think hard about a few things that most people probably don't think too hard about, and then tell us what he thinks. Mad or visionary, this is beautiful work.
My family are from Northern Ireland. (Just for clarity, I should perhaps say that I don't mean this in that way that Americans are 'Irish', or anything like that - I have close relations there, and spent large chunks of my childhood - and smaller chunks of my adulthood - on holiday visiting them.) I have never lived there myself, but nonetheless, I grew up with the reality of the Troubles, the idea that while it was unlikely that anything would happen to my family, it was still possible that one of them would get caught in some random attack or another.
So, unsurprisingly, this book speaks to me.
One of the most sickeningly assured debuts ever, and one of the most grown-up comics I can think of, TROUBLED SOULS was written while the Troubles were still ongoing, and is possibly the only comic I've ever seen about the Province that got it all right. It didn't oversimplify, didn't favour one side over the other (well, except the side of not killing people), and just gone on with telling an honest story about a fucked up situation. It's not a perfect work, but there are so few really good works about the conflict in Northern Ireland in any medium, and even less that manage to be good and touchingly human all at the same time, that I couldn't not include this.
ALEC: HOW TO BE AN ARTIST
Eddie Campbell gets in on his own merits too, not just for his collaborations with 'Big Hairy Alan Moore'. The man is a superlative artist with an eye for detail, both literal and emotional, and again, here's a man telling the reader what he thinks. For me, this is the defining word in autobio comics, because it's got the sense to reach a little wider than 'just' being about the details of the creator's life, to try and tackle a few questions that don't have a simple answer - and because it's possessed of a wry humour that jibes with my own.
I wish I had more to say about this comic, but to be honest, I just don't. I don't recall what I was doing when I first read it. I have no personal investment in it, or in Eddie Campbell, or any of its major themes. I just think it's one of the best comics I own.
I love TRANSMETROPOLITAN. I remember buying the first issue (almost ten years ago now, and oh God, who stole a huge chunk of my life when I wasn't looking?), and sitting in the last of the summer sun with my girlfriend of the time, on the steps outside the basement flat we were living in, the pair of us enjoying a cigarette and reading the comic together. I think that's the only time I've ever read a comic with someone, because the first page made me laugh out loud, and she wanted to know what I was laughing at, and after the first two pages neither of us was willing to wait for the other to finish.
Anyway: there are a few issues in TRANSMETROPOLITAN where Ellis more-or-less sets the plot aside, and just uses the lens of SF to talk about modern problems, and this, 'Another Cold Morning', is the single best of them. It's the one that, for me, totally captures both the greatness that humans can achieve, and the squalid little horrors we perpetrate every day.
Darrick Robertson's beautiful, clear artwork, crammed with life and detail, does a marvellous job of convincing us of the reality of this future world, making it seem one hundred percent believable, which is no mean feat, given that the whole thing hinges on how shockingly different this future is from our own. And they do it all without seeming forced, without feeling like they're lecturing or making a point, but just by getting on with telling a simple, clear story, something warm and very human - and it has all the more power for it.
QUEEN & COUNTRY: OPERATION MORNINGSTAR
In December 2001 Marvel published the most cringe-makingly embarrassing comic I have ever read - their first response to 9/11, featuring such tawdry and mawkish rubbish as Dr Doom looking at Ground Zero with tears in his eyes.
I mention this because December 2001 was also the publication date of the first issue in this collection, and I thank God for it, because it reminded me that while there were suddenly plenty of people out there with their hearts embarrassingly on their sleeves, doing tacky things in the name of charity (the only saving grace of Marvel's project), there were also people who were sufficiently engaged with the world that they knew about, and were very deeply fucked off with the horrors of the Taliban before 9/11; people who understood that 9/11 was not the full extent of that regime's crimes.
Like just about everyone else whose writing I like, Rucka is at his best when he's angry - when something has him good and pissed off, and he can't let it go until he's taken a chunk out of it in the best way he can. Which is why QUEEN & COUNTRY, a book about disgusting deeds that can't help but make any sane person angry, is easily his finest work and, I suspect, why this volume stands out amongst an excellent series.
I have to make sure I don't re-read this too often, because every time I do, there's this little voice in the back of my head that say "go on, you know you want to do it - write a comic..."
There was a point, a few years back, when I wanted to do exactly that, so I bought this book. I'm better now, of course, but still: this is the single best textbook on how comics actually work as a medium. Anyone with aspirations to create comics who hasn't read this is probably not doing the best work they could be, unless they're some kind of vast cosmic genius. I'm not, so reading this was invaluable. And even if you have no aspirations to create comics, it's still an extremely engaging read, and a fascinating peek behind the curtain at the kind of thought that goes into making something you might otherwise take for granted.
CALVIN AND HOBBES
I honestly cannot remember when I first encountered Calvin and Hobbes. I know I was old enough to get the joke in their names, although to this day I've still never bothered to read any of their work, because neither of them had the sense to include a talking stuffed tiger.
I despair of anyone who does not love this strip, or understand the boundaries Watterson pushed in his time as a cartoonist - enhancing the medium for everyone. Beautiful artwork, side-splitting laughs; it's thought-provoking and charming in equal measure, and actually, I really must just go and re-read some strips right now...
HELLBLAZER: DANGEROUS HABITS
I bought HELLBLAZER for ten years - it's the only comic I've ever tried to 'stick with through a bad patch' - and this is where I started. This was also the first comic I ever read that made me aware that someone had written it. You all know that moment, where you realise that writing comics is more than a matter of throwing together a brief plot and then pasting word balloons in to whatever the artist hands back. The point where you realise that there's someone with a brain, often a damaged and twisted one, behind these things?
It was the cleverness in the horror that got me. (And the smart dialogue, and the tone of anger in the whole thing, and, and...) There was brilliant misdirection, getting everyone to look at the devil and his cohorts for the horror, when actually the horror story was about John Constantine and his fellow humans, their desperation and their deceits, and even their little triumphs. The things they did in the 'real' world, not the actions of a monster under the bed. I love it.
This is the only comic I know that's actually about real adolescent fantasies, and it's for that reason (and because it just plain makes me smile, every time) that I've put it on this list.
Sure, that's what we tell ourselves that all the superheroes are about; childish power fantasies, but honestly, they're what fucking pre-school kids want to be. Teenagers, they want to be cool. They want to rebel against their parents. They want to be in a band, or get noticed for whatever talent it is they possess. They want to take drugs and get laid. Jen Van Meter knows this, and knows that dressing it up in silly outfits can often take away from what's being said. Instead, she's sharp enough to speak a modern cultural language, riffing off celebrity culture and shows like THE OSBORNES to write something that might actually speak to teenagers in terms they can connect with.
In HOPELESS SAVAGES she's created a fantastic vehicle to explore adolescence and young adulthood, and to speak the sort of sense that Spider-Man is almost never going to speak. It has a message I think more people could do with hearing from their fiction when they're teenagers; that it's more than OK to be different, and that chasing one's dreams is probably the only thing that does result in a happy ending.
Alasdair Watson is the author of the Eagle Award-nominated RUST.
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