Graphic Novel Buyer’s Guide

 In Book Reviews, Fiction
The Watchmen

Every day, a few more people discover the joy that is the medium of comics. And in the last twenty years or so, the graphic novel has become a true art form in its own right. As my constant readers know, I love comics and graphic novels of all kinds, so here’s my 2013 Buyer’s Guide to Graphic Novels.

This list is specifically for people new to graphic novels.

The books here are not necessarily the best, but they are – in my estimation – the most accessible (or perhaps well-known).  Plus it’s a good mix of superheroes recognizable stuff and hidden gems.

Here are a couple of definitions that will help you as you move through the list:

Trade Paperback: Also “trades”, a trade paperback is a collection of single-issue comic books that are all part of the same larger story arc. Essentially, you can read the trade and get the whole arc, every issue in one spot. Trades are a great way to dive into mainstream comics like Marvel and DC.

Graphic Novel: A graphic novel is exactly what it sounds like: a novel that is told using the traditional comics format. This is a longer story than will fit into a single-issue comic. Many graphic novels these days were never published as single-issues, though some of the classics (like V for Vendetta  and The Watchmen) were.

Read through the list, and add your own suggestions in the comments!

BAM!
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
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American Born Chinese & Boxers & Saints
by Gene Luen Yang

I discovered American Born Chinese last year and it rocketed to the top of my “Best Books of All Time” list. Notice that’s not Best Graphic Novels of All Time. Best Book. American Born Chinese is an astounding piece of storytelling that takes full advantage of the graphic medium. It explores issues of identity and belonging, spirituality and more.

Boxers & Saints came out this year and is a masterful work in its own right. Part history, part fantasy, Boxers & Saints pushes the boundaries of the storytelling capabilities of graphic novels even further than American Born Chinese did. The book(s) is a retelling of the Boxer Rebellion in China, and explores the complex interactions of faith, culture and identity at the turn of the 20th century. It’s beautiful and devastating.

Either book will get you hooked on the unique and excellent work of Gene Luen Yang. Listen to our interview with Gene on the StoryMen!

My Friend Dahmer
by Derf Backderf

Derf Backderf is a political cartoonist who went to high school with Jeffrey Dahmer.

No, really. In fact, Derf and his crew were the closest thing Dahmer had to friends.

My Friend Dahmer is Derf’s tribute to the boy Jeffrey Dahmer was: the troubled teen who didn’t know how to ask for help, who was ignored by pretty much everyone (especially the adults in his life). My Friend Dahmer is a haunting, tragic indictment of our failure to care for the least among us, those who don’t fit into our boxes. Dahmer’s story is at minimum a warning against ignoring those calling for help in our midst.

My Friend Dahmer is a compelling, heavy read that will haunt you for days after you finish it. Dahmer has long fascinated us, and Derf’s portrait of his early years is kind, compassionate and clear without resorting to sensationalism or condoning in any way the choices Dahmer would go on to make after graduation.

I promise you this: you’ll never read anything else remotely like My Friend Dahmer.

My Friend Dahmer
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Blankets
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Blankets and Habibi
by Craig Thompson

Craig Thompson’s books are true graphic novels. Blankets and Habibi are huge, beautiful beasts of books, stories both intimate and epic, that invite you to spend several evenings curled up with them in your lap, pouring over the beautiful artwork and compelling stories.

Blankets is Craig’s own autobiography. He grew up an outsider, raised in a fundamentalists Evangelical religious tradition. Blankets is a coming-of-age and losing-my-religion tale that will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever been told their religion doesn’t have room for the person you know God created you to be.

Habibi is a truly amazing work. I’ve read it once and I’m frankly confident that’s not enough. The basic story is about two children trying to survive in an impoverished Middle Eastern society. But Habibi (which means “beloved” in Arabic) is also an exploration of Islamic art and how the story of the Koran shapes the lives of those who live in Arab cultures. And beyond that, it’s a beautiful story about the power of literacy and story itself. Habibi is another book I’ve never read anything like. The fact that Craig isn’t Muslim makes this work all the more amazing for its sympathetic and intimate portrait of Islam.

Habibi
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Batman

Batman is the best, and these books will prove it (though they’re only the tip of a huge and awesome iceberg).

  • Batman: Earth One is a retelling of Batman’s origin story. It’s a great way to jump onto the Dark Knight train, and it’s packed with tidbits that will delight both new fans and those who know everything there is to know about the Bat.
  • Batman: The Long Halloween is a big, long detective story. It features nearly all of Batman’s rogues gallery. It’s got a killer mystery in it. And the art is amazing. Basically, this is everything you could want in a basic, straightforward Batman story.
  • Batman: Noel is A Christmas Carol retold with Batman. Three of his villains are the ghosts and Batman is Scrooge. Need I say more? Of course not. Welcome to your new Christmas tradition.

Superman

Superman is a tough character to do well. But these two books – Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid and All Star Superman by Grant Morrison – are great examples of exactly why Superman is such an enduring comics icon. Both of these authors love comics and they love Superman. And boy does it show.

The Sandman by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman is one of the uncontested great epic stories of all time. The Sandman is a series that spans the whole of human history, most of the known universe, and the darkest chambers of our souls. Though it’s technically set in the DC comcs universe, you don’t actually need to know anything about DC comics to enjoy The Sandman. (There are, of course, tidbits if you know where to look.)

The Sandman in question is Dream, one of seven Endless – manifestations of various aspects of the human condition (others include Destiny, Death and Delirium, who used to be Delight). After escaping magical imprisonment, Dream sets out to reorder his realm, only to discover that much has changed in his absence. Can Dream continue in this new world?

Pick up the first volume (of 10) called Preludes & Nocturnes and find out why The Sandman is hailed as an unparalleled accomplishment in storytelling.

Sandman 1
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Ultimates 2
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Ultimates by Mark Millar

So you love the Marvel movies but aren’t sure where to dive into the comics? Start with The Ultimates!

A few years ago, Marvel decided to relaunch all their most popular comics. So Peter Parker went back into high school. The Fantastic Four had to get their powers all over again. And the Avengers had to assemble for the first time. But now it was all set in post-9/11 America. And they’re not the Avengers anymore, they’re the Ultimates.

If that all sounds confusing, well… it sort of is. All you need to know is that you can jump into Marvel, into the Avengers characters you recognize from the movies (more-or-less) beginning with Ultimates Volume 1.

The first four Ultimates trade paperbacks are amazing. Written by Mark Millar, one of the better comic writers working right now, Ultimates is a great line of comics that will have you laughing, gasping and shocked. The Ultimates has all your favorite characters – Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, the baddest Hawkeye you’ve ever seen, and a Nick Fury who looks suspiciously like Samuel L. Jackson.

There are two major story arcs (Ultimates and Ultimates 2), with two trade paperbacks each for a total of four trades. Here they are:

Kingdom Come

by Mark Waid and Alex Ross

Kingdom Come is one of the greatest comics of all time. Mark Waid retells the book of Revelation as a war among superheroes in the near-future. If Waid’s amazing story were all we had, it’d still be enough to make the list. But Alex Ross illustrates the book with his singular, gorgeous style, making Kingdom Come truly a book for the ages. Just look at the art to the right.

I hesitated to put Kingdom Come on this list because the better you know the DC Comics universe, the more you’ll enjoy it. But if you know who Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are, you’ll be fine (maybe read the Wikipedia page on Shazam). Kingdom Come is a story you’ll return to again and again. It’s rich, beautiful and a lot of fun.

Kingdom Come
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Watchmen
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V for Vendetta and Watchmen

by Alan Moore

V for Vendetta and Watchmen are both considered classic, groundbreaking comics. Both have been made into inferior films. And both are written by Alan Moore, a man who may genuinely be so brilliant he’s actually insane.

I almost didn’t include these on my list. They’re both pretty daunting works of fiction, and their 80s-style art can be off-putting for those just getting into comics. But any serious conversation about comics is going to include these. So I had to add them in here.

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore
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Walking Dead 1
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The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman

By now, everyone and their little dog, too has heard of The Walking Dead, the runaway hit zombie show on AMC. And most people know the show is based on an ongoing series of comics by Robert Kirkman (who also executive produces the show).

Why not dive in at the beginning, with the first trade paperback, “Days Gone By”? You’ll get to meet Rick all over again.

The early issues hew pretty closely to the show (though it’s actually vice-versa, of course). But you’ll be amazed how much more awesome Andrea is and how much less you hate Lorie and Carl.

Thor
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Thor: God of Thunder
by Jason Aaron

Wonder Woman
by Brian Azzarello

My wife Amanda’s two favorite superheros are Thor and Wonder Woman. Fortuitously, both have been recently relaunched by their respective companies. Both relaunches take advantage of the mythic nature of the heroes to tell some really fun stories.

In Thor: God of Thunder, Thor takes on a villain who is traveling the universe slaughtering gods of various worlds. Author Jason Aaron has a lot of fun with the larger Marvel mythology, and by the time this first story arc wraps up (after two trades worth of amazing storytelling!), well. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s pretty astounding.

Brian Azzarello puts Wonder Woman between the vindictive, petty and back-stabbing Olympian gods and a baby who may or may not fulfill a rather devastating prophecy. Brian uses Greek mythology to great effect, introducing a myriad of gods and monsters Diana must fight off. Again, this story feels epic and is still going strong.

Both of these books offer a great jumping on point for characters who are becoming big movie stars.

Wonder Woman
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There you have it! My 2013 recommendations! What did I leave off? Add ’em in the comments!

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  • theamishjihadist

    Stellar list! I like it. I’d add a few more indy’s as well as some other classics. It’s hard to top Brian Vaughn’s Y the Last Man as well as his book Pride of Baghdad. DHP/Dorkin’s collection of Milk & Cheese is a must-own for any respectable and non-respectable library. Maus and Persepolis, of course. It’s a Bird, by Steven Seagle. Matt Kindt’s 3 Story, Will Eisner’s a Contract with God (quite possibly the best on this list–hell, just read anything by Eisner) and, oh, Beasts of Burden (Dorkin/Thompson), as well as The Upturned Stone by Scott Hampton and Murder Mysteries by Gaiman/Russell. Okay, that marks about 1/100th of what should be read, but it’s all I could think of off the top of my head. I’d start with Eisner, move on to Vaughn and then head to Dorkin.

  • Fantastic list, especially for someone like me who appreciates the medium, but has only taken tentative steps into buying more due to the overwhelming amount of choice that exists. Thanks for giving me some to choose from.

    Two related questions: what would you recommend for someone who really loved Watchmen (the graphic novel, not so much the movie) and appreciated Millar’s work on the first few seasons of Smallville? Also, have you checked out Chris Ware’s “Building Stories?” I read that recently and it’s superb.

  • Chris Ware is just masterful – but not for the uninitiated or the faint of heart!

  • I really enjoyed Vaughan’s Ex Machina series too.

  • Great list JR. You’ve helped me get started a lot over the last year. One of the easiest recommendations for me is anything by Mark Waid. Love his stuff. Irredeemable is great. Pro tip: If you have a Half Price Books store by your house (It’s a national chain though maybe not everywhere) they have a great graphic novel section. I find brand new stuff there for even way cheap than Amazon Prime. Also, teacher get a discount card for an extra 10% off all purchases).

  • M.S.Corley

    Hellboy! Where’s Hellboy! Easily the greast comic of all time. Fantastic storyline, amazing art and its Hellboy! How can you not love the guy

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