I’ve been reading comics for a long, long time, but it wasn’t until a friend handed me Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen that I really took ’em seriously. I don’t mean “seriously” as “Serious Literature”; I’m not even sure what that means. I just mean that it wasn’t until Watchmen that I really got comics as a way to tell a story as opposed to a rambling, serialized that didn’t have any real sense of beginning or end. So, at the risk of spoiling the surprise, everything on my list is going to be from that era forward.
I read a lot of comics. I read enough that I’ve had to buy a few extra bookshelves to hold them. These are my favorites:
Planetary (Warren Ellis, John Cassaday) : This is the finest expression of what a comic book can be that I’ve ever encountered. I get that the more over-the-top Transmetropolitan may be better and is almost certain more important from a cultural standpoint, but Planetary is essentially the perfect book. It explores comic book tropes in a way that makes them fresh and wondrous. It’s never condescending to its subject matter. Almost all of the stories are stand-alones, but there’s an overarching story told in four acts that was very clearly planned from day one. Not only is Ellis in absolutely peak form (and that’s saying something), but John Cassaday does things I don’t think any other artist could have managed as well. He handles all of the different genres expertly and his ability to capture emotion in faces is unmatched. There’s a three panel, wordless scene with Elijah Snow and Anna Hark that will break your heart…in a good way. This really is what it’s all about.
Locke & Key (Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodriguez) : I’ve never liked horror comics. They’ve just never been very scary to me. So, I was a little late to this Locke & Key party since I didn’t think it would my kind of thing. Oops. Joe Hill is a grade A storyteller. He’s so good that you’re not even really sure that you’re reading a horror story. It’s more like you’re reading a regular story that’s being invaded by dimly seen but incredibly powerful horrors just at the edge of your vision. Once things get moving, he does a stunning job of keeping up the suspense. There were many, many moments when I couldn’t imagine how the good guys would get out of a particular jam because it was just so well constructed, and then, when they (most of the time) escaped, it never felt like a cheat. Rodriguez has a brilliant, clean style that makes the scary parts so much scarier. Best scary comic I’ve ever read.
The Sandman – Season of Mists (Neil Gaiman, Kelley Jones) : For some of the longer runs, I’m just going to pick my favorite story. This was the second Sandman collection I picked up, but it was the one that really got me hooked. Like Hill, Neil Gaiman is, above all else, a supremely gifted and knowledgeable storyteller. Sandman was originally marketed a scary comic, and while I can see a little of that, it’s mostly a platform for Gaiman to tell stories. This remains my favorite Sandman story because the side characters are so compelling. Lucifer, Loki, poor old Thor, Bast, Chaos…they’re all memorable, but none more so than Lucifer. I won’t spoil it, but when you get to the end of the entire series, you’ll see how, in a sense, this was the book that set the whole final act in motion.
Doom Patrol – The Painting That Ate Paris (Grant Morrison, Richard Case) : I learned more about art from this series than I did in all my years in school. The Brotherhood of Dada are, hands down, my favorite group of villains and Mr. Nobody is not only the coolest bad guy, he’s the coolest looking. Richard Case has a draftsman’s hand and he uses it to incredible effect in this series. The story itself may be the loopiest thing Morrison wrote (until maybe Seaguy). And then there’s the Crazy Jane issue. Yeah, that one hits just about every trigger there is. Read it at your peril. It’s incredible, but it’s also devastating.
Flaming Carrot Comics (Bob Burden) : Because, really, who doesn’t want to read about a guy with no powers in a carrot mask who shoots bad guys, kills Nazi boots, smokes a bubble pipe, gets ALL the girls, and struggles mightily with the English language? Don’t judge Burden’s work by the godawful Mysterymen movie. He writes and draws the funniest comics I’ve ever read.
Cassanova (Matt Fraction, Gabriel Ba, Fabio Moon) : Reading Cassanova is like doing some amazing drug from the future that won’t exist until you invent it 20 years from today and it makes everything fast and colorful and absolutely, utterly insane. This is what I read when I want to feel a physical reaction to what I’m reading. It literally makes my blood pump faster. Who cares what it’s about (and it’s about everything!). We’re all so terribly excited!
Nextwave – Agents of H.A.T.E. (Warren Ellis, Stuart Immonen) : You know, really, you could take almost anything Warren Ellis writes and it would qualify for some sort of “best of” list. He’s not just great; he’s consistently great. This mad little romp is one of those things that probably never should have been given the green light. Ellis takes a stack of forgotten and/or underused Marvel properties and turns them into one of the funniest comics you’ll ever read. It’s self-aware, sure, but that’s part of the fun. Immonen’s in on the joke and I can’t imagine anyone else drawing this book. A word of warning, though: The scene with Machine Man and the Celestials will make you spit whatever is in your mouth all over the book/screen/keyboard. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.
Tank Girl – (Alan Martin, Jamie Hewlett) : The original run is still the best. Unbelievably joyful and nihilistic at the same time, I have to be in the mood for Tank Girl, but when I am, nothing else will do. I can only imagine a Spider Jerusalem/Tank Girl team-up. The world might not recover. And sure, you can pretend like I think that would be a bad thing if you want…
Johnny the Homicidal Maniac – (Jhonen Vasquez) : Speaking of nihilistic…ok, this might be terribly Hot Topic of me, but this is a really great, darkly funny comic rewards re-reading more than you would probably expect. It’s extremely dense, the art takes some unraveling, but it’s a great ride. I still cannot believe they gave Vasquez a series on Nickelodeon…
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Vol.1-2) – (Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill) : Forget the movie and, frankly, forget the Black Dossier and everything after it. Or not, if you like them. For me, the first two tales remain by far the strongest. Obviously, I have a thing for pastiche and the second book is so incredibly good, so seamless in the way in integrates its story elements, that you almost forget that this isn’t the original telling of that particular tale. Kudos to Kevin O’Neill, who maybe enjoys drawing gore a little too much (as if that were a thing).
I should probably close by explaining a few omissions. Watchmen and Dark Knight are both landmark books and worthy of inclusion, but I just don’t enjoy reading them that much. They’re so dense that it feels like a chore to get through them. They’re undeniably great, but they’re not my favorites. The Invisibles suffered, in my opinion, from some seriously meandering storytelling that felt made up as it went along. It was incredible, but and, as a whole may be Morrison’s strongest work. Finally, why is there no Hellblazer? Look, I freakin’ love John Constantine and when a writer nails his voice, it’s magical. But, I couldn’t think of a single storyline I think of as a favorite, and the book’s quality was all over the place.
Looking back on the list, one thing that strikes me as that, in most cases, these stories are the works of a single writer and single artist. In every case, the two were incredibly in sync. There’s something about an artist and a writer who really get what the other is trying to do. “Greater than the sum of its parts” is, I think, the phrase.