How Comic Books Can Help You Think

How Comic Books Can Help You Think March 1, 2010

I suppose you could say that I was an amateur comic book fan when I was a kid. I had a small collection (over one hundred) and, though I didn’t read all of the comics I owned, I enjoyed reading specific ones regularly. It was a sort of guilty pleasure then, something I was slightly embarrassed of and something I rarely tell people that I did even now. In the circles I ran in comic books were for nerdy kids. If you could describe how the Green Lantern became the Green Lantern no body wanted to sit with you at lunch. So I kept my comic fandom a secret. After some time of reflection, however, I am coming out of the closet to say: I think comic books can be good for us!

The evolution of the Graphic Novel has made that statement far less powerful today, seeing as how many find value in comics. Even university English programs now offer courses in which students are required to read at least one, if not multiple, graphic novels. But I think of equal value are the works of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and other comic book others from years past (The Silver Age of Comics, as it has been termed). These comics helped us think carefully about issues that even the Bible challenges us to reflect on,  such as race, war, justice, self-identity, etc. The X-Men movies brought again to the foreground the way in which comic books raise questions regarding prejudice. There’s something, then, that perhaps Wolverine can teach us about how we view different races, and how we relate to people of a different sexual orientation.

My personal favorite was always Captain America. What’s interesting about the Cap. is that his creation came out of the WWII era, as a response to the wickedness of the Nazis. The creators behind Captain America had heard enough complaints against U.S. involvement in the war, and were personally convinced that what the Nazis were doing was wrong and as a result they created the Captain to inspire hope and support for U.S. involvement. The first issue contained a drawing of the Captian punching Adolf Hitlher in the face and it sold more copies than some national magazines like Time. Here is an example of how a comic book had greater motivation than simply to entertain, it was created to inspire and give hope.

Of course I don’t think it would be wise to allow your world to revolve around comic books (in other words don’t become “Comic Book Guy” from the Simpsons). There are other mediums, of course, that are equally competent in communicating these truths and there are other things more important that you ought to be doing than reading Spiderman. The Bible should be our primary read and there we find the themes of comic books more helpfully presented and showcased.

Yet, there’s no need to fear that reading comic books is necessarily a waste of your time. Spiderman can teach us about inner turmoil and responsibility. Gambit, from the X-Men, can teach us about bearing the burden of our past. And Captian America can inspire us to do the right thing, even when it appears it’s not popular. It’s not always clear, nor is it always Biblical, but comic books can help us wrestle with biblical morality at a whole other level, and for that we can express our appreciation.

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  • I’ve just recently gotten into comics, much more so into graphic novels than serial comics. For awhile, I tried reading some of the older comics (early X-Men, Silver Surfer, etc.). Then I realized that, in Silver Surfer #1 for example, almost every speech bubble ended with 1) an exclamation point, 2) a question mark, or 3) an elipsis. And probably more than half were exclamation points…

    I have really grown to love, however, the more modern graphic novels that tell a really meaningful story (not that the serial comics don’t, I just prefer a beginning, middle, end kind of story arc). My two favorites at the moment are ‘Watchmen’ and ‘V for Vendetta’. I guess I have a thing for Alan Moore. I’ve read Frank Miller’s Batman stories, and those manage to have that “I have a meaningful point to make” kind of feel within the universe of a serial comic. I like them, too.

    Are there any more great standalone graphic novels out there? Or great treatments like Frank Miller’s Batman stuff? I’m still looking for that next amazing story…

  • Hey Joseph, just so you know, both Watchmen and V for Vendetta were serial comics and not standalone books. Granted, they were limited series, but they definitely played to the constraints of the pamphlet form. This is especially the case with Watchmen and it’s even been argued that one can’t fully appreciate it in its collected volume.

    If you want good standalone superhero stuff, that’s going to be a bit harder to find than books outside the genre. Jeph Loeb’s Superman for All Seasons is a pretty good book. Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman (collected in two volumes) picked up all kinds of kudos last year (though it wasn’t necessarily to my taste). Also touching on Superman, you’ve got Stephen Seagle’s It’s a Bird, which is more meta than the other books. If you want a fun, sentimental, action-y, pitch-perfect look at the Justice League heroes before they all got together, check out New Frontier. It’s really good and features the Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, the Martian Manhunter, the Atom, Superman, Batman, etc. (but mostly probably Green Lantern).

    On the Marvel side of things, Paul Jenkin’s Inhumans is a pretty good story. Brian K. Vaughan sets up a standalone series (that later got expanded into a continuing series because it was so popular) called Runaways; it’s collected in one hardcover volume or available in three paperbacks. And it’s a bit longer, but Brian Michael Bendis’ run on Daredevil is just great (you can get that in five hardcovers or a pile of paperbacks). It’s just a fantastic treatment of Daredevil and tells a pretty complete story; and works well with the follow-up run by Ed Brubaker. Also in the Marvel Universe but written with adults in mind is Bendis’ Alias. The ran concurrently with his Daredevil run so there’s a bit of crossover, but it’s a look at the Marvel books from the perspective of someone who used to be a hero and palled around with the Avengers but gave it up to be a private eye. Published by Marvel but outside of Marvel continuity is Bendis’ Powers, revolving around two homicide cops whose focus is on powers-related homocides (the first volume concerns the murder of one of the world’s most beloved heroes, Retro Girl).

    Once you get out of the superhero ghetto, the world of awesome comics expands dramatically. If you like Vertigo books like V for Vendetta, there are a number of great ones to choose from. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman put Neil Gaiman on the map. For my money, my two favourite Vertigo titles are Fables and Y the Last Man. Fables is an ongoing story about the Fables who migrated to the mundane world while fleeing fromt eh adversary who was destroying their homelands. They (mostly) all live in New York (Bigby Wolf, Rose Red, Snow White, King Cole, Prince Charming, Beauty, Beast, Pinnochio, etc.) and after the first collected volume (which I didn’t really like much), the series is just fantastic. Y the Last Man is now a complete story and is comprised of ten volumes telling the story of Yorick Brown and his monkey Ampersand, the only two male creatures on earth to survive a plague that affects the whole world. It’s a pretty awesome series and the whole thing was planned from the beginning.

    You’ve got great biocomics: Blankets and Fun Home and Persepolis. Great historical comics: Berlin and Buddha and Usagi Yojimbo and Age of Bronze and Emma and No Pasaran! and Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms. Great psychological stories: I Kill Giants and Swallow Me Whole and Epileptic. Great adventure comics: Bone and Castle Waiting and Mister Blank and Mouse Guard. Great social commentary: American Born Chinese and Footnotes in Gaza and Palomar. Great thrillers: Monster and Death Note. Great crime stories: Jinx and Goldfish and 100 Bullets and Stray Bullets and Murder Me Dead and Miss: Better living Through Crime. Great true crime: Torso and A Treasury of 20th Century Murder. Great comedy: Yotsuba&! and Azumanga Daioh and Street Angel and Sea Guy. Great stories about what it is to be a person: Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth and Asterios Polyp and Jar of Fools. And great science fiction: Astronauts in Trouble and I Killed Adolph Hitler and Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind and Akira. And just great stories: Why Are You Doing This? and Love and Rockets and Solanin and What a Wonderful World and A Distant Neighborhood and Sparks and Curses. And piles and piles more.

    Right now is a wonderful time to be a reader of comics. And it’s just going to get better.

    Special note on exclamation points in the Silver Age: the going theory is that exclamation points were a reliable form of punctuating a sentence’s end in light of the absence of quality printing. Apparently, print and paper quality was poor enough that being able to distinguishing periods couldn’t be relied upon.

  • Thanks for the detailed response, The Dane. That should keep me going (and broke) for awhile.

  • Try out your local library. More and more, libraries are carrying worthwhile comics. Sections to investigate tender to be Older Teens and, strangely enough, the Dewey number 471.5ff—that should save you at least some coin.

  • David Dunham

    I knew The Dane would have a large list of recommendations

  • David Dunham

    The Dane,

    over the years I’ve run into some folks who really dig the Spawn comics…I know generally about the character, but I’ve never read a single issue. Do you have thoughts on it?

  • From what I hear, some of the later creators were able to some interesting stories with the character or do interesting spin-offs with side-characters (e.g. Bendis’ run with Sam & Twitch), but I’ve never read those. I was regrettably a big fan of the Image founders before they founded Image (being a young teenager poses a great danger toward good taste) and when McFarlane jumped ship at Marvel to help form Image and start Spawn I went along for the ride.

    I bought the first sixteen issues before just giving up in disgust at the book’s terrible stories, terrible dialogue, and complete lack of anything beyond pretension to fuel it. I’m sure other creators were able to do some interesting stuff with it—in fact, the only way it could get worse was if it became Youngblood.

    I’ve occasionally been tempted to check out some of the more lauded runs (I don’t know offhand which these are, but one occasionally hears things), but my revulsion for the character due my early exposure to him makes approaching the book an impossibility.

  • I like Y, and Dead@17. I couldn’t get through V for Vendetta, I just didn’t enjoy it. I also liked Aztek: The Ultimate Man, but I would have liked to see more of the character.

    Other than that I’ve been trying to catch up with superheroes more than get into the deep stuff. I prefer to get that without pictures. I’m new to comics, too though. Is it weird that a 28-year-old grad student with two kids suddenly decided he likes Iron Man?

  • Charles, if you’re trying to catch up with superheroes, you might like to check out the Ultimate Spider-Man series by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley (and later Stuart Immonen, who took over for Bagley after chapter #110). It’s a really fun series and maybe the best example of what makes Spider-Man cool in the last thirty or so years.

  • David Dunham


    I am with you man. I was into superheroes as a kid, but like many young men (I think) my interest has be renewed. I wonder if this is in some part due to the film industry’s acquisition of the rights to Marvel characters and stories, but in any case I’ve enjoyed catching up just recently.