RASL: Volumes 1-3 by Jeff Smith

I was turned on to Jeff Smith’s RASL by The Best American Comics of 2011.  RASL is much different than Smith’s famous masterpiece, Bone.  Where Bone is a epic lighthearted fantasy adventure, RASL is a dark and gritty sci fi noir.  RASL, the main character, is a hard drinking art thief with a mysterious past.  His girlfriend is a prostitute, but he has another girl’s name tattooed on his arm.  There’s time jumping, a history lesson on Tesla, a government conspiracy, and a bad guy who looks like a lizard (think Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) chasing RASL across parallel timelines.  Of course, RASL is not his original name, and I’ve yet to figure out what it means.

The overriding theme is the need to make things right with the past, but the harder RASL tries the higher the cost to himself.  There is some Native American imagery regarding life being a maze, and the time jumping lends to the theme.  There is the recurring image of a pebble being dropped in water and the resultant ripples.  It reads like a blend of Raymond Chandler, Hunter S. Thompson, and LOST. Good, dark  fun all around.

The series is steeped in mystery, and Smith is a master of cliffhangers.  I don’t want to give away much of the plot because the mystery of it all is what drives the series.   Rumors are circulating on the interwebs that the series will come to an explosive conclusion in 2012 or 2013.  Issues 1-11 have been collected in three volumes. You can check out the hardcover volume here.

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep: A Graphic Novel

Do Androids Dream of Electric SheepLike most people these days, I came to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Philip K. Dick through Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner.  I knew the film was based on the book and always had it on my to-be-read list, but that list grows faster than I keep up with it.  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep kept its spot as other books piled on.  Then I stumbled onto this comic adaptation by Tony Parker and BOOM! Studios. It’s word for word from the book with panel-to-panel continuity.  I couldn’t resist.

If you like Blade Runner, you really owe it to yourself to read the book or comic.  Both the film and novel are excellent, but they are really two different animals (pun intended).  The film is very character driven and its thematic focus is very narrow. It’s good, but it’s narrow. The novel is idea driven and is much more complex than the film.  Philip K. Dick was as much philosopher as storyteller.  There are some crucial scenes and ideas in the novel that make it superior to the film, because they add so much more depth and meaning to the story.

For example, one crucial element in the novel is Mercerism, a religion that uses technology to give people a sense of connectedness.  People can plug in and feel connected physically and spiritually to Mercer (and all humanity as a result) as he eternally struggles up his hill, like Sisyphus.  As his invisible persecutors throw rocks at him, everyone connected feels the pain.  They actually bruise and bleed.  This is a human need that androids do not understand.  The film doesn’t have enough time to develop this idea, and it is too far removed from Dekker’s primary mission.

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The Mercer idea also leads to Buster Friendly, a media personality constantly broadcasting on TV and radio.  Everyone loves him.  Everyone watches.  He has a cast of silly characters that join him similar to variety show and late night TV.  The idea of Mercerism and Buster Friendly are just two examples of Philip K. Dick’s prescience.  They also contribute to the development of Deckard’s character and the difference between humans and androids.

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I’m not sure if the comic adaptation now constitutes a third animal in addition to the film and traditional novel.  It includes everything in the novel, and readers who know the film will recognize elements of it in the comic as well.  Tony Parker’s illustrations are brilliant and flow seamlessly with the text.  I had to keep reminding myself that I was actually reading a novel that was written in 1968.  Everything fits and looks perfect in this adaptation.

Parker’s illustrations also illuminate Dick’s underlining themes and the bigger questions at play.  What does it mean to be human?  If the androids are more than human, what does that mean?  What is empathy and why do we have it? Deckard feels like he is increasingly becoming dehumanized by the hunt for the escaped androids.  During Deckard’s internal monologue, Parker often illustrates him imagining that he is killing the androids.   By the time that moment comes in reality, Deckard has already done it in his mind repeatedly.   There is a sense of anti-climax.  It doesn’t mean that much anymore. He has lost some of that empathy.

In addition to the great adaptation, the comics also include an essay at the back of each issue by the likes of Warren Ellis, Jonathan Letham, James Blaylock, TimPowers, etc. The essays are very different from one another.  Some discuss the book and film from an academic perspective.  Some discuss Philip K. Dick in general.  Some are like memoirs. I found all of them illuminating after reading the respective issue.

In short, the comic adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is fantastic.  I loved every second of it.  I managed to use the internet machines to track down all 24 issues of it, but BOOM! has issued 6 volumes that collect the whole series.  I will close with a quote from Gabriel McKee’s essay at the end of issue 21:

Dick’s universes have shaky walls and insubstantial foundations.  But throughout it all—and this is where I think many of Dick’s academic admirers get him wrong—he never abandons hope that an authentic ultimate reality exists.  At the core of all of that anxiety… there is a faith that something real is hidden beneath the veil, and that it can and will break through that veil to help us.  And it is that hope, more that the surface anxiety, that gives his stories such power.

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The Best American Comics of 2011 edited by Alison Bechdel


coverThe Best American Comics 2011
is the first comic anthology I’ve read.  It convinced me that the comic medium is not well suited for “best of” anthologies, unless the comic is intentionally written to be ingested as a very short piece, like David Lasky’s six-panel “The Ultimate Graphic Novel.”  An excerpt from a graphic novel just doesn’t do the work justice.  What this anthology did was show me I need to get these graphic novels and read them in their entirety.

Comic fans will be familiar with the best, and most obvious, selections: an excerpt from Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza and Chris Ware’s Jordan W. Lint to the Age 65.  Joe Sacco is a master of investigative journalism in the comic medium.  His excerpt in the anthology details a massacre of Palestinian men by the Israelis in 1956. He then questions the reliability of memory when trying to discover the facts of the event.  Chris Ware is doing some of the most stylistically imaginative work in comics while examining the sad mess people make of their lives.

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There are some great surprises in this anthology too.  Angie Wang’s short piece “Flower Mecha” is artistically beautiful and strange.  Pollen is ruining a woman’s picnic and she fights it off in a hallucinatory mix of art deco and manga.  Michael Defarge’s “Queen” is even stranger.  A black glob of a creature walks through a strange alien world picking up pieces of mushrooms, flora, and landscape to turn itself into a freakish woman.  Both of these pieces are surprisingly interesting, but I’m not sure they are the best of the past year.  Looking at the notable mention list at the end of the anthology makes me wonder if there isn’t something better that tells a story using the full capabilities of the comic medium.

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The mix of history and memoir in “Little House in the Big City” by Sabrina Jones was intriguing.  The mix of history and fictional mystery in “The Mad Scientist” excerpt from RASL by Jeff Smith made me immediately want to read the entire series.  “Winter,” an excerpt from Refresh, Refresh by Danica Novgodorrodov, Benjamin Percy, and James Ponsoldt has a great abstract watercolor dream sequence in the middle, but the excerpt simply doesn’t give enough of the story to stand on its own.  It’s another one I want to read in its entirety.  Kate Beaton’s take on The Great Gatsby is hilarious.

Alison Bechdel is the guest editor for this year’s anthology.  She mentions in her introduction that there is a metafiction theme in many of the selections.  The best example would be “Pet Cat” by Joey Alison Sayers.  Sayers documents the history of a comic strip in its many incarnations until finally God takes over the writing of the strip.  The satire comments on how artists are disrespected and exploited.

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The anthology was an interesting read, and it pointed me to some works that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.  I do have a gripe, and I’m sure I’ll get ripped by someone for it, because Bechdel is well respected as a writer and artist.  The problem is there’s no hiding her subjectivity or agenda in this anthology.  Many of the chosen selections highlight an obvious feminist and gay perspective.  “Flower Mecha” and “Queen” are perhaps overt feminist symbolism.  Other selections, like “Manifestation” by Gabrielle Bell (which opens the book) and “Weekends Abroad” by Eric Orner, are manifestly feminist and gay, respectively.  Again, I look at the list of notable mentions and wonder if there isn’t quite a few on that list that are better comics overall.  When the subjectivity is so obvious, I think we have to question is this really an anthology of the best comics in 2011?  I understand that an anthology of this sort with a guest editor will never completely escape subjectivity, but I’d like to see some semblance of trying to find a true “best” based on the quality of the work and not some other criterion.  Don’t get me wrong.  There are quite a few selections in this anthology that deserve to be here.

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Supergods by Grant Morrison

supergods-coverWhat Morrison does very well in Supergods is offer an analytical history of superhero comics from the perspective of a fan and talented insider. The book is organized chronologically and progresses through the Golden Age, Silver Age, Dark Age, and Renaissance. Unfortunately, Morrison interjects his own memoir and belief systems, which are not all about comics. The book reads as if it should be two or three separate books, and the further Morrison gets away from analyzing the history of superhero comics, the more disjointed the book becomes.

Supergods is subtitled, “What masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human,” which sounds like a great germinating idea for a critical examination of superhero comics. The first section of the twenty-six chapter, 426 page book comes the closest to living up to the subtitle. Morrison begins at the logical beginning:

In Superman, some of the loftiest aspirations of our species came hurtling down from imagination’s bright heaven to collide with the lowest form of entertainment—and from their union, something powerful and resonant was born, albeit in its underwear. Superman was the ferocious attempt of two young men to show us ourselves at our very best.

Morrison goes on to write an engrossing analysis of the creation of Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and the small cast of popular early superheroes in the Golden Age. He includes the perfect amount of historical context, pop references, and commentary on the writers and artists to keep the book from becoming overly academic. I found his detailed analyses of the covers of the first issues of Superman, Batman, and Fantastic Four fascinating. Morrison’s prose is full of hyperbole, and his imagery keeps the discussion lively, although at times it’s self-indulgent. At the end of the Golden Age section, he writes:

Alone at night, in the midst of unprecedented luxury after a successfully won World War, Americans were more frightened than ever before… There was the space race, with its launch into the limitless unknown, and Kinsey’s groundbreaking surveys into the sexual habits of Americans, opening the dripping treasure chest of a buttoned-up country’s inner life, revealing a sleep world of polychromatic polymorphous perversity acted out behind a camouflage of pipe-smoking patriarchs and Stepford wives. There were as many different kinds of fear as there were brands of gum.

flash-coverAs the book moves into the Silver Age section, Morrison examines the fifties and sixties era comics in the context of the growing popularity of psychoanalysis and the space race. Along those same lines, He injects his own initiation to comics into the chronology, but this quickly turns from comics to his family life to his belief systems regarding time, the fifth dimension, and the multiverse. From that point the analysis of superhero comics, which is still good, is interrupted by Morrison’s own memoir about his many identity crises, drug inspired occult experiments, and new age philosophy.

The memoir interruptions take over in the Dark Age and Renaissance sections as Morrison’s career takes off, and the organization and logic of the book are derailed. He writes:

If I found some dangerous or interesting ritual in a book, I’d give it a go to see what effect it would have on my consciousness. The results were never less than revelatory. Psychedelics gave these experiences the fidelity of a Star Trek 3-D holodeck experience. Demons and angels had faces now of white-hot, razor-edged purity or grotesque puzzle box monstrosity… I have no really explanations for a lot of this but numerous speculations that may find their way into another book one day. I simply allowed all this to happen under some vague direction from a diamond-interior Protestant straight-edge self that seemed to never lose control.

How Morrison can say with a straight face that his “Protestant straight-edge self” never lost control while he was taking drugs and performing occult experiments is completely illogical to me, especially since he claims to have rejected the Bible at an early age and completely botches the central theme of the Gospel message early in the book.

Between the memoir sections in the last half, Morrison gives an excellent analysis of Alan Moore and Frank Miller’s work. Yet, he could not restrain himself from including his previously mentioned “speculations” about his mystical experiences. He explains that a life-changing drug induced epiphany he had in Kathmandu gave him his “very own superpower.” He can now “’see’ 5-D perspective.” He goes on for the majority of the last section of the book discussing his “experiments” and explaining his new found understanding of time and the universe. His analysis of more recent comics is painfully thin and focuses on his own work. The end of the book loses all coherence with the rest, and a whole chapter is dedicated to movie adaptations, rather than following the established chronological order of the book.

The history and analysis of superhero comics is excellent through three quarters of the book, but after the Silver Age, the reader has to pick through the new age philosophy and identity-crisis memoir to find the good stuff. I’m sure there are readers, especially diehard fans of Morrison, who will find the memoir and personal philosophy interesting. But as Morrison even seems to recognize, those topics would be better suited for another book. I will say that my advance copy of the book has obvious signs that it was a draft and would be edited.

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Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life by Bryan Lee O’Malley

sp1-coverHow can one describe Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life?  Hipster-absurdist-arcade-kung-fu-musical?  Whatever you want to call it, the book exudes coolness, and it’s not the pretentious brand of hipster coolness.  It’s a goofy, kind of stupid and fun coolness.

Scott, 23-years-old, announces that he is dating a high school girl, Knives.  He’s in a band and doesn’t have a job.  He epitomizes the laid-back slacker mentality.  His friends give him grief about the relationship, but before things get hot and heavy with Knives, Scott falls for Ramona, a rollerblading delivery girl.  As the story progresses, the absurdity increases.

Both girls show up at the band’s show, which causes problems.  The real problem, however, is that Ramona’s ex-boyfriend also shows up.  He’s able to summon some kind of demon-girl fighters, and an arcade style kung-fu battle, partially set to a musical, breaks out.  The premise for the rest of the series is established.  Scott will have to fight Ramona’s seven ex-boyfriends if he truly loves her.

The story is a take on the classic medieval epic, but Bryan Lee O’Malley fills it with tributes to manga, retro arcade games, music, sit-coms, and slacker attitude.  There is humor throughout.  It’s a perfect mix of realism and absurdity.  It’s just fun.

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Jimmy Corrigan: the smartest kid on earth by Chris Ware

jimmy corriganSimply put, Jimmy Corrigan is the pinnacle of what graphic novels are capable of as an art form- story, structure, graphics, everything.  I’m ashamed to say that I’m very late in reading the book, so I’ll let you read proper reviews here:

Guardian

Flak Magazine

The Independent

I’ve heard some people say that the book is frustrating and difficult to read because of the nontraditional structure, but the structure is part of the meaning.  It is not just a story with pictures, as many comics are.  It is more than that, and I compare any difficulty in reading it to the difficulty of reading any quality literature (think Cormac McCarthy, Kurt Vonnegut, James Joyce, et cetera).  Check it out here.

Some excerpts (these are random, except for the third and forth pages here, which are presented in order):

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The Walking Dead Books 1-3

I’m late getting to this series, but I have always heard good things about it.  It recently won an Eisner Award, and AMC is airing the first episode of their new television series based on the comic October 31.  I figured I might as well check out the original.  I’m not a big horror fan, especially in comic form, but I do like the classic zombie films.  Here I am three books (36 issues) later.  Be warned: the series is like potato chips (or what I imagine crack cocaine must be like).  You can’t just read one.

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Author Robert Kirkman is a master of the cliffhanger and plot twist.  Every issue ends with the reader wanting to immediately read the next, which is certainly good for business in the comic world.  I’ve read a lot comments on the net praising the characterization and how the series deals with the human condition.  My elitist English Lit pedigree will not let me buy into it truly being literary in that aspect, like say Maus or Stitches. It’s a zombie comic.  It’s escapist fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  In fact, I love the series, or I wouldn’t have read the first three collections straight through.  In terms of characterization and overall literary weight, I have to say it probably rises to the same level as a good Stephen King novel, although I haven’t read enough King to truly judge.   But it is really, really, outstandingly good as a zombie / survival series, perhaps even the best.

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Book 1 (issues 1-12) introduces the reader to Rick, the protagonist, and the situation, a zombie epidemic.  Rick is a cop, and he was in a coma from being shot in the line of duty.  He wakes up to find the hospital abandoned, except for the zombies.  He quickly learns the basics of the situation and heads for Atlanta where the government has supposedly set up a safe haven.  He joins a group of survivors with an RV.  There are plot twists galore, and then they meet another group of survivors who have a farm.  There are more plot twists, and Rick and his group are invited to leave the farm.

Book 2 (issues 13-24) begins with the group stumbling on a new safe haven.  I’ll not give it away.  It is in book 2 that we begin to learn more about the characters.  Several go through changes, especially Rick.  There’s a lot zombies, and as always, there are plot twists galore.

Book 3 (issues 25-36) is probably the weakest of what I’ve read.  Rick and a couple of group members go on an expedition.  Once again, I’ll not give it away.  They find other survivors and learn that live humans may be more dangerous than the zombies.  The characterization of several of the new characters in these issues is pretty weak in my opinion.  They just don’t make sense to the point of breaking the suspension of disbelief, which is saying a lot being that this is a zombie comic.  Oddly enough up to this point, the series has not been especially gory.  Book 3 is gory and even excessive in one issue. There are plot twists in these issues, but none are as surprising as the previous books.

My one criticism as a whole is that the dialogue can be pretty terrible.  The characters tend to say each others’ names way too often, especially when it’s a private conversation between two people.   It may be annoying to the discerning reader, but if you’re into the story, it will not stop you from picking up the next issue.

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Palestine by Joe Sacco

Joe Sacco is one of a very unique and rare breed of journalist and war correspondent.  He reports in comics- longish, book-length comics.  His research is scrupulous, and he is painfully honest about his intentions and subjectivity to the subject.   He’s also a little self-deprecating, which is refreshing coming from a war correspondent these days.

Palestine is the result of Sacco’s trip to the West Bank and Gaza strip in the early 1990s during the First Intifada (Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation).  It was first published in a series of 9 comics in 1993 and then collected in paperback form in 2001.  Palestine is generally considered groundbreaking for its form and subject.

The book chronologically follows Sacco’s arrival  in Cairo to his departure.  For context, he occasionally provides flashbacks to historical events, the Gulf War, and the beginning of the intifada.  But for the most part he provides story after story and scene after scene of desolate conditions and broken lives in the Palestinian refugee towns.

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The 2001 edition I have has an excellent introduction by Edward Said, which I will liberally quote from rather than bore you with my drivel.  Said writes:

In Joe Sacco’s world there are no smooth-talking announcers and presenters, no unctuous narrative of Israeli triumphs, democracy, achievements, no assumed and re-confirmed representations — all of them disconnected from any historical or social source, from any lived reality — of Palestinians as rock-throwing, rejectionist, and fundamentalist villains whose main purpose is to make life difficult for the peace-loving, persecuted Israelis.  What we get instead is seen through the eyes and persona of a modest-looking ubiquitous crew-cut young America man who appears to have wandered into an unfamiliar, inhospitable world of military occupation, arbitrary arrest, harrowing experiences of houses demolished and land expropriated, torture (“moderate physical pressure”) and sheer brute force generously, if cruelly, applied (e.g., an Israeli soldier refusing to let people through a roadblock on the West Bank because, he says, revealing enormous, threatening set of teeth, of  THIS, the M-16 rifle he brandishes) at whose mercy Palestinians live on a daily, indeed hourly basis.

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My only problem with the book is that the avalanche of wasteland-like refugee towns and Kafkaesque stories of torture being told over endless cups of tea in small living rooms packed with people showing their wounds all run together.  Even Sacco says that he has “heard this all before” at one point, and that is roughly halfway through the book.  I felt like I never really got to know any of the Palestinian characters.  They all seemed like the same character with that same broken-spirit expression, except maybe the woman in the segment “The Tough and The Dead.” I liked her.  I think the character issue is just a problem of sheer mass of information.  And of course that’s my opinion.  I could be totally wrong.

Even with that one fault, it is a great work of nonfiction, and I don’t know of anything like it dealing with this subject.   Said writes in his introduction:

…his comics about Palestine furnish his readers with a long enough sojourn among a people whose suffering and unjust fate have been scanted for far too long and with too little humanitarian and political attention.  Sacco’s art has the power to detain us, to keep us from impatiently wandering off in order to follow a catch-phrase or a lamentably predictable narrative of triumph and fulfillment.

I’ll leave you with that.

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Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

Understanding Comics

I was sixty pages into Understanding Comics when I realized it had already earned a spot  in my top-ten favorite nonfiction books.  Don’t ask me what the other nine are because I had never thought about my top-ten favorite nonfiction books until that moment.  I just know that Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art is one of them.  This is a graphic novel about the theory, history, and art of comic books.  What hooked me though was McCloud’s presentation of how the human mind handles images and language, and he does it within the comic format.  It is nothing short of genius.

McCloud begins the book trying to answer the question “what is comics?”  The definition he comes up with is “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” He goes on to examine that definition by looking at how comics have evolved through human history, from the Aztecs to the 1400s to modern day.  What we often consider to be a childish form of entertainment today is a form of communication that seems to have been natural to humans since our beginning. And McCloud argues that comics are a legitimate art form that has largely gone unstudied.

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It is chapter two that begins to look deeper into how images affect us.  I found it fascinating, and like I said, by chapter three I was hooked.  McCloud’s theories are not really new.  Marshall McLuhan, Will Eisner, Neil Postman, and others have written about how media affects us, but McCloud’s presentation makes all the difference for me.  What’s Marshall McLuhan’s famous saying?  The medium is the message?

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McCloud goes into the theory, the nuts and bolts if you will, of comics making- panel arrangement, the different types of transitions, the style of art, time, line, and color.   What keeps all of this accessible to those of us who aren’t artists is the fact that McCloud always brings it back to how the reader is a participant in all of this.  A discussion on how time is handled in comics didn’t mean much to me until I saw how I create the time and motion from the ink on the paper.

Another recurring theme is how all of this is a relatively new art form in terms of being examined and pushed to its limits.  Novels, poetry, music, art- virtually everything that could be done has been done.  McCloud argues that comics still have a lot of unexplored territory.  He touches on how some artists and writers have experimented with the aforementioned aspects of comics, like time and color. He encourages new writers and artists to do more.

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I would have loved to have used this book when I taught High School English.  I’m sure it would have saved the lives of some of the gang members I taught.  As an English major, I feel slightly cheated that this wasn’t in the curriculum.  It should be required reading in College English classes, but as McCloud states, new art forms are judged by their predecessors.  Any study of language, art, and what it means to humans would greatly benefit from Understanding Comics.  Am I laying it on too thick?  I can’t say enough good things about his book.  Art Spiegelman, author of Maus,  writes this:

Cleverly disguised as an easy-to-read comic book, Scott McCloud’s simple-looking tome deconstructs the secret language of comix while casually revealing secrets of Time, Space, Art, and the Cosmos! The most intelligent comix I’ve seen in a long time.

The Cosmos, people.  It doesn’t get any better than that.  Check out Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art here.

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