I have often thought of what I think are the best graphic novels — the books I would recommend to people who are starting to read comics. Sometimes this is because I have been asked, or the conversation is about it anyway. Sometimes this is just because I’m a gigantic nerd.
Either way, I thought it about time I set up a list with basic descriptions I can refer people to. So without further ado…
Understanding Comics is an explanation of how comics function mechanically and how to interpret the artistic conventions often used in comics. It is, of course, in comic format. It moves through the history of comics, definitions of the term “comic” and “graphic novels” (not as simple a task as you think), the expression of time’s passage, simultaneity, and many of the other ideosyncracies that make comics a unique artistic medium.
I know this hardly sounds like an exciting work in the world of “zap!” “pow!” and “bang!” but it turns out to be a fascinating read. Some of the bits will make you go “huh, I never thought of that!” Others will make you think “I knew that, but I didn’t know that.” All in all, it lends depth to the medium that will make you appreciate it that much more.
This is actually the first graphic novel I think of, every time. I moved it down because it seemed so apropos to have Understanding Comics come first. The sequence in which the recommendations appear has very little, if anything, to do with their quality.
Feeling that the world no longer strives for the ideals he stands for, Superman has been in self-imposed exile for ten years. In his absence, super “heroes” are out of control: their violence and disregard for life often surpasses that of the villains they fight. Desperate to make things right, Wonder Woman convinces Kal-El to return and lead his peers as he once did. Not everyone is happy about this, however, and the strife between various anti-metahuman forces, villains, and Superman’s peers seems prepared to hit apocalyptic proportions.
There really isn’t anything that can stop Superman. Good writers of Superman stories know this. You basically have two approaches, outright murder him with kryptonite, or you write a story about revealing character through choices. Waid takes the latter road (even going so far as the close the first road by having Lex Luthor point out that after so long on Earth, even a kryptonite bomb wouldn’t be enough to stop Superman anymore). What’s on trial in Kingdom Come isn’t whether Superman can beat the foe (though with a surprise twist, a test of his physical power comes as well), but whether staying true to his values can save himself or others, or whether his self-righteousness will destroy society.
All the characters of the DC Universe are here (even the Wonder Twins, it turns out). And there are loads of Easter eggs and detailed nuance, both in writing and art, on every page. Any given panel is a joy to look at, thanks to Ross’s artistic mastery. But despite all the geeky fan service, there’s a tight story here that can be enjoyed by even those with a passing familiarity with the big players of the DCU. In my opinion, this is the greatest Superman story ever told.
Grasscutter (Usagi Yojimbo, Vol. 12)
Usagi Yojimbo is a historical fantasy series set in the Edo period of Japan’s history and draws on Japanese myth and legend to complete it. The primary character is a ronin – masterless samurai.
And he’s a rabbit.
All the characters are represented as animals, and it’s not really a metaphor or anything like that. Though the fact that one particular manipulative character is presented as a snake is perhaps not entirely coincidental.
Grasscutter is Sakai’s triumph, a masterful story, and the way he tells it is entirely self-contained – there’s no need for familiarity with Usagi’s previous adventures. The story surrounds the discovery of an ancient sword that can make or break the shogunate, the struggles to take control of it, and what Usagi must do to prevent all out civil war.
A great many of the Usagi Yojimbo stories are very good. It’s more than worth it to read any of the collected stories, but Grasscutter is a cut above even Sakai’s other excellent work.
Maus, Volumes I & II
Maus is the biography of Spiegelman’s father, a Jewish World War II survivor, framed by the story of Spiegelman’s relationship with his father.
Spiegelman uses animals to represent the characters, but that doesn’t make this powerful story cartoonish or childish in anyway. It actually serves as a powerful way to illustrate race relations. Jews are represented as mice. Germans are cats. Americans are dogs, and so on.
While anthropomorphism in Sakai’s work is an aethetic style choice, Spiegelman’s animals remind us of our visciousness and how little above animals we actually are. And while McCloud can explain comics, Spiegelman puts those principles into raw practice.
Maus is worth reading as a telling of history, as an exploration of human relations, and as a showcase of effective storytelling using the comics medium. It transcends all of these, forming a solid work of art and literature.
I hesitate to put two books by the same creator on the same segment of the same list, but Ross is just that good. Plus I’m going to do it again with Will Eisner in a later edition. Maybe I should have split them, but I thought since I threw DC comics a place in the first part of this series, I’d better look even handed and put a Marvel Comics book here as well.
Not that I chose Marvels solely to balance publications by The Big Two. Marvels stands on it’s own.
The book tells the history of the Marvel universe, starting with the first appearance of superheroes with the original Human Torch, The Submariner, and Captain America, and hitting all the biggest stories that shaped what is iconic about Marvel superheroes.
Through the eyes of Daily Bugle photographer Phil Sheldon we see the world shaped by the rise of superheroes, the formation of the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Avengers, and Spider-Man — as well as the biggest, most emotional stories that happened to these characters.
The real brilliance was chosing a normal person to be the viewpoint. In most comics there’s simply the feeling of triumph as heroes win the day. Making Sheldon the narrator let’s us see the fallout. And yes, there’s hero worship, but there’s also acknowledgement of the uncertainty of people who feel they might not be in charge of their own destiny. There’s more reason to mourn at death and more reason to celebrate victory.
Marvels is a primer on the big events of Marvel Comics history, true. But it’s also a great story that gives additional meaning to those events.