Thursday, 25 December 2008

Top Ten Graphic Novels (Comics!)

When I was a small little Matt, I was always a big comic reader. But then I grew out of it, prefering more adult pursuits such as collecting small plastic toys. However recently my friends and the dreaded Intarweb got me back into reading comics, though in graphic novel form rather than individual papery comics that fall to bits easily. As a general rule, graphic novels are a run of half a dozen or so comics that collect a few storylines by the same author, so you get more bang for your buck and also sustained quality (in that if it is in graphic novel format, it must have been good, there is no month delay every 24 pages and you don't run the risk of some half crazed hack randomly wandering in to your book with no warning and ruining it all)

So here are my top ten graphic novel recommendations, for those of you wanting to dip your feet in and read a few. They're generally not expensive, as an average price can range from £5-£10 which isn't half bad!

10. Marvels
We'll start off with an obvious one. Marvels is a miniseries painted by top artist Alex Ross which basically tells the story of the Marvel universe, from the 40's through to the 70's as seen through the eyes of the general populace, the main character being a news photographer who links the various set pieces together.

This is very apt, since Marvel always concentrated on the down-to-earth aspects, and so we get themes on how people are ungrateful to those who help them, highlighting the unselfishness of the heroes. And its all very pretty, from the firey battle between Namor and the Human Torch in the 40's to various heroes storming a Nazi stronghold and the Avengers fighting in space.

I got my dad the hardback version for Christmas. It cost an arm and a leg, but was worth it because it was one of the best things I have ever got him. And it is quality

Availability: One volume, paperback or hardback (hardback is prettier!)

9. The Dark Knight Returns
Another obvious one here. The Dark Knight Returns basically epitomises comics of the 80's and kickstarted the whole 'grim and gritty grr' era. But don't put it down because of that, it still stands up very well today even with all the pretenders which have crowed around it.

It is the future, and Bruce Wayne has long since retired as Batman. But as the skies darken and society's political correctness and reliance on 'experts' release all Batman's own foes and the criminal element spirals out of control, Mr Wayne snaps and becomes Batman again, proving that sometimes you have to take the law into your own hand. The excessively violent acts of this new Batman are not universally praised though, as he is condemned as much as he is loved for his war on crime.

The book gets darker and darker as the elderly Batman faces Two-Face, the mutant gang (the new criminals who sprang up in the intervening years), a final confrontation with the Joker and at last a climatic battle with Superman, who represents the authority of America, and who Batman smacks about whilst dressed in a suit of bat-armour, answering the question once and for all: Who would win - Superman or Batman?

Availabilty: Everywhere in softcover format. Don't get confused with the sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, which isn't as good

8. Invincible
From the grim and gritty to the bubbly and light, reading Invincible is like a breath of fresh air. It is comic and witty yet with enough serious twists and turns to keep you engrossed. Invincible is the story of Mark Grayson who is a newly starting out superhero whose dad is the most powerful being on the Earth - Omni-Man.
The Immortal deals with Bi-Plane in his own way...

Sometimes it does go a little too much into the whole 'teen drama' angle, but generally it balances out between Very Funny and Dramatic very well. I can't really write too much about it, because anything I do say would be a spoiler since the plot seems to swerve at complete right angles about every other issue, but that is generally a good thing (and sometimes incredibly shocking!)

Availiability: Currently there are nine softback tpbs out and four delicious hardbacks

7. Kingdom Come
Another one by Alex Ross, this time he tackles DC comics in his photorealistic painting style as we see the world of the future where newer, grittier superheroes have taken over from the ones we all know and love and enforce the law in their own violent way. A bit like Dark Knight Returns then. DC sure do love that plot!

In order to stop the tyranny, Superman and friends come out of retirement to lock up all the new heroes in a giant prison. But is Superman really above the law? And why is sneaky-leaky Batman betraying his friend to Lex Luthor?
This story is also notable for making Captain Marvel badass, as he attacks Superman with his gigantic crotch...

Availability: Anywhere that sells anything as one softback

6. Watchmen
Watchmen is one of those books that everyone regards as a complete and utter classic. 15 years after publication it still regularly shifts loads of copies for DC, and even today stands up as an excellent work of fiction.

Set in an alternate world where superheroes were little more than vigilantes without any special powers save their fists, Watchmen tells of the efforts of heroes Nite-Owl and Rorschach as they unravel a conspiracy which sees the remaining retired heroes killed off one by one, and the world on the brink of nuclear war.

America's nuclear deterrant, the only true superpowered being, Dr Manhatten, has gone walkabout on Mars no longer caring about the human race and the whole idea of what a superhero is is brought crashing down to earth as writer Alan Moore firmly roots motives and origins in real life showing how even the noblest of beings is, at the end of the day, a complete and utter psychopath

Availability: Everywhere the world over as a large softback

5. The Ultimates
The Ultimates makes Captain America hardcore. Thats all that needs to be said, really. What, you want more?

The Ultimates is basically Marvel's Avengers but rooted in a real-world setting, akin to all the Marvel movies that have been coming out recently. We have Iron Man as a drunken playboy, Thor as a hippy environmentalist (and the best character) and Captain America truely as a man out of time, having been defrosted from the antarctic wastes. It has the Hulk, shapeshifting Nazi aliens and more flying saucers than you can shake a stick at.

And it mocks France

Availabilty: Volume 1 is available as two softcover paperbacks, or a nifty hardback

4. Formally Known As The Justice League
In the eighties, the Justice League battled many dangers, such as invaders from space, super powered villains and the tropical island resort of Koey-Koey-Koey. But it soon disbanded. Now Maxwell Lord, noted industrialist, wants his team back together again and recruits the old gang from unemployment to fight crime for the common man... as The Superbuddies!
If you hadn't guessed, this is a very very silly book. And actually genuinely funny. Most of it revolves around the twisted friendship held by the Blue Beetle (who is now suddenly mature because of his 'heart condition') and Booster Gold (who is characterised as a "horny 12 year old"). The gang fight super powered street thugs, Max's terrible, terrible advertising campaign, an intergalatic battle arena and an alien invasion (for love!)
I can't recommend this enough. There is currently a sequel being produced, "I Can't Believe It's Not The Justice League" in which Blue Beetle gets distracted by a woman with big breasts and leaves Booster Gold unsupervised for a few minutes, directly resulting in their entire team getting banished to hell. Great stuff!
Availability: The miniseries is collected in one softcover tpb, which you can easily find online at least

3. Swamp Thing
Or rather Alan Moore's Swamp Thing. In the 80's, Alan Moore took a comic that was to be fair, a bit old and formulaic, turning it on its head. In his second issue, "The Anatomy Lesson" which features the dissection of an apparently dead Swamp Thing, we learn that the titular character was not a man turned into a plant, as previously thought, but a plant who believed that he was a man. From this revelation Moore took the comic into strange new dimensions as Swamp Thing explored the boundaries of reality, fought werewolves, vampires, living plant men and met a short British guy called Constantine...
Constantine makes his first comic appearance in these pages, and is a far cry from Keanu Reeves! Together they battle an evil cult that summons the original darkness back to the universe in order to destroy Heaven, and the run features a double-length issue with Swamp Thing in the spiritual realms meeting such classic characters as The Phantom Stranger as he battles the Darkness.

Moore's run is an incredible journey, from Earth to the netherworld to outer space, and it is never short on imagination. Despite the art looking somewhat primative today, it really is a must read for the quality of the text alone

Availabilty: Moore's run is available in 6 tpbs, the best ones being 3 & 4 which collect the first Constantine stories

2. Planetary
One day writer Warren Ellis decided to make a comic that told the story of all fiction. And thus 'Planetary' was born, a comic which tells the secret history of the past century. Each issue is themed diffently, from a gritty 80's one to pulp fantasy to Hong Kong gunfighting. If you don't like one issue, you are sure to like the next
Planetary is an archeological organisation run by the mysterious 'Fourth Man' who could be anyone, from Bill Gates to Hitler (we do find out who he is eventually though, I shan't spoil it). On the Planetary field team are Elijah Snow (you have to love a character called Mr Snow) who can make things cold, Jakita Wagner who is your everyday superhuman, and The Drummer, who can control all communications and technology. They drift in an out of events exploring the strange world in which we live and occasionally pitting wits against The Four, an evil twisted version of The Fantastic Four

Availability: Currently three softback tpbs are out, as well as an oversized expensive hardcover of the first 12 issues

1. Animal Man
For many, writer Grant Morrison's best work is his writing on 'New X-Men'. For others, it is 'The Invisibles'. For me however, it is Animal Man, his first American work which proves for all time why British writers are so good (or batshit insane, whatever...)

Animal Man was your average blink-and-you'll-miss-him DC character. He appeared in a few comics decades ago, got a walk-on role in Crisis On Infinite Earths (a massive DC event which featured every single character and saw continuity reset) and... thats about it. So in the late eighties, it was a bit of a surprise when DC decided to give him an ongoing series, written by Grant Morrison. But it was a good move.
Animal Man is otherwise known as Buddy Baker, an average thirtysomething with a wife and two kids. He also has superpowers (namely the abilities of any animal nearby) and in the first issues, decides to try to make some money by going back into the superhero business. He gets to briefly meet Superman and in the first four issue miniseries he uncovers dodgy goings on with a stolen monkey and a genetics lab.

Its all quite run of the mill stuff, but there are touches of genius/oddness. For example, when he loses an arm, he uses the regenerative powers of a worm to grow it back. It is really issue five though, The Coyote Gospel, where the comic really takes off. In it, Animal Man meets a coyote called Crafty who has been banished to our world from a cartoon one as a sacrifice to save his world from endless violence (he is basically Wile-E-Coyote). On our Earth, he must undergo agonising death after death to safeguard his own world, dying for everyone's sins. Yes, Wile-E-Coyote is actually Jesus.
Most of the stories span single issues, but with a massive overarching plot that reaches out across it all. Animal Man encounters ghosts, aliens, a gigantic retcon about his origin and more. He goes on a drug-induced hallucination and learns the secret of the universe before being brought down to Earth in a truly shocking event.

I shan't witter on too much about it though, but needless to say Grant Morrison is an amazing writer. One of the main themes of Animal Man is the limitations and virtues of the fictionality of comics, of what happens when the continuity changes and old versions of the characters simply vanish
One of the main plots of the last third is the undoing of the events of Crisis On Infinite Earths, as all the characters who were wiped out start coming back to life in Arkham Asylum and discover the nature of their own fictionality. But you really have to read it all for yourself. The last issue in particular is worth the price of the collection alone

Availability: Grant Morrison's Animal Man is collected in three softcover tpbs: Animal Man; Origin of the Species; and Deus Ex Machina. Buy them all, read them in that order, enjoy!


  1. So.. you're not so much into Garth Ennis then?

  2. Bah, I dont think anyone looking to dip their toe into graphic novels should start with "supers" they should start closer to home, its more accessable. Ghost World was my first love, and it will be my last.... (unless it finds out about the wild affair I had with Tank Girl..)

  3. That's 'Origin of the Species,' not 'Original of the Species.'

    Fantastic choices, over all. I've read/am reading most of them, and several others are on my list of 'been planning to read that one some day.'

    I disagree with the idea that "no one" should start with graphic novels via superheroes. The fact is, superheroes are closer to home than they seem at first. They're today's myths and legends, and most superhero stories have an element of "basic humanity, writ large and fantastic." I've gotten many readers into graphic novels starting with supers, but choosing carefully which supers I'm sharing.

    Still, I think my list would go somewhat different - on the other hand, it would be so hard to pick just 10!