Literature/Fantasy Gumbo Comics

I've noticed that we at The Long and Shortbox Of It! have become a little mainstream superheroes-happy lately. You know. More than usual. Pretty much every post for the past month or so has been about superheroes. So, here's a little editorial on a different topic...

Recently, one of the cashier girls at St. Mark's Comics in the Village, said to me: "I really liked BLANK. I don't think there's more like that."

Then the next week an old friend of mine from college I hadn't seen in months expressed a somewhat mournful: "I really liked BLANK. Why aren't there more comics like that?"

The odd thing is that the one was talking about Neil Gaiman's old classic "The Sandman" (of which I have read very little) and the other was talking about Mike Carey's new series "The Unwritten" (of which I have read very little). Now despite the fact that I have read very little of both of these series I do know that both incorporate old literary and mythological characters, places, and situations into a new story of the author's creation, both have strong fantasy elements, and both tow a delicate line between darkness and humor.

"Sandman" has the famous biblical brothers Cain and Abel portrayed as servants of Morpheus, the King of Dreams. However, the pair are immortal and poor Abel is constantly being 'killed' over and over again by Cain. And from what I'm told a plethora of fantasy, literary, and historical characters make appearances over the course of the series including William Shakespeare's Oberon and Titania from "A Midsummer Night's Dream". Not to mention the spin-offs that focus directly on those characters like: "Lucifer".

"The Unwritten"'s main character Tommy Taylor is a clear analogue of Harry Potter. The series' main conceit is Harry Potter ended his last book by coming to life and found himself as a real thirty-something person, a poor-substitute to the lovable boy wizard the world knows and loves. However, the latest story in the series has Tommy Taylor transported back to WWII Germany and facing a different kind of storyteller: Joseph Goebbels.

Furthermore the series I have been reading most recently (I had the collected Volume 1 in my shoulder-bag during both conversations) is Alan Moore's "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" another story with literary characters recombined and mashed-up like in a dark semi-fantasy gumbo. (Or maybe more like in slash-fiction...) Captain Nemo. The Artful Dodger. Mr. Toad. Professor Moriarty. Sweeney Todd's razors and the hook that replaced the hand of Peter Pan's nemesis appear in the backgrounds, in the team's headquarters in the locked wing of the British Museum. I think I see a stuffed Babar in there too, which makes me want to cry.

[To the right is the cover of Vol. 1 #2 which shows "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" victorian trading cards (with the package of cigarettes they 'came with' in the middle) which depict many of the characters in Kevin O'Neill's interpretation of them at the time of their original source stories. (Except for Campion Bond, he was an original character intended to be the grandfather of James Bond.)]

And a few weeks ago I was reading the last comics that came out in Greg Weisman's "Gargoyles" series (continuing the stories he began with the original "Gargoyles" Disney TV show in the 90s) which finally revealed another layer of the secretive Illuminati society's ranks as being the immortal knights that surrounded the legendary English King Arthur. That's Sir Percival in the image at left, designation: "One" (this code designates position in the society and goes up to "Thirty-Six"), still alive after thousands of years. Probably thanks to drinking from the Holy Grail, the mythological cup of Christ he was charged with guarding in some versions of the Arthur myth. And in the final part of the story concerning the Stone of Destiny (which is revealed to be EVERY famous or mythological stone in one) Percival declares he must call a meeting of the "Upper Echelons" implying that there is still another layer of the society. How will Weisman top the Knights of the Round Table!?

Not to mention "Planetary" the series that ended this past year after a decade of slow publication! Josh brilliantly reviewed the final issue in this post. It too makes use of pop culture from all mediums to 'tell the story of the Twentieth Century'.

Are all of these series different? Well yeah, they do vary pretty widely in tone, in the type of borrowed characters to be found within, and in visual-art styles, and color schemes, but I maintain there's a common thread here. Let's call it: Literature/Fantasy Gumbo comics. (Or, if you're in a more academic mood: Culturally Inter-Textual Sequential Art.)

Plus I can recommend all five of the series mentioned above as being of damn high quality. So there's THAT.

Well, this is all just my roundabout way of saying two things:

One: There are comics authors (quite a few in prose and film as well) that use Literature and Mythology as a kind of field from which to harvest characters and many of the resulting works are absolutely wonderful when they're done well.

Two: THERE ARE SO MANY DIFFERENT COMICS OUT THERE. Assume you will find one that you will like and do a little research and with a little luck, you'll find another one that you'll like! All art is adaptable in the EXTREME. You may need to think of more than just one thing you like about a work and explore from there.

There ARE good comics like the ones you've already enjoyed and you WILL like SOME of them. I guarantee it.

So go find some good comics, whatever they are!


  1. Found out recently that Cain and Abel only became the Biblical Cain and Abel thanks to Alan Moore's use of them in SWAMP THING, after their own respective series HOUSE OF MYSTERIES and HOUSE OF SECRETS was canceled in '84.

    Including them so prominently in his work was probably both a nod to his friend Alan as well as the whole genre of horror comics he grew up with, House of Mysteries & Secrets included.

    Just FYI. Felt like showing off my nerd.

  2. Funny, Clare told me that the two characters weren't explicitly the biblical figures when they were originally the hosts of those old series. I just assumed that Gaiman was the first to make it explicit. Figures that out of all the characters I chose the most complicated!

    Oh well, they are appropriated characters either way. Either from the "Bible" from "House of Secrets" and "House of Mystery" or all three!