I love comics. I’ve always loved comics and always will love comics. Few popular mediums have had as much impact on the 20th century as comic books, yet despite their influence on popular culture, the actual success of comics and the recognition of its creators are largely unknown. That being said, with the advent of digital comics and e-readers as well as the huge success of Marvel Studios, comics seem more relevant now than ever. As the walls between high and low culture are slowly being torn down, it’s never been a better time to give comics a chance.
While there’s always been plenty of content, most people really just don’t know where to start. Fortunately, I’ve compiled a beginner’s guide to the world of comics.
1. “Watchmen” by Alan Moore
The “Citizen Kane of comics,” “the Great American Novel with superheroes;” if there’s a single comic book you should ever read, it’s “Watchmen.” Not so much a comic book as a radical experimentation in narrative, “Watchmen” acts as a hybrid in form, with panels broken up between fictional passages, documents and other works of prose. It also joins “The Great Gatsby” and “The Catcher in The Rye” on the list of Time Magazine’s 100 Greatest English Language Novels since 1923. It’s a watershed, not just for the graphic medium, but in the delineation between high and low culture in general. The greatest comic book of all time? This book might very well be one of the most important stories of the last century. Read it.
You might also like: “The Dark Knight Returns” by Frank Miller; “Kingdom Come” by Mark Waid.
2. “The Sandman” by Neil Gaiman
A personal favorite. Neil Gaiman creates a Homeric poem and one of the greatest fantasy stories ever written. The story of Morpheus, the personified manifestation of dream, takes place in worlds both real and imagined. In the first volume, “Preludes and Nocturnes,” a crazed magician imprisons Morpheus for the majority of the 20th century. When he escapes, Morpheus finds a world that has moved on without him. With his kingdom in shambles, the Dream King must adapt to a changed world and the people he’s ignored for a millennium. Gaiman’s “Sandman” represents far more than just a fantasy story. It’s a powerful, often moving tragedy of redemption, identity and the power of storytelling. It also acts as a poignant depiction of the marginalized, with an eclectic, diverse cast of characters. A remarkable creation of invention and wit.
You might also like: Grant Morrison’s “The Invisibles”; Warren Ellis’s “Planetary”; Alan Moore’s “Swamp Thing.”
3. “Maus” by Art Spiegelman
Some stories are too powerful to make up. Art Spiegelman’s tragic and beautiful memoir of his father’s struggles during World War II joins both Gaiman’s “Sandman” and Moore’s “Watchmen” as supreme examples of the literate depths comics can reach. His use of animals as stand-ins for different people turns “Maus” into an Orwellian nightmare and a heart-wrenching fable about the importance of passing stories down from one generation to the next.
You might also like: Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis”; Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home”; Will Eisner’s “A Contract With God.”
4. “We3” by Grant Morrison
One of the most emotional experiences you will have in a long time, “We3” is a perfect starting point for comic book newbies. It’s premise: “Homeward Bound,” if the animals were experimented on and forced to wear giant mechanized robot-suits. “We3” is more than an action tale, however; it’s a minimalistic, often poetic exploration of the arbitrary line between man and animal, in our shared capacity for good and our disturbing potential for savagery.
You might also like: Brian K. Vaughn’s “Y: The Last Man,” Grant Morrison’s “Sigil” trilogy: “Flex Mentallo,” “The Invisibles” and “The Filth.”
5. “Transmetropolitan” by Warren Ellis
What if Hunter S. Thompson lived in a dystopian future? Warren Ellis’s cyberpunk satire follows the exploits of gonzo journalist of tomorrow Spider Jerusalem, a mix between Bugs Bunny, Hunter S. Thompson and the Joker. In “Transmetropolitan,” Ellis invents a new type of journalism, one where the line between science-fiction and reality shrinks every day.
You might also like: Garth Ennis’s “Preacher” and Frank Miller’s “Sin City.”
Non-Comic Honorable Mention: “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon
This Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction possesses just as much visual splendor as any comic. It’s also a great introduction for any literary types looking to lower their brow a centimeter or two and turn to the funny books. Chabon’s magnum opus also happens to be one of the greatest novels written by a living writer. The epic tale of Josef Kavalier, Sammy Clay and their fictional superhero The Escapist takes its reader on a beautiful odyssey into the heart of the American dream and the power of storytelling, uniting high and low culture. A masterpiece of fiction.
You might also like: “The Fortress of Solitude” by Jonathan Lethem; “Supergods” by Grant Morrison; “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman.