I’ve always liked comics.
As a kid, I would go to the library’s graphic novel section, and pick out two or three that looked interesting. Pretty quickly, I found that a lot of the superhero stuff was confusing, and usually built off years of old stories. So I would pick up stand alone graphic novels, or shorter series. I ended up with a lot of stuff I was probably too young for, but a lot of really fantastic storytelling too.
So when people ask me how to get into comics, these are the books I usually recommend.
Note: I’m leaving off more well known comics like Maus, Persopolis, and Scott Pilgrim, but you should totally read those if you haven’t. I’m also omitting my favourite comic series of all time, Stray Bullets, which I wrote about extensively here.
With that out of the way, let’s jump in:
I’ve found that a lot of people seem to have read some of Bone, but never finished it. I think that’s a big mistake.
Bone starts off as a cute, Disney-style fairy tale, but evolves into a bloody epic more in line with Lord of the Rings. Lots of people describe growing with Harry Potter, in that they got older at the same rate that the tone of the books became more adult. Sadly, I missed out on that, but I felt the same way about Bone. Whether you pick up the original 90’s run in black and white, or the colorized versions from the mid 2000’s, Bone is a journey worth taking.
Start with: Bone #1: Out from Boneville
My Friend Dahmer
On the complete other side of the spectrum, we have My Friend Dahmer.
Writer-Artist John Backderf (known professionally as Derf), went to high school with serial-killer Jeffrey Dahmer, and knew him pretty well. Derf personally watched as Dahmer evolved from class-clown into a deeply disturbed loner, and he documents this in the haunting My Friend Dahmer. A combination of personal anecdotes and dramatizations of Dahmer’s family life, My Friend Dahmer looks into what made the infamous serial killer the way he was, without ever feeling exploitative or overly sympathetic. The illustrations are disturbing, but worse is the sense of guilt that hangs over the entire book. Could Derf have gotten Jeffrey help and even saved his victims? A tough read, to say the least, but fascinating.
The film adaptation, which I am super nervous about, arrives this fall.
Start with: My Friend Dahmer
I thought I’d slip one mainstream Super-Hero book in here, and that book had to be Ultimate Spider-Man. If you aren’t familiar, the Ultimate universe was Marvel’s attempt to tell “clean slate” stories without the baggage of years of continuity. Most of the work produced ranged from solid to mediocre, but Ultimate Spider-Man easily rose above the rest. I could go into one of the million reasons why this book is great, but I’ll just say that for me, this is the definitive version of Spider-Man, and easily my favourite.
Also worth clarifying that while I really like the Miles Morales stuff, I am really recommending the original Peter Parker stories from the early to mid-2000’s. If you like the movies and are looking to get into Spider-Man, this comes highly recommended.
Jeff Lemire is one of my favorite comic storytellers, and Essex County might be his greatest achievement thus far. Lemire is incredibly prolific, and his work is very consistently high quality, making it hard to just pick one to recommend. I debated over putting his series Sweet Tooth here, but I feel Essex County is the more emotional story. It helps that it’s set in my native Ontario, but I believe Lemire’s lovingly rendered characters. and his moving, highly distinct art style have universal appeal. Some images from this book, like a streetcar driver sprawled out on a giant map of Toronto, have stayed with me a long time.
Start with: The Collected Essex County
The Contract With God Trilogy
There is no overstating Will Eisner’s influence on the medium of the graphic novel. The Eisner’s, the comic book equivalent of the Oscars, are named for him, and he even coined the term “Graphic Novel”, while attempting to sell A Contract With God. As such, it’s worth reading his work for perspective on the history of the medium. Or, because it’s so singularly compelling.
The volume of Contract with God that I read compiled three of his novels into one massive book, and this is the version I would seek out. Over the three novels, Eisner chronicles life in a New York ghetto post World War 2, and unflinchingly exposes the poverty, violence, and antisemitism therein. The story has a sprawling, tapestry like quality that reminded me of The Wire, and the art is masterful. A dense book to be sure, but hard to put down once you start it.
Start With: The Contract with God Trilogy
Bearing no relation to the 2015 film of the same name, Ex Machina is part political thriller, part superhero story.
The series follows Mitchell Hundred, AKA The Great Machine. Hundred can control machinery with his mind, and as a result, stops the second plane from hitting the twin towers on 9/11. An aspiring politician, Hundred rides his wave of popularity into the mayor’s office, only to find himself in over his head. The political stuff is a little outdated, but it’s still a fascinating snapshot of post 9/11 New York, and a super well written book. If The West Wing meets Daredevil sounds like something you’d be into, you won’t be disappointed.
Start With: Ex Machina Volume 1: The First Hundred Days
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
I don’t think I’m anywhere close to the target audience of Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, but I loved it.
New Yorker Cartoonist Roz Chast chronicles the long, awful, process of watching her elderly parents die, and reflects on her relationship with them. It sounds pretty bleak, and it obviously is at points, but Chast handles it delicately and as honestly as possible. While her parents are in denial of what’s happening, Chast brings them and us into a kind of therapeutic catharsis, finally accepting the inevitable. Aging is an awful, demoralizing process, and Chast doesn’t shy away from that, but it does becomes kind of comforting knowing exactly how the book will end, and that we all experience that journey at some point or another.
You will cry, inevitably, but this is one of the most honest books about death I have read, and I found finishing it very rewarding. Might be a weird recommendation, but I would feel wrong leaving it off the list.
Start with: Can’t we Talk About Something More Pleasant?
Super Mutant Magic Academy
On the lighter side, Super Mutant Magic Academy is a delight. Compiling a comic strip previously published on the web, the book is frequently hilarious. Full of subtle character comedy and bizzare, esoteric weirdness, It’s like Harry Potter through the lens of Wes Anderson. If that sounds up your alley, or even if it doesn’t, I think you’ll like Super Mutant Magic Academy.
Start with: Super Mutant Magic Academy
The Diary of A Teenage Girl
I really loved this book, but it was hard for me to get through at times. Writer-Artist Phoebe Gloeckner mixes sections of her own diary into this fictionalized journal of a young girl growing up in the 70’s. The book chronicles the main character’s sexual relationship with her step-father, you guessing which parts are real and which fictionalized. As I said, I found it hard to get through, but A female friend of mine didn’t find it as sad as I did. If I were to guess why, I’d think that’s because so much of it deals with the unwanted male attention that women face every day. Much of what was surprising to me will probably not be news to female readers. Either way, it’s a must read, especially for teenagers.
Start with: The Diary of a Teenaged Girl
I was going to recommend Daniel Clowe’s beautiful book Ghost World, but thought I’d shine a light on a slightly lesser known work of his. Beginning as a time-travel murder mystery, Patience only gets more complex from there, and the plot can be dizzying at times. Regardless, the emotional core hits so hard that you stop worrying about the intricacies of the time travel. Intense and sad, Patience‘s gorgeous art and complex characters make for a one of a kind reading experience.
Start with: Patience
Fables is easy to recommend. A fantasy series about fairy tale characters living in modern day New York, it has a lot of fun playing with mythology, amidst high stakes and compelling storylines. The main character, the Big Bad wolf re-imagined as a hard-boiled detective, is the highlight, but every character in the massive cast gets their moment to shine. This is one of the longer series on this list, good for fans of sprawling TV shows like Game of Thrones.
Start with: Fables: The Deluxe Edition Book One
I’ve recommended a lot of dark stuff in this list, so I’ll end on Kaptara, one of the funniest comic books I’ve ever read. Written by Chip Zdarsky, (who I interviewed earlier this year), Kaptara is a bizzaro He-Man riff that is hilarious even if you aren’t at all familiar with 80’s cartoons. Following an astronaut who crash lands on a surreal alien planet, Kaptara is a fun, colorful series that I can not recommend enough.
Start with: Kaptara Volume 1: Fear Not, Tiny Alien
Please let me know if you read any of these and what you think of them. Or, tell me what books originally got you into comics. I also feel it’s worth noting that the public library is a great comic book resource if you’re low on cash, I use it all the time!