Mara L. Thacker is an assistant professor and the South Asian Studies librarian at Illinois.
I read Archie comics pretty regularly as a kid. They were a special treat that I could sometimes finagle my mom into buying me in the grocery store checkout line. I also religiously read the Sunday comics in the newspaper. Even so, it never would have occurred to me to call myself a comic fan. I also never would have imagined that I’d start a South Asian comic collection that would become core to my professional life and research.
For the most part my relationship with comics as an adult has been attending academic lectures about comics, reading articles and chapters about comics and libraries, and reading comics from India (which have relatively fewer fans in the United States). It’s nice to feel like an authority on South Asian comics but I felt a bit like an outsider here in the US, unable to speak the language of DC, Marvel, Image, and Vertigo. Reading comics and graphic novels from the US felt like a giant “should” hanging over my head. Which of course meant I dragged my feet despite all warm welcome and recommendations I have received from the comic fans in my life. But then…
A friend lent me a copy of volume one of Brian K. Vaughan’s graphic novel series, Saga. And thus, finally, I began my journey as a voracious devourer of graphic novels. Saga now has a firm place in my list of top books of all time because it is the book that made me fall in love with American graphic novels as an adult. I’m a big reader so this is a high honor because I like so many books that I have very few that I would designate as favorites. My favorites earn that distinction both because of the writing and aesthetics, and because of the emotional impact or transformative power they have had in my life (if you want to know, my other favorites include: Half of a Yellow Sun, The Art of Racing in the Rain, A Fine Balance, and Veronika Decides to Die).
Saga is a love story and it is also story about a war between a planet and its moon, which grows to encompass other universes as the fighting is outsourced to other planets. It’s impossible not to draw parallels between the destruction sowed by racism and hatred in Saga and the current global political climate.
What do I like so much about Saga? First, I love the aesthetics of the art. The colors are vibrant and the artist Fiona Staples captures an extraordinary depth of expression in the characters. And these characters aren’t just human—there are robots, animals, aliens, cyclops, and animal-human hybrids. My favorite is Lying Cat, whose dialogue is minimal but has an often comedic effect when she points out that people are lying.
Beyond the detailed artistic renderings of these characters, I love how complex they are written too. The heroes are not purely good, nor are the villains purely evil. Sometimes the text and art come together in ways that are so evocative that the reading experience leaves one overcome with emotion. Even micro-interactions and practically anonymous characters can move one to tears. For example there is one scene where a field medic mouse from one of the planets conscripted into the outsourced battle explodes because he was not given proper equipment. He is in the act of saving an injured ally from a more powerful planet when a chemical weapon is deployed. His eyes become large and liquid as he realizes with horror what is about to happen to him and the casual banality of his death, which could have so easily been prevented had his more powerful allies cared to protect the less privileged conscripts is horrifying. Yet equally at fault is the other side which violated a treaty against using those weapons. The resonances with the current global geo-political situation are stark.
So what’s a newly (re)born comic fan to read next? Here are my post-Saga picks that will accompany me during my morning coffee over the next few weeks. Note, because I am myself, this list does contain an Indian comic. Along with the name and title, I’ll include a small explanation for why they made the list:
- Monstress by Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda: A gorgeous graphic novel with art deco/steampunk influenced art created by women with a female protagonist. (Note this isn’t in the above picture because as soon as I finished it, I lent it to a colleague)
- Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire: A dark, post-apocalyptic tale of a young boy who is half human and half deer. The art has a rawer feel than Monstress and Saga, but it fits the tale well and it is beautiful colored by Jose Villarrubia.
- Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Octavia Butler, Damian Duffy, and John Jennings: Did you know that Chambana is home to a New York Times bestselling comic author? As of last week, Kindred is the New York Time’s number one bestselling hardcover graphic book and Damian Duffy is a recent PhD graduate of ISchool and a current instructor. A very timely adaptation.
- Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra: Recommended to me by the same friend who recommended Saga, this series imagines that there is only one man left on earth and follows his travails to discover why he is the only male survivor in a female-only society.
- Invincible by Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker: A series about the children of superheroes as they begin to develop their own superpowers and contemplate becoming superheroes in their own right.
- The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen, Jackie McKelvie, and Matt Wilson: The premise of this series is that every ninety years, twelve gods are incarnated as human pop stars. As someone who studied Religion in undergrad, I can’t wait to see how gods are depicted as pop stars.
- Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, and Brooke Allen: This series has been recommended to me several times as a fun, female-centered series that has women creators as well as the protagonists. The intended audience for this series is good deal younger than the others on this list, but it seems to be enjoyed by adults and kids alike.
- V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd: Having recently watched the movie and been thoroughly creeped out giving the resonances with today’s political climate, this graphic novel seems like a must-read. Alan Moore is a legend in the comic world and I would be remiss without reading his work. It also helps that one of my favorite colleagues consistently describes this as one of her favorites.
- Black Mumba by Ram Venkatesan, Devmalya Pramanik, Rosh, Kishore Mohan, and Aditya Bidikar: This is a noir comic anthology in which the main characters are Dev of the Mumbai Police and the city of Mumbai itself. The art is all in black and white which only serves to highlight the different artists’ styles. It’s gorgeously rendered, and captures well some of Mumbai’s darker idiosyncrasies.
If you have any recommendations to pass along for some of your most beloved comics or would like a tour of the South Asian comic collection at Illinois, please get in touch! You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.