A friend of mine got a gift certificate to a comic shop recently, and asked me for some graphic novel recommendations. He’s not a huge comics fan, so I pulled together a list for him focussing on some of the most outstanding examples of the format. I thought the list might be interesting to others, so I’m sharing it here. Most of these should be easy to find at your local comic shop or big book store, as well as online. Prices vary, but most graphic novels are between $10 and $20.
I love superhero books, but most aren’t worth buying the collections and keeping on your shelf. These are the standout entries in the field, and are worth having.
Nextwave: Warren Ellis’ critique of the superhero genre is satirical, humorous and violent, as you’d expect. The dialog alone is worth the price of admission here.
All-Star Superman: The least pretentious superman book ever written. This is not the modern, angsty Superman so many people write. This is closer to the classic, near-godlike superman, who is absolutely good and wants only the best for everyone. This is the best straight-up superhero story I have ever read.
Watchmen: The movie was okay, and you’re probably familiar with the premise, but this was one of the first attempts at a serious superhero book. Moore brought us realistic, often unlikeable characters, all struggling to make a difference, and a startling twist on the big bad villain. Still worth owning, even with all the hype.
Casanova: It’s stretching a bit to call this a superhero book. More like James Bond crossed with Nick Fury. This book opens with legendary thief Casanova Quinn being pulled out of time by a supervillain from another dimension where Casanova is a hero, and recruits him to kill his father. And it gets weirder from there. The artwork is phenomenal and the plot is convoluted. You’ll love it.
These comics are attempts to write more literary, less sensational comics, and avoid falling into the tropes of the classic superhero comics. Gaiman is the master of this, though Fables is a worthy follow-up. Both are LONG-running series (10 sandman books, 15+ fables books), so buying the first two books in the series is like dipping your toe in the water.
Sandman: Neil Gaiman’s famous series about dreams, folklore and mythology.
Fables: another fantastic long-running series about if fairy story characters were real.
These comics don’t really fit the standard image people have of western comics. They are charming, creative, and absolutely unlike anything you read growing up.
Bone: An absolutely epic series about a group of disney-like cartoon “bones” who leave their homeland (wizard-of-oz-style) and end up in a grim, gritty fantasy land, where they deal with dragons and destiny. An absolute classic. To get the most bang for your buck, you can buy the all-in-one black and white edition, which is the size of a phone book, or you can buy the colored individual books. The color doesn’t add a lot, since the series was released in black and white, but it’s certainly a little nicer.
Beanworld: Unlike anything you’ve ever read. In a strange way, it’s like a science experiment, detailing a strange, cartoon world with different rules and laws. The characters know they’re in a 2D world, and build objects out of component elements in their environment. Hard to explain, but a joy to read.
Scott Pilgrim: Since the movie, everyone knows the premise, but the original comics are still great. More like manga than anything else, this series has a phenomenal pacing and energy that still makes it one of my favorite series of all time.