Although I’m by no means an authority on comics (in fact, quite the opposite) I have been reading them for many, many years now and have uncovered quite a few gems. A friend recently mentioned that he’d like to read more comics, so I thought this was a good opportunity to make a few recommendations.
I’ve generally gone for stuff available in graphic novel form as it makes the purchasing and reading considerably easier, rather than having to wrangle hundreds of individual issues.
I like Batman. He’s my favourite of all the spandexed men. Some of these comics are so good, however, that you’ll probably get something out of them even if you’re not a Batman fan.
Gotham Central is the pinnacle of stories set in Batman’s world. Intriguingly, Batman hardly features, with the book instead focusing on the Gotham City Police Department and their (usually impotent) attempts to deal with the super-villain nightmare that Batman’s helped to create. It’s a fascinating tale of how normal men and women struggle to stay relevant when they’re surrounded by superheroes.
The Dark Knight Returns is more standard, featuring Bats facing up against The Joker and Two-Face, among others. It’s notable for being Batman’s last case – this is his last hurrah, as he desperately tries to leave behind a legacy that doesn’t just consist of violence and despair. It’s harsh, unrelenting stuff and has several genius surprises up its sleeve.
The Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum, meanwhile, make everything else look like Saturday morning matinee stuff. These two focus on the side of Bruce Wayne’s psyche that is decidedly cracked, neatly examining how Wayne is every bit as lunatic as those he fights, and that him being a hero is more a quirk of fate than due to inherent heroism. Arkham Asylum is a particularly tough read, coupled with abstract and disturbing artwork – it’s not lightweight reading.
I’ve never been into Superman all that much. On his own I’ve never found him particularly interesting, due to his unlimited strength rendering most drama moot. That’s why he’s always surrounded by characters like Lois Lane, who can get into trouble like some kind of peril proxy. There is one book in particular that I enjoyed, though:
Red Son is a brilliantly cheeky book, taking a simple, highly amusing concept and exploring it to its logical conclusion – what if Superman’s spaceship, sent from a dying Krypton, hadn’t landed in the middle of Kansas but instead had crashed to Earth somewhere in Soviet Russia? Brilliant alternate reality stuff.
Other than my Batman obsession, I’m a Marvel guy through and through. I’ve read a ton of Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and Thor, and the Civil War cross-over was great fun if completely confusing in its structure. If I were to recommend a single book, though, it would simply be…
Marvels, a beautifully painted re-telling of the entire Marvel comics history from the start, from the point of view of a photo journalist who lived through it all. He chronicles the arrival of the Fantastic Four, the mutants, Spider-Man, even gigantic events like the Galactus storyline. Although it resonates more if you have a familiarity with the source material, even without it offers an intriguing look at superhero stories from the vantage point of ordinary people. In that respect it’s similar to Gotham Central, although this is far more whimsical.
The best stuff is found when you move away from the big DC and Marvel universes. When you do, this is what you find:
Y: The Last Man is my all-time favourite comic. It follows a guy called Yorick, who find himself actually being the last guy on the planet after all the others mysteriously and simultaneously die. He finds himself having to traverse an entirely female world as it struggles to reconfigure itself. What could easily have been crass or one long joke in fact is a hugely moving, hugely funny and hugely compelling adventure. I really can’t recommend it enough. Start with book 1, and keep going until you finish. And don’t let anybody drop spoilers.
Midnight Nation is a much shorter proposition, an urban fantasy tale of a guy that slips through the cracks to find the underbelly of America, populated by all the people that go unnoticed in the world.
Rising Stars is an epic trilogy taking a look at what might really happen if superheroes existed. In that respect it’s something of an alternate take onWatchmen, but ends up going off in a very different direction. Great characters and story, although the artwork is unfortunately pretty shoddy in places – don’t let that put you off, though.
Preacher is another epic; a dark, twisted, macabre tale of god, religion and all sorts of other taboos. It’s black humour at its blackest and not for the faint hearted. If you’re easily offended, don’t go anywhere near it. If you look past the abrasive, debauched, unpleasant facade, though, there’s actually a story that’s all about love and friendship and doing the right thing even in the face of complete corruption. Not for Daily Mail readers.
Fables grabs a whole bunch of fairy tale characters – all of them, in fact – and deposits them in modern day New York, where they’ve been forced into exile due to a dimension-spanning war. It’s witty and endlessly imaginative, although some of the later books lose their focus a little. As with Marvels, if you’re familiar with the source material you’ll get lots out of this.
From Hell is written by Alan Moore and has him tackling the truth behind Jack the Ripper. It’s black and white, unrestrained and an incredibly hard read. Which also means it’s hugely satisfying. Nasty stuff in places but, then, that’s Jack for you.
Frank · April 28, 2010 at 4:12 pm
I would have to add The Sandman series to that list. Written by Neil Gaiman, it personifies concepts like death, dream and others into actual figures. It’s a finite series of eight or so graphic novels, and in my opinion still unsurpassed to this day.
Simon Jones · April 28, 2010 at 6:20 pm
To my shame, I’ve not read any Sandman yet, other than a short about Death. We’ve got Absolute Sandman Volume 1 downstairs, so it’s definitely on the to-do list!