So, you want to try comics, but are turned off by the history? You don’t want to memorize 60 years of X-Men characters, or why there have been four different versions of the Legion of Super-Heroes? Luckily, there are a ton of absolutely amazing graphic novels out there, that require no outside knowledge, just an open mind. Here are 27 graphic novels, perfect for someone new to the medium, presented in no particular order.
Akiko is a scifi twist on the classic “Little Nemo” story, and is about the titular girl who gets whisked away to another planet to help its prince. Along with a ragtag bunch of adventurers, she fights witches, discovers ancient secrets, and gets into and out of all sorts of trouble. It’s the ideal book for a young adult reader, packed with fun, a little terror, great action, and a female lead who isn’t afraid to get into and out of any sort of situation. It’s great, fun, and absolutely joyous.
Lets just get this out of the way. Alan Moore is completely mad. He’s also one of the greatest living comics writers, but crazy as a snake (which he worships). Promethea is his absolutely wonderful rumination on magic, feminism, storytelling, the afterlife, the apocalypse, and the nature of the universe. Art duties are picked up by J.H. Williams III who is one of the greatest artists currently employed, and his work with layouts perfectly matches Moore’s madcap writing. Sure, it might not make sense the first five times you read it, but after that you might just end up rewriting the entire universe.
A great comic ruined by a shitty adaptation. Writer Greg Rucka does crime fiction like nobody’s business, and Whiteout is one of the best realistic crime comics ever set to paper. There’s a murder at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, and it’s up to U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko to find the culprit. Can you imagine a more inhospitable and restricted environment than Antarctica in a storm? It’s only four issues long, and you can pick up this excellent trade for almost nothing.
100% by Paul Pope
Paul Pope is both author and artist in almost everything he’s involved with, and takes his sweet, sweet time doing it. Why? Because his ink work is unparalleled. His work is generally set in the near future, and 100% is perhaps his most iconic story, telling the love lives of a half-dozen people who interweave with each other: the stripper who shows off her internal organs on a giant screen, the artist struggling to make rent, the beaten-up boxer trying to reconnect with his wife, and more. Alternately despondent, hyper-kinetic, and amazing, 100% takes the dark inter-personal dramas of the best sort of dramatic films, and cranks them up to 11.
Bone starts with what should be a cutesy kid’s story, about three funny looking cousins who find themselves in a farming village, and quickly morphs into a fantasy epic. Bone is one of the few works that manages to perfectly gel light-hearted humor with incredibly detailed fantasy story. One page will be slapstick comedy, and the next will have a people on the verge of being overrun by evil. It’s all ages in the truest sense of the word, appealing to readers of any age. There’s a $40 collected edition which is one of the best things you could spend your money on.
Blankets…Blankets is something special. It really is. It’s an autobiography of the artist, in which he originally set out to convey a very simple feeling: what it feels like to sleep next to someone for the first time. This morphed into a sprawling tale of his childhood and young adulthood, as a boy growing up in an evangelical Christian family, his constant questioning of his own spirituality, and the first girl he falls in love with. It’s incredibly beautiful, personal, and touching. Weighs a freaking ton, though.
30 Days of Night
Another great comic marred by a sub-par movie. 30 Days of Night has one of the simplest, greatest horror concepts ever: Vampires can only come out at night, so they go to North Alaska, where there’s a 30 day stretch where the sun doesn’t rise. The book is pure, visceral horror, helped along by the fact that illustrator Ben Templesmith does creepy, grimy and unsettling in a way that no-one else can manage. Keep all the lights on when you read it.
The Hellboy movies weren’t bad, and managed to capture some of the visual flair of the books, but fell flat on the characterization. In the original, Hellboy is a wisecracking agent, hardened to the world destroying monsters he sees daily, and Abe Sapien is quietly competent. The early work was all illustrated by series creator Mike Mignola, and his inkwork is unparalleled. Nobody uses blackspace like him, and you can’t read these comics and not start feeling like something’s starting to come through the corners of space.
Millions of gothy fangirls can’t be wrong. Neil Gaiman’s seminal 75 issue comic completely changed the face of comics the world over. The seeds of the last arc are planted extremely early, making it one of the best examples of long form graphic novel storytelling ever. Gaiman’s imagination is absolutely amazing, and the series flows from worlds impossible to those mundane as it tracks the return of one of the seven fundamental forces of the universe: Dream. If you haven’t read it yet, consider starting with the fourth volume Season of Mists, which I personally think is the high point of the entire run.
If anyone you know has any interest in politics, journalism, or the belief that humans are essentially horrible, horrible creatures, you owe it to them to get them into Transmetropolitan. Part author insert, part homage to Hunter S Thompson and gonzo journalism, and part futuristic cyber-squalor, Transmetropolitan is possibly my favorite comic of all time. It’s brutal, unforgiving, darkly, horribly funny, and tries to show you what’s right and wrong with the world. Every time I read it, I’m struck by just how prescient Warren Ellis is — not on the clone meat, crazy cyberpunk weirdness, but on how politicians and journalists act, work and live.
Breaking an astonishing 100 issues now, Fables is about fairytales. See, they’re real, and all the princesses and magicians, and everybody else from our stories live in hiding in our world. Immortal, strong, and on the run from an incredibly powerful enemy, they’re split between a small section of New York City and a farm upstate. Bill Willingham is a great author, and manages to inject these characters, who we’ve all known since childhood, with interesting personalities and wonderful traits.
Scott Pilgrim is one of the few things I’ve ever read that;s made me actually root for a bad person. Lets face it, Scott is a self-obsessed, annoying, wanker of a manchild, and he constantly aggravates his friends and the woman he loves. Yet somehow, he’s an endearing and intriguing character, and his semi-surreal adventures through the life of a slacker twenty-something in a world heavily influenced by video games and comic books manages to be intriguing and heart-filled, even though he’s a horrible person.
You can’t say a genre has art until you get a tale of the holocaust. Sorry, them’s the rules. It’s why no-one takes video games seriously. Maus managed to blow everyone away when it came out, a two-volume story from Art Spiegelman about his father’s experiences as a holocaust survivor. In the graphic novel, the people of each country are portrayed as animals, yet somehow this anthropomorphised version of the world doesn’t make it any less bleak or terrible, in fact it heightens just how inhuman and terrible the actions during the war were. It won a Pulitzer for a reason.
Strangers in Paradise
Terry Moore writes and draws the best women in comics. Believable characters, with depth, humanity, and three dimensional personalities, he even draws them realistically — something just about unheard of in mainstream comics. Strangers in Paradise is an odd comic in some ways, it alternates between a love-triangle comedy/drama, and an incredibly dark and violent thriller. Yet it manages to meld these two seemingly opposing stories into something that’s honest, beautiful, sad, and touching. And above all, it’s about love. Honest, heart-breaking, confusing, scary love.
Beasts of Burden
With a premise like “a bunch of dogs get together to fight the supernatural”, Beasts of Burdain should be a kids story, and an initial flip over Jill Thompson’s amazing watercolor work does give the series a slightly kid’s book feel. And then you start to read it. Dorkin and Thompson manage to give a scruffy group of dogs and cats wonderful and clear personalities, and throw them into supernatural situations that I would be lying if I didn’t admit to being more than a little scary at times. The artwork is shockingly beautiful, and it’s a must have for any animal lover.
Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel was adopted into a mildly successful film of the same name. It chronicles Satrapi’s live in Iran and aboard, first as a child during the Iranian revolution, and later her travels around Europe, falling in love, her return to Iran, and eventual permanent departure. Considering our current views of Iran, it seems particularly important that books like this, that show the views of people from within the nation, are seen by outsiders. Satrapi’s story is one of protest and intelligence, and beautifully illustrated in stark black and white.
I Kill Giants
I Kill Giants is about a girl who is faced by the horrors of real life, and so escapes to a world of fantasy. Or does she? Barbara Thorson claims that she kills giants, and is sure they’re coming, and not the school system, bullies, or anything else can prevent her from fighting back. She’s smart, tough, and facing things a child should never have to. I Kill Giants shows the horror and banality of the real world in ways that just about nothing else can, and if you make it through the final chapters without crying, you’re a stronger person than I.
What I said about I Kill Giants and crying? Goes a million times over for We3. I haven’t put any other Grant Morrison on this list due to his intense love of inter-textual connections, but We3 stands on its own. Three short issues, which manage to be the saddest, most beautiful, and touching thing on the planet. Even the manliest man will cry like a little girl after reading this. Gud dog.
Pride of Baghdad
When America bombed Baghdad in 2003, four lions escaped from Baghdad Zoo in the ensuing destruction. This is their story. Sort of. It’s a fictionalized account — from their perspective — of the brief period of freedom they taste amidst the chaos of war. This isn’t the Lion King, there’s death and sex throughout this highly regarded 2006 graphic novel.
Mouse Guard is Redwall turned up to 11. No feasting, no dibbuns. Just a tribe of medieval mice, desperately attempting to survive in a cruel and unforgiving environment, surrounded by predators massively larger than they are. Mouse Guard comes out rarely, but when it does, it’s something to be cherished, filled with deep characters and heroic action.
David Mack is either insane, or has far too much insight into the minds of the mentally disturbed. Kabuki is about a Japanese assassin, and even though there are now seven volumes of the series, very little actually happens. Kabuki instead mostly concerns itself with less tangible things, like memory, identity, dreams and philosophy. Mack illustrates with bizarre methods, often switching from pencils to collage to crayons to photography to just about anything else. What you’re left with is often difficult to read, but worth the effort.
It would be entirely fair to mark comic book legend Frank Miller as a bitter misogynist. Every female character he has ever written is either a whore or a victim, and only have the shallowest personalities. Every character, but one: Martha Washington. Powerful, smart, and the toughest soldier ever born, Martha Washington kicks ass and tries to bring about revolution in a dystopian future. It’s starkly unlike Miller’s other work, and is far and away his best female character.
The Flight anthologies are these wonderful tomes of joy, each featuring stories from dozens of artists, without any attempt at an overlying theme or conceit. Instead, they’re a showcase of new artists, and the work tends towards the light, the funny, and the joyful. While there’s plenty of darker stuff in here too, usually the volumes are wonderful and family friendly.
Incognito by Ed Brubaker is pulp, pure and simple. It’s hard hitting, rough-and-tumble super-heroics, where the badguys are bad, and the goodguys aren’t much better. Just six issues long, and handily collected into a single volume, Incognito takes place in a self-contained superhero universe, so you don’t need to come in with all sorts of background knowledge of characters. Just a love of conflict, and a healthy dose of paranoia.
Asterios Polyp is an odd book, but arguably the best thing published last year, taking out a bucketload of awards. It’s about an abrasive perfectionist architect, famous despite never having built anything, who leaves his life after a lightning strike. Most of the story is told non-linearly, with the timeline jumping all over the place, and artist David Mazzucchelli taking advantage of the unique abilities of the printed page to delve into strange informatics and deconstructions.
Famed avant-garde director Alejandro Jodorowsky was called on to put together a film version of Dune in the 1960s, which was set to be the most absurd and grandiose film of all time, and it collapsed under its own weight before filming could even begin. Jodorowsky then took the ideas and themes he’d worked on for the film, and together with legendary artist Moebius constructed L’Incal, possibly the greatest thematic comic of all time. It’s all about metaphysics, and the construction of self and god withing a universe. It’s heavy, weird, and wonderful stuff, prime material for any avant-garde film student in your life — assuming you can track down a copy.
A Contract with God
There’s a reason the comic universe’s highest award is named after Will Eisner, he was one of the greatest artists the industry has ever seen, and his work on the page used space and form in ways the world had never encountered. A Contract With God was what Eisner made when he discovered that it wasn’t just kids reading comics, but also adults, who wanted mature stories and themes, and he produced this intense and personal book, one of the first ever graphic novels, about life in a tenement in the Bronx in the 30s. Everyone who is even the slightest bit interested in comics should read it.