Alternate Cover: comics for beginners

James continues his proselytising mission to draw the curious fully into the world of superhero comics...

The Ultimates & All-Star Superman - a good place to start!

Over the last couple of weeks, I explained to manga and comics fans how they could enter and enjoy the opposite yet adjacent worlds of comics and manga. This week, I’m going to devote my time to the casual reader, and ask – just how do you get into comics in the first place?

At the moment, there are two titles that can serve as a simple gateway into comics. Forget the obvious stuff like Watchmen and Sandman – as good as they are, they’ve long since become the comics (excuse me, graphic novels) that it’s “acceptable” for people to read, and an unfortunate side-effect of this exposure is that they often don’t bring people to comics so much as they bring people to Watchmen and Sandman. If you wanted to take it further than that, here’s where you should look:Ultimates, Vol 1, MarvelWondering what the future Avengers movie is going to look like? Mark Millar and Brian Hitch’s re-imagining of Marvel’s Avengers is often describes as “the best action movie never made,” so chances are that any film will be heavily be inspired by it. Between Hitch’s amazing, realistic pencils and Millar’s take on the Ultimates as a government-sponsored team of super-soldiers, the 13-issue series (available as one hardback) is massively cinematic in feel and, as a result, infinitely accessible to casual readers. In fact, the version of Iron Man we saw in this year’s movie already owes more to Millar’s re-invention of the character in Ultimates than the 30 previous years of stories.

So, what’s the Ultimates actually about? Imagine the Hulk used as a weapon of mass destruction, Captain America as the hyper-conservative 50s soldier he was back in the good ol’ days, and Thor as a super-powered, Scandinavian hippy who may or may not be the genuine God of Thunder and you’re starting to see how the ensemble cast manages to fit together in a modern context. Rarely have super-heroes seemed so…plausible – especially when the time comes for those in charge to justify the super-soldier budget.

All-Star Superman Vol. 1, DCIf Ultimates is the greatest movie ever released as a comic, All-Star Superman might just be the antithesis of that – you couldn’t do this story in any other medium. Grant Morrison is a hair away from joining the ranks of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman as comic creators who are recognised by the general public as masters of their medium – that is, if only people would take more notice of him. All-Star Superman takes the classic core ideas of Superman and wraps a 12-issue series around them, retelling them with new, timeless spins. If there’s any obstacle to the series, it’s that the sheer density of ideas might be off-putting. That density, though, is what makes the comics so unique to the medium – you need to properly put in the time to digest each panel and phrase before moving on.

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The task of rendering Morrison’s work falls to Frank Quitely, whose stylised pencils have an ethereal, dream-like quality. It’s far from photo-realistic, but it’s certainly a form of realism – his characters have movement and weight like almost no other artist can carry off, and all thanks to the style that those raised on a diet of superhero comics will often dismiss as “lumpy-looking” – anyone coming from outside the medium should hopefully be able to give Quitely’s art the time and respect it deserves. Everyone’s familiar with Superman – Morrison and Quitely manage to remind us exactly why the character is so enduring.

Next week, I’ll be back to tell you exactly where to start if you’ve decided that Superhero comics aren’t your thing…

James Hunt’s Alternate Cover will be back again next Monday; read his last column here.