Written by Bisha Ali

Arts

Comic books: the time is now

Don’t think comics are for you? Think again, says Bisha K Ali, there’s never been a better time to get the comic book bug.

Rat Queens artwork courtesy of Image Comics.

Rat Queens artwork courtesy of Image Comics.

There has never been a better time to get into comics. Don’t run away from me, I’m talking to you!

Even if the mere mention of superheroes makes you cringe, you need to know that comic books today are about so much more than men in tights and green rage machines. Though those are brilliant in their own right, today the comic book world has become incredibly diverse, filled with new voices that simply aren’t being given room to breathe in other media.

It can be intimidating: from the 80s into the early 00s, comic book shops had a bad rep for being a little elitist and exclusive. As a woman, breaking into reading comics and being treated as part of the community felt like whatever the opposite of walking into a dog shelter covered in peanut butter and cuddles feels like.

Saga is Romeo and Juliet set in a space war, with lots of sex, ghosts, planets populated by dragons that suck themselves off and mercenaries with hearts of gold.”

Admittedly, some people still act like it’s an old boys’ club, and as if women’s interest in comics is new or feigned. But it’s not new and we’re not drive-by collectors; we’re part of a legacy of women in geekdom that goes back generations. My mum was buying Superman and Batman comics in the 50s, in the middle of the Pakistani countryside. No group has ownership over fandom, except the fans.

Now that the diversity in readership is hitting the books themselves, it kind of makes your heart soar. I sat my mother down with a copy of the new 2014 Ms. Marvel, and she finally got to see part of herself in the medium that she grew up loving. Protagonist Kamala Khan, a Pakistani American who writes Avengers fanfiction, has to come to terms with being a part of two cultures, being a second generation immigrant and discovering that she’s a badass superhero while growing up in New Jersey.

Ms Marvel artwork courtesy of Marvel Comics.

Ms Marvel artwork courtesy of Marvel Comics.

If you haven’t recently seen a Pakistani American lead character on film or television in the West, it’s because there are none. Trust me, I’ve pulled my eyes out looking to see some version of my skin on screen take centre stage without being a stereotype. My eyes are still out.

If superheroes aren’t your bag, don’t fret. Marvel and DC are the big dogs, and they output most of what you’ve heard of (and that’s mostly superheroes). However, independent publishers abound, and you could subscribe to hundreds of comics that don’t feature any superheroes at all.

There’s Bitch Planet, a feminist manifesto in the making, starring women of colour in all the lead roles. Then there’s the fun-fest that is Rat Queens (created by Kurtis J Wiebe), a comic that centres around a team of drinking, sexing, brawling, foul-mouthed sell-swords and sorceresses who take no prisoners and take too many drugs. They’re a motley crew that includes both women of colour and trans characters without reducing them down to those aspects of their humanity. It’s a wonder.

Saga artwork courtesy of Image Comics.

Saga artwork courtesy of Image Comics.

The cult favourite at the moment is the intergalactic, stunningly drawn, outrageously explicit and heart-smashing Saga (written by Brian K Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples). It’s Romeo and Juliet set in a space war, with lots of sex, ghosts, planets populated by dragons that suck themselves off and mercenaries with hearts of gold.

It’s everything that you could want in a story, and it’s something that consumers of good storytelling on film and TV will miss out on entirely if they don’t get on board with the format. Trust me when I tell you that even if you don’t fall in love with comics and comic book culture all together, you will fall in love with Saga once you flick through it.

Knowing where to begin when it comes to collecting can be intimidating. For the long-running characters, it can feel like there are thousands of issues (there are) and you may be clueless as to where to start. There are often reboots of characters – like Ms Marvel and Captain Marvel, for example – and those will start with #1, even if they’ve been going for a long time. Another way to jump in is to look for ‘events’ that happen in a long-running storyline. These events are essentially little story arcs that you can jump into and get a feel for what’s going on.

With the newer stuff, it’s relatively easy – you can pick up the first trade paperback (a collection of five to six single issues in one book) and read from the beginning of the current story.

If you’re really stuck, you can just ask me. Send me a tweet telling me what shows, books and films you like and I’ll recommend something you might enjoy. If you tweet “The Walking Dead” at me, then I will tell you to go and read The Walking Dead.

Comics are more diverse than ever. Characters can grow and stew and transform over years of high quality writing. There are people and stories being portrayed with heart and empathy in a way that just isn’t happening in other media. They’re also a hell of a lot of fun. Come join us.

@bishakali

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Written by Bisha Ali

Bisha K Ali is a writer and comedian. Off stage, she can be found under a duvet with a notebook.