The Post Where I Hate on Comic Books

Recently I saw Kick-Ass, and while I enjoyed parts of it, it reminded me of my frustration with comic books in general—specifically, comics about crime-fighting superheroes. I realize that Kick-Ass is a movie, and yet here I am complaining about comic books; what I mean to talk about is the stories within comic books, which are increasingly migrating to movie theaters and becoming the objects of wider attention.

Before I bag on your favorite superheroes, a few caveats. One, I’m not talking about all comic books. I realize there’s a graphic novel called Blankets by Craig Thompson that’s about some teenage kid lying in the grass and staring up at the clouds, or whatever. Fine. There are plenty of exceptions. But the classic comic book story is that of the crime-fighting superhero, and its popular ambassadors—from Batman and Spider-Man to Watchmen and Kick-Ass—are my targets. Two, I’m not saying everybody should find comic books as lame as I do. Teenage kids are the perfect audience for them, and adults are free to do whatever they like. The extent to which I’m hating on comic books is the extent to which “society” (marketing campaigns, media coverage, word-of-mouth) expects me to treat them as a serious cultural product for adults. Fuck that. I reserve the right to say they’re crap. Three, just so you know, I also object to the notion that comics are comparable to prose as an artistic medium, but I’ll hold that for another post. For now I’m talking about the stories.

Let’s use Kick-Ass as a starting point. It’s about a teenager. Of course it’s about a teenager—the crime-fighting superhero and the teenager have very similar motives. They come from the same place. First, the hero believes there’s an awful trauma buried in his past. Think of young Bruce Wayne watching his parents die in a botched mugging. Ditto, pretty much, for Peter Parker, Clark Kent, and Tony Stark.* The traumatic loss of one’s parents is a dramatization of the anxiety of becoming an adult. It forces the child to grow up tragically (and, in the sense of gaining powers and becoming cynical, awesomely) soon. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with personal trauma as a character motivation—in fact it’s a smart move on the part of comic book writers. But these comics never allow the hero to address his formative trauma. Bruce Wayne may eventually catch up with the petty criminal who killed his parents, but his revenge will always be hollow and unfulfilling, leaving him totally unchanged. Because if he was allowed to explore his primary motive, he would cease to be Batman. Comics pretend that a hero’s trauma is important to his identity, but after it’s set in stone with the origin story, it’s off-limits. It’s a permanent excuse to keep the hero suspended in an unnatural state of, well, heroism. I don’t buy it. If the hero is a youngster (like Hit Girl in Kick-Ass) then her exploits, no matter how gratifying, are a distraction from the real problems she should be dealing with—namely, for Hit Girl, the absence of a mother figure. On the flip side, if the hero is a grizzled veteran (as every teenage boy hopes he’ll one day be) then his trauma has an unbelievable capacity to linger through his entire life, as if by photographic memory, and to burn with an intensity that never subsides. He needs the intensity to never subside, because the adult crime-fighting superhero is essentially a psychopath: Big Daddy, in Kick-Ass, raises his motherless 11-year-old child to be a ruthless killer hellbent on murdering a mid-level mob boss. Sure, revisionist comics address the psychopathic tendency in their heroes, and treat it as humorous or ironic. But no matter how they “challenge” our expectations of heroes and anti-heroes, they’re still asking us to think seriously about protagonists whose primary motivation (the personal trauma) is a red herring.

Second, in our definition of the crime-fighting superhero, is a juvenile obsession with a simplified, idealized notion of “justice.” Kick-Ass decides to intervene in a fight where three guys are beating up a fourth guy—simply because the odds aren’t fair. He doesn’t know why they’re fighting, and the movie never tells us. The fourth guy might be a Satanic cop-killer, for all we know. The important thing, for Kick-Ass and the audience, is that Kick-Ass is willing to die in order to prevent an imbalanced fight from taking place. What the fuck is that? Call me a liberal or a wet blanket, but I can’t accept a crime-fighting superhero who doesn’t even know who he’s beating the shit out of. You might say this shoot-from-the-hip attitude lends an “interesting” dynamic in the sense that it pits our vigilante hero against a “failed” law enforcement system, but comics never bother to sufficiently explore that premise. At best you might see Commissioner Gordon on a rooftop, trying to “talk sense” into Batman before the next inevitable fight scene. It’s pointless to try and contextualize the actions of Gotham City’s Dark Knight, because the only thing we know about Gotham City is that it needs a Dark Knight. What’s with the hoodlums in the alley? Are they junkies looking for a fix? Are they homeless as the result of failed policies? If so, smashing their heads won’t accomplish much. With arch-villains like the Joker, the bad guy doesn’t even need a reason. The Joker is just a crazy fucker who wants to destroy the city. End of discussion. Comic books are unwilling to talk at length about the very things—crime and justice—they’re supposedly about.**

The third and final motivation for a crime-fighting superhero—narcissism—may help to explain the holes in the first two. Could their be a more teenage concern than the crime-fighting superhero’s constant, problematic need to “fit in?” Like Sully in Avatar (not a comic book, I know, but it’s timely), who has been criticized as a typical white male from a colonialist society who suddenly becomes the leader of an exotic race of “others,” the crime-fighting superhero tries to have it both ways in his relationship to society—he’s a misanthrope and an outcast, but he’s also a morally and physically superior being whose leadership saves the very society he can’t stand. This is a laughable premise—unless you’re a narcissist (a.k.a. a teenager) and your goal is to dramatize your personal ambivalence about “belonging” to a group. The stories in comic books purport to be about the effects of personal trauma, or saving the innocent and restoring a fallen society, but at bottom they’re about one man’s desire to become important and accepted by society.

Side note: is it even possible for comic books to be meta? Watchmen and Kick-Ass should, according to fawning critics, advance our understanding of the legacy of the crime-fighting superhero. But to my eyes they simply re-enact the same tropes with added references to past works. The genre doesn’t evolve—it simply becomes self-important and flaunts its influences.*** In Kick-Ass, the drug dealers are black and the crime bosses are Italian. Is that racist? Or is it a clever send-up of the racism of earlier comic books? Either way, the drug dealers are black and the crime bosses are Italian. Can you spot the difference?

The perfect graphic novel, for today’s audience, would go something like this. Theodore, a police detective in a dark green trenchcoat, stands in the pouring rain at the graves of Alvin and Simon. Why did they have to die so young? He screams at the heavens. We flash back to their youth. The three chipmunks are reveling in their friendship. But what’s this? A petty crook is offering Simon the chance to have even more fun, by selling drugs on the corner. Could this crook be connected to the mob boss that Detective Theodore, in the present day, is trying to bring to justice? That’s how you write a crime-fighting comic book, folks. You take some arbitrary pop-culture kitsch, throw in a noir melodrama, and add the morals of an after-school special. Why do we keep buying this crap?

Maybe you’re not convinced. Maybe you simply like comic books and the movies based on them. Maybe none of what I’ve said matters to you, because you just want to have fun. Fine. If you can ignore the fundamental flaws in stories about crime-fighting superheroes, knock yourself out. All I’m saying is, I don’t enjoy them. Because they suck.


* Dave Lizewski’s personal trauma in Kick-Ass is less serious than most, and that’s partly what makes him a poser—tougher than a regular citizen, but less than a total badass like Hit Girl and Big Daddy, whose traumas are more severe.

** A notable exception may be the X-Men, which has a big ensemble cast and focuses on the relationship between bigotry and power. Its over-arching story about how to deal with mutants in a democratic state is closer in complexity and relevance to real life.

*** Maybe I don’t see progress here because I’ve limited myself to the genre of crime-fighting superheroes, and the truly exciting stuff is taking place in other types of comics. Also, you could accuse the contemporary novel of the same lack of progress, but I would respectfully disagree.



  1. Man, you totally took a piss in Nick Wong’s face with this, but I love reading your thoughts.

  2. Dear Fiction Advocate:

    I’m right there with you on your overarching assessment of the comic book/crime-fighting super-hero genre (as in “They suck.”). You’ve focused in on many of the laughably unconscionable aspects of the genre. But I think your argument gets dangerously close to criticizing a widely-used fictional device that could be said to characterize many classic and modern novels.

    Your assessment:
    “If the hero is a youngster (like Hit Girl in Kick-Ass) then her exploits, no matter how gratifying, are a distraction from the real problems she should be dealing with—namely, for Hit Girl, the absence of a mother figure. On the flip side, if the hero is a grizzled veteran (as every teenage boy hopes he’ll one day be) then his trauma has an unbelievable capacity to linger through his entire life, as if by photographic memory, and to burn with an intensity that never subsides. The adult crime-fighting superhero is necessarily a psychopath…”

    Almost necessarily, anyone who is categorized as “super” anything will have to prove their extreme chops. So it seems plausible that for a superhero, a super-psychosis fits the bill. But even if that weren’t the case, there are many examples within classic or current literature of protagonists, or antagonists, who are distracting themselves (Tom McCarthy’s subject in Remainder) or who radiate lingering trauma or mental disease or defect (Humbert Humbert in Lolita). Does showing these characters to be irrevocably and obsessively flawed take anything away from the power of the story? Even though they, like comic-book heroes, never really address their trauma/obsession? Granted, these are awesome books that should not even be mentioned in the same blog response with comic-book superheroes, but personal trauma can and will influence genres outside that of graphic novels. And to characterize its use as a red herring in one genre but laud it in another seems a bit unfair.

    I think (for me), comic books fall short of more “serious,” fiction not because of flawed story-telling (although there is a lot of that happening), but because of the genre’s very definition: something childish, graphic, with more than a touch of the ridiculous. The genre does not let your imagination run as wild as it does when you’re reading a straight-prose book, because it has run away with its own and your imagination. While marketers and the media might want us to consume this stuff like it’s the most addictive, sugary candy we could buy, I have never gotten the sense I was supposed to think of comic superheroes as serious. I don’t think any movie blurb has even come close to calling Kick-Ass “Dickens on Steroids” or some such nonsense. When they start doing that, then yes, we should all run, or perhaps fly, for those hills.

  3. (Forgive this hastily written, grammatically suspect, nearly totally unproofread comment…)

    About five years ago, I became interested (nay, obsessed) with superheroes for the first time since childhood. Since that time, I’ve immersed myself in all manner of superhero lore and ephemera, and without reading any more than a handful “necessary evil” of superhero comics. This is because superhero comics are REAL dumb. I knew it as a child, and I know it now. That’s the dirty secret about superhero comics: NO ONE thinks they’re very good. Not even people who read superhero comics. There are about a dozen trades/graphic novels/story arcs/what-have-you that receive a lot of attention (a few of which you namechecked above) and so far as I can tell, those are generally perceived to be overrated. I can honestly say that I’ve never met an adult who’s said “I read Batman, and I think it’s totally worth my time.”

    This is all to say that I fear that maybe you’ve misjudged the point of entry when it comes to the public’s latter-day general fascination with superheroes, and in doing so, have missed the root of their appeal. The storytelling in the books themselves is obviously, undeniably terrible. How could they not be? The books, especially in the early days (but even as late as the 1960s), were often written by inner-city teenagers. But when considering superheroes as a cultural convention, they carry an enormous amount of baggage, entirely regardless of their source material. The mythology is rich, friend. Not so much in the discussed-to-death “these are the gods and demons of our times” sense, but in the sense that superheroes are a very immediate cultural connection to America’s past. I see Superman, and I see a walking representation of twentieth century America. From Superman, I can draw from a well of memories and images that give me a connection to nearly any period of the last eighty years of American history. That shit’s potent.

    A very strong parallel can be drawn with baseball. I know a lot of dudes, myself included, who LOVE baseball without really actually exposing ourselves to the game (either as players, or spectators). It’s very possible to have an enormous reverence for the game’s history, and hold a fascination for its mythology, while thinking that the game itself is kind of a drag. Perhaps because there’s a bit of a stigma attached to liking superheroes (and, for that matter, disliking baseball), the parallel is rarely discussed, but it’s definitely there.

    All this said, I almost entirely agree with your assessment. I do have one MAJOR correction though, which is that Clark Kent’s name should not be lumped in with Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne, and so on. Superman’s motivation is not guilt or grief, but simple altruism. He insists on being a benevolent force in the world, solely because he knows it is the right thing to do. And I might be a sap for saying so, but I think that’s wonderful.

  4. [jumps on high horse]

    I take issue with the idea that comics/graphic novels/manga ever set out to be more or less highbrow than prose, specifically literary fiction. These are simply different ways of telling and experiencing a story. Rather than compare the graphic format to traditional prose, I prefer to liken it to poetry, in that, ideally, both work in a very concise and deliberate manner to create a narrative in which each part—be it word or image—is worth its weight in gold. In terms of comics/graphic novels/manga, neither the art nor the text is in competition, but rather each performs a task the other cannot, or at least cannot perform as effectively. Nothing is unintentional and nothing is superfluous. Ideally speaking, anyway. And I’d also argue that if the graphic format doesn’t inspire-if it comes across as crap-it’s less the fault of the format than the creative minds shaping it.

    [jumps off high horse, lands on tailbone b/c it’s a fucking high horse, brushes self off and hopes no one saw that]

    I’ve recently begun reading The Boys, a comic by Garth Ennis, in which the entire nature of heroism is challenged—in which the reverence and nostalgia attached to traditional superheroes is in sharp contrast to the reality of what happens when society fails—or simply isn’t able—to hold them accountable. Additionally, a number of people are born super-powered—there isn’t necessarily a personal tragedy, teenage angst, or sense of righteousness that inspires or eggs them on. And in this society, traditional superheroes have begun wreaking havoc on the planet out of sheer disregard for those they originally served to protect. There is a lot of disillusionment to be had in this world, and from the perspective of our anti-heroes (the super-powered CIA squad enforced with keeping the superheroes in line), nothing about any superhero, no matter how revered, is sacred. If there was a personal tragedy that originally motivated them, it’s simply not an excuse for current misbehavior. The very nature of the series is to call everything and everyone into question—at least this is my impression thus far…

  5. F.A,

    While I especially enjoyed your poke at the overrated “Blankets” (which, btw, came out about 10 years ago — the medium has produced many finer dramatic stories since [and before]), I find you to be terribly uninformed about your subject-matter and even confused about what your own premise is.

    Your complaints about Kick-Ass are specific, yet you use them to skewer the genre of superhero comics. The examples about the character of Hit Girl and the crime-fighting Kick-Ass’s attempt to stop an “unfair” fight sound like nothing more than bad writing for a bad movie (which, it should be said, might very well directly reflect the bad writing of the comic book [I’d read the first issue and was sad for the world of comics], but you clearly didn’t have enough interest in your own post to find out).

    The thing you don’t touch upon at all, which comes up in a nearly all fiction, is something we all learn about in junior-high English: suspension of disbelief. I believe Bruce, Peter, Clark, et. al. will continue to fight crime, even if they face that ghost of their past (Oh, FYI: comic book Clark, classically, has had no ghost of his past — another point on which you’ve clearly no knowledge), b/c I am reading a monthly comic book about a guy dressing in tights saving the city/world/universe/girlfriend who may or may not know his secret identity.

    You also continually jump to conclusions about what is meant by superheroes or their motivations and the stories being told (by hundreds of writers of varying skill over the years): “The stories in comic books purport to be about the effects of personal trauma, or saving the innocent and restoring a fallen society, but at bottom they’re about one man’s desire to become important and accepted by society.” This sentence is such a presumptive mess, I don’t have the time or room to tear it apart…but you seem bright enough that, should you read it over, you yourself can pick out then many problems therein. Although, maybe now I’m being presumptuous.

    You also continually refer to comic books but give examples from, and use (uninformed) terms for, films. So what is it you’re complaining about — superhero comic books or superhero movies?

    If the answer is both, b/c your issue is simply with the idea of the superhero, you need to better educate yourself on both the arts of film and comics, so that your problems with both can, a, be separated out so that you’re not making nonsensical generalizations, and, b, so that you can actually support your arguments — all of which seem to be guesses based on movies you’ve seen in the last 9 years (for example, X-Men comics more and more rarely deal with the metaphor for racism which gave them birth [there was a series called “Muties” (a derogatory term in the Marvel Comics world) sometime back which dealt with the racism issue sans tights, superteams, and Professor X.].

    In regard to your side-note: 1. You’re right about fawning critics and their stupidity. 2. You’re right about Watchmen, but wrong about it if you’d, a, read the comic series and, b, read it when it first came out before a ton of comics and movies began deconstructing superheroes based on Watchmen’s take. 3. If you can’t “spot the difference,” the writer or director (or both) have NOT correctly done their jobs.

    And, again, your sum-up seems to indicate a reason to take very seriously something you’ve simply decided MUST be taken seriously only because YOU say so. Spider-Man is, and almost always has been, lighthearted. Batman was just an extension of the pulp books of the time and the initial tone of it was exactly that — he had no traumatic past. Superman was a completely new idea and one that took a long time to form into the, er, form that you hate today. But, again, he merely cracked jokes and wore a circus strong-man’s uniform for no other reason than that it seemed fun.

    You don’t have to love comic books, of any genre, and you don’t have to like superheroes. I find most superhero comics derivative and uninteresting, but I DO like the premise. To me, many of them are simply about how we should all always try to be the best we can be…against whatever odds there are. In the real world, you won’t be a superhero who jumps over buildings and stops a mugging with a Batarang, but you might stop and help someone on the side of the road, or get in the way when a drunk guy at a club is getting too close to a woman who clearly isn’t interested, or, you know, maybe just help out a new dad wheeling an unwieldy stroller in through an uncooperative door.

    Oh, and please stop trying to sound cool by saying “bag” and “hating on.” You just come off like a total pinhead.

    Heylookmail at hotmail

  6. Thanks for the comments.

    Vladkin points out that comics aren’t intended to be highbrow, and Phlegmbot seems to think I’m wrong in saying that comics are taken seriously. I should give some context to my remarks. Last year there was a popular uproar when The Dark Knight, which earned over $1 billion dollars in gross revenue, wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. Watchmen was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present. (That’s novels, not graphic novels.) In this week’s issue of the highbrow New Yorker, Anthony Lane seems to be plugging his nose as he writes an obligatory review of the soon-to-be blockbuster Iron Man 2. We’re throwing serious money at these stories, and we’re giving them serious accolades and attention. To say they’re immune from serious criticism because they’re “lighthearted” is either cowardly or delusional.,28804,1951793_1951946_1952878,00.html

    I agree with interloper and Vladkin that comics are mythological, or a different kind of storytelling experience. The reason I compare them to prose stories (and expect their big franchises to live up to the standards of good prose storytelling) is because they compete directly with those stories in the marketplace, as books and as movie adaptations.

    interloper says “NO ONE thinks they’re very good.” Damn. Part of me feels like that’s true – that we enjoy the trashy feel of comics – and I’m scared to contemplate how that reflects on, say, the $1 billion haul for Batman.

    interloper and Phlegmbot take issue with my suggestion that Superman is motivated by personal trauma. Well, his planet blew up and his family died and he becomes physically ill when he comes in contact with any of its shards.

    As for “suspension of disbelief,” that’s a nuclear option for people who have run out of reasonable things to say. Yes, there’s a whole dynamic between the reader and the text that requires us to “give in” and let the story work its magic. That’s why I can buy into the idea of a world where the bite of a radioactive spider will give you superpowers. But you can’t say that a fictional depiction of things we all intuitively understand—like personal trauma—is beyond scrutiny, especially when the depiction rings false, and ESPECIALLY when billions of dollars are at stake.

  7. Please don’t misquote me and be purposefully obtuse to further your own ends. It’s really quite annoying.

    I’ve nothing more to say to someone who willfully continues to be nonsensical just to try and stick to a point that hardly made sense to begin with.

  8. I don’t think comics *necessarily* set out to be highbrow, but I do think that they have the capacity for such depth. The best comics, the ones that I find to be incredible works of art, are indeed the ones that live up to what you might refer to as the high standards attributed to good prose storytelling. The problem with trying to generalize is that the quality of comics is so vast. But if you’re willing to seek out those that go above and beyond, the ones I suppose I’d liken to poetry, you’ll be quite satisfied.

  9. One of the biggest problems here is the conflation of comic books and their movie adaptations, which are very different creatures. Sometimes they translate, and sometimes they don’t. Regardless, it’s not fair to criticize the book Watchmen because you didn’t like the move Watchmen, which practically no one felt did justice to the original.

  10. “I’m scared to contemplate how that reflects on, say, the $1 billion haul for Batman.” Well, I’m very comfortable saying that Dark Knight exceeded its source material in every way, also very comfortable in saying that it was a much better film, by nearly any measure, than any of the Best Picture nominees. (This is all ignoring, of course, that the fact that anyone who ever gets upset over Oscar nominations is a very silly person, and one with opinions probably not worth considering.)

    I think your point, though, is that if one was to use the characters/scenario of Dark Knight as a basis for a novel, the results would be poor. This is undoubtedly true, but I believe it largely speaks to the huge gaps in the different media being discussed. Dark Knight would surely make a poor novel, the nigh-universally adored Watchmen gave way to a film that garnered extraordinarily mixed reviews, and Joyce’s Ulysses makes for a lousy comic: When considering the difficulty of creating an effective adaptation of any of these media, the fact that comics, prose, and films all have characters and dialog is almost kind of a fluke. The thought of adapting a novel into a film (or vice versa) and expecting it to be capable of drawing the same response from its audience is absurd; you might as well make a musical adaptation of Picasso’s Guernica, or a prose adaptation of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and expect an equivalent reaction.

    All this said, I do agree that none of these things should be exempt from serious criticism. Comics in particular are not a young art form. They predate television, rock and roll, and the talkies, all of which we’ve subjected to intense critical scrutiny. Shame on us for accepting anything other than brilliant successes and interesting failures.

    Regarding Superman, “…his planet blew up and his family died…” Correct, obviously, but neither motivates him into action. Regarding kryptonite, yes, it makes him physically ill, but the reaction is purely physical, not psychological. So far as I know, seeing of a picture of kryptonite doesn’t bum Superman out or anything. So, I think my point stands. But if you want something to chew on, dig this: Superman has two primary weaknesses, in established canon. One is kryptonite, obviously. But the other? Fucking MAGIC.

  11. I agree with ApathyClub in that we should be careful not to conflate film adaptations with their original forms. What you’re dealing with are different mediums and, consequently, different constraints on content.

    On a related note, there was recently a piece in PW about how traditional publishing houses have begun hiring artists and writers to collaborate with bestselling authors to create graphic novel adaptations. What I found most interesting was that the editor for Del Rey claimed that straight adaptations generally don’t do as well as original side stories–that readers seeking out the graphic adaptation don’t necessarily want the same experience they got from the novel, but a different experience. The graphic adaptation is expected to do something the novel can’t. I suppose it’s a form-dictates-content scenario, but that in no way implies the form shouldn’t be of equally high quality.

    The link is here:

  12. Certainly there are different forces operating on these stories depending on the medium. But I don’t mean to criticize comic books or movies as a medium. I mean to criticize the genre of the crime-fighting superhero, whether it appears in comic or movie form.

    Watchmen is a rare example, since it exists almost exclusively as a single graphic novel and a single movie. For most crime-fighting superhero franchises, it’s hard to pinpoint a “true” or entirely canonical version of the story. To say, for example, that the recent Superman movie doesn’t do justice to the real Superman story is beside the point, since the Superman story exists in thousands of forms, and is beloved by millions of different people. Since we’re talking about a form of popular entertainment, the best measure of the “truth” of any given version is its popularity, and blockbuster movies are undoubtedly the most popular instance of these stories.

    Regardless, I agree with intereloper that comic book stories are, in a sense, contemporary myths, and it’s the myths I mean to criticize, not the media.

  13. You raise some interesting points, FA. However, I will point out that the form (particularly the graphic novel, which isn’t exactly the same as a comic book) has come a long way in recent years. To that end, I think a more apt comparison would be between “serious” comics and other stories of depth or complexity. Which is to say I’m not convinced that the other types of mass-marketed, over-publicized stories out there can always claim a moral high ground. Something with quality can (and should) stand up to criticism, but if you’re going to talk about crap comics, you should compare them to crap novels.

  14. Awesome! I’m not the only one who pretty much hated this movie.

    “As the credits rolled, I told myself: You must change your life.”

    “One of the major differences between Kill Bill and Kick-Ass […] is that Kill Bill is good and Kick-Ass is bad.”

    “Kick-Ass claims to be controversial, but is in fact conservative.”

  15. Ha!

    “Negative reviews of poetry books are famously rare; takedowns of graphic novels and book-length comics are scarcer still. The graphic-novel genre is no longer young, but it retains, like Drew Barrymore and certain indie bands, a quirky and semi-adorable glow. Its fragile vibe is Etsy, not Best Buy. Attacking a pile of graphic novels is not unlike chucking a sackful of baby pandas into a river. If many graphic novels are, as Barack Obama put it about Hillary Rodham Clinton, likable enough, few are knotty works of art, things you’d eagerly give to both the sulky teenager in your life and your grandmother who reads serious nonfiction and thinks comics are infra-dig. Few zigzag toward the earth like mid-August lightning.”

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