I’ve never been a full-blown comic book addict, but from time to time I go on a bender and read a bunch of comics collected as trade paperbacks. The benefit is that I don’t have to wait every month for the next installment, and I can check out reviews to get an idea of which ones are any good. Yes, yes, I’m the one with my jackboot on the neck of the comics industry because I’m not buying monthlies. I’m evil like that.
To assuage my guilt, I will now tell you what 5 comics from the majors (i.e. DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, and Image) you should go run out and read right now, especially if your knowledge of good comic book stories begins and ends at Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. I’ve thrown in small scans of a panel or three from most of the comics so you can see what they look like. All the comics in my list are genre works, though they run the gamut from straight-up superhero comics to fantasy retellings of fairy tales to the equivalent of a complete science fiction novel. All are available in trade paperbacks. Given each title’s vastly different goals, and that I’m only focusing on the major comic book publishers, don’t take this as a “BEST COMICS EVER!” list.
1. Blue Beetle. (Ongoing, with the first four arcs collected in TPB.) Blue Beetle is a DC hero who’s had two incarnations since 1939. In 2006 writers Keith Giffen and John Rogers (yes, that John Rogers) introduced a third, Jaime Reyes, a Latino teenager who discovers the scarab that gives Blue Beetles their power.
This has the most mainstream-comics approach of all five picks, which means that you have to deal with a lot of cross-overs. Bits of Jaime’s story show up in comics that aren’t collected in the TPBs. Thankfully, the stories in the TPBs stand on their own, and you don’t need an advanced degree in DC history to follow the stories. Even better, the writing, after a slow start, catches fire. Jaime has a family and a life outside being a superhero, and the relationships between him and his friends and family are tremendous fun. In fact, “fun” describes what this series is aiming for and what it delivers. It’s the comic-book equivalent of macaroni and cheese done exceedingly well. If you give the series a try, stick with it past the first four issues. By issue #11 (in the second TPB), writer John Rogers is flying solo and has found his footing, mixing great pacing with fun — and funny! — storytelling.
Plus in one issue Jamie gets to say, “Huge fancy-talking guys with swords on top of giant super-horses fighting evil! I take it back! Outer space is very cool!” Yes, indeed, Jamie, it is very cool.
2. Y: The Last Man. (Finished, with 10 TPBs.) Brian K. Vaughan’s concept is simple to sum up: what would happen if a plague killed off every mammal with a Y chromosome except for one guy and his pet monkey? From that premise Vaughan builds a fascinating and realistic story, aided and abetted by Pia Guerra’s understated artwork.
What makes me the happiest about Y is how Vaughan avoids a lot of apocalyptic end-of-the-world tropes. Civilization doesn’t break down overnight; instead, parts of it start grinding to a halt. A lot of the US government is now dead, and there’s practically no Secret Service left to protect the remnants. The preponderance of engineers and electricians were men, so the electrical power grid starts having problems. Holes fray in the fabric. The apocalypse is here, but it’s distributed unevenly.
And the last man isn’t really a hero in the traditional mold, nor does Yorick really grow into one, even as he’s smuggled about the country in the hope that a cure for the plague can be found before all mammals die out. All the characters — Yorick, Agent 355, Dr. Mann, Yorick’s sister Hero — respond in believable ways to an unbelievable event. Here’s a comic book series grounded in people and their reactions to each other.
Y: The Last Man is complete, so you know the series didn’t end before the story. Go grab it now.
3. Casanova. (Ongoing, with the first two arcs collected in TBP.) Pa-zow. Oh, man, where to begin. Casanova Quinn is a super-thief turned super-spy whose father is the head of a S.H.I.E.L.D.-like law-and-order organization. He’s a prodigal son who has a good twin sister — or bad, depending on what timeline he’s in. See, he gets yanked out of his home timeline and into another at the whims of brilliant madman Newman Xeno whose organization’s name, W.A.S.T.E., is a nod to Thomas Pynchon.
In the first issue, Casanova is thrown out of a large flying casino after besting its owner, three men squashed together into one through the power of Zen, in a staring contest. As Casanova falls he shoots two pistols at the casino in a futile attempt to damage it before being snatched out of midair and into his new timeline.
Later on sex bots with mad martial arts skills and a giant WWII-era robot show up, just so you know how this comic rolls.
The art is striking, the story so compressed and so fast-paced that it’ll take you a good two issues to figure out some of what’s going on, and it’s brilliant. I’ll warn you, though, that the sex and violence quotient of the series is insanely high. If a character quoting Ice-T from New Jack City (“I want to shoot you so bad my dick is hard”) sets your teeth on edge, this is not the comic for you. If you’re up for James Bond, a blenderized take on the past’s version of a science fiction future, and a story that could not stop for death, all moving at breakneck speed, then pick this series up. (Comic Book Resources has all of issue 1 online.)
4. Fables. (Ongoing, with 11 TPBs.) Like Y: The Last Man, Fables has a simple high concept: what if all of the characters from fairy tales and folklore were driven out of their fantasy world by The Adversary and had to live in secret in Fabletown, an enclave in modern-day New York City? And like Y: The Last Man‘s Brian K. Vaughan, writer Bill Willingham uses his premise to set up a lot of characters and then let them bounce off of each other. While the overarching menace of the Adversary is present throughout, the core of the series is how this group of displaced people adapt to their surroundings and how they deal with each other.
Willingham plays the “what if?” game with his characters. What if Snow White and Prince Charming were now divorced, leaving her to be the deputy mayor of Fabletown under Old King Cole while Prince Charming was forced to depend on the kindness of others? What if the big bad wolf took on human form and was Fabletown’s sheriff? What if Goldilocks grew up to be a political activist who wasn’t above assassinating those who got in her way? What if Jack of giant beanstalk fame became a trickster figure whose schemes often went awry?
Fables is ongoing, but Willingham is good at creating self-contained story arcs. He even took what he had planned as the final Fables storyline involving the Adversary and managed to work it in earlier without killing off the series. Start at the beginning and work your way forward. You won’t regret it.
5. Starman. (Finished, with 1 hardcover out and 5 more to go.) “Wait,” the comic book fans are saying right now, “wasn’t the critically-acclaimed James Robinson Starman over in 2001?” You’re right! But it’s been out of print for years, until the new hardcover omnibus arrived this year. There are five more to go, at which point all of the issues will have been republished. And Starman is so awesome that it deserves this resurrection.
Like Blue Beetle, Starman was a previously-existing hero whose name got passed on to someone else. In this case, the new Starman was Jack Knight, son of the first Starman. Jack becomes the new Starman reluctantly, never dresses in a standard spandex costume, and early on would much rather be doing anything other than being a hero. Where Robinson excelled with the series was in building a compelling story out of cast-off bits of the DC Comics universe, and do it in a way that even I, who knew very little about the DC Universe, could enjoy it. He took a grade-C superhero and a grade-D supporting cast and turned them all into interesting, complex people. He made a comic about families coming to grips with their legacies, whether heroic or villainous. Moreover, he made Opal City, where Jack Knight lives, a character in itself, occasionally offering issues that filled in the city’s history. By the end of the run, Opal City was as much a character as Jack Knight, The Mist, or The Shade.
The careful worldbuilding, the intricate plotting, and the fully-realized characters made Starman one of the best comics in the 1990s, but it wasn’t wildly popular, quickly falling out of print. Now that all of the issues are returning in omnibus format, you can see why so many people praise Starman.