So. You want me to recommend ten comic books. My favorite ten comic books.
I’m going to make an off the cuff remark here, and I apologize for it.
You’re out of your fucking gourd.
I’m more than a little biased towards certain types of comics, and I can absolutely not abide some classic works (See me and apathy toward SANDMAN). But, you asked for it, so I’ll give you what you’re asking for. My ten favorite graphic novels/series. No limiting to 1 per creator or anything like that.
…Except for the two big caveats I’m going to hit before we kick this off – WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS are NOT on this list. Both are excellent – no, amazing – books that did incredible things for the industry. But neither of them are my favorite. WATCHMEN gets bogged down by the Dark Freighter story-within-a-story, and honestly, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS doesn’t age that well. It just seems paranoid and masturbatory to me now.
So, my top 10? In no particular order beyond the first one, are as follows:
Warren Ellis and John Cassaday
It started off in 1999 as a superhero archeology expedition into the fiction of the 20th century. It changed the way I thought about comic books, about fiction, about stories. It mixes every single type of pulp fiction into a brew that is heady and affecting. I could go on for pages about this book. But I won’t, since there are othera to hit.
But, in all damn seriousness, read this book over anything else. Since you don’t have to deal with the horrifically missed shipping schedule that plagued the production run, this book is absolutely perfect.
Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch
Rising out of the ashes of Ellis’s run on STORMWATCH, AUTHORITY was an answer to the question of “what would happen if super heroes really tried to change the world?” The answer was big, bold and shocking. Hitch and Ellis introduced the world to “wide screen comics”; their books that presented spectacle bigger than anything Hollywood could promise. And they did it all while holding together a tight story with interesting characters. While the team of characters that compromised AUTHORITY will never go down in history with the likes of the X-Men or the Justice League, they will always represent what those books could do, if they ever decided to let go.
BATMAN: YEAR ONE
Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
I suspect that the only DC character that has had his origin retold more times than the Joker is the Batman. And this is two greats telling the story of Batman’s first, horribly flawed, yet potential filled, first year. More of a story of the elements that make up modern Gotham coming together than a singular Batman story, there is a reason Christopher Nolan based his BATMAN RETURNS off of the events in this book.
And just to add to what I said above, this book holds up with age where THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS completely collapses.
BATMAN: THE LONG HALLOWEEN
Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
Should I mention that I really like Batman? And I really like Batman when he is done really well?
In this book Loeb and Sale are given a calendar year to tell the story of an investigation into a series of mob murders. Over the twelve months, they mix in the big Batman notes – Joker, Two Face, the mob, the Riddler, everyone. And what you’re left with at the end of it, is this feeling of empathy for everyone involved in the story – both good and bad. This is a pure Batman story, and excellent because of it.
Mark Waid and Alex Ross
There was a thing in the 90s. A thing that was comprised in one part of tearing superheroes down, and in the other part of building them up as something legendary.
KINGDOM COME was DC’s answer to this, revolving around the next generation of superheroes and a world that has had enough of them. Superman and the classic heroes return, aged and bitter, to wage a war to end all wars against the younger generation. Things go badly, as you might could imagine.
The book requires a little bit of prior DC knowledge, but the characters are iconic and you pick up what you need to know fast and are off to the races.
Brian K Vaughn and Adrian Alphona (originally)
Originally an attempt by Marvel to engage their wavering tween audience, RUNAWAYS ended up being a book that connected more with alienated 20-somethings than the intended audience. The story deals with a group of children who find out that their parents are super villains, and that they all now have powers. The ensuing conflict deals with the classic idea of what you want to be versus what you are expected to be.
Just make sure you stop after the first three hardcover collections. Vaughn leaves the book, and it doesn’t develop well from there.
Mark Millar and Byran Hitch
Following up his run on AUTHORITY, Hitch moved his “wide screen comics” to Marvel’s Ultimate line. They were attempting to relaunch all of their classic books – Spider-Man, X-Men, Avengers, etc – under a new imprint for the movie-going audience. The books were given to up and coming creative teams who proceeded to knock them out of the park. And THE ULTIMATES, the Avengers book, was my favorite of the bunch.
SAGA OF SWAMP THING
Alan Moore and Stephen Bissette / John Totleben (originally)
Redoing for American audiences what he had done with MARVELMAN in the UK, Alan Moore takes a legacy comic book character and completely sweeps away their history, replacing it with a more modern backstory. In this case, Swamp Thing is no longer a chemically mutated human, but rather a plant elemental that has bonded with the memories of a dead human. The surreality of Moore’s first breakthrough book takes over from there.
Forget WATCHMEN, SAGA OF SWAMP THING is where Moore lays out his modernist take on comics.
Joss Whedon and John Cassaday
The X-Men are hard to nail down. They are without a doubt, some of the most popular comic book characters in the whole of the medium, but they are also prone to have horribly uneven runs and several-year long spouts of mediocrity.
Fortunately, ASTONISHING, was for the most part continuity-free, entanglement-light, and perfectly done. Like with KINGDOM COME, there is some prior knowledge required, but you’ll clear the hurdles with no problem.
There are parts of this book that still give me chills.
Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker (originally)
What if Superman had a kid, and that kid was Spider-Man? That’s the nut of INVINCIBLE. The book takes cues from the big action books like THE ULTIMATES and AUTHORITY, but doesn’t skimp on the character bits that make the book interesting, and ultimately noteworthy.
And that’s my top ten.
Close but not quites to this list would be Ed Brubaker’s CAPTAIN AMERICA, Warren Ellis’s IRON MAN: EXTREMIS, Mike Mignola’s HELLBOY, Mark Millar’s SUPERMAN: RED SON, Grant Morrison’s NEW X-MEN run and probably dozens more that I’m going to savaged for forgetting.
If you’re curious, I’ve written a list of non-superhero recommendations as well. It avoids the “body condoms and fetish-set” and keeps to people who have the common decency to have real names and breast that aren’t impossibly large.