|Art by Duncan Fegredo|
I loved comics as a child--well, I loved the pictures. I'd flip through, taking inspiration for my little sketches of minotaurs, heroes, robots, dinosaurs, snake women--the usual. I never really had two issues in order, so reading comics always felt like walking into a movie halfway through. In college, I found self-contained graphic novels, and actually started enjoying comics for the story. By sheer happenstance, the first comics I read ended up being some of the best ever written. As some of my friends have pointed out, this has given me extremely high expectations for what comics can and should be--the only person who is harder to please is my old college roommate, who has only read the top 10% of stuff I passed on to him.
After the success of my post 'Suggested Readings in Fantasy', I've gotten a few requests for a similar list for comics, which I've finally found time to actually do. One of the standard lines in comic promotions is that the fans are 'character-centric', meaning that they don't tend to care who the writer or artist is, as long as the story is about Fantomah or The Whizzer or Fatman The Human Flying Saucer--or whomever their favorite hero happens to be. I'm the opposite. I pretty much only care about who wrote it--and sometimes who drew it--which is how I will be organizing this list. My reviews will be linked if I've written one, and as ever, this list will change as I keep reading.
Pat Mills and 2000AD
Carl Barks and Don Rosa
EC Comics and Mad Magazine
Jean Giraud (Mœbius)
Alan Moore and Peter Milligan are two of the only authors in comics who are capable of bringing a literary sensibility to their work. They are true stylists, playing with the conventions of the genre, exploring its possibilities--and of the two, Milligan possesses the greater subtlety and sense of irony. His revamp of Shade: The Changing Man is one of the most perfectly realized and thoroughly explored arcs in comics. Some of the individual issues are simply flawless. The series does start a bit slowly, and the weakest writing is at the beginning, before Milligan finds his voice. Unfortunately, the trade paperback collections of the series only cover the first arc, so if you want to read it, it's either find back issues, or a torrent. However, his other works are somewhat easier to find. Enigma is a thematic parallel to Moore's Watchmen, but progresses in a more naturalistic, personal way, as opposed to Moore's grander narrative setpieces. The Extremist is a disturbing delving beneath the flesh of man. What is perhaps most remarkable about Milligan is that each of his stories is different, in terms of approach, theme, and tone. His most famous work may be Human Target, which was even picked up as a TV show--but while entertaining, it does not reach the depth or complexity of his other work.
Ellis is an intriguing writer, capable of getting strange without losing the thread of his story. He can be by turns creepy, scathing, sarcastic, silly, and touching--and if you like stories about reckless rebels making their own way through an insane world, then he's the author for you. His magnum opus is Transmetropolitan, a post-cyberpunk love letter to gonzo journalism. Also good are Desolation Jones, a CIA spook story about plastic LA, Fell, a more subtle and unsettling piece about a young cop in a bad part of town, Planetary, his enjoyable and somewhat odd take on the superhero genre, Global Frequency, a sci fi conspiracy thriller, and Nextwave, a madcap parody of super team books full of ironic nostalgia. Unfortunately, he also has some works that don't quite make the grade, such as The Authority and BlackGas, where the treatment is a bit too slipshod to do justice to the idea.
Kurt Busiek is the consummate storyteller of comic books. His pacing, his characters, his ideas, his sense of scene--they're always just where they should be. His work shows that you don't have to take apart the whole genre, like Moore or Ellis, in order to make good comics--sometimes it's enough just to pen a great yarn. Busiek's Astro City is just that: a well-done, compelling take on the superhero genre Busiek loves, full of hardship, but also hope. It's what capes comics should be, if DC and Marvel were run by writers instead of nerds obsessed with continuity and in-jokes. His Dark Horse run on Conan The Barbarian is likewise beyond reproach--it's one of the most perfect recreations of the original author's intent in a new medium that I've ever seen-- made doubly good by the painterly art of Cary Nord.
Mignola is one of those rare creatures: the writer/artist who is profoundly good at both. When I first saw the Hellboy film, I figured Mignola's comic was just another wacky, Lovecraft romp with Nazi magic and all the other cliches of the occult. Then I actually read the comic. The film never even comes close to capturing the intense and deep way that Mignola plays with mythology. His inspirations are so rich and varied, his allusions and brief references capable of suggesting a vast and intriguing world behind the world. I tend to find his short stories to be much better than the comic's 'main plotline', because the constant driving plot takes a lot away from the subtle pacing and rich tone of the shorter works. Eventually, the main plot just gives itself up to wholesale exposition, but there has been some improvement since Mignola took on Duncan Fegredo as artist--and to his credit, Fegredo has perfectly distilled and reproduced Mignola's style. He is simply the best living comic artist out there today. Mignola also did the art for a comic based on the Lankhmar series, with Howard Chaykin taking writing duties, which I found quite enjoyable and true to the original.
In some ways The Maxx is the quintessential 90's comic: violent, introspective, angsty, all about a faceless badass dude--and yet Keith manages to turn the whole thing into a cartoon of itself by simply asking the question 'What really separates Wolverine from a crazy homeless man with delusions of grandeur?' The answer may surprise you. Truthfully, that's only Keith's starting point, and he takes the story to some very interesting places afterwards, asking questions about the nature of self, reality, perception, and the fundamental need for companionship. It does go on a bit, at the end, but there's something fascinating about watching a mind unravel, and wondering what will be left when all's said and done.
Comics About Comics
If you're interested in better understanding how the medium works, the specific ways that art and words interact, and how we as critics can give good comics the thorough time and thought they deserve, I suggest Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Will Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art, and Josiah Leighton's blog on the subject.
These comics are fairly solid, and worth a read. Quite a few of these came close to making the big list.
- Brian Michael Bendis: Powers is a pretty good deconstruction of the capes genre, but the longer it goes on, the more it starts to turn into a generic supers story, periodically overlaid with ranting walls of text.
- Enki Bilal: The Nikopol Trilogy is interesting enough, and quite lovely, but it's also self-indulgent and lacking in focus. Some have suggested this is purposeful, but I'm not sure that really helps. It did invent the sport of Chess Boxing, though, which goes in its favor.
- Nicolas de Crécy: while he is an amazing artist--one of the best in comics--I'm not yet convinced of his storytelling skills. Glacial Period is pretty, but it has that same French habit of false profundity that undermines so much of Jean Giraud's plotting.
- Geof Darrow: Shaolin Cowboy has great, detailed art--and the book is worth a read just for that. However, the story is rather lacking, and its oddness is too self-conscious.
- Jamie Delano: Hellblazer is an entertaining example of urban fantasy, though it's very long, and has a lot of ups and downs as different writers take over--but pretty much every great writer out there has done a run at some point.
- Garth Ennis: Preacher is well-plotted, but Ennis' obsession with being over-the-top crude and 'edgy' made the whole thing rather puerile, and not in a clever way.
- Neal Gaiman: I tend to go back and forth on Sandman. There are some great high points in there, but also a lot of lulls and false starts, so overall it tends to average out. Black Orchid was more solid, but the environmental message was a little heavy. Only The End of the World Again is fun, but not remarkable.
- Brandon Graham: Prophet is a Sci Fi feast for the eyes, full of weird imagery and ideas. Unfortunately, the pacing is so rushed it all feels like a 'last episode' recap.
- Jean van Hamm: XIII is an enjoyable period spy piece, though the storytelling isn't always as smooth as one could wish.
- Hergé: I've only read the early Tintin stories, which are fairly haphazard slapstick, plus the nationalistic and racist sentiments. Hopefully I'll enjoy the later books more.
- Hermann Huppen: Jeremiah (The Survivors) is a rather odd European take on the post apocalypse.
- Alejandro Jodorowsky: the plot of L'Incal became too lead-by-the-nose for my taste. Another 'lowly hero and all-powerful artifact tale', though Moebius' art is great, as ever.
- Robert Kirkman: Invincible is a pretty great series. It manages a good balance between mythic action and the realism we've come to expect in the post-Moore era.
- Scott Lobdell: Age of Apocalypse was one of the only comic series I actually read and enjoyed when I was young. In part, I liked it because it's all self-contained, and doesn't require a lot of foreknowledge--plus it's 'X-Men After The Bomb', which isn't a bad pitch.
- Jeph Loeb: His Batman pieces, Hush and Long Halloween, are about as good as mainstream cape books get.
- Frank Miller: 300, Sin City, and his Batman stories are classics, but they're so unselfconsciously edgy and uber-manly that its hard not to laugh at them.
- Grant Morrison: I find most of his stuff suffers from a lack of coherency. His better works include Kill Your Boyfriend, WE3, Seaguy, The Filth, and Arkham Asylum.
- Katsuhiro Otomo: Akira is beautifully realized, and has layers of complexity, but ultimately, the frantic action tends to be at odds with the attempts at deep philosophizing.
- Stefan Petruchia: Lance Barnes: Post Nuke Dick is a fun and odd little book, which ought to appeal to anyone who likes the Fallout series or the film A Boy and his Dog.
- Paul Pope: Batman: Year 100 has some great art and action, but the exposition and purpose of the story are sometimes lacking.
- Hugo Pratt: Corto Maltese is another Euro period piece, this time about sea voyaging. I've only read the first arc.
- Rick Remender: I had big hopes for Fear Agent, as a fan of Wallace Wood and EC Comics, but Remender can't seem to find a balance between wacky pulp and serious melodrama.
- Antonio Segura: Hombre is another fun Euro comic, set after the apocalypse, though the firm-bodied nude ladies can become a bit silly.
- Dave Sim: Cerebus is a contentious classic, and changed the game for indy comics--but I've only read the first arc, where it's mainly an action parody of fantasies like Conan and Elric.
- Oliver Simon: The Exterminators is certainly fun, but despite a strong start, it soon gets lost in its own wackiness and political message, and ultimately fails to deliver.
- Jeff Smith: Bone is an entertaining bit of fantasy, and the art is ingenious and effective. However, I found the storytelling was too bound up in flat archetypes.
- Jacques Tardi: The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec is fun--a bit silly, but entertaining.
- Judd Winick: Exiles is a pretty standard X-Dudes capes story, with some humor thrown in.
These are titles that I would not suggest reading.
- Jason Aaron: Scalped is an over-the-top grim tale of violence and poverty with the structure chopped into bits to make it seem complex.
- Jonathan Hickman: The Nightly News has a great sense of design, but the plot feels like talking politics with a college freshman who just learned the word 'Hegemony'.
- Joe Hill: Locke and Key is a rehash of Horror and Urban Fantasy tropes without a lot of thrust. Hyper-stylized skater art and awful dodge and burn coloring don't help.
- Antony Johnston: Wasteland is a post-apocalyptic story, but lacks depth. All the conflicts play out on the surface, and the pacing is rather stilted.
- Robert Kirkman: The Walking Dead is mostly just an extended and repetitive soap opera, and the art drops off after the first arc.
- Jonathan Luna: Ultra was completely forgettable, and the art didn't do it any favors.
- Mark Millar: Millar is sophomoric to the point of stupidity. Wanted and Kick-Ass are Dark Age titles written twenty years too late to be relevant. Red Son is an interesting idea made pointless.
- Grant Morrison: in The Invisibles, Morrison seems to have thrown together every wacky idea he could think of to see what would stick. Very little of it does. Animal Man was the book that made his reputation, but unlike the deconstruction of other britwave writers, his doesn't seem to have much in the way of insight or originality.
- James O'Barr: The Crow ultimately takes itself too seriously for a goth-themed revenge story. The movie's better.
- Bryan Lee O'Malley: Scott Pilgrim is quirkiness done by-the-book, which rather defeats the point. Also weirdly homophobic.
- Paul Pope: Heavy Liquid has some excellent art, but Pope can't quite seem to marry words to it.
- James Robinson: Starman was supposed to be another great Britwave comic, like Shade or Hellblazer, but I didn't see much there--though I only read the first arc.
- Doug TenNapel: Creature Tech feels more like a rough draft than a finished product, and the religious moralizing feels tacked-on.
- Brian K. Vaughan: Y: The Last Man is basically a harem anime, where characters make nonsensical decisions in order to maintain the plot. Runaways has the same character problem. Pride of Baghdad is just badly-written.
- Bill Willingham: Fables is completely uninspired, scripted with all the aplomb of a teenager. It takes mythic themes explored decades ago in Sandman and Hellboy and does absolutely nothing with them.
- Joss Whedon: Fray gives us a look at the sci fi future of vampire slaying, but fails to serve up anything new, lacking even Whedon's usual clever dialogue.
- Brian Wood: DMZ and Northlanders are both told without any subtlety. The characters constantly inform you what they are thinking and feeling, and the female characters are quite bad.
The following are titles I haven't gotten to yet, but which I plan to read when I find the time.
- Mike Allred Madman
- Sergio Aragones Groo the Wanderer
- Bob Burden Flaming Carrot
- Juan Diaz Canales Blacksad
- Joe Casey Automatic Kafka
- Howard Chaykin American Flagg, Challengers of the Unknown
- Pierre Christin Valerian
- Nicolas De Crecy Foligatto
- Paul Chadwick Concrete
- Geof Darrow Hard Boiled, Doc Frankenstein
- J.M. DeMatteis Moonshadow, Abadazad
- Will Eisner The Spirit, A Contract With God
- Warren Ellis Ministry of Space
- Harlan Ellison Vic and Blood
- Steve Gerber Howard The Duck, Destroyer Duck
- Rene Goscinny Asterix
- Brian Haberlin Anomaly
- Jean Van Hamme Thorgal
- Jamie Hewlett Tank Girl
- Jonathan Hickman Pax Romana, Transhuman
- Richard E. Hughes Herbie Popnecker
- John Layman Chew
- Scott McCloud Zot
- Peter Milligan Bad Company, Greek Street
- Mike Mignola Rocket Raccoon
- Alan Moore's Miracleman, From Hell, The Ballad of Halo Jones, Promethea
- Grant Morrison Doom Patrol, Flex Mentallo, Seven Soldiers
- Hector German Oesterheld El Eternauta and Mort Cinder
- John Ostrander Grimjack
- Paul Pope 100%
- Eric Powell The Goon
- Stan Sakai Usagi Yojimbo
- Rob Schrab Scud
- Eric Shanower Age of Bronze
- Osamu Tezuka Metropolis, Phoenix, Black Jack
- Greg Tocchini The Last Days of American Crime, Sequence Shot
- G. Willow Wilson Air
And though I know they have a few other highly-touted books out, my initial experiences with Brian Wood and Brian K. Vaughan have soured me on them rather thoroughly. If you enjoyed this list, you may also like my Suggested Readings in Fantasy.