Thursday, April 24, 2008

30 Comic Book Trades You Should Own

I'm always interested in comic book libraries. Almost an entire bookcase in my library is taken up with graphic novels and trade paperback collections of comics, but comic book fandom is always in a sort of generational motion, and what one generation considers a great, important story is not always important to the people who come after it; or the people who came before. Over at Major Spoilers, they're having a poll dedicated to the Top 30 Trades You Should Own. You can go and vote on them.

As I so often do, I thought I'd comment on how I felt about the choices available. These are unranked and not in any particular order, so I won't number them.

Of course. No self-respecting serious comic book fan should be without Watchmen, one of the greatest achievements of the medium. Part of the joy of Watchmen is that it does get talked up a lot, so there may be a tendency to feel it's overrated, but it really isn't. It's endlessly readable and tells a story that's worth telling. Alan Moore once expressed surprise that his examination of the political and practical reality of science heroes didn't destroy the superhero comic altogether. But if anyone could have done it...

It's a little weird to see that only one other Alan Moore collection gets a name-check on this list, but a lot of what he's written is worth seeking out. V for Vendetta and From Hell, especially, but I'm also fond of Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, the "final" Superman story, and everything in the collection The DC Universe Stories of Alan Moore. I think, though, my personal favorites are his ABC series, especially Tom Strong, which just takes everything I love about old pulp novels and makes them fun again.

The Dark Knight Returns
Indeed. The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen changed the critical perception of comic books in the 1980s, just as I was becoming a serious comic book fan. I remember walking into comic book stores in the 1980s; it was a lot different then, back when people actually played tabletop role-playing games and people seemed much more interested in the new Cerebus or Flaming Carrot or anything at all from Eclipse Comics than they were in what the X-Men were doing. It was a heady experience for me at age 9, finding out about all of these complex and satirical comics. I remember the shift in the early nineties, when the same comic book stores were suddenly filled with toys from the eighties and more and more shelves for the mainstream.

I recommend a lot of Frank Miller's work, although there seems to be a huge Miller backlash these days (a lot of it seems to stem from his work on All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, specifically his apparently offensive depiction of Wonder Woman; I thought the fan reaction was a little over-the-top, considering the All-Star series was set up so storytellers could work outside of continuity). Any of his Sin City books are excellent, as are Ronin, Hard Boiled, and Elektra: Assassin. Of course, his Daredevil comics are great, too.

Crisis on Infinite Earths
It's hard for me to recommend this title today; this is where the nightmare starts. DC Comics decided its continuity was too complicated for new readers, so they destroyed all of the old continuity and created a new one. Then, over the years, various writers undid bits of it, and every few years DC needed a new "event" to re-establish the continuity, and it finally lost me. I can't read monthly DC Comics anymore because of this attitude of having to adhere to a continuity. I just want to read entertaining and engaging stories. So, while I thought ultimately that Crisis on Infinite Earths was a good story, I did feel like it was a little bit pointless. Nothing against writer Marv Wolfman, but it just seemed like a fool's errand that, in the end, serves no real purpose.

My main question about Crisis has always been this (and this'll spoil it if you ain't read it): if the Flash sacrifices himself fighting the Anti-Monitor and the entire universe is re-ordered into a single continuity, then the entire Crisis never happened and the Flash never fought the Anti-Monitor and thusly didn't die. So why keep him dead? Because of a loud group of fans who think his death was "really, truly meaningful"? Why, when nothing else ever effects the continuity permanently, anyway?

52 collected trades
Absolutely not. This is what I meant when I said what's canon to one group isn't to another. This is just further continuity masturbation that I can't even bring myself to touch.

New Frontier (Absolute Edition)
I just read this recently and I loved it. The art is especially great, but I loved it as the story of the birth of the modern DC Universe (modern to me, at least; for me Barry Allen and Hal Jordan and their contemporaries will always be the real DC Universe).

Invincible (Omnibus Edition)
I've never read Invincible. I figure I will someday, but I have a hard time believing it's somehow essential. Is it really that good?

Sandman (Absolute Editions 1 and 2)
I don't know how much of the Sandman series is contained in these two editions, but I will say that I loved the series with the exceptions of only one or two storylines. It's one of the greatest series in comics history, partially because of Neil Gaiman's great writing (and I don't think he's ever quite written anything as good) and partially because it's finite. It didn't keep going for years and years and years, finally requiring a continuity overhaul and all that regular jazz. Comic book companies need to realize that some stories are meaningful because they end. The Sandman graphic novels are definitely on my shelf.

Kingdom Come
I really liked this series, but I think it's become a tad overrated. Doing sequels to it was just not a good idea. But the whole story, taken together, is pretty damn impressive. I'd say it's one of the modern essentials of the graphic novel.

The Golden Age
Also a very good story; in a way, New Frontier is sort of a sequel to this, which is about the birth of the DC Universe. I'm a bit biased, of course, because the Justice Society of America are still my absolute favorite superheroes of all time.

The Complete Bone
Indeed. I have the original nine graphic novels and I kind of prefer them that way, broken into chunks, but either way you can read Bone, read it. One of the greatest stories of the form, it's a sort of Lord of the Rings crossed with Walt Kelley's Pogo (I know I'm not the first one to make that comparison, but it's such a damn good one), with three cartoony Bone people winding up in an epic story of dragons, kingdoms, magic, lost princesses and destiny. Pure wonderful.

JLA: The Obsidian Age (volumes 1 and 2)
I wouldn't say you "must" own any of the recent JLA stories. There are some decent ones, but I can't even really remember this one, and I read that title for a long time. There are some great stories written by Mark Waid, but this one is just more continuity clean-up.

The Ultimates (volume 1)
Marvel's Ultimate line started off as a sort of alternative to the 40+ year soap opera of mainstream continuity. Titles were started over again with a modern spin. And while Ultimate Spider-Man was good for a while, the entire line was hampered by trying to cram in too many titles at once, with too many characters, and a fannish obsession with trying to shove every single mainstream character into the Ultimate Universe. In the end, it turned into a bunch of writers masturbating. The Ultimates was one of the more interesting series, re-imagining the Avengers as a modern answer to combating global terrorism and, of course, alien invasions. I did like the way some of the characters were modernized, and the art is great; I don't think it's essential, but it's a pretty good (albeit cynical) story.

Earth X
After Kingdom Come, painter Alex Ross sort of flew up his own asshole and started to believe the overhype. I haven't bothered to check in on anything he's done since then.

Runaways (volume 1)
I haven't looked at this, either. Do I need to?

Understanding Comics
Scott McCloud's scholarly look at the medium is still considered important reading, and I guess on some level it is. It's always been a tad too precious for me to take all that seriously, especially when McCloud is capable of doing great work like Zot! and The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln. But I admit I do have it.

Age of Reptiles: Tribal Warfare
I'm amazed to see this here. I don't know if it's essential, but it's a neat little book that sort of came out of nowhere and, I thought, went back there. I tend to love dinosaur comics, and this one is pretty neat.

Essential X-Men
Notice there's no volume number; do they mean the whole thing? Uncanny X-Men was a great comic up to a point; I read Classic X-Men for years, which reprinted the series starting with the 1976 rebirth and going on. Still, I think all of the really classic X-Men stories were done with after that whole Asgard Saga. After that, it just gets to be writers trying to figure out what to do next. Seriously, anything after the Inferno story at the latest and I lose all interest. I wouldn't call this a "must" own, either, really. There are some really great X-Men stories, but...

Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga
I haven't read it. I like the Legion in theory, but except for the Alan Davis story Superboy's Legion and the recent Mark Waid series, I've never really been that into them.

The Essential Defenders (volume 3)
I never thought I'd see the day when I was told I "must" own something involving the Defenders. Seriously? I liked the recent miniseries by Keith Giffen, that was hilarious, but otherwise I kind of want to call bullshit on this one.

New Teen Titans: The Judas Contract
I can't see that being true, either. But I always hated the New Teen Titans.

Sandman: World's End
I'd recommend getting all of Sandman. If I had to pick one or two collections in specific, I'm not sure this would be the one I'd go for. It's more of a short story collection, but I didn't find any of the stories on their own particularly memorable. Still, I think all of the volumes of Sandman together, as one library, belong on your shelf.

X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga
The best story ever involving the X-Men, and one of Marvel's high points. If you're going to read one X-Men story, this should be it.

Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD
I've never been that fond of Nick Fury, really, and I've never read this.

Spider-Man: Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut
So many great Spider-Man stories to choose from, like "The Death of Gwen Stacy" or "Kraven's Last Hunt" or the original Sinister Six storyline, and this is one they go for?

Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits
I've never been that into Hellblazer; the early stuff is alright, but I tend to think Alan Moore is the only one who really does the character well.

The Green Hornet
The one from Now Comics? What an odd, odd, interesting choice.

Of course. And it's a bit of a no brainer, really, but it's actually very, very good. The birth of the Marvel Universe as seen through the eye of a reporter. This sort of cut the fat away and made me look at the Marvel Universe as a whole, and I loved what I saw. It didn't last, because the comics themselves are so tiring, but this was a wonderful story on its own. It's almost the great comic book story for people who don't want to read comic books.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Brilliant. I'd put the first two graphic novels together as bookends; some of the greatest comic storytelling I've ever read, bar none.

Daredevil (Omnibus)
Again, I'm not sure which parts of Daredevil are in here, but the Frank Miller stuff with Elektra and Bullseye is the best stuff.

Astro City: Life in the Big City
A classic that seems to have gotten pushed aside, what with Kurt Busiek slowing the output (a lot of fans still seem P.O.-ed about that one). This is the original Astro City miniseries, which kind of takes the Marvels concept (ordinary people observing superheroes as part of their daily life) and makes surviving everyday life in the face of catastrophe something heroic. The series afterward was brilliant, as well, but this is the best one to get.

The Escapists
I have no idea what this is.

This seems like rather a paltry list to me, but it seems to deal explicity with trade collections of series and miniseries, not specific graphic novels. I could probably add a bunch more to this list of things I think are better, but I don't really know how essential any of those are, either. And how about branching out a bit more? What about Groo the Wanderer or Cerebus or 300 or Hellboy or Usagi Yojimbo or Red Rocket 7 or Sock Monkey or The Plastic Man Archives or Planetary or Mouse Guard or Love and Rockets or Age of Bronze or The Mask or Torso or Ghost World or Concrete or...

You could just go on and on all day.


Tonio Kruger said...

I suspect you'd probably like Alan Moore's "Marvelman" series if that ever became available in the States for a reasonable price. (I've seen it listed online for prices that often seem higher than your average car payment.)

Anyway, it's Alan Moore's first take on the same "suppose superheroes existed in the real world" theme that he would later explore in the "Watchmen" series. And like "Watchmen," it's pretty interesting.

I'll admit that I like Moore's take on the John Constantine character better than that taken by other writers. But of all the "Hellblazer" stories I've read that weren't written by Moore, "Dangerous Habits" is probably the best. And it has one image so subversive it's a wonder that the powers that be let the writer get away with it. (An image which, by the way, wasn't duplicated in the movie.)

And "The Dark Knight Returns" is also worth reading, but I noticed that you said nothing about the rather disappointing sequel. But then few comics buffs--including myself--have anything good to say about it.

JP said...

I think 'The Escapists' are the comics Dark Horse went and made based on the superhero in Michael Chabon's 'The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay'. That's pretty meta, and while the comics don't offer anything especially new, they are an affectionate homage to different eras of comic storytelling by some pretty good comics storytellers.

Sin City, if you ask me, is a collection of hastily-scribbled plotless gestures in the *style* of noir, but without its *content* OF intricate action and clipped, yet memorable dialogue a good analog to the film The Good German, in that sense. Even so, it's compelling stuff because Miller is just so good, even if he is a bit of a jerkoff. Or not. Or whatever.

There's gotta be some Spirit on that list. And really, even if you argue that this is meant to be purely adventure comics, no comic collection is complete without some Tintin. Tintin's creator Herge epitomised the best of the FrancBelgian clean-line style, with its detailed, attractive art and complex, gripping plots. Carl Barks' Duck family adventures are also essential - I'm sure you'd agree, as a fellow Disney fan.

SamuraiFrog said...

Tonio: I've heard nothing but greatness about Marvelman, and I'd love to read it, but yeah, the availability issue, sadly. Is this really still just about Marvel being miffed about the use of the word "Marvel"?

You know, I actually forgot about The Dark Knight Strikes Back. I remember thinking it was just okay, but as unmemorable as The Dark Knight Returns was unforgettable.

JP: Ah. I haven't read The Escapists, then.

Yeah, where are The Spirit and Tintin and Scrooge McDuck? I would consider Tintin an adventure comic. Those are all three essential pieces of a comics library.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the superherocentric nature of the list left me cold. It's like recommending the 30 best movies to see and only listing science fiction.

Among the books I would put on such a list:

La Perdida - Jessica Abel
Fun House - Allison Bechdel
Notes for a War Story - Gipi
Alice in Sunderland - Bryan Talbot
Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi
From Hell - Alan Moore
The Rabbi's Cat - Joann Sfar
unspecified book - Chris Ware
unspecified book - Jaime Hernandez
unspecified book - Dan Clowes
at least one Tintin
an Eisner graphic novel
Cerebus High Society or Jaka's Story by Dave Sim

And, yeah, Watchmen.

That's just all off the top of my head, though.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and why keep the Barry Allen Flash dead?

So all the sucky DC writers don't have a chance to ruin him.