It is no great secret that I am an enormous comics nerd. (Or maybe it is? WHO KNOWS.) I was recently asked: if I could recommend any comics to someone to get them started, what would I recommend? The big bookstores now stock full walls of comic books next to the Impossible Walls of Manga with no introduction what to buy or what to start. Does one buy Batman? Avengers? Daredevil? Where does one start?
In considering the question at hand, I swiftly removed anything that required 30 years of comics of multiple different lines to figure out what is going on in today’s issues. It’s hard to recommend, for example, “Grant Morrison’s JLA run” without having background in JLA. I dropped anything with excessive T&A, ridiculous violence, or anything requiring a certain level of pre-assumed nerdiness. I also removed any comics like Planetary which require an understanding of the comics it references. Then I peered at my comics shelf.
My Quick Cheat Sheet:
1. Bill Willingham’s Fables. While some are not thrilled with the overarching metaplot that develops in the later collections of Fables, the original collection, Legends in Exile, is accessible, well-written, well-drawn and requires knowledge only of the standard children’s fairy tales. Some disagree, but Fables has won approximately 15 billion Eisner Awards.* My #1 pick for a starter comic line.
2. Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. I adore Hellboy. Everyone I have ever recommended Hellboy to has also loved Hellboy. It is physically impossible not to adore Hellboy. Sure, it has violence, but the stories are some of the best weird tales ever to appear in comic book form. Read Hellboy.
3. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Sandman is the old standby, the original gateway drug. When comics went down the dark hole of T&A and ultraviolence in the 90s, the DC imprint Vertigo brought intelligence back to comics storytelling with Sandman. Start with Preludes and Nocturnes. It’s what got me back into comics after a many year hiatus…
4. David Peterson’s Mouse Guard. Only Series Fall 1152 collection is out in paperback. Winter 1152 is still hardcover. Regardless, Mouse Guard is wonderful — beautifully illustrated with a wonderfully written story about the perils of mouse Paladins defending their homes against mouse uprising. If you get anything off this list, it should be Mouse Guard. Go check out the website here and give David Peterson all your money to encourage him to make more.
5. Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim. Yes, it now has a movie and a video game coming out. And I avoided it for years because it was ‘too hip’ but this was a terrible horrible mistake. Scott Pilgrim is indeed about this guy who meets his true love and must fight her seven evil exs. In manga-style. With kung-fu and sword fights. And sound effects. With the power of RAWK. One of the funniest comics ever written. Sheer brilliance in comic form.
6. Brian Michael Bendis’s Powers. In a world where people with super powers that are relatively common, two cops follow up on “Powers homicides.” One of the cops used to be a super-hero but now he lost all his powers — although he still have deep roots in the “Powers” community. Powers: Who Killed Retro Girl? is one of my favorite comic book stories of all time. It’s beautiful film noir and cop procedural set in a super power universe.
7. Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde and Palestine from Fantagraphics. This is probably not to everyone’s taste but Joe Sacco blends embedded journalism on the ground with his art to make very compelling graphic novels. His Footnotes in Gaza is up for (yet another) Eisner this year. I find his work fascinating and combining on the ground political reporting + drawn pictures gives the tales emotional impact. Also, Fantagraphics offers Love and Rockets, often popular with the “I love comics but not superhero comics” set**. Unfortunately, not often stocked at the big box stores.
8. Alan Moore’s From Hell. Yeah, it’s a classic but of all of Alan Moore’s work, From Hell stands out as my favorite.*** It is a complete novel, it’s about Jack the Ripper, it’s fascinating and extremely well-written with an enormous bibliography.
9. Garth Ennis’s Preacher. It has been re-released into bigger compilations!**** The story of a Preacher whose congregation was murdered by a supernatural creature named Genesis and now crosses the United States to (literally) find God. Also from the 90s but one of the best of the 90s. Has a beginning, a middle and an ending. A complete story.
10. Brian Vaughan’s Y the Last Man. Yorick’s story about a disease that wipes out all men in the world except him and his cross-US journey to get on a boat and get to Australia to find his girlfriend is clinging tenaciously to my list. It’s a great road-trip comic books which includes Another fine Eisner winner and another one with a start, middle and ending.
There’s other stuff that I really enjoy but I could write this post for the next year and never get through them all. I mean, there’s no JMS Rising Stars on this list.***** Nor is Walking Dead. Nor some of the indie stuff I love like Two-Fisted Science. So there’s 10 series — enough to empty out any bank account and fill a shelf with dead trees covered in print.
I was going to limit this list to 5 but then I got typing… sad.
* In 2008, it was 30 + a Hugo. It is nominated this year again.
** I have only read small amounts of L&R so I cannot recommend it.
*** Watchmen is great but it needs so much context to ‘get’ it that it instantly fails off my ‘easy to recommend’ list. I don’t love V for Vendetta. I don’t love Swamp Thing as much as From Hell.
**** So on my birthday list.
***** I have heard your criticism of putting Y the Last Man above Rising Stars and have moved on. It was a fight which one got the last spot.