Though some people seem to persist in the belief that comics are dumb entertainment for dumb children, I’m here to tell you that sequential narratives are the oldest form of human artistic expression. If you don’t believe me, go and find a cave painting. The juxtaposition of “frozen moments in time” may be one of the more complex methods of storytelling that exists. Trust me: I’ve written a few hundred of the things, including Wolverine: Origin and the Eisner Award-winning Inhumans. I have the scars to prove it.
No surprise, then, that some of my favorite novels happen to be written by people I have known from the comic book industry over the years. I was Neil Gaiman’s editor, for a time. I followed Peter David just after his 13-year run on the Incredible Hulk. I once appeared in a “celebrity comic book squares” show with Harlan Ellison. He was as hilarious, charming and curmudgeonly as I expected.
Here is a list of five of my favorites by comic book persons. And as an added bonus, I’ve added in a selected comic work by the same author.
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman (with Terry Pratchett)
Any book that contains a line or concept you will remember for the rest of your life is a fair bet to make your all-time top-five list. Good Omens is laugh-out-loud funny, and is populated by the types of character I have always wanted to write and never wanted to meet. The memorable concept in question—one that made me snort a hot cup of English tea out of my nose when I first read the book—was the name of Newt Pulsifer’s automobile, Dick Turpin. The vehicle was so-called because everywhere it went, it held up traffic. If you don’t know who Dick Turpin was, look it up, and you will soon discover why this is a moment of sheer genius. (In related news, I owned a corgi named Shadwell for a number of years.)
Suggested comic work: Sandman, of course.
“I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison
Yes, I realize it’s a short story but I feel it is only fair to include Harlan Ellison, the master of the short. Obviously, Harlan’s career in fantasy and science fiction far outweighs his contributions to comics. But did you know Harlan did a stint on Batman for DC, and that his works have been adapted into numerous graphic novels? That’s right: Harlan wrote funny books too. “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” had a profound effect on me when I discovered science fiction as a 12-year-old. I had devoured the works of Asimov, Bradbury and Bob Shaw, and Harlan Ellison was next on my list. This short story was my first foray into a post-apocalyptic world. It is presented with gut-wrenching insight into the human condition when there are few humans left to have any condition. It is an acid trip minus the LSD, carried by atmosphere and emotion, and fueled by the actions of emotionless beings. Utterly brilliant.
Suggested comic work: John Byrne’s adaptation of the same short story, for Dark Horse Comics’ Dream Corridor series.
Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham
Bill is a wonderful person and a wonderful writer. His Fables series will live forever in comic folklore, and I am indescribably jealous of it. Down the Mysterly River was Bill’s first novel, and while it is geared towards young readers (or so the reviews would have you believe), it is for everyone. Talking animals, talking trees, and revolting creatures called Blue Cutters populate this novel. It’s clever and charming and mysterious, and it breaks the fourth wall without the reader ever knowing. I look forward to reading it to my ten year-old son, Jack, just as soon as I am sure he can handle it. It lives where Tolkein’s Hobbit lives.
Suggested comic work: Fables
Sir Apopros of Nothing by Peter David
I have always described Peter as the kind of comic writer who tries to provide his audience with value for their hard-earned money—I can pay no higher compliment when so many other comics are designed as self-referential superhero crossovers. I was first introduced to this series when Peter kindly gave me a copy at a convention, and I was utterly smitten. Peter, it seems, loves wordplay as much as I do, though he descends into awful puns at times, for which I am prepared to shun him as I would shun a rabid badger. Apropos brings about flashes of the British TV series Blackadder, and flashbacks of Benny Hill (just kidding, Peter—it’s the puns, you know).
Suggested comic work: Future Imperfect
Voice of the Fire by Alan Moore
I was Alan’s editor on the unfinished (and lamented) Big Numbers comic series, which ultimately became his personal Kubla Khan. Big Numbers was about fractal mathematics—the interconnectedness of all things—and it, too, centered around Alan’s hometown of Northampton. I was once privileged to sit with Alan while he showed me a 12-issue wall chart of his complex design for that series. Voice of the Fire is, in many ways, meta-fiction. It is unrelentingly ambitious and seems to ripple outwards and inwards in concentric circles of brilliance. Twelve characters spread across thousands of years, connected by the flame of a single fire; it’s the kind of concept that only a madman would attempt to pull together, and only a genius would assemble successfully. I’m amazed that to this day, it remains Alan Moore’s only completed novel. It’s well worth finding.
Suggested comic work: Batman: The Killing Joke
Top image from the comic adaptation of Sir Apropos of Nothing; art by Robin Riggs
Paul Jenkins is a British born comic writer who lives in Atlanta, GA. He began his career at Mirage Studios working on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and has written some of the biggest characters for Marvel and DC Comics, including Spider-Man, Batman, Incredible Hulk, and Hellblazer.. He can be followed on Twitter @mypauljenkins and loves to interact with fans on Facebook. His debut novel, Curioddity, hits shelves on August 30th.