Worth Reading is An Unexpected Journal’s book recommendations column. Each issue we highlight a few titles, related to that issue’s theme, that are recommended by AUJ staff, contributors, or readers. Books featured here could be from any genre, for readers of any age, published at any time. What they have in common is that people who appreciate the work and goals of An Unexpected Journal believe them to be Worth Reading.
To contribute your favorite book to Worth Reading, write ~500 words explaining why it’s a good book and a good fit for an upcoming issue and use the Submissions form to send it in.
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Thanks to nearly two decades of box-office films and small-screen superhero shows, most of us are much more familiar with cinematographic reimaginings of classic twentieth-century Marvel and DC characters than we are with the comic books and graphic novels these characters came from. Yet these, and many other stories born of graphic novels, feel like they’re everywhere in pop culture these days. “Catching up” is neither possible nor desirable: as with books of any medium, thousands of graphic novels probably aren’t worth reading. But if, like me, you didn’t grow up reading comics, but you’re curious about why they’re so beloved, a good entry point to the genre for well-read adults is Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta.
V for Vendetta (the graphic novel) is cleverer and more literary than V for Vendetta (the film). The film’s not bad as adaptations go, but the graphic novel is stunning. You’re likely familiar with illustrator David Lloyd’s iconic artwork (that bemusingly expressive Guy Fawkes mask) or writer Alan Moore’s masterful wordplay (alliterative dialogue deploying more words beginning with the letter “v” than you remembered existed in the English lexicon). But if you haven’t read the novel, you haven’t had a chance to appreciate the breadth of Moore’s vision or the carefully-crafted way the story unfolds.
V for Vendetta is dystopian in the tradition of Orwell and 1984: a fascist government has taken over Great Britain in the wake of horrific germ warfare strikes by terrorists unknown. Thanks to careful information control, the public is unaware that these strikes were carried out by power-hungry domestic conspirators within the English government and that the weaponized bacterial agent was developed by their own military by experimenting on so-called “undesirables.” By creating and leveraging widespread fear, the conspirators were able to put themselves on top of a new, authoritarian regime — one that the story’s protagonist, the self-styled V, has taken it upon himself to topple.
Aesthetically, the story has a retro-futuristic sci-fi feel. Like the original Star Trek TV show, Moore’s story was imagined well before computers were portable or the internet existed, but is set in an alt-history timeline projected forward — in this case, to the 1990s. Political thriller, espionage tales, even a bit of film noir are evident influences, as are the actual headlines of twentieth-century horrors, tragedies, scandals, and challenges. Moore brings all of these together to create a grippingly plausible scenario of authoritarian evil. Even those living in the world’s freest nations will be driven to ponder the steps of transformation between our governments and V’s; the number of those steps can be frighteningly few, and seeing them may just inspire readers toward more proactive citizenship. Unless democracy is vigilantly preserved by its own people, Moore seems to warn, rescuing an oppressed and fearful populace could be left up to someone destructive like V: no savior, but rather a heroic incarnation of poetic justice. (Elaborating on this point would be spoilers, but let’s just say that V for Vendetta’s would-be autocrats accidentally recreated V as an incarnation of karmic retribution during their march to power). By attending carefully to real history as well as their literary predecessors, Moore and illustrator David Lloyd bring to life a story simultaneously dark, prophetic, and hopeful in V for Vendetta.
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For aspiring graphic novelists, The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics by industry veteran Dennis O’Neil is the definitive work. Lots of resources exist for illustrators, but writing for visual media – especially an art form as constrained as a graphic novel – is no mean feat. (The number one mistake made by amateur comics writers? Scripting two actions into a single panel!) O’Neil introduces readers to nuts-and-bolts like the terminology used (displayed side-by-side with examples) and standard script formats, along with more subjective techniques for character development (you have very few words to work with, remember) and crafting story arcs for everything from a one-off issue to a larger series. He shows writers clearly and carefully how to imagine a story in terms of a sequence of visual panels and describe that sequence in a way that professional illustrators will be able to translate to the page of a comic book. The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics is an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to, as Emily Dickinson advises, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” in the form of graphic novels.
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But stories of superheroes are not limited to graphic novels and comics, nor to human characters. For a superhero story like few others, find a copy of Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of the Dun Cow. In it, Chanticleer the Rooster must rally the other farm animals, rallying and deploying each creature’s unique abilities, to guard the world against the long-imprisoned Wyrm, its harbinger Cockatrice, and a mud-swollen river which threatens to drown the farm and soften Wyrm’s subterranean prison, allowing the Great Enemy to break free.
Until the rise of Cockatrice and the coming of the Creator’s emissary the Dun Cow, Chanticleer the Rooster did not know he had the special powers known as crows potens. He believed his crowing was meant merely to mark the hours and give order to the passing of night and day. What he does know is that he has a guilty secret from his past, from before he came to the farm: a supersuit, of sorts — a pair of fighting spurs, hidden away in the straw at the top floor of the roost.
The Book of the Dun Cow starts soothingly, using familiar animal-story tropes to orient the reader (a proud rooster, a mournful hound, comedic hyperbole) but as pages turn (and the rain comes down) and stakes get higher (and the rain comes down), the power of evil grows in the distance. Information critical to the farm’s survival is locked behind trauma; crucial communication is hampered by pride and awkwardness (and all the while the hellish infested river is rising). The opening pages might lead one to suspect that this is a book to read aloud to young children, but do read it yourself all the way through once before deciding. Even animal stories can get dark.
Yet Wangerin Jr. treats the foibles and flaws and ugly self-serving mistakes of his characters with surprising gentleness. Their sins are faced boldly, but neither explained away nor judged. The manner of narrative is almost priestly, in the best possible sense of the word. Even as he shapes an epic conflict between Good and Evil, Wangerin Jr. continuously reminds the reader that there is only one Enemy here, and its name is Wyrm.
Metaphysically, The Book of the Dun Cow is reminiscent of Watership Down, which, despite being a retelling of the Aeneid (with rabbits), is almost totally absent of gods. But in this story there is Wyrm, a hideously enfleshed yet protocosmic being; and there is God, a divine force for good, physically absent but undeniably involved. The best evidence for divine intervention in the world of the Dun Cow are the animals themselves, and the commonplace gifts for heroism they’ve held all along.
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Have a book Worth Reading? Write ~500 words explaining why and send it in using the Submissions form on our website.
Jason Smith serves on the board of An Unexpected Journal and as senior editor for acquisitions and development at Wootton Major Publishing. In his spare time, he works a day job as a technical writer and marketing strategist for a medical device engineering firm, where he writes about fun things like FDA regulations and embedded cybersecurity. He is the pseudonymous author of the much-loved young adult fantasy series Fayborn and reviews every book he reads at www.goodreads.com/mrwootton.
Jason M. Smith, “Worth Reading,” An Unexpected Journal: Superheroes 4, no. 2. (Summer 2021), 33-40.
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