DS, with JDS:
Disclaimer: Scrooge McDuck or Spawn, it’s all comics. Shy of Scott McCloud, there’s not a whole lot of good universal reference material for the medium. But if you’re like us and you want to write comics with heart and humor as well as gunfire, uppercuts, and masks, here’s what we got.
Of course, there’s some required reading everyone should’ve taken care of before class. Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, at least one of the Sandman books… I’d put The DC Universe Stories of Alan Moore on there too, which includes Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? and The Killing Joke, as well as some other solid yarns from the dawn of the modern age of comics.
That’s the funnybook GED. JD and I both threw together lists of what we think ought to come next.
Perfect, the most optimistic Superman story ever written, despite being about his last days on earth. Every bit of jaded annoyance I have toward superheroes and the tired revolving doors of the genre goes away when I crack it open. The no-nonsense and well-composed art helps too. Quitely isn't trying to show you what an amazing artist he is, and that's what makes it amazing.
The first 20 issues of The Amazing Spider-Man:
A little dense and a little silly, but ultimately the blueprint for all young superhero drama to follow it. Not a story about a primary-colored fighter who can lift cars over his head, but a trefoil boy and his brushes with victory and heartbreak and goblin-masked rogues on jet powered broom sticks.
Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life:
Rough and uneven, but more earnest and funny than most anything I've read. Later volumes get more polished and technically proficient, but this is worth a read just for its verve.
Alex Toth’s Zorro:
I'll admit that this is on here mostly because it's one of the very few easily trackable volumes of Toth's comic work, but it showcases his skill with boiling a scene down to it's raw essentials and then making them shine. The fact that it's done around sub-par scripts makes it twice the feat.
Batman – Year One:
I'll admit that I wish David Mazzucchelli stuck around and drew superhero or detective stories instead of going indie on us, and I'll probably burn for it, but this mini series was amazing. The illustration is in the school of Toth, but the strong impressionistic streak makes every scene stand out visually. I hear that Miller guy wrote some pretty good words too.
Darwyn Cooke’s The Spirit:
It probably shows something odd in the industry that short, fun, easily digestible one off stories are something to be lauded as a breath of fresh air, but that's what these are. Cooke's visual style carries a lot of the weight, but as a whole it's a good example of revitalizing a classic without needing to start throwing the ‘gritty’ word around.
Calvin and Hobbes:
It's a testament to these strips that I read them so often as to forget how much they've influenced me. Life, death, humor, friendship, childhood and growing up in 4 panel snippets. And it all feels natural.
Honorable mention… Preacher:
Vulgar and awful pap, until it reveals a genuinely sensitive eye to religion and love and every universal theme you can think of. It's contrast of the sick and the disturbed to the gentle and thoughtful says something about human nature in general.
New York – the Big City:
A character study of the city that never sleeps, told in the form of dozens of short human vignettes. Eisner does remarkable things with silence, sound, tightness and space, systematically proving there’s no scene that has a right to be boring. There’s so much acting and set design in these pages that it’s not a graphic novel so much as an exhibition match.
The Punisher – In the Beginning, Up is Down and Black is White, Man of Stone, and The Long Cold Dark:
Garth Ennis plays it straight with this somber, poetic, extraordinarily violent series of Frank Castle stories. The entire run is worth a read, but these four arcs in particular form an overarching storyline, throwing a slew of memorable, sometimes disturbing, characters against the grim stoicism of an aging Punisher whose life is beginning to gain a terrifying perspective. The end of the last volume is one of the very few comics that has moved me to tears.
Daredevil – Born Again:
Born Again can be seen as a companion piece of sorts to Year One, which is arguably the better comic. Born Again is not half so beautiful and focused—The narrative jumps all around Daredevil’s supporting cast, following a whole mess of narrative arcs in each chapter, each of them echoing Matt Murdock’s own journey from ruin to redemption—and the full-page spread where Matt’s redemption evidences itself is one of the greatest thrills in comics, in eighties fiction as a whole. Year One is an experience, but Born Again is an opera.
Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol:
Cliff Steele and Crazy Jane are, absurdly, one of the great love stories in comics. Over a six volume run packed with mind-expanding Dadaist weirdness, the relationship between a human brain in a robot body and a woman with sixty-four metahuman personalities is a fascinating, uncomfortable, and disarmingly sweet thing to watch evolve.
Classic Miller, with Sienkiewicz at the height of his powers. Some books create a certain atmosphere, but some—like this one—create a whole psychological state. You get a paranoid runner’s high off this book, and it’s dense enough to be your supply for a week, in moderation. It’s also a bit of a what not to do in terms of pacing near the end, though it snaps it off beautifully on the last page.
A 90’s-style cop drama with superpowers. It’s a long line of great character moments in between two covers (and there’s two volumes of this, plus a prequel). Gene Ha’s incredibly intricate, Easter egg-laden art is just icing.
Batman and Robin #1-3:
Much as I’d like to put Morrison’s entire Batman-related run on this list, these particular issues—joined by Frank Quietly, doing some of his rawest work to date—represent the best superhero comics of this young century. With Dick Grayson as a joking daredevil Batman, Damien Wayne as an edgy ten year-old Robin, and a flying, eco-friendly Batmobile to carry them into action and danger, Batman and Robin is a forward-looking pop-pulp mystery adventure that stands as a blueprint for superhero fiction both modern and future.
Sandman Mystery Theatre:
Great for two reasons. One: the well-written, adult relationship between Wesley Dodds and Diane Belmont. It’s one of the most realistic ‘my boyfriend has a secret identity’ romances out there. Two: a gritty, unglamorous, utterly human depiction of 1940’s New York. Two point five: early 90’s Guy Davis.
Honorable mention… Peter Milligan’s Human Target:
Very similar to Ennis’ Punisher in terms of atmosphere and characters, combined with an overarching theme of identity and questions about same in the twenty-first century. The last great Vertigo series—so far.
You also probably ought to read some Fantastic Four comics. Mark Waid, Alan Davis, or go back and grab the original Kirby and Lee. Fantastic Four. It is the world’s greatest comic magazine, after all.
Go forth and create.