After seeing Watchmen, several of my non-comic book reading friends have expressed to me their surprise that a comic book could have a story like that. They were under the all-too-common belief that all comics are just guys in spandex punching each other and shooting lasers out of their eyes. After assuring them that there is much more out there, they’ve asked me for suggestions of where they should start. So here’s my list for those interested in checking out the world of graphic novels outside of the standard testosterone-fueled adolescent power fantasies. All of the titles listed below are available in collected editions at any bookstore or local comic shop.
Watchmen: Yes, you’ve seen the movie, but as with all novel to movie adaptations, large chunks had to be condensed or left out entirely. The numerous layers and sub-plots are part of what makes this such an exceptional story. Much of the characterization and several important plot threads, including the story within a story “Tales of the Black Freighter,” were eliminated for pacing reasons. There’s a reason (several really) that Alan Moore refused to have his name anywhere on the film. This is pretty much the most important and well-done comic ever.
The Dark Knight Returns: For the most part, I’m avoiding the traditionally known superheroes on this list, but an exception must be made. Simply put, this is the best Batman story ever. After decades of descending in camp and self-parody, this comic redeems Batman. Frank Miller reaches down and finds the root of what makes the character work. It is a tale of an older Batman coming out of retirement to clean up the streets of Gotham that has become more savage and dangerous than ever. This book, along with Moore’s Watchmen and V for Vendetta, permanently changed the course of the comic book industry and the stories therein.
Y: The Last Man: After every being on Earth with a Y-chromosome suddenly and mysteriously dies, Yorick Brown and his pet monkey Ampersand are the last two males left alive. Writer Brian K. Vaughn takes an idea that could easily descend into schlock and uses it to take a serious and insightful look at what a post-apocalyptic (and post-male) civilization might look like. Over the course of around 70 issues Vaughn and artist Pia Guerra, a huge talent, take us on a journey around the world as Y attempts to reunite with his girlfriend and discover why he is the last man on Earth. The final page of the last issue is probably my favorite in any comic I’ve ever read.
Fables: Remember all the fairy tales and legends you grew up hearing? Well, the characters from them are all real and living in the modern world while they plot to retake the homeworlds they were driven out of by a mysterious adversary. The first story arc features the Fables’ sheriff, Bigby (the now reformed Big-Bad-Wolf), investigating the apparent murder of Rose Red (Snow White’s lesser remembered sister), by Jack (of Jack-Be-Nimble, Jack and the Beanstalk, etc. fame). Bill Willingham’s writing never fails to intrigue and artist Mark Buckingham’s pages capture the magic and mystery of these characters.
Preacher: Jesse Custer is a preacher in a small west Texas town who has lost his faith. One day in an incident that kills the rest of the town, he is mysteriously imbued with “the word of God,” the ability to make anyone do as he says. Seeking to find answers behind his new-found power, along with his pistol-packing ex-girlfriend and an Irish vampire, he sets out on a literal search for God himself. Profane, violent, heartfelt and riotously funny (sometimes all at once) this book propelled writer Garth Ennis into superstar status in the industry.
Sandman: This was pretty much THE grown-up comic book of the ’90s, until it finished its 75-issue run and Preacher took over that spot. Sandman paved the way for almost every mature comic on the market today. I think author Neil Gaiman sums up the book best when he described it as “The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.” Morpheus, the titular Sandman, escapes after being held captive for over 70 years and goes about reclaiming his throne and kingdom. Stunningly beautiful and deeply insightful, this is one book that can’t be accurately summed up and has to be read to be truly understood.
The Walking Dead: As the title implies, this is a zombie book. However, that’s not what really makes it work. The key is writer Robert Kirkman’s focus on the survivors, instead of the undead. There are entire issues without a single zombie and these are frequently the most powerful stories. Kirkman focuses the strengths and weaknesses of these characters and makes you grow to care about them. This strong characterization makes it all the more devastating and emotionally powerful when the zombies do show up looking for a snack. If you pick up this book, a word of advice, don’t get too attached to anyone in it, main character or not. Kirkman is brutal and will kill off anyone at any moment, so be prepared. The world of The Walking Dead is a dangerous and unforgiving one.
Powers: The standard police procedural drama gets a new twist here. The premise is simple. Detectives Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim work homicide cases, specifically those involving super-powered offenders or victims. Creators Brian Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming bring the gritty streets to life with razor sharp dialogue and gripping art. Bendis is one of the finest writers in the industry and he shows it here. Looking at super-heroes from street-level, gives a whole new (and often seedier) perspective on how the world might work if powers were real.