I feel an obligation to start this article with a warning: reading comics can quickly become a lifelong, glorious habit. It can also suck up all your time and money. Although I started reading comics when I was a kid, I’ve only been seriously reading comics for a little more than a decade and I’m constantly finding new and rare titles to collect. Chasing that four color dragon has been a great experience–but it can be overwhelming to know where to begin. Recently, a couple of friends (who don’t know each other) happened to ask me (on separate occasions) where to begin. Apparently, the universe wants me to write this down.
If you are, in fact, new to comics, another issue you may run into is cost. Trade paperbacks and graphic novels can get expensive, and fast. Although I typically reread many of these at least once a year, if you’re just dipping a toe in the water, here’s a tip that few think of: interlibrary loan. When I was flat broke and trying to get my comic fix, I requested all ten volumes of Y: The Last Man through the library and they came in within a week. Get to know your local library and see if they have them or if they can get them and you’ll save yourself a hefty expense.
Whittling a list down to ten books nearly gave me a stroke. So I’ve broken the rules whenever I can. I’ve tried to be inclusive to superheroes and non-superheroes, mainstream and independent, and American and international. If I’ve missed something, it’s because I couldn’t take over Nerds and Nomsense and write about every awesome book out there.
10. Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, V for Vendetta
I lumped these three together because they’re the trifecta of introductory recommendations. The trouble with recommending them is that they’re comics that broke the rules and set new standards and boundaries for comic art. I’m going against the grain here and putting them at ten for those reasons. That said, they are some of the finest examples of the medium.
Maus is my go-to book for any still doubting the power and weight of comics (thankfully, that number is dwindling. Art Speigelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the holocaust is nothing short of heartbreaking and brilliant. Not much more to be said–just read it.
8. Y: The Last Man
If you enjoy sci-fi, dystopian fiction, Lost, or just good writing, look no further than Brian K. Vaughn (he also created Runaways, which you should be reading). Y: The Last Man has a relatively simple premise: every male mammal, save for one human man–Yorick– and his pet monkey, has been wiped out. In this road narrative, Yorick travels across the country to find a scientist working to save the world from rapid depopulation. The series was planned and finished with sixty issues, but make sure you’ve got a way to get the next trade paperback once you’ve finished one. This one’s addictive.
7. Batman: Court of Owls
When DC rebooted its entire universe, the comic world was watching what would happen with one of its A-listers. And Court of Owls, the first year of Batman, did not disappoint. Spanning the entire Bat-family line, Court of Owls redefined Batman and Gotham in a fresh, new way–something that seemed impossible. If you’re new to Batman, you could do a lot worse. One downside–if you’re a completionist like me, finding every issue will be a pain (but totally worth it). If you want more classic Bats, check out The Long Halloween, Year One, and Dark Victory.
6. Torso/Road to Perdition
Crime comics aren’t my thing, but when I find one that I love, I hold onto it like a wild cougar (I assume cougars hold onto things). Brian Michael Bendis is a writing all-star; he’s written and is writing some of the best stuff out there, including some really impressive true crime comics. Same goes for Max Allan Collins, who writes true crime novels. But as impressive as the writing is for these two books, the art stands out. I read comics typically for the stories, but books like these leave me speechless. Torso and Road to Perdition have drastically different styles: the fine lines of Perdition are a total contrast to the heavy inks and negative space of Torso. Both are worth a look for the art alone.
5. Astonishing X-Men
I couldn’t complete this list without having a Whedon Book. No, really. They’ve got a portal gun to my head and I’m not sure where the first portal is. Probably a bear pen.
Whedon’s run on X-Men reveals him to be not only a fan, but a superfan with an encyclopedic knowledge of X-history. As I was reading, I kept wikipedia open to make sure I caught everything. Of course, there’s a lot of snappy dialogue (often making fun of Cyclops, as it should be) and women are particularly strong (have you ever been with a warrior woman?). There’s plenty of good X-stories out there, but they’re often buried in too much history; Whedon is able to navigate through all that and write a coherent story that doesn’t require an extensive knowledge of a half century of the X-men. It helps, but it’s not necessary.
If you’re not an X-fan but you love Buffy, read Fray. You can thank me later.
Like Maus, Persepolis changed the public perception of comic books. Marjane Satrapi’s account of her life in Iran before and during the Islamic revolution is funny, heartbreaking, relatable, and reminds a reader that there is a part of childhood that is universal. Both Persepolis I and II offer a different kind of art sensibility than the other books on this list and a different kind of story, but more than that, the two books expand comics to something akin to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. It’s a personal history, warts and all.
3. Lone Wolf and Cub
Full disclosure: I’m not a manga guy. That said, I do love Lone Wolf and Cub. And if you’re looking for a book to consume your life for a while, this is it. Spanning thirty volumes, this samurai epic contains absolutely stunning art, which, in the tradition of manga, begs you to hang on every panel and absorb each inked line. The story of a ronin and his baby son traversing feudal Japan may be an expensive and extensive work, but it’s a joy to read through.
It’s the Lord of the Rings meets Disney in about 1,100 pages. And it’s family friendly–I gave my copy to my eight year old nephew and saw his brain explode (metaphorically). ‘Nuff said.
It’s not for the faint of heart, Sandman is modern mythology in the making. Neil Gaiman’s story of Dream, who rules the realm of, well, dreams. As the series begins, Dream is held prisoner by a sorcerer for decades. Once he escapes, he starts to gather artifacts and pieces of his realm. In short, it’s a roman à clef for a god who has been set in his ways since the beginning of eternity.
The artists change throughout the series, but each utilizes a style that mutates and adapts to emotional context. It’s expressionism with word balloons. Gaiman’s writing is dense but quick, laying out mythological and cultural references with ease. Sandman is, by all accounts, a masterpiece. If you enjoy it, check out two spinoff books lead by Death, personified as a teenage goth woman–Death: The High Cost of Living and Death: The Time of Your Life. Currently, Gaiman is writing a prequel series for Sandman, and while it is excellent, he’s taking his sweet time with it. Still, it’ll be worth it.
Honorable Mention: Understanding Comics
Scott McCloud wrote the Rosetta stone of comics and in comic form. If you’ve ever read a comic and weren’t sure which word balloon starts a conversation, you’re not alone. McCloud breaks down how comics function and analyzes the history of graphic, sequential art in a way that is understandable while still
There you have it. It’s a decent start, but there’s just so much out there. My goal was to give a wide berth of comics to a wide audience, so I didn’t include racier stuff like Preacher, The Invisibles, or The Boys. Including The Walking Dead (and, by extension, anything Robert Kirkman writes) would be pretty much redundant at this point. I left off personal favorites, like The Adventures of Barry Ween, Blankets, and Mike Grell’s Green Arrow run (while still dropping them in at the end). Superhero stories tend to require tons of different issues and often from different series. Mostly, I didn’t want to overwhelm.
Last thing: you can read lists like this all day long (and I have). You’ll find similar items or slight variations, but nothing is a substitute for going to a local comic shop and talking to a knowledgable owner or manager about the kinds of books you like and where to begin. If it’s a good shop with a friendly staff, you’ll have a team of people ready and willing to support your new hobby. They’ll help you find quality books outside the “top” lists–books that you’ll love rather than just books which are generally agreed to be the best.