Essential Graphic Novels
ndifference: I will always remember the evening in '89 when Thorne asked my opinion of comic books. I thought of the Iron Man and Archie's of my youth and I scoffed. I snorted. And I looked surprised when he shoved a tome called V For Vendetta into my sceptical hands and sent me off into the night to read it. Back at home I stared down at the clownish, grinning mask that adorned the cover and then opened the book. I didn't get much sleep that night because I read it cover to cover three times. More than read it, I savored it. This wasn't the air-headed, poorly-written children's diversion I recalled comics being. This was something much more serious. This was a blending of literature and art that I didn't know existed. Thorne followed V with Watchmen and turned me on to the idea of superheroes having feelings, having emotional issues, having doubts and pain to counter-balance the triumphs. It was nothing short of epiphanic enlightenment. I became a fixture on his couch, plowing through whatever he wanted me to read next, never disappointed.
This is not a complete listing of all graphic novels that everyone should consider essential. If you feel the need to add to the list, go right ahead. I had to consider how I wanted to lay this out, to hit the highlights, without nuking anyone's browser. I'm just going to work from the premise that "grouping-by-author" is as good a way as any to present it and, with Thorne's incomparable assistance, give you a sampler of graphic fiction and non-fiction that amply demonstrates the power of sequential art.
justthorne: It always seemed to me that comics grew up with me as much as I grew up with them. It was especially during the 1980's that comics pioneered toward achievement in literature. How or when could we regard an illustrated story as literary? Perhaps by contrast to comics' longer-standing tradition as pulp.
Pulp by its nature eschews individualism, because it's cranked out under deadlines and necessarily relies upon formulas, and because it's understood to be disposable, and therefore not worthy of a writer's finest hours. Literary values, by contrast, embrace individualism, celebrate invention, and encourage the author to write toward the greatest lasting value. The sea change of the 80's was writers becoming a driving (and marketable) force in the inherently visual medium.
This owed to numerous factors at the time: an influx of fresh British authors (writing so daringly that readers would seek them out), the spreading influence of Japanese manga (inspiring new heights of visual narrative craft), the onset of a thriving indy market (freed from monthly deadlines), and an industry-wide movement toward creators' rights and ownership.
Thus the threshold between pulp and literature was blurred, and frequently overcome altogether, as quality writing itself became the new market value. When the people behind the stories took on new significance, comics themselves could become a bold new frontier for expression of the human condition itself, and embrace the mission of literature.
Understanding Comics - The Invisible Art is a tour de force of insight, not just regarding sequential art itself, but of visual communication altogether. McCloud's approach is to boil down a workable definition of comics themselves (and therefore an identifiable history spanning thousands of years), and then explore the medium's implications to narrative and explanation, usefully informed by comparing the comics of different cultures. "The Invisible Art" refers to its many subconscious powers that involve the viewer and shape perceptions, assuring its relevance to anyone interested in visual expression.
Chapter Two, for instance, weighs the relative impacts of iconicism, photorealism, and lingual cues. Chapter Four is especially far-reaching, showing how time works in the panel, and therefore how time is an inevitable result of composition itself (Artists and critics alike will never look at composition the same way again). But Chapter Three might be the jaw-dropper of the entire book, in which McCloud shows that the gutters themselves between panels create the irresistable involvement of the viewer, who can't help but fill in the moments between. Of course, the book itself becomes its own strongest evidence, a powerful narrative and explanation made clear purely by sequential art itself.
Watchmen, artwork by Dave Gibbons
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons "proved the concept" of the graphic novel once and for all with the epic elaborate detail of Watchmen</em>, in which Moore skewers "superhero" conventions from both directions. On one hand, he revels in the unseemly motivations of people who would put on costumes as their excuse for beating people up - Rorschach and the Comedian practically vie for reprehensibility. On the other, in this fictional 1985, Moore imagines that the world would be a drastically different place if even one truly super-powered being existed - the towering, blue, and naked Dr. Manhattan, who won Viet Nam for America, and serves as a personal nuclear deterrent against the Soviets.
But beyond its lurid subject matters, Watchmen</em> remains a landmark for its pacing. The first couple chapters are like gradually bracing into a tense cold bath, so the slow-motion car wreck of Chapter Three is even more startling. Chapters Five and Twelve (the last) are page-turning frenzy, even as the underlying mystery unfolds between with awkward confrontations and understated red herrings. Rorschach's chapter especially stands out as its own self-contained short story, "The Abyss Gazes Also," that would slide perfectly (though horrifically) into any literary anthology.
From Hell, artwork by Eddie Campbell
Moore will always be most remembered for Watchmen, but From Hell is surely an even more towering work. Lavish scratchy linework by Eddy Campbell is used to illustrate late 19th Century London, as Moore deconstructs class motivations, the reckless self-interest of royal agendas, press sensationalism, and the underlying conspiracy behind the most famous serial killer in history, Jack the Ripper. The movie gets it badly wrong by making a whodunit out of it, because the book's greatest strength is that it follows all the major characters' involvement from beginning to grisly ends. Over and above the 500-page novel, Moore provides almost fifty pages of text annotation, detailing his research and making plain his creative judgement calls, a surprisingly satisfying read for its own sake.
V For Vendetta, artwork by David Lloyd
Overtly Orwellian in nature and concept, this grim tale explores an alternate future wherein Britain is reduced to a fascist state under the control of the Norsefire Party. Opposing the system is a lone operative simply named V, adorned in a cape and Guy Fawkes mask and all the symbolism they represent. However, this story isn't V's. He is a larger than life character, the champion, the redeemer, the symbol of hope. This story belongs to those whose lives are touched by V as he conducts his campaign.
David Lloyd's artwork is nothing short of cinematic. Far from being a "hired gun" on this project, Lloyd was a true collaborator, influencing the direction of the work in both narrative and stylistic senses. It was Lloyd who decided against using "sound effects" and thought-balloons, inspiring Moore to severely restrict the traditional use of caption boxes; just a few of the reasons why this novel is hailed for the groundbreaking work that it is. The shading and coloring throughtout the book are subtle, the inky wash creating a perfect atmosphere of gloom, working to heighten the tension in this political thriller.
Swamp Thing Vol. 2: Love and Death, artwork by Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, Shawn McManus
Love and Death is the most effective single novel of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing series, in which he reinvented the series' pulp origins, aspired resoundingly to literary merit, and heightened the comics medium forever. Swamp Thing's journey is to shed his illusions of human origin and grow into his legacy as an elemental force of nature. Abigail Cable's journey is to realize that her love for this plant is not merely platonic. All this within a context of deeply subversive horror, in which Abby realizes she's been unknowingly party to incest with her malevolent demonic uncle. Add to that a grisly journey through Dante's Inferno to rescue her, and the most transcendant love scene in the history of comics, and this novel remains as groundbreaking twenty years later as it was upon original publication.
Doom Patrol - The Painting That Ate Paris, artwork by Richard Case and John Nyberg
Imagine a painting, on an easel in a room, of the painting, in a room, and so forth recursively. And then imagine a painting of this, on an easel on a sidewalk in France. And then imagine the painting of that. The Painting That Ate Paris. Thus Grant Morrison pits the Doom Patrol against the Brotherhood of Dada, whose leader evaluates plans by such standards as, "It's so embarassing that it HAS to work."
Morrison discards superheroic traditions into the waste dump between gleeful revelation and lacerating mockery, riddling his stories with horrific nonsensical villains (like the one who has every power you've never thought of) and inspired counter-intuitive solutions (like defeating the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse simply by abstracting it into a hobby horse). Truly a liberating read, if you've any affection for superheroes but are sick of what's been done before.
Also recommended: Doom Patrol: Crawling From the Wreckage
Arkham Asylum, artwork by Dave McKean
To be perfectly honest, I don't remember much of the writing in this novel. As a plot line, Morrison takes the old cliche, the inmates are running the asylum, and runs with it. Arkham Asylum is where the insane supervillians (which incorporates pretty much all of them) go after Batman thwarts whatever failed induced-catastrophe they were trying to perpetrate. These aren't just your normal lunatics. These are the diabolical ones. After Batman enters the asylum to set things straight, he discovers that, from a psychological perspective, he isn't much different from them.
Why have I forgotten much of the writing? Because of the artwork by Dave McKean. It. Blew. My. Mind. Like Ralph Steadman in full flight or Egon Schielle after his third bottle of Jägermeister, the sizzling mixed-media artwork is hypnotic and intense. McKean is more well-known for his covers, but Arkham Asylum treats us to panel after panel, page after page of his inventive genius.
The Dark Knight Returns, artwork by Klaus Janson, Lynn Varley
Frank Miller's mission was to reinvent and rescue Batman from years of character abuse, and his genius was to turn to the character's future, rather than his past. The Dark Knight Returns ten years after his disillusioned retirement. His convictions rage more grimly through his creaking limbs and delirious tendencies as he lumbers into fresh battle with old enemies, futuristic streetgangs, and even an ideologically-opposed Superman himself. Miller's literary advantage is the context of the "possible future" itself, where battles to the death take on more mythological and even apocalyptic proportions. (The aged Joker's final moments are unexpectedly characteristic, that could never be done equal justice with "the modern ageless version" of the character.) In effect, Miller manages to outdo the entire superheroic tradition by rendering them even larger than "larger than life."
Elektra: Assassin, artwork by Bill Sienkiewicz
Elektra: Assassin was a middle-80's collaboration between two comics greats, Frank Miller and Bill Seinkeiwicz, at the peak of their powers. Miller had been pioneering moody and stacatto narrative in Daredevil (in anticipation of The Dark Knight Returns), and Seinkeiwicz had brought real media painting and pastiche into the comics world during his run on New Mutants (with a healthy doze of Steadmanesque "gonzo" abstraction). Elektra wraps all this talent into an unprecedented surreal adventure as she attempts to assassinate a demonic (but telegenic) presidential candidate, and achieves a victory nearly as unsettling as the original threat.
Season of Mists, artwork by Kelley Jones, Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III, Matt Wagner, Dick Giordano, George Pratt, P. Craig Russell
I am loathe to talk about this book in great detail for fear of playing the role of spoiler to those of you who haven't read it. If you are a fan of Gaiman's non-illustrated fiction such as Good Omens and Neverwhere, the entire Sandman series will keep you as captivated as anything you've read. The inventive passion for story-telling and for inserting curveballs into the most unexpected of places are hallmarks of Gaiman's singular artistic vision, and nowhere is it more evident than in Season of Mists. Writing a series about Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, provides richly fertile ground for an imagination like Gaiman's, and this novel shows what he can accomplish when he takes the bit between his teeth. Brimming with mythological figures, both historical and freshly-minted, Season of Mists is a wild ride of surprise, of treachery, of lost hopes and redemption.
The Kindly Ones, artwork by Marc Hempel, Richard Case, D'Israeli, Teddy Kristiansen, Glyn Dillon, Charles Vess, Dean Ormston, Kevin Nowlan
The Kindly Ones is the last major novel of Gaiman's Sandman series, and truly the payoff that does justice to the phenomena of dreaming itself. Our own dreams don't tend to make sense to others, scattered with our own random casts of characters, fears come true, and deeply personal non-sequiturs. But with eight volumes of novels and short stories for preface, we can drop into Morpheus' own unravelling nightmare and all its twists of fate take on unnerving familiarity, as if Morpheus' dream were our own. Gaiman's balance of sense to non-sense is expertly done, all to make the inevitable tragedy surprisingly plausible, and the novel is especially gifted with perhaps the finest art team of all the novels, led by Marc Hempel's fantastic play of line and shapes, shadows and expression.
Also recommended: the rest of the Sandman series.
Los Bros Hernandez
Blood of Palomar by Gilbert Hernandez
This is such a tour de force of graphic fiction I'm a bit hesitant to speak of it lest my words fail to do it justice. Using such Latin American artists as Garcia-Marquez and Frido Kalho as a wellspring of inspiration, with Blood of Palomar and it's epic centerpiece, Human Diastrophism, Gilbert Hernandez stakes his claim to those same artistic heights.
Blood of Palomar, like much of the work of the Hernandez brothers, centers more on relationships than on action (although there is enough of a plot in this novel to satisfy anyone), specifically centering around the uncanny knack Gilbert and Jaime have for portraying the strength of the women that populate their stories. Like the women of the Buendia family in One Hundred Years of Solitude, their strength is derived from facing adversity, both internal and otherwise, with grim resolve that sometimes borders on desperation. It is this strength that helps maintain (or reclaim) dignity in the face of a serial killer stalking their Central-American town and an invasion of maniacal monkeys. This novel is a perfect, triumphant mixture of tragedy, drama, comedy, sexuality and humanity, poignantly expressed in dialogue and through Gilbert's masterful ink work. This is a work of which every writer, no matter the genre, should sit up and take notice.
The Death of Speedy by Jaime Hernandez
Not to be outdone by his brother, Jaime delivers his flim-noir gem in the form of The Death of Speedy. This book delves into intense social realism using a SoCal barrio as the setting for a gang war and the banalities that lead up to it. The emotional depth of the characters and the dramatic pacing of the story are as astounding as anything I've read, made all the more immediate through Jaime's mastery of artistic technique. Sometimes artwork can fail to live up to the writing (see Hellblazer below) or the writing can fail to live up to the artwork (see Arkham Asylum above). Not so with Jaime Hernandez. Here the compelling drama of the story is perfectly matched by Jaime's deft ability to manipulate the passage of time via changes from one panel to the next. His precise linework, perfect angles, and balance of negative space, along with what I can only describe as camera-work - closeups, longshots, panning between panels, etc., accentuate the story and heighten the realism into a remarkably unforgettable experience.
Also recommended: everything you can get your hands on by these guys. Seriously. Flies On The Ceiling and Wigwam Bam are also among my favorites, but Duck Feet really serves as the perfect catalyst to both the novels listed here.
What would you do if you were abducted by aliens and had your brain transplanted into a body made entirely out of a regenerative, rock-like substance? Perhaps you would hire a press-agent and manager and become a celebrity, like Concrete does. Like most fantasy and science fiction, Concrete requires a pretty big leap of faith on the front end to accept that premise. That faith pays off handsomely in this collection of socially and environmentally conscious tales that weave such a rich emotional tapestry. Chadwick's careful hand, his plot-lines and dialogue reveal Concrete to be more human, despite being a walking boulder, than most characters created through fiction. In fact, Chadwick has such a good command of story-telling that, at book's end, you completely forget you had to make that leap of faith.
Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits, artwork by William Simpson
The Hellblazer series had some good writers plying their craft - Grant Morrison, Jamie Delano, and Warren Ellis - but it was Garth Ennis who really shook up my brain with Dangerous Habits. For those of you who don't know, Hellblazer is John Constantine, a character whose literary life started with a bit-part in the Swamp Thing saga. Far from being your typical superhero, Constantine can't fly, shoot lasers, or piss jets of fire. He's a bit of a mage, but his "superpower" lies in his ability to bullshit and manipulate better than the best of con-men, and in this novel his skills are put to the supreme test - to save himself from certain death after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
To be honest, I didn't find Simpson's artwork, nor that of his colorist, to be compelling at all - just too derivative of run-of-the-mill superhero fodder of the 70's. That the story works so well, despite whatever drawbacks the art brings, is a testament to Ennis and his ability to weave a griping tale.
Also recommended: Preacher Vol. 1: Gone To Texas
Shade the Changing Man: The American Scream, artwork by Chris Bachalo
Most great art starts with a great premise. The more open the premise, the more room is allowed for the imagination to stretch far and wide. Case in point is Shade The Changing Man. How's this for a foundation - Shade, a resident of the dimension of Meta, must travel to earth (America, specifically) to contain an alarming leakage of insanity that is threatening both worlds. To complicate matters for Shade, when he arrives in America he unwittingly inhabits the body of a serial killer who is scheduled for execution.
Milligan's handling of the complex plot-line is pure genius, taking full advantage of the "enemy" being an almost complete abstraction. Shade finds himself policing outbreaks of cultural anxiety in forms such as a plague of Hollywood Blvd. stars, a rampant, widespread Marilyn Monroe fixation, and a JFK sphinx. Bachalo's linework, incomparable shadows, and sumptuous detail make for a perfect marriage of writer and artist.
I Never Liked You
I Never Liked You is among the most bittersweet treasures in comics, a touching autobiographical reflection over several years of Brown's preadolesence. The central narrative traces his awkward chemistries with neighbor girls, but the emotional scope is much more vast (in particular as his mother's mental health degrades toward her eventual death). Brown illustrates his story sparely, with perfectly expressive linework and often just a couple of panels per page, scattered like flecks of memory. The book is a testament to the effective subtlety of visual literature, as bosoms expand over time with no fanfare, his pervasive suicidal mindset is made clear in exactly one panel, and another single image of a centerfold iconically summons up his other great autobiographical novel, The Playboy, and drops it perfectly into context here.
The Tale of One Bad Rat
The Tale of One Bad Rat seems almost stereotypically familiar at the outset, and then turns our head around with its unexpected course. At first, Helen seems to be merely disaffected youth, hopeless and homeless in a British rail station. But her journey both brightens and darkens as she embarks upon a spiritual and geographic pilgrimage inspired by her namesake, Beatrix Potter. Brightens, as Talbot's lush watercolor landscapes leave behind the urban decay, but darkens, after her pet rat's death and as the all-too-realistic horror of Helen's past becomes clear. It ends with a stirring spiritual victory amidst the gorgeous English countryside, but only after a harrowing personal exorcism from a hell too frequently hushed up in the real world.
Jar of Fools
Jason Lutes is very much a novelist who chooses to work in the comics genre. Jar of Fools is excellent prose, perfectly enhanced by the delicate pacing of the artwork. In this poignant tale, a down-and-out, alcoholic magician tries to remain afloat as the threads of his life become unraveled - the death of his brother, a failed romance, and the pain of watching his mentor succumb to the debilitation of Alzheimer's conspire to suck the magic out of life. The characters unfold as the story develops, each revealing a beautiful mixture of heartbreak and unforeseen strength as, together, they seek out the path to redemption. Despite its format, this is, without a doubt, a serious literary achievement.
Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron
Take a bit of David Lynch, mix in a melted slab of John Waters, a pinch of Russ Myers, and throw it on the wall in 50's B-movie black and white, and you still wouldn't have anything that quite measures up to the surrealistic expression of deformity in Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron - where the grotesque and the brutal are the norm. Indeed, the oddball in this piece is Clay, the "normal" one, who is on a quest to find a woman he saw in a porno film. Along the way he weathers encounters with a cult, a fish-girl, a fellow content to have crabs eating an infection in his eyes, a dog with no head, and he reacts to them with a detached acceptance as admirable as Griffin Dunne at the end of After Hours.
This is a disturbing book, I'll make no bones about that. But it is also irresistibly beguiling in it's ability to evoke sympathy and care for the assorted characters that inhabit it's murky corridors.
Clowes had just finished his surreal masterpiece of horrific dada, Like a Velvet Glove Cast In Iron, when he turned on a dime to surprise everyone with the funereal understated tragedy of Ghost World. In somber twintone, Clowes depicts two best girlfriends on break from high school as refreshingly as if no one had ever done it before, uniting them in corrosive hostility for the entire world around them (old suburban Los Angeles, aging shabbily in the glare of 90's pop culture). His genius is to bury the evolution between Enid and Rebecca admist the mundane encounters with the bizarre that justify their lives. So when the novel's impact arrives like a sudden landmark birthday, more is passed and lost than we've ever expected.
The book and the film (for which Clowes co-wrote the screenplay) are sufficiently different that both are highly recommended. The movie's timeframe is more compressed, and centered around a new central plotline, which in turn makes the longer wistful wander of the novel all the more impressive. They do justice to one another without risking redundancy.
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth turns out to be an imaginary alter-ego to a middle-aged man whose life is mired in trembling disappointments and halting paralysis. This condition only worsens within an unexpected reunion with his similarly uncomfortable long-lost father. Flashbacks and revelations trace their hereditary spinelessness throughout several eras, lifetimes of misery sprinkled only lightly with bitter humors. The mammoth density of the novel is a landmark all its own, but it's Ware's crisp iconic artwork and design strength that sell it. His relentless precision and clarity do equal justice to monumental architectural shots, the somber passing of years and seasons, and that quiet bolt of terror before answering an unexpected phone call.
Cobbled and compiled by justthorne and ndifference