Happy holidays! Whether you’re a Catholic, Jew, an observant of Kwanzaa or simply a standard slave to consumerist culture, you’ll be giving gifts to those you love. Is your father a boomer who will tell you how he used to love Thor growing up, but hasn’t picked up a four color page in decades? Is there an obnoxious young cousin in your life that could use some action packed stuff to shut her up? Maybe you treat yourself to some things too – courtesy of Santa perhaps? Well, as this club’s self-professed lord of all things comics, I’ve thrown together a handy holiday gift guide.
If you skip to the end, I have a basic list of all my recommendations if you want to bypass all my fluff. I include Amazon links throughout, but most of these books should also be available at your local comic shop (which you can find here) or run of the mill book store. I also recommend instocktrades.com for saving some money (free shipping on orders over $50).
Are you a newcomer to the superhero subculture? Maybe you found yourself among us because of Robert Downey Jr.’s undeniable wit, Chris Hemsworth’s luscious locks or Christopher Nolan’s masterful trilogy? The CW is doing some great things with Arrow, Flash and Legends of Tomorrow. Netflix can apparently only hit home runs, with Daredevil and Jessica Jones so far. Maybe you know that the world will be pummeled with over two dozen more superhero flicks by 2020, and you feel that you may as well willfully submit to your new geek overlords before you’re forced to do so. Here are some selections to prepare you for upcoming blockbusters or to delve deeper into some recent gems.
1. Jessica Jones
After Fredric Wertham nearly destroyed the medium with faulty science, the Comics Code Authority was created in 1954 as a self regulatory agency for the comics industry. Marvel remained an adherent of the censorship club until 2001. Jessica Jones was introduced in the series Alias, which served as the flagship title for Marvel’s Max imprint. Max was about leaving creator’s free to use mature/explicit themes as they saw fit. Alias also served as another early stepping stone in the explosive career of Brian Michael Bendis. He had already started his legendary run of Ultimate Spider-Man and was just a few months into his classic Daredevil tale. In 2015, Bendis is a multiple award winning writer and the primary architect of the Marvel Universe. For fans of the Netflix show, the Purple Man/Killgrave isn’t really brought up until the last five issues of the 28 issue run. It’s a slow burn character study and less of a “big bad of the week” kind of feel. Besides Bendis’ quick, natural dialogue and intriguing plotting, Alias is graced by Michael Gaydos’ noirish pencils (uplifted by Matt Hollingsworth’s colors) and David Mack’s iconic painted/collage covers.
Alias is collected across four trade paperbacks titled Jessica Jones: Alias. Volume 1 is herr. The entire series can be grabbed together in a hardcover omnibus edition, with the added bonus of oversized pages. Here it is. To continue Jessica’s story, the next step is The Pulse. Still penned by Bendis, but with a more diversified art cast, the series covers Jessica’s new job at the Daily Bugle and her continuing relationship with Luke Cage. This trade paperback collects the whole series and includes the pair’s adorable wedding as a bonus.
2. Civil War
Whose side are you on? Every Marvel fan will have to make that decision on May 6, 2016 when Captain America: Civil War kicks off Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by splitting the Avengers down the middle over philosophical and legal quandaries. The anticipated film will be loosely based on Mark Millar’s 2006 mega hit miniseries. For better or worse, Civil War was a huge success for Marvel and would kick off their current summer event strategy that continues to this day. Nearly every single ongoing series being published got drawn into the overall tale, several miniseries popped up to run alongside it, and even series with no connection had no choice but to acknowledge it. I’ll spoil it a bit and say that you will probably hate Tony Stark after reading the series. Civil War is incredibly divisive to this day, but at its core is a fun action romp with some barely noticeable post-9/11 philosophical questions brewing under the surface.
The seven issue mini is collected in an affordable trade. It can work as a purely standalone work.
If you want to flesh out the broader story more, check out the next entry on this list as well as looking into the Iron Man, Spider-Man and Fantastic Four tie in issues. Unfortunately, some of these trades are out of print and harder to find today; but Marvel is literally reprinting everything in time for the movie. If money flows through your veins, you could even splooge for this $500 MSRP box set collecting almost everything remotely relevant to Civil War.
3. The Winter Soldier
Before Steve Rogers was an anti-authoritarian leader in the monolithic Civil War, his long lost best friend and sidekick Bucky Barnes popped back up on the superhero scene. Ed Brubaker was tasked with making Captain America into a hit again after some rocky years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Right off the bat, Brubaker took a huge gamble by breaking a major rule in comics. People joke about death in superhero comics. It doesn’t matter anymore. Jean Grey has died a dozen times (which granted, is the point of the character). Doomsday killed Superman and he was back in less than a year. Despite all these meaningless deaths, many a comic fan used to claim, “no one stays dead except Bucky, Jason Todd and Uncle Ben.” In 2005, those first two were made moot. Bucky was retconned from being the creepy Robin-like child sidekick to a badass soldier in his own right. The Soviets saved him from death and turned him into a Cold War killing machine. Captain America: Winter Soldier covered the basics pretty faithfully. The original comic story is one of the greatest stories told in the medium though, and knocks the film out of the water.
Brubaker’s very long Captain America saga is collected across several books. The highlights of the run are all at the beginning though. The Winter Soldier arc is conveniently collected in a thick trade. After the major shakeup with Bucky’s return, Brubaker focuses back on Steve for a while in Red Menace, with Crossbones and Sharon Carter making strong appearances. Then Civil War starts its rumblings and something spoilery happens to Steve directly following its finale. It was heavily promoted and reported on by the New York Times, so you should know by now. The third fat collection of Brubaker’s series collects the seminal death of Steve Rogers and the beginnings of Bucky’s time as Captain America. With those three books, you get a whopping 43 issues of stellar comic storytelling. They also work as perfect bookends to Civil War.
4. Batman vs. Superman
This club is called the Students of S.H.I.E.L.D; but it would be naive to think that many of us aren’t huge fans of DC’s characters and stories. It’s also naive to put your fanboy stake in the dirt and not open yourself up to these fantastic tales. Personally, I love the Marvel Universe just slightly more than the DCU. However, I think that DC has most of the greatest standalone stories in their stable. Also, Batman. With the divisive Man of Steel, Zach Snyder at the helm, an overcrowded cast of cameos, Doomsday showing up for some reason, etc who know how Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice will turn out. If you want to lower your expectations even more, or see where the story can be done right, you should look to comics. Frank Miller revolutionized Batman in 1986/7 by putting out two stories that have since become definitive masterpieces. Batman: Year One showed us Bruce’s fledgling start as the Bat, as well as some juicy Jim Gordon and Selina Kyle backstory. The Dark Knight Returns, on the other hand, was Miller’s stark take on the “end” of Bruce’s life as Batman. The former is blessed by the beautiful art of David Mazzucchelli, while Miller uses his own rough manga/film noir style in DKR. Every single Batman story since has drawn on the influence of this indomitable pair. Both books are absolute must haves for anyone who considers themselves a fan of Batman or the comics medium. I am going to highlight DKR, as it includes a famous showdown with Superman. It also inspired Batfleck’s armored suit.
Dark Knight Returns, along with Watchmen, is a major cash cow for DC and can be found literally everywhere. If you want to flex your comic book critic mind, I hesitantly recommend trying out The Dark Knight Strikes Again, the incredibly controversial sequel from 2001. Unlike certain other seminal works, DC at least let Miller do the sequel himself (see: Before Watchmen). The thing is, Miller’s work had always had slightly misogynist, racist, xenophobic undertones. But 9/11 happened in the middle of him doing the series, and it noticeably affected the story and his psyche from that point forward. Most comic fans would tell you to completely avoid DK2 and anything he’s done since. Miller’s art is either hideous or esoteric, depending on who you ask. His ex-wife and longtime colorist, Lynn Varley, was also experimenting with digital coloring for the first time. Just like his pencils, some people argue her basic, flat colors are intentional and deconstructionist, whereas others say she did a shitty job. If you want to go balls deep, there is an oversized hardcover collecting both series together. DK3: The Master Race is currently being published. Miller allegedly has minimal involvement in it. As of writing this, there is one issue out and reaction has been mixed.
5. The Fantastic Four Aren’t Terrible?
Fox’s most recent mess of a Fantastic Four movie, or “Fan4stic” as people love to call it, may have tarnished the IP for mainstream moviegoers for the indefinite future. However, the first family of comics has a storied history in the medium they helped to bring back from the dead. Fantastic Four Vol 1 #1 from November, 1961 may be the most important comic of all time. Spider-Man, Thor, Tony Stark, Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Ant-Man wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Reed Richards, Ben Grimm and Susan and Johnny Storm. It would be easy to thank the family for their influence and then dismiss them as archaic and irrelevant. But, that would be a major mistake. Some of the greatest Marvel stories have come from the F4. From Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s mindblowing 102 issue run literally built the Marvel Universe from planet to planet, John Byrne really built up Sue and brought She-Hulk into the extended family, even Jake’s fabled Walter Simonson did some great stuff on the book. I’m going to focus on too pretty different takes.
Jonathan Hickman wrote Fantastic Four for three years. Hickman is known for his slow burning, epic storylines that build off one another. In 2015, Hickman is infamous for the insane Secret Wars, which is the closest thing Marvel has ever had to a reboot. Secret Wars features Dr. Doom as a godlike figure and ostensibly features Reed Richards as the main character. Longtime Hickman readers will notice developments in the series introduced all the way back in his F4 run. Hickman introduced the FF, or Future Foundation, to the world of Fantastic Four, so the reading order can be a little confusing. A quick google search can help you out. The trades you would need would be this one, this one, this one, this one, then this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, and finally this one. If this seems intimidating, it is. I can say with complete confidence that it is worth it though, especially if you dig crazy science fiction. You can also get it all in one fell swoop across two omnibus volumes here and here. That first one is out of print though and may be an arm and a leg in the secondary market. Good thing I got it while it was available, muahaha. If you come across it at a store though, you’ll score a gem (or an investment to flip on eBay).
So…that Jonathan Hickman guy sounds kind of scary. If you were looking for some Fantastic Four stories with a little bit less emphasis on saving the multiverse, there’s something for you too. Mark Waid wrote the book for a while in the early 2000s. Waid is known for the classic Kingdom Come, as well as classic runs on Captain America, Daredevil, Hulk, Justice League, the Legion of Super-Heroes and the Flash. He brought one of his Flash collaborators, Mike Wieringo with him to work on the first family. Wieringo was known for his cartoony, manga inspired style that made everything he drew fun. Waid and Wieringo truly captured the family dynamic of the team. Jack Kirby shows up as a representation of God. Doom does some truly devilish shit. It’s all wonderful. You can get it across four trades. Tragically, the industry lost Mike Wieringo at a young age. His work will continue to inspire readers and creators for years though and show that, first and foremost, superheroes should be fun.
6. The Flash
The Flash is probably the hottest superhero property on Television (neatly excluding Daredevil and Jessica Jones since they aren’t technically on TV). The CW hit a home run with Arrow and they’ve since birthed a little universe replete with spinoffs and crossovers. When you think about it, The CW’s shows are the closest parallel to the format of comics. The shows are also going places that a multi-million dollar blockbuster wouldn’t dare, with parallel universes and such. Along with showrunners Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg, another major player in The Flash is Geoff Johns. Johns is currently the Chief Creative Officer at DC Comics. Starting as an intern for Richard Donner (of The Goonies, Superman 1 and 2 fame), Geoff shifted over to the comics industry and had a meteoric rise. Though he wrote The Avengers for twenty issues, he is most associated with DC’s stable. He’s done character defining work on the Teen Titans, Aquaman, Superman, Booster Gold, Hawkman and the Justice Society. He presently has been writing Justice League since the start of the New 52. Among his prolific bibliography, Green Lantern and the Flash stick out the most. Johns brought Hal Jordan back from the grave and turned the Lantern books into DC’s biggest sellers for several years, with smash hits like The Sinestro Corps War and Blackest Night. He also resurrected Barry Allen (after a legendary 23 year absence) during a second stint writing the franchise. It’s his early work with Wally West that really stands out though. After Mark Waid built up the Speed Force and the legacy aspect of the characters in the 1990s, Johns brought a smile inducing optimism to the book and fleshed out the infamous Rogues. Despite featuring a different lead character, much of the show’s characterization and tone is lifted directly from Johns’ Flash.
Johns’ first Flash run was originally collected across a buttload of slim trade paperbacks. Most of those are out of print. Then DC collected the whole thing across three big omnibus volumes. These are also out of print, but they had crappy tight binding anyway. Starting this year, the material is being recollected again in meaty trades. Here is the first volume that just came out. The second doesn’t come out until May, but will start collecting some of the truly legendary arcs. There will probably be about four of them total. If you absolutely need some Barry Allen in your life, you may as well go to Johns’ rebirth of the hero. He followed it up with a short second run that lead right into Flashpoint, the harbinger of the New 52, for better or worse. The New 52 is controversial for longtime DC fans, and hit The Flash particularly hard by wiping out the prominent elements of family and history from the title. Barry has never been married to Iris. He never sacrificed himself in Crisis. Wally and Bart are bastardized versions of themselves. Max Mercury and Johnny Quick simply don’t exist. The first 25 issues of the title are worthwhile though, if only for the absolutely beautiful art of Francis Manapul. Those issues are split across the first four trades. Here’s the first one.
7. Doctor Strange
After the destined smash hit Captain America: Civil War, the next piece of the Marvel Cinematic Universe puzzle is Doctor Strange. Sherlock fans should be hype for Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the Sorcerer Supreme. Strange is an interesting character in the Marvel Universe. He dates back to the early days of silver age Marvel in the 1960s. He’s always been a cult favorite B level hero throughout the years. He started out sharing a title (Strange Tales) with Nick Fury. The book was the ultimate treat for art nerd comic fans. Fury benefited from both Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko and had a brilliant mix of sleek James Bond style and 60s pop art sensibilities. Strange, on the other hand, was one of only a handful of books to get the Steve Ditko treatment. Ditko is the elusive, objectivist, visionary creator of not just Strange, but the Amazing Spider-Man himself. Whereas Peter’s scrawny, dorky physique and his creepy movement were the marks of Steve’s style on Spidey, he used Strange to go completely out there with psychedelia. The ultra conservative Ditko ironically grew to be a major inspiration to a generation of hippies. Strange has always kept that otherworldly edge in the years since.
A Lee/Ditko Dr. Strange omnibus is coming out at some point to tie into the movie. However, there are two fantastic titles that have come out closer to our own lifetimes. The most approachable and mainstream book is The Oath by Brian K. Vaughan. Vaughan is a big name in comics for writing the classic Y: The Last Man. He also has acclaim from Marvel heads for creating the cult teenage book Runaways. He is currently the number one indie darling (outside of maybe the mainstay Kirkman) with his and Fiona Staples’ Saga. Many consider The Oath to be the defining story for Stephen.
The other standout in the sparse Doctor Strange collection library is 1989’s Dr. Strange and Dr. Doom: Triumph & Torment. Written by Roger Stern, who had extensive experience with the character, and drawn by Mike Mignola, this is a true gem. Mignola is most known for founding the Hellboy/BPRD empire of independent comics over at Dark Horse. His early work at Marvel and DC is not quite as stylized and focused as Hellboy, but still features stunning art from a master of the medium. Doom goes to Stephen for help in freeing his mother’s soul from Hell. The story truly encapsulates why Strange will always be the Sorcerer Supreme at the end of the day, even if Brother Voodoo, Wanda Maximoff or Viktor seem like threats to the title. It’s also one of the best Doom tales, for fans of his.
8. Star Wars
Before the industry revolutionizing Star Wars came out in May, 1977, George Lucas went to Marvel Comics to try and shop a comic licensing deal. Stan Lee infamously turned him away, before Roy Thomas convinced him otherwise (having previously seen success with the Conan the Barbarian license). Marvel went on to produce 107 issues and change over ten years. They were experiencing some financial and creative trouble in the late 1970s and early 80s, with many of their star artists gone and franchises flailing. Some critics attribute the success of the Star Wars comic (among other licenses like GI Joe and Transformers) to saving the company. Marvel stopped publishing the book years before the next big wave of Star Wars interest peaked in the 1990s. By this time, the license had moved to Dark Horse, where huge swaths of the now-killed Expanded Universe were built. In the 2010s, the license has returned to the house of ideas in the wake of Disney gobbling up every entertainment corporation in sight. Both LucasFilm and Marvel are now under the house of mouse. Marvel has since started pumping out Star Wars comics like it’s all they do. It seems to be paying off so far. Star Wars #1 was the best selling comic in twenty years, reaching over a million copies sold (yes, this is a tiny industry). The Star Wars line is basically paying for any weird experiments Marvel wants to try in the MU. If only DC could get a cash cow like this (besides Batman). An important note is that every Star Wars issue published by Marvel since January 2014 is completely canon.
Besides the fact that people would probably buy them anyway, Marvel’s Star Wars books are actually pretty great. The key to this success is putting top tier talent on the book, instead of the obscure D-listers and science fiction authors that Dark Horse used (no disrespect to those stories, which are great). The main title, Star Wars, is written by Jason Aaron. Aaron is one of the hottest writers of the era, with a long running indie hit (Scalped), an ongoing indie gem (Southern Bastards) and time put into Marvel on Wolverine, Ghost Rider, Punisher and several X-Men titles. He also has a instant classic under his belt (Thor: God of Thunder). Aaron’s Star Wars has a revolving door all-star of artists that switch out each arc. So far, John Cassaday and Stuart Immonen have done their time on the book. Darth Vader features the talent of Kieron Gillen (Wicked and the Divine, Phonogram, Young Avengers) and the photo realistic Salvador Larroca. Lots of comics peeps prefer Vader as the true standout in the line. For the Rebels fans out there, Kanan is another book. That book has no names on it though, but if you look on the brightside, they’re rising stars being given a chance to shine. Besides those three current ongoings, Marvel utilizes a miniseries format to tell one and done stories. Princess Leia herself got one by Mark Waid and Terry Dodson (another top tier team). Greg Rucka and Marco Chechetto did Journey to Force Awakens, which serves as a prequel to the film. Marvel will literally keep printing these books until the world ends I think. Chewbacca and Lando minis have wrapped up, with collections down the line. For the deranged prequel fans out there, an Obi-Wan and Anakin book is coming. If you want a taste of Marvel’s 1970s output, there is a nice hardcover of the first six issues, which served as a New Hope adaptation. Their old adaptations of the rest of the trilogy are available as well. If you want to read the whole series, there are three omnibi collecting it all. An omnibus of Marvel’s dubious Ewok and droids spinoffs is coming out too. They also have the distribution rights to the Dark Horse material and are reprinting it in Epic Collection volumes. STAR WARS IS TAKING OVER!
9. Walking Dead
The Walking Dead is one of the hottest shows on television. I think it and its new spinoff actually get ratings up there with Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory, only below football programming of course. For the first few seasons, it was the “cool” thing to know that it is based on a comic book. Kind of like people boasting about knowing the plot of Game of Thrones ahead of time due to reading Martin’s novels. Everyone knows The Walking Dead is a comic by now. However, if you enjoy the show and still haven’t tried the book, you need to fix that ASAP. The book is written by Robert Kirkman, a major sentinel of creator’s rights. Kirkman is the poster child of the late 2000s mentality that creators don’t need to toil away at Marvel and DC for name recognition before doing their own thing. He and Brian Michael Bendis had a great debate about creator-owned comics that is worth watching for people interested in how money works in art. Kirkman is the only partner of Image Comics who is not a founder of the company. TWD remains the only indie comic to rank in the top twenty selling monthly books with consistency. Fun fact: his son is named Peter Parker Kirkman.
Along with his staunch views on creator rights, Kirkman is a big fan of format diversity. The Walking Dead comes in all shapes and sizes. Of course, you can buy the monthly single issues that come out monthly. Those are up to the monolithic #150 though (still trailing Savage Dragon #210 and Spawn #259 though). So, even if you are down to hop on the Wednesdays train, you have some catching up to do. The most simple way to read the book is through the trade paperbacks, which are up to volume 24 at this point. The most cost efficient method is the fat paperback compendiums. There are three so far, and they encompass eight trade paperbacks each (48 issues). If you are looking for something sexy to put on your shelf, you have even more options. There are hardcovers that collect twelve issues each with a trim size of 7.5 x 11 inches (compared to 6.8 x 10.2 paperbacks). Going even bigger, for maximum art appreciation, are the omnibus editions which are 8.2 x 12 and collect 24 issues each. All of the various formats collect up to issue 144 so far. If you intend to continue following the series, another thing to keep in mind is how often your format comes out.
Something for Everyone
Everyone loves Marvel and DC’s movies and television shows. But maybe you’re looking for something different. Not simply some source material (all the sources are better though, just like novel to film adaptations), but something wholly original that you can’t get anywhere else. Comics are a singular medium with its own advantages and disadvantages in conveying art and telling a story, just like prose, music, film, video games, etc. If you ask a creator or fan of comics, the motto is that this is the medium with an infinite budget. On a surface level, the only constraints are an artist’s illustration abilities. The special effects are free. Superheroes can fight aliens in space. Dragons can romp around a battlefield of thousands of soldiers. There are no bounds, only as far as imagination can push us. Here are some more colorful suggestions to show off how comic books work, the heights they can reach, imaginative independent books and some low key Marvel gems.
10. Understanding Comics
You love the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Nolan’s Batman films. You would love to get into comic books. The only problem is you don’t fully understand how to read these weird picture books. What do you do with double stacked left side panels? Are Bendis’ dozen speech bubbles confusing you? Are you always hung up on figuring out the progression of time in comics storytelling? I don’t fault you. Comics can be incredibly intimidating, even putting aside the “volume 6 issue 21” and crossover/tie-in messes that plague superhero books. You need to pick up Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Think of the most fun and informative textbook you’ve ever used in school. Then add character to it and make it about a topic you give a shit about. That is Understanding Comics. McCloud’s book is the go to for both industry newcomers and veteran academics. It belongs on everyone’s shelf. McCloud wrote two sequels, Reinventing Comics and Making Comics. They’re just as informative and interesting as the original. However, they are less of a 101 and delve into the specific advances of their respective times. Reinventing attempts to cover digital comics, but from the perspective of 2000 when it was written. Some of it doesn’t hold up as well.
11. All-Star Superman
Do you think Superman is boring? He’s an alien that we can’t even relate to. He has dozens of powers that would be sufficient by themselves on any other superhero. He wears underwear over his tights. His secret identity concealing glasses are dumb. He reversed time by flying around the planet. He’s in a shitty Zach Snyder movie. Not even Bryan Singer could make him work. He belongs in the past where he comes from. He isn’t cool like Batman and Spider-Man. Well, guess what? You are objectively wrong. Superman is the forefather to all modern superheroes. He was the big leap (literally) that fused Greek mythic heroes and early 1900s pulp heroes. Hercules and Odysseus meets The Shadow and The Phantom. And he isn’t an archaic idea that should have been left in the 1940s. One of the greatest comic writers of all time, Grant Morrison, said this about the big blue boy scout, “Because it all derived from Superman. I mean, I love all the characters, but Superman is just this perfect human pop-culture distillation of a really basic idea. He’s a good guy. He loves us. He will not stop in defending us. How beautiful is that? He’s like a sci-fi Jesus. He’ll never let you down. And only in fiction can that guy actually exist, because real guys will always let you down one way or another. We actually made up an idea that beautiful. That’s just cool to me. We made a little paper universe where all of the above is true.” Supes is about our idealism, everything we can and should be. He’s an alien stronger than all of us, but he chooses to serve us and desperately wants to be one of us. Morrison wrote a twelve issue deconstruction of The Man of Steel called All-Star Superman. Each issue covers another part of his character, whether it’s his love life or his villains. It is a nearly immaculate piece of comic book storytelling. Morrison’s meta writing is complimented perfectly by Frank Quitely’s pencils. If you read this book and still think Superman is dumb, fine. The sad thing is that for whatever reason, DC has struggled with putting out solid Superman stories in his ongoing titles for the past fifteen or twenty years. I attribute it to them not understanding the essence of their own character. They’re constantly trying to make him edgy or tear him down. He currently is missing his powers in one book. Why?
Whaaaaaaaat? All-Star Superman is actually one of Grant Morrison’s more approachable works. He is more known for metafictional stories that make your mind hurt. He does a lot of drugs. Allegedly he was abducted by aliens. Or contacted by a spiritual force. I don’t really know and neither does he. His art is usually better for it though. In 1990, he had Animal Man acknowledge the readers and freak out. The readers freaked the hell out too. I almost wish I had not said that and spoiled the moment. But I kind of don’t care. It’s also a “I am your father” kind of moment that everyone in comics knows about whether they’ve read it. His most recent big metafictional piece is called The Multiversity. Here’s the concept: each issue is an individual done-in-one story presenting a different alternate dimension, all drawn by different artists. The issues are book ended by The Multiversity #1 and 2, connecting the story. At some point in one issue, a character will be reading a comic book that showcases the adventures of the previous issue. The Just is about a generation of spoiled superhero grandchildren obsessed with fame. Pax Americana is Morrison’s take on Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which is to say a deconstruction of the Charlton Comics characters DC bought in the 80s. Mastermen is an alternate history Earth where Superman (now called Overman) lands in Nazi Germany and is raised by Hitler. Ultra Comics is the most meta of them all, covering a fictional superhero created by “memesmiths” to defeat a “Hostile Independent Thought-Form.” Yes. It is that weird. It all works though. And by the end, an inter-dimensional team of heroes defends the entire multiverse.
13. Batman: Noel
Not much to say here. Batman: Noel is fitting for the season. Something with a theme to actually fit the Christmas spirit for those who are Christian or enjoy the celebration and aesthetic regardless. Lee Bermejo writes and draws this story loosely based on Charles Dickens’ evergreen novel A Christmas Carol. Catwoman, Superman and the Joker all play the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future respectively. Bermejo’s art is really pretty. He’s otherwise known for original graphic novels on the Joker and Lex Luthor. Both worth looking into if you like Noel.
Brian K. Vaughan already got a spot earlier in the list for Doctor Strange: The Oath. Here is his mega hit Saga, mentioned in that entry as well. Saga just hit a magic vein in the industry that catapulted it to stardom. All the pieces are fabulous. Brian K. Vaughan is a gifted writer that can flesh out worlds as seen in Y, Ex Machina and Lost. Fiona Staples came from relative obscurity and turned into a top three artist overnight on the book (and she colors it too!). It’s ultimately a love story. Alana and Marko are from opposing races that have been at war forever. To complicate things further, they have a baby they have to take care of. Part of its appeal is the crazy shit they get into. A race of aliens have televisions for heads. There is an infamous splash page of a dragon fellating itself. You can get the first trade here. There is an oversized hardcover that collects the first 18 issues (three trades). It’s worth it for Fiona’s beautiful art. However, you are going to want to keep reading the series as soon as you finish it and the second hardcover probably won’t drop for a while. So here are volumes 2, 3, 4, and 5.
15. Ms. Marvel
Media representation and diversity have increasingly become a focus in media studies and the discussion has becomes and increasingly mainstream topic every day. Comic books have unfortunately been pretty lackluster on these fronts for decades. In the 1930s through mid 1950s, creative diversity in comics was diverse. Girls read Supergirl as much as boys read Superman. Romance comics were popular with women, while Archie, Betty and Veronica were a teenage sensation. There were some problems from the start, like most things in the naive post-war era. A lot of the different genres, books, etc were explicitly gendered. The audience was there though. Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and the subsequent hysteria not only drastically shrunk the market. It also censored entire genres and pushed entire demographics out of the medium. For comparison, Japanese comics never experienced this censorship rallying cry and people of all genders, ages, etc read a wide array of manga. The lack of a significant female audience and the infatilization of the medium (no drugs, no sex, no suicide, no race issues, no vampires, etc) led to a “young male” stigma in the medium. Comics were “for boys.” The late 1980s and 1990s was probably the worst point of this, when artists ruled the industry and just wanted to draw scantily clad women. The late 2000s/early 2010s second (or third? 1. Cerebus, Usagi 2. 90s Image) explosion of independent comics has led to a diversification on both sides of the dollar. Marvel and DC have been trying to catch up in the past few years. Marvel particularly has made major strides with characters like Miles Morales. Sam Wilson, Jessica Drew and Carol Danvers have also exploded in popularity and exposure. The breakout new character of this trend by far is Kamala Khan. When Carol Danvers gave up her Ms. Marvel moniker to become Captain Marvel, the Muslim, Pakistani-American, Jersey City fangirl Kamala took up her idol’s old title after being exposed to the terrigen mists. Her writer, G. Willow Wilson, is a Muslim herself who has been praised for her believable teenage dialogue. Kamala’s signature artist, Adrian Alphona, made his name doing BKV’s teenage superhero book Runaways. Marvel and DC have introduced fairly few long term successful characters in the past decade or two. New superheroes cropped up every week in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Kamala may be the biggest breakout for Marvel. You can read her series across, four, trade, paperbacks. There are also two oversized hardcovers collecting the same material. Her series has continued post-Secret Wars and hopefully will for a long time.
16. Noir Comics
Ed Brubaker wrote Captain America for years (as detailed in this list). He also did other work for Marvel and DC on Iron Fist, Batman, etc. All of those stories are great and I’m sure he enjoyed doing them. However, Brubaker’s treu calling are independent noir comics. Hollywood doesn’t make many noir movies anymore. There are some neo-noir films that capture similar tones and aesthetics – a personal favorite of mine being Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. However, if you want sultry broads, men in suits and that dark, expressionist look, you’ll need to turn to comic books for your fix. That’s not a bad thing though because Brubaker and a small circle of artist buddies have pumped out a healthy library of noir comics. I’m going to highlight Velvet because it reunites Brubaker with Steve Epting, the primary artist from his early Cap work. Velvet is a simple secretary on the surface. But she’s secretly the most dangerous woman alive. Isn’t that a juicy premise? There are two volumes of Velvet out. Brubaker’s usual collaborator on these books is Sean Phillips. The pair have produced straight classics together. The Fade Out is a highlight of their oeuvre. It covers the seedy side of Golden Age Hollywood.
Hawkeye is a character with a deep history in the Marvel Universe. He started off as a villain of Iron Man’s under the influence of Black Widow. He later joined the Avengers as part of the famous “Quirky Quartet” when Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man and Wasp ditched the team, leaving Cap with the responsibility of drafting a squad from scratch. Clint Barton for many years was seen (and saw himself) as a B-rate Captain America, always under his shadow. In the 1980s, Barton split off and led the West Coast Avengers brand extension. Around this time he interrupted his serial bachelor streak and got married to Bobbi Morse aka Mockingbird. This pairing is basically a parody/homage of Oliver Queen and Dinah Lance (aka Green Arrow and Black Canary). Hawkeye led the Thunderbolts in the late 1990s for a while. In the revolutionary Avengers Disassembled storyline, Scarlet Witch goes cuckoo and in the process Hawkeye sacrifices his life to save others. He comes back to life, but audiences aren’t aware of this for a while. He flips back and forth between the aliases of Echo and Ronin. Oh, and while he was dead a teenage hero named Kate Bishop takes on the Hawkeye mantle as a Young Avenger. In 2012, Matt Fraction and David Aja start a Hawkeye solo title. But, it’s not a solo book. The story tracks the street level adventures of Clint and Kate as the Hawkeyes. Mostly due to Aja’s simplistic art, their tenure is already a classic and the best thing to come out of Marvel in years. Issue 11, Pizza is My Business, is one of the greatest single issues of all time. It is entirely silent and told through the perspective of Lucky, Clint and Kate’s dog. For whatever reason, Marvel is offering a bunch of different formats to read the book in. You can get four trade paperbacks, two hardcovers or one omnibus.
18. Bitch Planet
With Ms. Marvel, I talked about media representation. Kamala tackles these problems by simply existing. Young Muslim girls, and anyone else who doesn’t fit the typical cookie cut out of “comic fan,” can see people that look like them in comics and feel more welcome in the community. There are scientific studies that show that representation affects ones self-esteem and other factors. However, some of the best media directly critiques and tears down these kinds of problems. In comic books, an example of this is Kelly Sue Deconnick’s Bitch Planet. Deconnick is the writer responsible for evolving Carol Danvers from Ms. Marvel to Captain Marvel. Carol’s getting a MCU film with her new moniker, so something worked there. Her stint on Captain Marvel gave rise to the Carol Corps, what Deconnick and Danvers’ new fans call themselves. Part of Deconnick’s success is her extensive self promotion and audience interaction on Tumblr. By the way, she’s married to Matt Fraction. Just like her husband, KSD has left Marvel behind to work on more personal endeavors (and ones she gets to actually make quality money from). Her other series, Pretty Deadly, has also been well received. It’s Bitch Planet though which has people getting tattoos inspired by it though. It’s set in a dystopian future where misogyny is rampant and ingrained in the laws. “Noncompliant” women get sent to a giant prison in space. Deconnick uses this send up of 1970s women in prison expoitation films to examine and critique issues of gender, sexuality, race, body image, etc.
19. Silver Surfer
#BasedMikeAllred. Mike Allred is known for his 1960s pop art style comic art. Here he is doing his thing on Silver Surfer, a character that complements the style well. He gets to draw Galactus’ funky helmet, aliens and weird intergalactic tidbits. Dan Slott, the longtime writer of Amazing Spider-Man, handles the writing and essentially does his spin on the Doctor Who formula. Norin Radd serves as the good Doctor, while he gets Dawn Greenwood as his companion. They explore space together. It’s a great little series. There are fifteen issues and three trades. You can fine them here, here and here. This series is also continuing with the same team in the new Marvel relaunch.
20. Fun Home
Most everything on this list was superheroes or “genre” fiction. What if I want something based in reality? Something autobiographical? Something that will make me feel empty inside? Then you are looking for Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Independent comics have a long history with personal stories. “Autobio” books exploded in the late 1980s in the first boom of indie comics interest. Names like Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar stand out from this era. Hell, Paul Giamatti played Pekar in the Oscar nominated American Splendor biopic. There’s something about someone letting you into their life that is so captivating. Especially if their life fucking sucks. These are often told in black and white, with deceivingly simple cartooning. Art Spiegelman, Eddie Campbell, Phoebe Gloeckner, David B, Marjane Satrapi, Jeffrey Brown, Craig Thompson and others have all made their livings telling their peculiar personal tales. Alison Bechdel started her career doing a strip called Dykes to Watch Out For. It was a mix of soap drama and topical commentary featuring a bunch of lesbians (as the name implies). Bechdel’s strip has been overshadowed by the “Bechdel test” A proposed test to test gender biases in media, particularly film. The test asks whether a work has at least two women who talk about something together other than a man. Theoretically, whether a film passes or fails has a judgment on whether it is in a way sexist. Unfortunately, the test has been broadly applied to label works as sexist or even make value/quality judgments. Bechdel has transitioned from strip cartooning to an author of autobio graphic novels. Fun Home parallels her coming of age and coming out story with her father’s homosexuality, pedophilia and suicide. It sounds tragic and twisted. It is. And it is one of the best graphic novels of all time. It has also been adapted as a Broadway musical, which is currently running. Bechdel has put out a sequel of sorts, Are You My Mother?, which covers her mother instead of her father. It’s still her work and spectacular, but doesn’t stand up to Fun Home.
Straight to the List and Links
I highly recommend www.instocktrades.com. They will offer almost all of these books cheaper than Amazon or brick and mortar stores will. Some of them might not be in stock on Amazon, or more obscure and harder to find in stores, and IST will also be more likely to have them available. Over fifty bucks, free shipping.
1. Jessica Jones – Alias Volume 1, 2, 3, 4 / Omnibus, The Pulse
2. Civil War, Mega Expensive Box Set
3. The Winter Soldier – Brubaker Captain America Vol 1, 2, 3
4. Batman v. Superman – DKR, DKSA / Deluxe HC
5. Fantastic Four – Hickman Vol 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, FF Vol 1, 2, 3, 4, Waid Vol 1, 2, 3, 4
6. The Flash – Geoff Johns Vol 1, Rebirth, Flashpoint, N52 Vol 1
7. Doctor Strange – The Oath, Triumph & Torment
8. Star Wars – Star Wars Vol 1, Darth Vader Vol 1, Kanan Vol 1, Leia, Journey to Force Awakens, A New Hope
9. Walking Dead – TPB Vol 1 / Compendium Vol 1 / HC Vol 1 / Omnibus Vol 1
10. Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, Making Comics
11. All-Star Superman
13. Batman: Noel
14. Saga – Vol 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 / HC Vol 1
15. Ms. Marvel – Vol 1, 2, 3, 4 / HC Vol 1, 2
16. Noir Comics – Velvet Vol 1, 2, The Fade Out Vol 1, 2, 3
17. Hawkeye Vol 1, 2, 3, 4 / HC Vol 1, 2 / Omnibus
18. Bitch Planet, Pretty Deadly
19. Silver Surfer – Vol 1, 2, 3
20. Fun Home, Are You My Mother?