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With the increasing proliferation of hardcovers and trade paperbacks as viable alternatives to the serialized, floppy pamphlet form of comic books that dominated the industry for most of its history, readers looking for something new are faced with an enormous diversity of titles, genres and styles from which to choose. That seems to especially be true in the real mainstream, retail bookstores. Both independent and chain stores seem to be increasing their stock of graphic novels in the wake of growing awareness of the artform through articles in such influential publications as Publishers Weekly (a key industry trade publication) and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.
There seem to be three kinds of graphic novels in most of the big chain bookstores; Manga obviously dominate in many stores -- and it's always heartening to see the very different customer base browsing the selections in a Borders or Barnes and Noble than what you see in the average comics shop. After Manga, the biggest occupier of shelf space seems to be corporate superhero volumes, followed by alternative artcomix of the type published by Fantagraphics, Drawn and Quarterly, Top Shelf and others. In my anecdotal experience, the number and variety of these titles can vary widely from store to store in the true mainstream of retail bookselling, but increasingly it seems that most shops have at least one person on staff who has an interest in comics and graphic novels and provides insight into what to carry and how it should be presented to the customer.
The oldest and largest independent bookstore in my area has a small but impressive selection, and it's instructive to see how the preferences of the staff memeber in charge of widening the offerings within the past year is in evidence. Artcomix dominate, with staff recommendation cards almost always highlighting worthy material like the recent McSweeney's #13 hardcover edited by Chris Ware, or the latest release from Joe Sacco. Then there's a decent entry-level shelf or two of basic superhero graphic novels and collections, and on the bottom there's two shelves of Manga. Exactly the opposite of the arrangement at the local Borders store, but still managing to offer something for just about every type of comics consumer.
In this article, I'm highlighting ten vital graphic novels that demonstrate the power and diversity that is to be found in the comics artform. By no means should this be interpreted as the "only ten that matter," but more that if you've read these ten works, you have a good base from which to further map out your exploration of comics, as well as having ten incredibly entertaining, beautiful and thought-provoking works in your personal library; works that you will return to again and again.
Note: Clicking on the image accompanying each entry will open a new window with a larger image of the book being discussed.
#10 -- The Absolute Authority Volume One
A massive, oversized hardcover enclosed in a slipcase, this collects the essential Authority issues, #1-12 by "The fucking Beatles," as Warren Ellis called his team of himself, Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary and Laura DePuy. This volume is key to understanding what was right about superhero comics in the very last days of the previous century -- it's explosive, unapologetic action with just enough characterization to make you root for the heroes as they take on terrorism, interdimensional invaders, and finally God itself. On top of that, we find writer Warren Ellis working at his subversive best -- the leader of the team is a woman, the strongest member is gay, as is his partner, the team's brutal tactician, and the idea of chaos magick is even touched upon in the character of The Doctor, although the depiction of his powers suggests more Dr. Strange than Mister Crowley.
The twelve Authority issues reprinted here tell three seperate story-arcs of increasing tension and intensity, and one over-arching storyline that is simply one of the very best ever told in the superhero genre. Warren Ellis is absolutely right when he compares the creative team's work on the first 12 issues of this title to the Beatles. Ellis, Hitch, Neary and DePuy were firing on all goddamned cylinders and taking no prisoners. This is the apotheosis of the widescreen storytelling technique in comics. Huge action, wild ideas, and fantastic and individual characterization that subsequent creators were only able to approximate. When it comes to spandex-clad warriors fighting for justice, The Authority #1-12 is one of my favourite runs of issues, and this collection presents it with the power and presentation it deserves. (Published by DC/Wildstorm)
#9 -- Daredevil: Born Again
This is the superhero graphic novel that I hold in the highest regard. Writer Frank Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli meshed in a way that few creative teams ever do, to tell a glorious, violent saga of loss, love and redemption. The story plays off the long history of the characters, but a knowledge of anything that's gone before is utterly unnecessary to an enjoyment of the story.
Certainly the best Daredevil story ever told, this book also represents a creative peak for Miller, who despite interesting experiments afterward (300, Sin City), has never since told a tale this dramatic, exciting and compellingly humanistic. (Published by Marvel Comics)
#8 -- Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth
Chris Ware's obsessively detailed, almost cheerfully bleak comics offer so much to readers. Nuanced, complex storylines and graphically fascinating images combine to fully immerse the reader into Ware's vision of the world, while his mastery of pacing and page design dazzle the senses and enhance the journey through the novel.
Jimmy Corrigan is among the most visually beautiful graphic novels ever produced, and one of the most holistic; the images, page design and iconography are as much a part of the text as the words on the page.
The story, of a timid loser whose life is almost entirely out of his control, is at once charming and depressing. Told in seemingly thousands of tiny panels painted in subtly brilliant hues, this is a haunting tale that will follow you long after you close it and walk away. (Published by Pantheon)
#7 -- Ghost World
The most accessible and linear work of cartoonist Dan Clowes, and in my opinion one of his very best graphic novels. While the complexity and formal experimentation of "Ice Haven" and "The Death-Ray" in Eightball #22 and #23 are rightly celebrated, Ghost World is Clowes stripping away almost any elements in his style that don't serve to directly place the reader into the privileged, empty lives of Enid and Rebecca.
The two girls graduate high school, expecting their lifelong friendship to continue to be just that despite their obvious differences in temperament and ambition, but they discover diverging paths in a story that serves as both parody and reflection of the best and worst of human relationships.
The film adaptation, which is available on DVD, veers widely from the graphic novel in tone and execution, but Clowes was closely associated with the production and ultimately Ghost World (the movie) is one of my very favourite films, as well.
Ghost World is a stunning, heartbreaking graphic novel and a breakthrough for both Clowes and the comics medium. (Published by Fantagraphics Books)
#6 -- Alec: How To Be an Artist
Campbell's life story is intertwined with the recent history of the comics artform and industry, and the reader keenly feels his successes and frustrations as he lays out his tale, here melancholy, there celebratory, always wistful and sardonic.
Campbell is one of the bright lights of the autobiographical genre, and all his Alec graphic novels are well worth seeking out, but this is where you should start. I guarantee you won't be able to stop at one. (Published by Eddie Campbell Comics)
#5 -- American Elf: The Collected Sketchbook Diaries of James Kochalka
Top Shelf publishers Chris Staros and Brett Warnock are to be thanked and congratulated for having the courage to publish every strip to date under one cover, in this massive and massively appealing volume.
Kochalka's work, both his music and his comics, is best appreciated over time. Time is what we experience here, as the first day gives way to the second, as the first month gives way to the next, as the years begin to roll by, funny, touching, human.
The cute moments, delightful drawings and startling insights have a cumulative effect that is most gratifying. Kochalka has a singularly off-kilter view of the universe that is as exhilerating as it is entertaining; the Sketchbook Diaries is his finest work. (Published by Top Shelf Productions)
#4 -- Hey, Wait...
This intense graphic novel by the uni-named Jason is deceptively open and cartoony, and might briefly fool the casual reader into thinking this is some sort of anthropomorphic laff-fest. Once you read it, though, you'll find it's one of the most downbeat and moving stories ever committed to paper.
Hey, Wait... feels very much like a life, lived, with all the sorrow and complexity that that implies. This brief graphic novel will insinuate itself into your consciousness and make you appreciate much more the remaining moments of your life, however many there may be. (Published by Fantagraphics Books)
#3 -- Louis Riel
Chester Brown's complex, riveting biographical portrait of one of the most unique individuals in Canadian history, a troubled firebrand whose refusal to cave in to forces more powerful than himself both reshaped his nation and got him killed.
This is Brown's career high to date, a tightly focused novel that demands your complete attention from beginning to the bitter end, generously supplemented with copious notes about the creation of the work and its historical accuracy. (Published by Drawn and Quarterly)
#2 -- The Diary of a Teenage Girl
A vital piece of the puzzle missing from comics, and most entertainment, is a female perspective. The few female creators who stand out most by definition point out the inequity inherent in the ratio of their work to that of male creators. Phoebe Gloeckner's powerfully honest and blunt stories of growing up female in these United States are disturbing and deeply, deeply affecting, and begin to remedy that inequity just a bit.
Like Gloeckner's A Child's Life before it, Diary is a landmark in autobiographical comics storytelling, inviting you to a center seat in the middle of the creator's consciousness. Much like Gloeckner herself, before it's over, you'll be screaming to be let out...and haunted by the thought that this scary, compelling story is far from unique. (Published by Frog, Ltd.)
#1 -- From Hell
Ostensibly Moore and Campbell's rumination on the possible identity of Jack the Ripper, this enormous graphic novel is at once a thrilling horror story, an amazing exploration of what comics are capable of, and an actual, real-life act of magick.
Moore and Campbell devoted years of their life to creating this staggering piece of work, which blends fiction and reality, entertainment and education -- breaking down the barrier between creators and reader along the way.
Moore's Watchmen with artist Dave Gibbions remains a is a wonderfully complex and entertaining work, but From Hell is where Moore's potential to tell stories in the comics medium reached its full flower (so far). From Hell changes the way you think about comics, history, and Moore's gift for using words and ideas to change and challenge both. (Published by Eddie Campbell Comics)
Conclusions and Exclusions
Although I am sure it's obvious that these are my choices for some of the most essential graphic novels in my collection, I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge some other significant works that deserve serious consideration once you've investigated the above list.
Gilbert Hernandez created probably the closest equivalent to Citizen Kane in comics form in Palomar, a gigantic hardcover collection from Fantagraphics that every comics reader needs to experience in order to have a fuller understanding of what is possible in comics.
Art Spiegelman's Maus was one of the first and most acclaimed graphic novels. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his retelling of his father's World War II-era experiences, at once a family history and a depiction of one of the most shameful and horrifying events in human history.
Will Eisner's Outer Space Spirit is out of print, but this spectacular collaboration with artist Wallace Wood represents some of the strongest storytelling in comics history, illustrated by one of the top artists in the history of the medium. A side note: Wood's 22 Panels That Always Work was used in the creation of the logo for this article; hey, it worked!
Neil Gaiman's Sandman is a series of graphic novels that are well worth investigating. It's unfortunate that Volume One, Preludes and Nocturnes, is a little rough compared to the elegance and grace of the rest of the 10-volume saga, but they are a wonderful construction of a new myth that will likely endure with readers for decades to come.
Brian Michael Bendis and Marc Andreyko's Torso and Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber's Whiteout represent the best of the genre of crime comics, and are both outstanding works.
Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner's Our Cancer Year is a gut-wrenching journey through one man's mortality, and the result it has on his wife, his marriage and himself. Frank Stack's artwork does not particularly appeal to me, but as with Harvey's American Splendour series, it's the words and the story that are the most important. A vital expression of the autobiographical genre, Pekar's work is the inspiration for much of what is being created in that form today. And thank God for that.
A lot of people appear to be interested in the origin of Wolverine, Marvel's berserker mutant with shiny, shiny claws. The definitive origin of Wolverine was crafted some years back by Barry Windsor-Smith and collected as the Weapon X graphic novel. Along with Chris Claremont and Frank Miller's Wolverine collection, it's about all the Logan you need.
Speaking of BWS, his Young GODS and Friends collection from Fantagraphics compiles all the Young GODS stories from BWS: Storyteller along with many previously unseen story pages, and about the most informative and telling text about the breakdown of the creator/publisher relationship that you could ever hope to read.
And of course, Alan Moore's America's Best Comics line is responsible for some of the most entertaining, high-quality collections of recent years. I choose Moore and Campbell's From Hell as the most significant and important graphic novel, but Top Ten, Promethea and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are, pardon the phrase, extraordinary works, filled to bursting with fantastic ideas, beautiful artwork and the sheer poetry that is the writing of Alan Moore. Tom Strong is terrific as well, and ABC's handsome line of hardcovers is vital for readers with a hunger for beautiful works of depth, mystery, magick, humour and grace.