I recently went into a bit of a reading slump, where nothing I was reading was satisfying me, so I changed things up and read some graphic novels instead of the usual prose works that I read. I read three of these in particular:
:: Planetary: All Over the World and Other Stories by Warren Ellis (writer) and John Cassaday (artist). This book is actually a collection of the first seven issues or so of the Planetary comic series that Warren Ellis wrote before moving on to his major work, Transmetropolitan (which I have yet to read). As an initial volume, I enjoyed it, but I suspect that I will find the second volume of Planetary more to my liking. These first issues are mainly concerned with setting up Ellis's characters and their goals and relationships, with the actual stories being self-contained and episodic in nature. They are interesting stories, though: one involves the ghost of a murdered Hong Kong police officer; another deals with an island near Japan (or part of Japan, I can't remember) that is home to some horrible and huge beasts. The stories are reminiscent of The X-Files, but with a world-wide focus, and they are investigated by a team of "heroes" who are working for a shadowy organization called "Planetary". This is really an appetite-whetting type of book, and on that basis it succeeds. I want to read more.
:: Watchmen by Alan Moore (writer) and Dave Gibbons (illustrator). Moore is one of the most renowned writers working in comics today, with his work on Swamp Thing, V for Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen standing out in his ouevre. His greatest work, though, is still Watchmen, the deeply cynical and dystopian story of masked superheroes in an alternate history where Richard Nixon did not fall after Watergate, but remained President and oversaw disastrous results in Viet Nam. As the book opens, a group of heroes called the Watchmen has broken up, with its members going their separate ways -- until one, the Comedian (the most bitter and cynical of the bunch) is brutally murdered. The story involves the search for the Comedian's murder, as well as a lot of delving into the lives of the Comedian's former colleagues, the most striking of whom is the masked vigilante Rorschach. The characters in Watchmen are no sanitized, "Avengers"-style heroes who always act on the side of Right. "Truth, Justice and the American Way" is no part of the equation here. Instead, we get broken relationships, shocking violence, an emergent subplot involving a plot to do something unbelievably monstrous to New York City (which, in the post-9/11/01 world, is even more horrific than Moore had intended), explorations of the psychological causes of vigilantism, and examinations of the whole morality of vigilantism in the first place. The book also plays tricks of viewpoint and subtext, including after each chapter extraneous material such as a psychologist's notes on the deeply disturbed Rorschach character and portions from books about the other characters. Another startling device is the constant return to a NYC sidewalk news vendor and the guy who sits on the ground nearby, reading a comic book about a shipwreck victim in the 1700s, whose plight somehow mirrors the events of Moore's own fictional world. The "comic-within-a-comic" that reveals other facets of the larger story reminds the reader of Hamlet, and like the Bard's best dramas, Watchmen provides no easy answers to the questions it asks. This is one of those stories that lingers in the mind for a long, long time once it's done. (Watchmen is also apparently being made into a film.)
:: Ethel and Ernest by Raymond Briggs (story and art). I don't think I could possibly have picked a graphic novel farther in tone and style from Watchmen than Ethel and Ernest. Briggs is a noted author-illustrator, and this book tells the story of his parents -- of how they met in Depression-era London, how they courted and married, how they lived through World War II and the years after, how they coped with all of the changes that the twentieth century wrought on English culture, and how they grew old and passed on. They were poor commoners, Ernest a milkman and Ethel a maid, and they appear to have remained poor commoners all their lives, and yet the book conveys the simple ingenuity with which they approached their lives and the deep love they shared, despite the fact that they differed on many things. Ethel is the more conservative of the two, and when Ernest's favored Labour governments are not successful, Ethel seems to delight in poking fun at Ernest and his earlier promises of the good life for all. Despite all that, Ernest seems to be the more optimistic of the two, always able to find some way to get through in a shortage or down period, and he is able to get back by poking fun at the British Royalty as they encounter hard times. Briggs's art is warm and lovely, evoking the best of those sunny Merchant-Ivory films.
These three books, with their mix of horror, superheroes, English city and country life, each in their own way demonstrate the vitality and power possible in the comics medium. Ethel and Ernest is a surprising little gem, Planetary is a fun beginning to (hopefully) something grand, and Watchmen is a masterpiece.