I've been reading and/or collecting comics since I was 11 years old. I had a paper route at that age, back when kids still could do a job like that, which almost entirely funded my comic book "habit." The Sunday trips to the comic book store with my father were special, cherished moments that a very large part of me longs to have back. I know that I can't have that back, but what I can do is create a list of seminal comics, trade paperback collections, and graphic novels that I think everyone should read, now that comics have truly become such a huge part of our popular culture.
To me, all of the books listed below are exceptional and have, in some way or another, influenced my thinking and/or writing. So, without further ado...
25. "Artesia" (Sirius/Archaia): A sprawling, masterful story of Artesia (a "pagan Joan of Arc" according to series writer/artist, Mark Smylie) that's chock full of magic, mystery, war, political intrigue, and sex. Smylie's hand-painted artwork is quite impressive, as well. This series would be higher on the list if it was completed, but the first four collections ("Artesia," "Artesia Afield," "Artesia Afire" and "Artesia Besieged") are stand out works of art for sure.
24. "Ronin" (DC): Frank Miller's messy, cyberpunk masterpiece tells the tale of a masterless samurai warrior (the eponymous ronin) who chases a demon across time to a dystopian, future New York. The plot itself kind of unravels towards the end, but the phenomenal, Asian-influenced artwork (by Miller and colorist Lynn Varley) carries the tale throughout.
23. "Ghost World" (Fantagraphics): An odd story about odd people living in an odd, small town. It's wry and humorous and (most times) right on the mark with its observations on life, people and fading friendships. Made a very good film in 2001 with a then (almost) unknown Scarlett Johansen.
22. "Strangers in Paradise" (Absract/Self Published): According to creator and artist Terry Moore, "SiP" is a story about "two girls and a guy who gets to know them." It's more than that, of course, and Moore's character development and artwork are top-drawer for the full run of the series. "SiP" is a rollicking ride that's funny, sexy, dangerous and touching...sometimes all at once.
21. "From Hell" (Top Shelf): "From Hell" is Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's sprawling take on the "Jack the Ripper" mythology that's extremely well-researched and written, as most of Moore's works are. Campbell's art is serviceable, but inconsistent, which is why this isn't higher in the list. Skip the 2001 film with Johnny Depp, and read this instead. Trust me.
20. "The Crow" (Caliber Press): James O'Barr's powerful story of love and vengeance is based on the Greek myth of "Orpheus." It's interesting to see O'Barr's artwork evolve from the first book to the last; it goes from serviceable at the outset, to excellent at the book's bloody conclusion. The 1994 film adaptation is not to be missed either.
19. "The Best of the Spirit" (DC): Will Eisner was the undisputed master of sequential art. And this book, a vibrant "re-mastered" collection of his best work on the seminal "Spirit" strips shows why. Avoid Frank Miller's 2008 film version at all costs.
18. "Hellboy: The Right Hand of Doom" (Dark Horse): Any of Mike Mignola's "Hellboy" collections could easily be on this list, but this one wins out because it contains the simple, two-page story "Pancakes." (Read it for yourself to find out why). Hellboy is a misplaced demon prince who heads up the BRPD (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense), and takes on mythological beasties around the globe. Mignola's gloomy, heavily black/shadow-infused artwork perfectly fits the bill here. Both Del Toro films based on this series are pretty damn good, too.
17. "V for Vendetta" (DC/Vertigo): Alan Moore wrote this as a reaction and/or call-to-arms against Thatcher-lead England in the 1980's, and it's still as relevant today as it was then. A mask-clad anarchist, who goes by the single letter V, leads an uprising against a fascist party called Norsefire, which has turned England into a police state. A young girl, Evey Hammond, falls under V's spell and lends a human, woman-on-the street angle to the overall story. The 2006 film version, produced by the Wachowski's, comes very close to hitting all the marks the graphic novel hits, but it just falls short.
16. "Sin City: The Hard Goodbye" (Dark Horse): Frank Miller's deftly interwoven, hard boiled tales of bad men (and women) doing bad things are almost impossible to put down. The mostly black and white artwork is a visual treat, as well. Like "Hellboy," any of the collected editions could be on this list, but this one stands out because of the thug to beat all thugs, Marv. Both film adaptations (2005 and 2014) are well done to boot.
15. "Scott Pilgrim" (Oni Press): A fun, hip, pop-culturally savvy romp through the life of the titular character who is on a quest to defeat the seven evil exes of his love, Ramona Flowers and, in turn, grow up. All six books in this series are great, as is the hyper-kinetic 2010 film verison directed by Edgar Wright.
14. "The Silver Surfer: The Ultimate Cosmic Experience" (Marvel): A classic, early graphic novel from the 70's that is one of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's finest collaborations. The book definitely has a trippy, 70's vibe, but if you can get past that, you'll find a well-told tale of Surfer love and angst that still holds up rather well.
13. "My Friend Dahmer" (Abrams Comic Arts): Writer and artist John Backderf had the misfortune of being "friends" with notorious serial killer Jeffery Dahmer in junior high and high school, and he tells that tale in this strangely gripping tome. The Dahmer he knew was just a weird and sad kid, but his transformation (seen through Backderf's eyes) as he matures and becomes more removed from society, is simply chilling.
12. "Marvels" (Marvel): A spectacular vision of the early Marvel Universe told through the lens of "everyman" photojournalist, Phil Sheldon. Kurt Busiek's storytelling doesn't get much better than this, but it's really the hyper-realistic painted artwork of Alex Ross (doing his first real comics work here) that really gave this important series its overall gravitas.
11. "Watchmen" (DC): There isn't too much that hasn't been already said about Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's classic deconstruction of the super-hero genre, and I won't say too much more beyond quoting sharply written dialogue from the uncompromising vigilante Rorschach: "This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout 'Save us!'...and I'll whisper 'no.'"
10. "Preacher" (DC/Vertigo): As over the top and ultra-violent as it gets, but almost nothing is more fun to read than Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's masterpiece. From issue one to issue 50, I was glued to this book. Religion, sex, humor, a massive body count, Irish vampires...and a character named "Arseface." Tell me that doesn't intrigue you. "Preacher" will also be coming to TV on AMC, courtesy of Seth Rogen's Point Grey Pictures.
9. "Spider-Man - Fearful Symmetry - Kraven's Last Hunt" (Marvel): This great Spidey story made a lame-duck villain like Kraven the Hunter into a three-dimensional character who you came to understand and actually empathize with as you turned the pages. Credit writer J.M. DeMatteis and artist Mike Zeck for crafting a superlative, superhero tale.
8. "Sandman" (DC/Vertigo): Just a beautifully woven tale from beginning to end about the gothically neurotic Dream King, Morpheus, and his dysfunctional family of kooky gods. Comic writing doesn't get much better than this. Thank you, Neil Gaiman. My only complaint about this series (and why it isn't higher on the list) is that the art fails the writing on many occasions, but still, a classic.
7. "The New Teen Titans - The Judas Contract" (DC): My heart broke right along with poor, Gar Logan's as Terra betrayed the Teen Titans to Deathstroke, the Terminator and Brother Blood. I guess it didn't help any that Terra kinda looked like my crush/girlfriend at that time. And she sold me out, as well. So it goes.
6. "Maus" (Pantheon Books): This profoundly moving two-volume tale about the horrors of being a Jew (depicted here as mice) in Nazi Germany (depicted as cats) won a Pulitzer Prize. Not many comic books do that. In fact, no other ever has. If you haven't read this, you certainly should. 'Nuff said.
5. "Akira" (Kodansha USA/Random House): This sprawling, mind-boggling story put Japanese manga on the radar for me. If you've only seen the animated movie, then you only know half of the story. And if you are bold enough to pick up the books, be prepared to lose the majority of your free time. You've been warned, gaijin.
4. "Astro City - Life in the Big City" (DC/Wildstorm): This book single-handedly drew me back into superhero comics. As a 30-year-old man, I rediscovered my love of comics, and of superheroes in general. And for the hour or two it took me to finish reading it, I felt like I was eleven again. You cannot put a price on that.
3. "X-Men - Dark Phoenix Saga" (Marvel): When I read this for the first time as a young lad, I actually cried when Jean Grey died. Again, 'nuff said.
2. "Wolverine - Original Mini-Series" (Marvel): Wolverine in Japan. Wolverine in love. Wolverine kicking the holy crap out of scores of ninjas. Wolverine slays in the evil crime lord and, in the end, gets the girl, and all is right with the world. I think I spent at least 100 hours trying to duplicate Frank Miller's awesome cover for issue #1 of this mini-series. The recent movie adaptation (in 2013) was decent, but not as good as what scribe Chris Claremont and Miller served up in 1982.
1. "X-Men - God Loves, Man Kills" (Marvel): Superhero comics just don't get any better than this - in 1982 when this graphic novel was first published, or now. It has real depth, real emotion and deals with real issues. In this book, the X-Men became "real" to me. They were no longer just drawings on a page; they were my friends and I cared about them. And when Reverend Stryker calls my main man, Nightcrawler, a "thing" well, I wanted to rip his sanctimonious head right off of his shoulders. It's too bad the "X2" movie kind of bastardized this story because it would've been brilliant if they just stayed true to the graphic novel. That's Hollywood for you...