Nicholas Recalls 6 Influential Comic Book Series
By Jamar Nicholas, Featured Contributor
My long road as a comic book artist includes lots of influences that have shaped the way I tell stories and informed me on different ways to approach my path as a cartoonist. Here are six comics or series that are embedded in the lining of my creative brain.
G.I. Joe #21 “Silent Interlude” (Marvel Comics)
I wasn’t into comic books as a kid—I wanted to be a comic strip artist. One of my cousins had a Marvel Comics subscription, though. They’d deliver the books via snail mail in a nice shiny sealed bag, like an heirloom. I began my own collecting habits with G.I. Joe #8. The cartoon had just begun and it was the most amazing boy’s soap opera with guns and cool vehicles and bad guys. I couldn’t get enough.
Issue #21 is the infamous “silent issue,” where writer Larry Hama crafted a 22-page story with no dialogue. They say the best comic books can be understood and followed without the use of word balloons, and this issue showed that practice at its best.
Paul Grist’s Kane Comic Series (Dancing Elephant Press and Image Comics)
Paul Grist is a British cartoonist widely known for his Jack Staff comic, which is a play on American superhero tropes with a very English spin. Kane is a noir-ish crime story about loyalty, codes of honor and family. But what makes this series so attractive to me is Grist’s storytelling, especially the way he masterfully weaves in large black areas into his page layouts, a technique cartoonists Frank Miller and Alex Toth are known for. Grist combines a rich illustrative style (simple-looking but complex) with brilliant page design and dialogue.
Kane rewards you for paying attention to all the visuals and little details and punishes you if you aren’t attentive. For example, Grist doesn’t use classic comic narration (i.e. “FIVE YEARS AGO”) to note a flashback. Instead, he’ll show the main character with a shorter haircut or missing a physical identifier such as a scar to indicate a time shift.
I’ve given out or lost several graphic trades of Kane to friends. I’ll probably buy another set.
Dawud Anyabwile’s Brotherman Comic Series (Big City Comics)
Dawud Anyabwile’s (formerly David Sims) Brotherman, which the artist self-published along with his brothers Guy and Jason Sims, changed my life—not necessarily because it was the amazing telling of a great story, but because Dawud’s art was draped in a very cartoony, graffiti-inspired “urban” style. What put this over the top was that the Sims brothers had illustrated through words and art a living, breathing city that looked like my Philadelphia (though it was called “Big City” in their comics). The cartoons that I would draw in sketchbooks and for friends are things that I never dreamed could be published and sold as comic stories, but this book, along with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, broke the mold and completed the notion that anyone could create successful comics. Shortly after reading and dissecting Brotherman, I began self-publishing my own work.
Secret Wars #8 (Marvel Comics)
What makes Secret Wars so special is that it’s one of the most popular Marvel Comics mass events: An unknown entity transports all of the universe’s heroes and villains to a planet and watches them fight it out for his amusement. This scenario has been played out frequently since then, but it was pretty new to comics at the time.
In issue #8, Spider-Man encounters a machine that he believes will repair his traditional red-and-blue costume, but he winds up with a new black suit, which will later note the first appearance of Venom, one of Spider-Man’s most intriguing foes. This is important to me because at the time most comic character formulas weren’t tampered with, and creating a new costume for a major character was a risky undertaking. In my own work, I struggle with the Charlie Brown effect—cartoon characters that never change their clothes. I find it unrealistic, but an audience can become endeared to the familiar.
Ben Edlund’s The Tick (New England Comics)
The Tick is another favorite of mine. Most people know of the character either from the great animated TV show or the infamously horrible live-action TV show, but I fell in love with the comics.
With its oversized, self-published, news-printed comics, sometimes printed in color (unheard of in the 90s), The Tick took the comic book hero genre, spun it around and slapped it in the neck. The main character is a muscle-bound hero who’s dumb as rocks and leads a band of super friends who run the gamut of comic trends. His sidekick is an accountant in a moth costume, and the stand-in for Wonder Woman is American Maid, a tough lady in a stars-and-stripes apron and maid’s cap who throws shoes at criminals.
Humor comics do not sell well in the direct market, but The Tick became an underground sensation, with creator Ben Edlund just throwing everything he wanted into the mix to make his own way into comics.
Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim (Oni Press)
The comics success story of the last decade may be Canadian cartoonist Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel series about a 20-something do-nothing slacker and his friends, video games, hipster fashion and rock n’ roll, smushed into a cartoony paste.
What makes all of this work is the manga-influenced cartooning style that O’Malley incorporates, which isn’t so obvious in his drawing, but in his page layouts, dialogue and size of his paperback volumes (each books is roughly 200 pages, which is a lot!). Also, a heavy stylistic and visual influence of O’Malley’s hometown of Ontario is on display (instead of a faceless, fictional city), which helps the story feel more realistic.
O’Malley had a great year in 2010 when Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was released as a motion picture, and the idea that a major movie studio put so much trust in a creator-owned property opens up opportunities for other cartoonists.