Comics 101: The First Step Is Admitting You Have A Problem

I’m hard pressed to think of an art form with more manic energy or more potently edgy weirdness than comics. Then again, I’ve loved comic books from a young, presumably impressionable age. I’ve watched them grow, and it seems that I’ve grown, because unfortunately I now seem to be paying my own utility bills. That brings us to a very exciting point in the wild trajectory of the comic book, and I’m here, as your resident comics evangelist, to convince you of just that.

You know how everyone likes cheese? Maybe you’re a brie person, maybe you could wolf down a whole tray of gruyère (ick), or perhaps you prefer a good ol’ sharp cheddar. Yeah, comics are like cheese. There’s a comic book out there to suit absolutely everyone– I’m convinced of it. Unless of course, you don’t like cheese. Then I just don’t know what to do with you. But you’ll like comics; I do know that.

So pop a benzo and quit worrying about how many damn X-Men there are for a second– we’ll fill you in on what you need to know to dive headlong into the weird and wonderful world of comics. And hey, comics are the cutting edge of cool for a reason: they’re good. I’m not selling snake oil here guys. This stuff sells itself.

Ghost World by Daniel Clowes

Q: What is a comic book?

A: This question is deceptively simple. Kind of like how all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are square-ish, ‘comic book’ is both a general and a specific term. So, stuff with Wolverine in it is called a comic, we know that. But you can call Dykes to Watch Out For, Toothpaste for Dinner and Ghost World a comic too. And those things are all really, really different! Let’s break it down.

A thing featuring Wolverine is a comic book. Dykes to Watch Out For is a comic strip. Toothpaste for Dinner is a web comic. Ghost World is a graphic novel.

It sounds complicated already, but stay with me. All of these things can be called ‘comics’ or ‘comic books,’ like I said. They’ve all got drawings and they’re usually arranged into “panels” with characters who communicate via speech bubbles. That’s the common ground, pretty much. And most of these things are serialized, meaning they come out, over time, as snippets of a larger story. So what makes them distinct from one another?

Q: What are the different types of comics?

A:

1. COMIC BOOKS:
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Like I said, a comic book, generally speaking, can be pretty much anything. I could call my 600 page copy of Blankets a comic book, just like all of the above examples. But let’s get specific. It’s natural if the term ‘comic book’ conjures images of Superman, Batman, Spiderman and all manner of superhero running around dispatching criminals. Comic books are often superhero-based comics, but they don’t have to be.

A comic book, in the specific sense, is a single-issue and it looks like these. It’s got cover art, it costs around $2.99. There’s a little publisher logo in the upper left-hand corner. And across the top you’ll find the name of the series. Usually a comic book is a little chunk of a story that gets published every so often– monthly is pretty standard, but so are delays in publication. These stories over time are usually collected into a book called a “trade paperback” or a “trade” if you wanna sound like you know what’s up. Which you do and will.

Beyond these relatively traditional comics, indie comics and all kinds of cool self-published gems are called comic books too. In fact you could probably make a comic book yourself today, if you’re into DIY and have a good pair of scissors.

2. COMIC STRIP:
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A comic strip is the newspaper version of a comic. In the era of the iPad, newspaper comic strips aren’t exactly booming with the same kind of creativity and innovation you might find elsewhere. In fact, they’re kind of floundering in an unfunny, often boringly illustrated twilight period that probably heralds their demise. You know, the death of print, blah blah. But comic strips (ostensibly) should be funny and topical. I’d say that web comics took that baton and fucking ran with it.

A lot of comics in the newspaper totally suck, like all of that Rex Morgan, Apartment 3-G and Mary Worth stuff. But newspaper comic strips helped pave the way for the recent tidal wave of total brilliance in other forms, so we have to be grateful. And along the way some amazing stuff bubbled up to the surface through newspapers: Calvin & Hobbes, Foxtrot, Dilbert and The Far Side to name a few of my favorites.

3. WEBCOMIC:


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Arguably the cutting edge of comics today. Instantaneous online self-publishing fosters all kinds of weird, brilliant stuff and webcomics are totally flourishing in a climate that constantly demands weird and brilliant stuff. Draw something awesome, sit back and watch it go viral  (if you’re lucky). Or carve out a little corner of the web and make a career for yourself, cranking out a strip a week and building an underground fanbase. Webcomics are all over the board too– they really push the definition of the comic, which in turn pushes the art form toward new and more ingenious kinds of weirdness.

Do this: Look at The Oatmeal. Now look at A Softer World. And now look at Tiny Kitten Teeth. Wow, those things are really different, right? This is the comic book equivalent of the Wild West.

Tiny Kitten Teeth by Becky Dreistadt & Frank Gibson

4. GRAPHIC NOVEL:
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The arguable summit of the art form, graphic novels are really opening people’s minds to the comic book. Most traditional major newspapers now review graphic novels with the same degree of professional criticism as the regular novel and that’s great news for us comics evangelists. The graphic novel is a mainstream gateway drug. Buy one for a skeptical friend and watch their elitism soften into wonder.

“You can’t pinpoint it exactly, but there was a moment when people more or less stopped reading poetry and turned instead to novels, which just a few generations earlier had been considered entertainment suitable only for idle ladies of uncertain morals. The change had surely taken hold by the heyday of Dickens and Tennyson, which was the last time a poet and a novelist went head to head on the best-seller list. Someday the novel, too, will go into decline — if it hasn’t already — and will become, like poetry, a genre treasured and created by just a relative few. This won’t happen in our lifetime, but it’s not too soon to wonder what the next new thing, the new literary form, might be.

It might be comic books. Seriously.” (@nyt)

But because graphic novels are crossing into the mainstream, they’re vulnerable to a lot of skepticism. Are graphic novels art? Are they intrinsically superior to their not-so-ancestral ancestors, the comic book and the comic strip? Does anything differentiate a graphic novel from these other kinds of comics?

Well, to that I’d say yes, no and not necessarily. I won’t get into the first two debates– that’s the advanced class and this is just Comics 101, after all.

Fun Home By Alison Bechdel

To answer the third question, which is a little more practical and less philosophical, a lot of different things are called graphic novels. The quintessential graphic novel might be some like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a wildly successfully “crossover” hit for comics, or an Alan Moore opus, like Watchmen. Maus and Persepolis also crowd into this category, but these things are remarkably varied. But we’ve learned that comics are a delightfully malleable art form, so you shouldn’t be surprised, right?

Bechdel crafted Fun Home into an acutely self-aware, affecting memoir which happens to be illustrated. Moore‘s Watchmen deconstructs the superhero archetype, through a darkly dystopian meta-story about, yes, superheroes. Maus and Persepolis tackle potent cultural issues (the Holocaust and Iranian theocracy, respectively) with cartoonish zeal. All of these are standalone stories, consolidated into books much like a traditional novel. They tend to be more narrative, can be more serious, but they are certainly still comics.

Particular trade paperback collections of comic books are often “elevated” to graphic novel status by the masses when they reach a certain level of critical acclaim or popularity– Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One is a good example of this, as is Mike Mignola’s Hellboy series. People who’re afraid to be caught reading something with pictures like to employ the label ‘graphic novel’ as a euphemism, but it’s a useful term to win the hearts and minds of a wider readership. But really, any comic collected into book form can call itself a graphic novel, and rightly so. Contrary to elitist belief, this is more a case of cross-pollenation than cross-contamination.

Sure, we can draw boundaries between graphic novels and “lesser” forms of comics (like the superhero comic book or the Sunday morning comic strip) but ultimately these genres are all just points on a shifting continuum. I don’t care what you call them– I’m just happy to see the comic book find its footing.


Whew. That was comics 101! Have any burning questions? Ask us in the comments, because next up we’ve got a comic book Q&A and a truckload of starter comics for each category. And I could use a little Q to my A, if you know what I mean.

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Back in the day, Taylor Hatmaker was the founding Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle's tech sister site, Technostraddle, may it rest in peace. Now, Taylor writes about technology for ReadWrite.com and Entrepreneur Magazine. For Autostraddle, she writes essays, takes pictures of thing and draws comics on occasion too, if you ask real nice.

taylor has written 109 articles for us.

74 Comments

  1. Thumb up 0

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    OMG this is excellent it’s like you read my mind or something.

    I loved Persepolis, Maus and Fun Home as well as some of Chris Ware’s stuff but I can’t find any other graphic novels that do anything for me which is a pity because I love the idea of them.

    I just don’t get the superhero thing, or buffy or sci-fi. I know there’s a lot of good writing and art to be found in them – and I often get them just because they look beautiful – but my brain will just not stretch to the storyline.

    Do you know of any more really good examples of graphic novels that stray away from the traditional genres? I know there have to be others but I’m just not finding them?

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      great! oh, you’ll hopefully be drowning in a veritable tidal wave of recommendations soon! chris ware is wonderful, and if you already like the handful of books you mentioned, you’ll have more to read than you know what to do with!

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        Great, thanks everyone! Yeah I have no idea of what the traditional genres are either bad choice of words but I suppose

        not science fiction
        not superhero
        not buffy
        everything else

        is really what I mean. Yay, I’m going to enjoy this.

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      I don’t read enough comics/graphic novels to be able to claim that it strays away from the “traditional genres,” but you might enjoy The Sandman by Neil Gaiman.

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      I’ll second Sandman – that’s where I started with graphic novels and it totally sucked me in. Also, I really enjoyed Local by Brian Wood. Epileptic by David B. reminded me a lot of Persepolis, at least in that it’s a memoir in black-and-white.

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    Taylor! This article is genius and right on time.

    I’m an avid (obsessive) reader of comics. Here are my official recommendations for your comic-book-turned-graphic-novel category: WHY THE LAST MAN, PREACHER & TRANSMETROPOLITAN. Every lesbo should read Why The Last Man.

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      I’m doing a big Brian K Vaughan roundup some time soon, in the same vein as this. He does us gay ladies so much justice! I love everything he does- he’s prob my fave writer, all around. Kim’s a huge Transmetro fan, but I still haven’t picked it up. And I like what I’ve read of Preacher- I need to remember to get into it!

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      So, uh, I just wanted to make THIS EXACT POST.
      Y! The Last Man is AMAZING, and Preacher and Transmetropolitan are SO FREAKING GOOD and full of message and beautiful artwork.

      I love Y!’s art the most, I think, but Transmetropolitan is just so…fitting, I guess? The art enhances the story SO WELL.

      Also, I really like Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta and Promethea was pretty good too. And obvs most of Moore’s other stuff for various other things is amazing, as is most of what Vertigo puts out.

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    Love love love this article. Such great stuff.

    Can’t wait for the Brian K Vaughan roundup. Y: The Last Man is a great start for people just getting into comics.

    I’m currently reading my way through The Walking Dead which is another great one, especially for zombie enthusiasts.

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    We don’t have a comic book store (or decent bookstore, for that matter) locally, so I stick to webcomics. I’ve been following toothpaste for dinner & natalie dee for years, and have recently found hyperbole and a half- which may be more blog than webcomic, but idk, there are badly drawn pictures and I like them. :)
    A softer world is so pretty! I’m probably going to go through the entire archive before I got to sleep tonight.
    What are some other webcomics that I should know about?

  5. Thumb up 0

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    So, I guess what stymies me is that so many of the comics I’m into get printed and reprinted in different collections and formats. For instance, I just grabbed a big, hardcover book titled “Runaways, Vol. 1″ (I know, I’m way behind the times). But when I go to look on Amazon for its Vol. 2 equivalent, there’s the Vol. 2 trade, which is, of course, in the Vol. 1 hardback. I have no idea how many of the trades are in the Vol. 1 hardback, where I would start if I wanted to go buy a couple of trades now (rather than pay for the huge Vol. 2 hardback), or how any of this lines up with those 2.99 issues.

    This is baffling to comic newbies, and definitely makes me want to run back to stand-alone graphic novels.

    It gets worse with things like the Buffy comics, where I vaguely know there is Buffy Season 8, and then a million other separate, kind of stand-alone story arcs (often centered around a secondary character). I like reading things in order. I am so confused.

    Is there a way that comic geeks “in the know” keep track of this stuff? I get that Issues are collected into Trades, and Trades are sometimes collected into the big hardback things (which must have a real name). But which Issues are in which Trades, which Trades are in which Hardbacks, and how does anyone keep track of it all?

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      Well for Buffy, only Season 8 and Fray are “canon” and follow a continuity / should be read in order (read Fray first). Also canon: “Tales of the Slayers” and “The Tales of the Vampires”, but those are standalone and can be read in any order iirc.

      Everything else like those ten billion one shots are non-canon and don’t have continuity and can pretty much be considered fan fiction w/ high production values. So really you can read them however/whenever you want.

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          Upon wikipedia inspection I realise I also left out “The Origin”.

          After the Fall is tricky re: continuity because it and S8 are both continuations of the tv series but it’s under a different publisher so like, the writers don’t even need to talk to each other. Like when crazy world changing shit happened in Angel and it had NO EFFECT on Sunnydale.

          Anyway, I guess I would read AtF first then S8 and then new issues as they came out.

          Also to answer the orig question, comics-db is a good place to go to make sense of confusing issue ordering.

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            I’d definitely read S8 after ATF. I think it takes place maybe a year later, though it isn’t specific.

            cbdb is great, and also this other site that I linked below has a buffyverse list(I tend to scroll down to comment then go up to read comments after for some reason. no idea. maybe bad habit)

            http://www.tradereadingorder.com/list/buffyverse/

            it includes a lot of non-canon stuff on there (I think it just lists everything) which can be a little confusing, but the order seems right to me.

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      I KNOW! Runaways was especially confusing because it was released in digest, then in those big hardcovers, and then new ones are in smaller hardcovers? Totally fricking annoying.

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    i love this.

    alan moore changed my life. TRUTH. probably getting a Watchmen tattoo whatevs.

    (also, a cool tip i learned is to find an artist you like and read the stuff that they drew for. for instance, i love gabriel ba and he happens to be the main artist for The Umbrella Academy which also happens to be really, really, really good. yay!)

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      ALAN MOORE CHANGED MY LIFE TOO. PROBABLY GETTING A V FOR VENDETTA TATTOO YOU KNOW?

      GABRIEL BA IS SO GOOD.

      gabriel ba is friends/ has collaborated with becky cloonan! becky cloonan draws Demo! Demo is excellent!

      becky cloonan also wrote a Tales of the Vampires issue. ~it’s all connected~. I love comics. :(

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    Taylor, I am seriously in love with this post. It makes my geeky little heart sing.

    Recommendations, well for queer stuff you can’t go past the title of A.A.R.G.H. (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia) – is this not the greatest acronym ever? It’s all pretty dude-oriented from memory, but who cares with an acronym like that?

    Also webcomics – to make any geeky heart sing, the story of the saddest wookie from Scarygoround: http://www.scarygoround.com/sgr/ar.php?date=20040818

    and warming the cockles of this literary nerd’s heart is Kate Beaton on the Bronte sisters: http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=202

    Yay comics!

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    Calvin and Hobbes is, hands down, the best comic strip ever created. It pretty much defined my childhood. Thanks for spotlighting all these awesome strips!

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    I just bought a stack of Calvin and Hobbes books a few weeks ago and it is such a nostalgia sandwich that it makes my fingertips tingle. Those comics feel like coming home. But as far as the newspaper comics go now, I really love Pearls Before Swine. I enjoy how the crocodiles are always plotting ways to kill the zebra.

    I used to read a lot of Batman when I was younger. I’ve always loved comics but somewhere along the way stopped reading them. I would like to read graphic novels but I don’t know where to start. Please tell me everything that I need.

    If it were possible, I would take this post and spoon it for one hundred hours. I’m just sayin.

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      Rachel, I know what you mean – I tried to get into batman (and batgirl! My fav!) again after some years past my childhood, and there are a million books out there!

      I had to ask my friend for help (he started me on Batman: Year One, which.. in retrospect, makes sense), but recently I just noticed this site, which seems to entirely be focused on sorting your graphic novels:

      http://www.tradereadingorder.com

      It looks like you could just start at the first book on the batman list and work your way down, but you might want to skip the golden age stuff or something (not anyone likes 40s comics, though I think the art has some charm to it. Absolutely weird treatment of women though, when they even show up, which is rare! haha)

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    Ooo. Webcomics. I love webcomics, especially the girl-on-girl ones. My favorites are:
    I Was Kidnapped By Lesbians Pirates from Outer Space
    http://www.drunkduck.com/I_Was_Kidnapped_By_Lesbian_Pirates_From_Outer_Space/
    Which is crazy and campy, and just amazing.
    Milk!
    http://milk.smackjeeves.com/
    Which is about a weird school girl who loves milk and another school girl who is mean (but not really.) And I’m guessing they fall in love with each other, eventually.
    Moon Fish
    http://moonfish.smackjeeves.com/
    Which has lesbians and pirates and sexiness
    and Heard
    http://heard.smackjeeves.com/
    Which is about an awkward lesbian trying to date (aka. Me)

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    I just started reading graphic novels! Incredible timing.
    I just finished Maus (the two volumes)and am about to buy Ghost World (litterally, I am on the Amazon page right now).

    Might I add a type of comics? Being French, the most familiar type of comics to me is Franco-Belgian comics, such as “The adventures of Tintin”, “Lucky Luke” and “Astérix”, to quote the most famous. They are somewhere between American comics and graphic novels I guess.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franco-Belgian_comics

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    There is a wheel of time comic floating around out there which I am eager to read but haven’t had the opportunity to grab. Bran K. Vaugn is super cool awesome and such a nice guy. I met him when he did a signing at mid town comics a few years ago. I had him sign ‘Girl on Girl’ for me and some single issues of the runaways for my Advisor as a birthday gift.

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    So my brother’s friends are really into comics and were talking about all sorts of stuff when i hung out with them this weekend. And this is interesting and all, but what can you say for someone who really hasn’t read any comic books or graphic novels at all?
    Any suggestions on where to begin?

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      It really depends on what types of stories you like. If you’re into superheroes try Alan Moore’s Watchmen. If you like romance/relationship stories try Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise or Scott Pilgrim. Fables by Bill Willingham is also a really great gateway comic for people who usually don’t read comic books. There’s too much to list, really. A few a of the comments listed Brian K. Vaughn, his books are also really good. I say go to a Barnes and Nobles and really just start browsing or just read some of the comments. Lots of great suggestions on this page.

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    I’m almost caught up with the Buffy Season 8 trades and I just got Fray (backwards, I know!) I own almost everything by Daniel Clowes. I have all of Ariel Schrag’s books, signed by her, but I haven’t really started them yet. Ditto for Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. I read stuff like Toothpaste for Dinner, Angry Little Girls, Robot Dreams. I think the first comics I started collecting were Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and Lenore. My collection is a little schizo, I think. I’ve been told I need to read The Watchmen but I’ve never really gotten into the ‘superhero’ stuff before. Time to give them a chance?

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    Love this Taylor!

    And love that the comments are littered with stuff I’ve been telling people to read for years: Preacher, Y:The Last Man, Fun Home,The Walking Dead…. all amazing. No mention yet of The Boys which is a messed/ gritty take on the super heroes genre and a little webcomic that I was recently turned onto called Axecop. It’s written by a 5 year old and drawn by his 35 year old brother/ Dad/ something. It is both hilarious and random.

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    Has anyone else read DAR!? It’s great. Well drawn, funny, a bit random. (And I promise I’m not Erika Moen come here to promote my site just because this is my first comment EVER (And I put an exclamation point and a question mark before because DAR! always has an exclamation point and I feel weird writing it without one, I’m not just super enthusiastic about the comic even though I am. Gonna stop typing now. Mkay. Cool.))

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    DAR! is good and I’m also not Erika Moen. It’s her autobiographical comic which she just finished up to go on to other things. http://www.darcomic.org/

    Other recommendations:

    Gay themed:
    Yu+Me: Dream by Megan Rose Gedris. Figuring out you’re gay tale goes straight down the rabbit hole about halfway through. http://rosalarian.com/yume/

    Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse. Figuring out you’re gay tale set in civil rights era south. Graphic Novel.

    Fantasy:
    Bone by Jeff Smith. All age tale about cousins who stumble into a renewed war between a royal family and an ancient evil. Color editions of the trades have been put out, but I usually buy the $40 phone book in the original black and white as a gift (6 times so far, it’s cheaper at Amazon).

    Castle Waiting by Linda Medley. Sleeping Beauty’s castle finds other residents after her prince takes her away. Graphic novel, ongoing comic books. The hardback is fricken beautiful. Only bought as a gift 4 times so far.

    Urban fantasy/Science fiction:
    Fables, Sandman, Preacher, and Y: The Last Man have already been mentioned.

    Death: High Cost of Living by Neil Gaiman, Chris Bachalo, Mark Buckingham. Once a century, Death takes mortal form for a day to experience living. Spinoff from the Sandman. Has a sequeal Death: The Time of Your Life. Graphic novel, out of print comic books.

    The Compleat Moonshadow by J. M. DeMatteis, Jon J. Muth, Kent Williams, George Pratt. A coming of age tale set in space. A children’s book for adults. Graphic novel, out of print comic books.

    Webcomics:
    Lackadaisy Cats by Tracy J. Butler. Lighthearted prohibition story if the gangsters were all adorable kitty cats. http://www.lackadaisycats.com/

    Anders Loves Maria by Rene Engström. The world’s most adorable disfunctional couple are going to have a baby. Series is finished. http://anderslovesmaria.reneengstrom.com/

    Superheroes non-Big 2:
    PS 238 by Aaron Williams. A world with lots of superheroes means lots of superhero kids. They’ve got to go school somewhere. Graphic novels, comic books, and web. http://nodwick.humor.gamespy.com/ps238/comics/index.php

    Astro City by Kurt Busiek, Brent Andersob, Alex Ross. Take all the DC and Marvel heroes, stick them in one town and tell stories about them and the city’s civilians in tales that range across the 20th and 21st centuries.

    Superheroes Big 2:
    Spider-Girl by Tom DeFalco, others. Spider-Man’s daughter fights crime in the future. A character so good, she’s defied repeated attempts to cancel her. Collected in graphic novels under her name, originally printed in various comic book titles.

    DC: The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke. The golden age of superheroes had ended, leaving only Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman still active. This is the tale of the other people who kept the world together during the fifties and the first of the superheroes who would define the silver age of the sixties. Graphic novel, out of print comics.

    Manga: Can’t help you. I can’t read everything, okay?

    Oh, and as trades are the cool name for collections, floppies are the cool name for individual comic books.

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