Reference-Heavy Light Reading
Travis Hedge Coke
The idea that making references or allusions makes a work more scholarly or more difficult to understand is prevalent, despite the fact there are annotations for references made in something like six thousand forms of light entertainment from All in the Family to Isabel Allende’s Zorro. We live in a reference-heavy world, one where we quote or misquote daily, where everyone uses examples gleaned from television shows or historical anecdotes, where names or places remind us of fictions or real life events, because that is the world. The world is shaped by our shared predilections and predictions, by connections of catchy memories, and all the funny and sad bits we pick up on throughout life.
The Garfield book Duy talked about a few weeks ago has a Kiss Me Deadly allusion on one page that has more power for the atmosphere it brings than for being recognized as a visual reference.
Children’s entertainment is often wall to wall with references and allusions, not because anyone is attempting to educate the children or motivate them to seek out what is being alluded to, but because on a basic level, if an allusion is good, it does not actually need a true source to work. The allusion’s source is second to the power of the allusion. A footnote or a wink have greater power than anything to which they can direct an audience.
Yet, when it comes to comics, I’ve heard people talk, nonstop, about how new readers should steer clear of this or that comic because it’s reference-intensive and without a full education on all the sources alluded to or quoted from, how could they possibly understand the story of a duck whose girlfriend has been kidnapped by a guy with a bell on his head? You need a literary degree to even touch an issue of Sandman, which is why it’s bread and butter audience is usually eighteen-to-twenty-one year olds. You need to have grown up on Sixties Marvel to understand the story of a photographer’s sense of impotence in Marvels. Unless you have written a book on Twentieth Century popular genres you cannot possibly enjoy Planetary or Garth Ennis’ Nightingale.
It’s silly fear. It does not reflect reality. But, it might chase of readers who’d otherwise have some fun. So, I want to recommend some reference-laden comics that are easy for anyone to come into and are just plain fun.
(Because of the nature of this column, I'm gonna put the Amazon links to each book after each recommendation. -Duy)
1. (Jack Kirby’s) Black Panther
Panther is in pursuit of an ancient treasure that allows one to reach distant times instantaneously. Starting with a man named Abner Little and carrying on through a “six million year man” with Hatch-22 tattooed on his forehead, Kirby’s Black Panther run was a thrill-ride wacky race chock full of references and puns, making reference to older comics, to children’s stories, the Loch Ness monster, and King Solomon. Knowing what Li’l Abner looks like, or being familiar with Catch-22 or the phrase, the etymology of Zanda, the roots of the aged Silas Mourner, or the history of the Black Panther might enhance the comic, but it’s not what makes it worth reading. The rush of adventure, the unending hail of gunfire and plethora of kicks to the face, the glorious speeches of Princess Zanda makes this a comic worth owning.
2. (Grant Morrison’s) New X-Men
All X-comics self-refer between each other, and that’s just going to happen, but New X-Men never made a reference that it didn’t attempt to explain in its own pages as much as it needed to. It wasn’t “see issue ___” referencing. It wasn’t trying to sell you a crossover or make its energy by name-checking a better story from twenty years previous. And, just as often, the references were to Modernist painters, experimental musicians, the comics industry, or the contemporary planet that published the issues. None of which is necessary to catch onto, none of it demanding external research, and unlike much of the list, NXM was just as likely to piss off the more familiar reader with its allusions and mashups, than the reader who came in blind to the references.
If you want to see Emma Frost’s new ability to turn her skin to diamond and feel no emotions as a comment on Cyclops’ childhood guardian, a criminal with diamond-skin, it’s there for you. If you remember that Beast and Polaris experienced radical shifts in their mutations after injuries, that’s echoed in Emma’s new powers. Maybe, you read the proposal for the run and remember that it wasn’t Emma but super-strong, metal-bodied Colossus in that document. You can have none of that back material on hand, and what’s there is a woman with a tragic life who’s just been buried in concrete and the body parts of her students by genocidal war machines that slaughtered a nation and she needs to be very strong just then, and preferably very cold lest the horror really settle in.
3. (Early) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The earliest Turtles comics were stuffed with in-jokes, and the Turtles basic existence is a remix of elements from Daredevil comics, from their origin with the radioactive canister to the ninja clan named after a body part and the mentor named for a small length of wood. Millions of kids have dug the Turtles without even vaguely connecting them to a Marvel superhero because those elements are remixed into something freshly its own, and other references are often simply motivational. The Rextab building that looks like the Baxter Building of Fantastic Four is not dependent on being the Baxter Building. The appearance of Cerebus or the Fugitoid are invitations, perhaps, to check them out elsewhere, but they are never firewalls to keep out the unfamiliar. Really, Cerebus could exist nowhere except in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles without much loss for many readers. These preexistent things are used the same way turtles and ninjas are, as starting points, as something to springboard from and then you ought to be too busy reading the ass-kicking to care.
4. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
When I got my review copies, it was suggested to me that I play a drinking game my friend called “References You’ll Catch, But The Kids Won’t.” You’d get drunk. If you were drinking caffeine, you’d be wired enough to produce your own rainbows. There’s a lot. This is a comic where someone off-panel declares, “I’ll swallow your soul.” And, gloriously, it doesn’t matter. The comic isn’t about references, it just has them because they’re funny. They’re funny in a referential context, in an in-story context, and even sometimes out of context. They’re atmosphere, but they aren’t the oxygen you need to breath, just another sweet scent in the air (that sometimes you can light on fire).
5. Frankenstein’s Womb
I’m a sucker for Origin of Frankenstein stories. I love Ken Russell’s Gothic. The one with Bill S. Preston, Esq from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure isn’t bad. And I love walking tour documentaries, the conceit of a separate-from-reality narrator traipsing about giving 20/20 hindsight lectures. Warren Ellis combined both and Marek Oliksicki drew the beautiful sweet hell out of it. It’s a skewed history lesson, it covers ground from mythology to science to literature to biography and more importantly, it has a giant hulking horrorshow monster in a scary old castle talking to a woman with a load of dread crapped over her soul and hardening like a scab nobody wants to pick.
6. Urusei Yatsura
So reference-heavy, it’s pun of a title can’t be usefully rendered into English. There’s no way this is making it, right? You’d need to be able to read it Japanese and then read it in Japanese. You’d have to be familiar with the 70s scifi culture it’s steeped in. Except, no, you don’t. At all. The title aside, the English translation is fantastic and stays funny when adjusting a joke or just playing a reference straight as if there is no reference there. Heart-warming, funny, weird, Urusei Yatsura is dense and never seems it. It’s a long-running series of short comics, and yet it doesn’t come off as repetitive, insular, or impenetrable in any way.
On the off-chance you know nothing about Valentine’s Day or Japanese law, this is still funny:
7. Miyuki-Chan in Wonderland
The most CLAMP thing ever not to feature gay boys, this is a series of shorts where a schoolgirl runs confused and scared through glibly eroticized fictional worlds, from Lewis Carrol’s Wonderland to the universe seen in Barbarella and CLAMP’s own X. This is definitely concept over plot or characterization, but it’s a novel concept, beautifully drawn, and there are some great laughs. The references range from puns to the mock worlds, and even intertextual between the different shorts, but what’s important isn’t what CLAMP is borrowing from elsewhere, it’s what they are doing with the material. It’s not about the elements, but the arrangements. And the sex jokes.
8. Alice in Sunderland
Edutainment here we come! How Sunderland and the Nineteenth Century might’ve affected Charles Dodgeson’s creation of the Alice books in a few hundred pages of comics. It’s a faster read than that probably seems, and comes off both mad and beautifully, rushing from bit to bit as soon as any connection presents itself, from the theater to the streets, poets, preachers, religious, journalistic, funny or tragic.
9. Judas Coin
Walt Simonson’s Judas Coin is a collection of interrelated short comics taking place over the course of a few thousand years in the DC Universe, using mostly preexisting characters, often from titles that were published before I was born. I never once felt lost or like I was missing information and neither will you. Judas Coin uses those old comics, it never relies on them. Heck, you don’t even have to know who Judas is, in the Bible, to understand what he did, because we see what he did: He betrayed his friend for some money and a break. That, in this sense, is the important thing about Judas, it’s the important thing about that money. The character still may bring up to you, the reader, other biblical moments, the teachings of Jesus, the metal band Judas Priest or whatever, but what’s important, what affects the Romans, Vikings, cowboys and outer space goodtimers of this comic is right there on the pages.
A big ass treatise of manly manliness, rugged individualism in groups, and how walk tall, take your lickings, and spit in the eye of the devil. There’s a good bit where someone puts a two-by-four with nails in it to the head of a righteous sadist, too, and that was a long time coming, so when it happens you’re ready to cheer. Preacher sometimes looks like a mass of crass reactionary ball-busting macho bullshit, and it’s supposed to look like that. It references a new Western every few pages, a new war or another war movie, with the tone of the comic and the music playing in the pickup truck cab changing every so often, but always identifiable, and sometimes real life dead people show up and talk but aren’t named because if you get it, it matters, and if you don’t, what is represented matters more.
“But, Travis, you did annotations for Planetary! The references must be important,” said a rhetorical person I just made up. They are, for all that. They’re just never the dealbreaker, and there’s so many, anyone who was alive for any part of the last seventy years is going to feel the frisson with some of them. But, I primarily did the annotations to show that the connective tissue was just that, connective, more than anything else. The connections I saw might not be the ones you see, but what matters is the story at hand, the comic we’re reading. Where we go backwards from there is up to us, but it starts with Planetary, and that’s a very good place to start.
12. Pearls Before Swine
Pearls has gags referencing everything from other comic strips to Nineteenth Century poems and Nineteen Sixties sitcoms. They are all funny. And, they are all usually the secondary joke in that strip, meaning if you don’t get it, there’s at least one other chance you’ll laugh somewhere in that three- or four-panel comic.