The other night, I was invited by a local organization of graphic designers to give a lecture on the history of the graphic novel. I finished that lecture with a list of reading recommendations. Since I rushed through it, and because a friend asked me for the list, I thought I'd post it here.
So if you're looking for some quality graphic novel/comics reading, I suggest you try one of the many titles below.
A Contract With God by Will Eisner
Arguably the first graphic novel. It's a 1930s autobiographical story told through 4 interwoven tales that is also a look at life in New York in the early part of the 20th century.
Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman
Art Spiegelman tells the story of his father surviving the nazi death camps – using mice and cats. It won the Pulitzer Prize.
The Dark Knight Returns – Frank Miller
Miller’s revision of the DC Comics hero is largely responsible for superhero comics being taken more seriously. While it hasn’t aged well, and Miller’s more fascistic inclinations are on prominent display, he turned the '60s camp Batman into a modern Dirty Harry.
The Watchmen – Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons
An utter deconstruction of the superhero genre by a master storyteller.
The Swamp Thing – Alan Moore/various
For my money – Alan Moore’s best work. A multivolume revision of a corny DC comics superhero/horror character. He turns the swamp monster into a psychedelic envorinmental god.
V for Vendetta by Alan Moore/David Lloyd
A dark dystopian, fascist British future is overturned by an orphaned girl and V, the mysterious masked character whose visage has become the symbol of the mysterious online entity Anonymous.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore/Kevin O'Neill
A superteam of literary adventurers. Very literary, very trippy, very fun - and much, much, much better than the movie.
Sandman by Neil Gaiman/various
Gaiman excels at taking aspects of existence – dream, despair, death and personifying them into sibling gods. The result is a modern Olympus.
Books of Magic by Neil Gaiman /various
For Harry Potter fans – if you want to know where Rowling got the idea, look no further than this book. Orphaned, bespectacled Timothy Hunter is perhaps the most powerful magician in the world. As a result there are forces out to get him. He is schooled in the ways of magic by magical characters from the DC universe like Alan Moore creation John Constantine (Hellblazer is always a great horror comic read). They’re teaching him the ropes – but some might think the world doesn’t need a boy wizard that powerful.
Our Cancer Year by Harvey Pekar/Joyce Brabner/Frank Stack
This book documents Harvey's struggle with cancer. A fearlessly realistic portrayal of illness.
American Splendor by Harvey Pekar/various
Pekar is famous for eschewing superheroics. For Pekar – just living was heroic. So his focus was on the common man – mainly himself. These comics are realistic looks at life.
Palestine by Joe Sacco
The premier comics journalist. Palestine is a revealing and powerful look at the middle east crisis, and Sacco's reportage is fearless, insightful and enlightening.
Black Hole by Charles Burns
Teens contract STDs that cause genetic mutations. Imagine the movie Dazed & Confused mixed with the movie The River's Edge, but told as a horror story.
Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware
A mutli-generational, bittersweet family epic taking place between 1890's Chicago and 1980's small town Michigan. Intricate, complex, subtle. A masterpiece.
It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken by Seth
While trying to understand his dissatisfaction with the present, Seth discovers a forgotten gag cartoonist from the 1940s named Kalo. His obsession blinds him to his own life. This book sparked a debate among cartoon historians and archivists about the existence of Kalo.
Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
You may not think you need to read this, but you do. I avoided it for years, deciding to read it only because I thought I might want to use it for a class. A brilliant look at something that seems relatively simple to those who read comics, but yet, everything involved is surprisingly complex.
My New York Diary by Julie Doucet
1990s autobiographical story of a woman who packs up to move to new york for a boyfriend. That can't not end well, right?
Ice Haven by Dan Clowes
Leopold & Leob meets Sherwood Anderson’s Winseburg Ohio. The result is a masterpiece of American fiction.
Wilson by Dan Clowes
Sort of like what it may look like if Charlie Brown grew up and made a series of very bad decisions.
Mister Wonderful by Dan Clowes
A captivating, bittersweet, and hilarious look at the potential for human connection in an increasingly hopeless world. Clowes most optimistic book.
David Boring by Dan Clowes
In this noirish tale, the world is ending and Boring can’t remember things.
Ghost World by Dan Clowes
An uncommonly insightful look at two young girls coming of age in dull suburban America.
Live A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron by Dan Clowes
Sort of a sprawling David Lynchian mess of fun. Much more fun than anything Lynch has done.
Louis Riel by Chester Brown
A cartoon historical about a fringe Canadian figure who may be a revolutionary or he may be insane.
Paying For It by Chester Brown
Reads like a Manifesto from a John. Whether or not you agree with Brown's point of view, there's no denying his compelling honesty and bravery for telling this story.
Bottomless Bellybutton by Dash Shaw
Like a John Updike novel told in comic format. Shaw fully utilizes the medium and does things with this book that are unique to comics. A family at a beach house starts coming apart as the mother and father have a strange announcement to make.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
An autobiographical search for sexual identity as much as a biography of her father who also had a complex sexual identity.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
An autobiographical look at a young woman growing up in an Iran that is suddenly consumed by a religious revolution and what that means for the way she lives and her life and her families. This book is a real eye opener and lesson on Iran for Americans.
Preacher by Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon
The Boys by Garth Ennis/Darick Robertson
Ennis specializes in ultraviolence. Preacher is the story of a man who has the word of god (which means if he tells you do do something, you have to do it). He's on a mission to kill god with the help of his girlfriend and an alcoholic vampire sidekick. Meanwhile he’s being hunted by the Saint of Killers. The Boys is a brutal deconstruction of the superhero genre. Basically, superheroes as weapons, created by defense contractors. The lack any moral compass, so The Boys is a group who watches the heroes and keeps them in check.
Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis/Darick Robertson
Spider Jerusalem is a futuristic Hunter S. Thompson type character. I find this series most interesting for its look at technology, and of course, a Hunter S. Thompson character is always fun to read.
Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan/various
What if you were the last man on earth? Not person. Women are still here. But the last man. It’s not as fun as it sounds. An interesting 10 volume series.
Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan/Tony Harris
A superhero becomes the mayor of new York. Politics and superheroes.
DMZ by Brian Wood/various
The series is set in the near future, where a second civil war has turned the island of Manhattan into a demilitarized zone, caught between forces of the United States of America and secessionist "Free States". Couldn't happen, right? I mean, no one EVER talks about secession these days, right?
Bone by Jeff Smith
An all ages epic adventure – like Pogo meets Disney. But Disney in a good way, not Disney in that sort of corporate homogenization sort of way.
Cerebus by Dave Sim
300 issues. 6000 pages long. 27 years of self-publishing. It can be very controversial, but Cerebus is undeniably noteworthy for the achievement.
Fables by Bill Willingham
Various characters from fairy tales and folklore have been forced out of their Homelands by "The Adversary" who has conquered the realm. The Fables have traveled to our world and formed a clandestine community in New York City known as Fabletown. They live amongst us and have their own ongoing issues.
Love & Rockets by Los Bros Hernandez
One of the most important comics series but because of the complexity of stories, characters, history, etc., it can be very hard for new readers to get into.
Buddy Does Seattle by Peter Bagge
Buddy Does Jersey by Peter Bagge
Peter Bagge’s Hate comics were tied to the Seattle music scene of the '90s. But it was also more than that - a sharp counter-culture social satire. And eventually Buddy became an unofficial mascot of the slacker generation.
The Invisibles by Grant Morrison/various
Doom Patrol by Grant Morrison/various
Animal Man by Grant Morrison/various
Grant Morrison does psychedelic revamps of oddball DC heroes and creates own weirdo conspiracy team. The results are trippy, psychedelic and fun.
Spent by Joe Matt
The destruction of self as comic character. If you enjoy cringing at Larry David – try Joe Matt. Spent centers around Matt becoming increasingly secluded as he spends his time making the perfect jack-off video tape and then utilizing it in marathon masturbation sessions.
Akira by Otomo Katsuhiro
In the 21st century, the once-glittering Neo-Tokyo lies in ruins, leveled in minutes by the infinite power of the child psychic, Akira. Akira is considered by many to be a manga masterpiece, and rightfully so.
Other masters of manga you should check out:
Osamu Tezuka - creator of Astro Boy and the godfather of manga
Yoshihiro Tatsumi – the Charles Bukowski of manga
And horror masters Junji Ito and Hideshi Hino.
Pyongyang by Guy Delisle
A remarkable look at behind the curtains of a mysterious and threatening country most of us will never get to visit.
Clumsy by Jeffrey Brown
Brown turns his dating woes into wonderful, sweet tales of romantic dysfunction.
The Tick by Ben Edlund
A remarkably funny if not darker than expected superhero comics parody.
Too Much Coffee Man by Shannon Wheeler
Another superheroesque parody that is smart, funny, and loaded with caffeine-fueled neuroses.