One of the things which has frustrated me over the years is the insular nature of comics. The mental checks I have to do to see if a recommendation is something a human being could be expected to read without having Wikipedia open is only possible because of a memory for minutiae so vast that it overrides non-vital areas of basic human functionality, like the ability to recite the alphabet without singing the song under my breath. The first time you’re asked to explain the difference between a graphic novel and a comic, or what a trade paperback is and how that’s different from a graphic novel, you see how difficult the subject is to penetrate for somebody new to comics. And just for the people who aren’t familiar, here’s a quick guide.
Comic: A comic, while defined as a story told through the marriage of words and pictures, is the colloquial term for a single ‘issue’, which is published periodically like a magazine.
Trade paperback: This is a compilation of previously published issues, usually containing a story arc and not necessarily done in paperback: colloquially, they are known as a ‘trade.’
Graphic novel: A comic story published in a single installment. Having a sequel does not stop it, or its sequel, from being considered a graphic novel.
Anyway, what really clinched my problems with accessibility was Guardians of the Galaxy. After finding out that in order to read the Abnett/Lanning run of Guardians of the Galaxy that inspired the film I would need to read Marvel Annihilation, an 880 page event ‘comic’ spread across nine titles, conveniently collected in a $90 omnibus, I sat in stunned silence. Gee, when reading a comic requires research with a page count higher than my college textbook and a price to match, how is it possible that comic book movies gross over a billion dollars in theaters, while only four comics in January of 2015 managed to sell over 100,000 copies in the United States?
So here I am, with a list of recommendations for people new to comics, from A to Z (with a few missing letters). Here are the rules for constructing the list:
1. I have to have read it. I’m not here for hearsay.
2. The comic must be available to read in digital (Kindle or Comixology) or trade paperback format. You can usually find comics like these in your library system, in comic shops, or online through digital retailers.
3. The comic must not be bogged down by continuity in a way that makes it confusing to just pick up and read. If one quick question can get a reader on track, or prior stories are not required for you to follow and enjoy it, it’s fair game.
And finally, I made an effort to avoid repetition so as to provide as many options as I could for new readers, or people who may only be comfortable with one area of comics. So let’s begin, shall we?
A – The Amazing Spider-Man, by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
The Stan Lee and Steve Ditko run of Spider-Man, starting from his very first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15, showcases all the best elements of a superhero comic. Peter Parker is an immensely identifiable protagonist, with strong characterization and top-notch art and writing throughout the run. The focus on Peter Parker as much as Spider-Man keeps the world grounded, and it is all the better for it. While some may find the storytelling conventions a bit dated or familiar, it’s only because it codified those conventions in a way every Spider-Man creator (and so many more) since has striven to emulate.
You can find these stories in the Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man collections.
B – Batman: Year One, by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
While superhero origins tend to be told and re-told, Batman Year One is a story so good that it has served as the definitive origin for the character since its publication in 1987. It is wonderfully atmospheric, evoking pulp and noir in every panel. The story pulls no punches, showing Gotham as a world gone mad – and a man who becomes a haunting specter to the criminal underworld is the last, best chance to save it. And watching the film adaptation, the amount that was lost through the well-crafted internal monologues that make up the bulk of the textual narrative is simply criminal.
Batman Year One is available in trade paperback, but the latest edition is radically altered with new coloring – and I agree with the artist that it soils the story. The two trades with a checkmark have the original coloring, while the Deluxe Edition does not.
C – Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson
This newspaper strip is a modern classic. Endlessly creative, the sharp wit and philosophical bent is elevated by the gorgeous artwork. This strip about a mischievous boy and his sardonic stuffed tiger serves as one of the smartest and most optimistic comics I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, despite its deceptively simple premise. Cliche as the line is, I have laughed and cried over this strip, and I say that happily. Watterson never compromised his artistic integrity, writing far more strips than were ever completed: because he never settled for putting out anything less than his best, for the readers and himself.
The best way to read this is with The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, which contains every strip in its original format.
D – Dragon Ball, by Akira Toriyama
For those who know of Dragon Ball Z by reputation (undeservedly known as an anime about pointy haired people shouting and occasionally throwing a punch when the animators could afford it), the original Dragon Ball will come as quite a shock. Dragon Ball is a Japanese action-comedy inspired by Journey to the West, with the purehearted and naive martial artist Goku traveling along with the genius teenage girl Bulma to collect seven mystical artifacts that can combine to grant any wish. Its pacing is pitch-perfect, with an elegance to the writing and art that shows why it remains an inspiration to any aspiring manga creator to this day, and a timeless pleasure to read. A note: while Dragon Ball Z is a continuation of Dragon Ball in Japan, it is marked as a separate series in the United States.
I strongly recommend the Dragon Ball VizBig editions (a larger format than the typical manga publication), along with Dragon Ball Z in the same format.
E – Doctor Who Endgame, by Alan Barnes and Scott Gray
I’ll cop to it: I couldn’t find something that started with E. But I am recommending the Doctor Who: Endgame trade paperback, continuing with The Glorious Dead, Oblivion, and The Flood trade paperbacks, which completes a nine year run on the comic strip that covers the entirety of the Eighth Doctor’s tenure as the star. This British comic ‘strip’ was originally published in 7-9 full page installments in Doctor Who Magazine, an unusual format that reads beautifully in the magazine sized compilations put out by Panini Books. The work that writer Alan Barnes, followed by Scott Gray, put in shows with strong characterization and clever storytelling, using their limited page count with a deft hand to take full advantage of the flexibility it offers. You don’t need to be a Doctor Who fan to enjoy these comics about a time traveling adventurer: if you like a cunning hero with a sense of humor, this comic is a perfect fit. And as a bonus, there’s a great inclusion of bonus materials from the creative team, discussing the making-of for each story with a nice frankness.
All four trades can be found on Amazon, though you may have to settle for a used copy of Endgame.
F – The Far Side, by Gary Larson
Gary Larson’s Far Side is one of the strangest comics to ever hit the newspapers, and also one of the funniest. Praising a comedy is as difficult as criticizing it, but the utter irreverence and off-beat tone make this strip one of the most unique voices in comics. Anyone who enjoys a good laugh, and I’ve never met someone who doesn’t, should be introduced to the Thagomzier immediately.
The Complete Far Side is your best bet for reading the comic.
G – Gunnerkrigg Court, by Tom Siddell
Gunnerkrigg Court’s genre mash-up of slice of life, fantasy, horror, adventure, and comedy is the type of mix-and-match that you can expect from webcomics, but Tom Siddel balances it out with surprising deftness. It draws you in with an atypical protagonist and an intriguing atmosphere, asking questions that demand answers until you find yourself pausing only because it’s 3:00 AM (though you didn’t really need to sleep, did you?). The art improves with every page, and it remains one of the most well drawn webcomics out there. While Gunnerkrigg Court is approaching its tenth anniversary, it is not yet complete – and I’m glad there’s so much more to come.
You can read Gunnerkrigg Court online here.
H – Harley Quinn, by Jimmy Palmiotti, Amanda Conner, and Chad Hardin
I freely admit that I am in love with the husband and wife team of Palmiotti and Conner, who took the Bruce Timm created character of Joker’s girlfriend Harley Quinn and updated her for a solo series in DC’s New 52 universe. The team produces a stylish and expressive art that I adore, with gleefully dark humor and innocently crazy protagonist. It completely embraces the ridiculous world of Harley Quinn, with a wheelchair bound Cold War cyborg spy, a talking stuffed beaver, and vicious roller derby battles that never stops being funny.
Harley Quinn has been collected in trade format, with one collection out so far in Harley Quinn: Hot in the City and another to come with Harley Quinn: Power Outage this April.
I – Genuinely can’t think of a comic that fits my criteria for this letter
J – JL8, by Yale Stewart
JL8, formerly known as Little League, is a fan comic that stars the Justice League in an elementary school setting. Created in the style of a newspaper strip, its lighthearted tone pokes a little bit of fun at DC, but is mostly about the adventures and childish hijinks of adorable little kids who happen to have superpowers. Funny, sweet, and occasionally poignant, I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoys DC movies and can laugh at the fun of it all.
The first comic is here, and you can read the rest through Stewart’s official JL8 tumblr or facebook page.
K – Knights of the Dinner Table, by Jolly Blackburn
This is, oddly enough, the first traditionally published indie comic on the list. In 1990, Knights of the Dinner Table served as a single page backup feature in Shadis magazine poking fun at Dungeons and Dragons, and is now with the put-upon Gamemaster B.A. Felton and his players, old school gamer Bob, newbie fighter Dave, rules lawyer Brian, and role player Sara. We see them game together, with all the ridiculous things that happen in any good RPG campaign – mishaps, arguments, GM and player trickery, rival groups, and the fun of slinging dice and fighting orcs. It is now on its 217th issue, having moved from one-off jokes to ongoing stories of longer campaigns. You can pick up any issue and read it just fine, but going back and starting from the beginning is how I’d suggest you enjoy it. If you know even the basics of what Dungeons and Dragons is, you’ll enjoy the Knights of the Dinner Table and their adventures in Hackmaster.
You can read back issues through the Bundle of Trouble trade paperbacks, KenzerCo’s digital copies available on their website, and get a sampling of some of the humor from its web strips – though the longer storytelling will only be available in back issue or trade paperback format. Check out the early classic with Lair of the Gazebo.
L – The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, by Don Rosa
If anybody reading this knows my blog, you knew this was coming. I will review this in time, but for now, suffice to say that this twelve part epic tale of Scrooge McDuck’s life before the Disney comics is masterfully done. Poignant writing, great jokes, a wonderful overarching plot, and some of my favorite Rosa artwork, this story is a perfect introduction to a beloved character, and a great read in its own right. It was my introduction to the character in the comics, and I happily recommend it to anyone for that same purpose.
You can find the Gemstone or Boom-published trade paperbacks through your library or occasionally at a comic shop, as the Fantagraphics release is a ways away.
M – Mickey Mouse, by Floyd Gottfredson
It may sound like I’m biased towards Disney on this list, but that’s only because of the ubiquity of the characters. You don’t need to know a whole lot to understand the world of Mickey Mouse, and Gottfredson’s work on the everyman hero is rightly praised. I particularly love the elasticity and urgency he brings to these static images, something that is normally difficult to do in the span of a smaller space of a newspaper comic. The strip runs the range from straight comedy to mad science, adventures in far flung lands, dinosaurs, detective tales, and the occasional bits of romance that gives this something for everyone.
The Fantagraphics editions of the books are the definitive way to read his stories and include a wealth of bonus features, though you would be well-advised to skip the introductions preceding each story. They do little more than tell you the plot or ending of the story, in what I can only assume is a deliberate effort to spoil the reading experience.
N – Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, by Hayao Miyazaki
My initial reaction when I heard that Hayao Miyazaki had drawn a manga series was shock, glee, and a rather speedy run to get my hands on a copy. While fans of his are likely to have seen this pre-Ghibli Miyazaki work, Nausicaa’s manga (created so that the movie could be funded due to its basis as an existing property) extends the story far beyond the confines of the two hour film. You can see the animator’s hand in every panel, and even those who haven’t seen the movie can feel the inimitable atmosphere and tension that he excels at. There are few things I will call an epic, but this is most assuredly one of them.
Nausicaa has been collected in the oversized Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind Box Set, to best showcase Miyazaki’s unique art.
O – The Order of the Stick, by Rich Burlew
How odd that I would make note of how I view the word ‘epic’, only to find none better to describe The Order of the Stick. Its beginnings as a humorous riff on Dungeons and Dragons quickly gave way to a fantasy tale in a Dungeons and Dragons world, but never shed its sense of humor. Rich Burlew’s simple art style gives a unique feel to this party of misfit adventurers, and the emotional torque he can generate from his characters is a masterclass of strong plotting and character arcs. For non-gamers, if you don’t get the jokes early on, don’t worry. Such jokes taper off quickly (replaced by much better ones), and you won’t need to understand Dungeons and Dragons to grasp the idea of swords, sorcery, and an epic tale that knows what the best stories are always about: the human condition.
While you can read the whole of the webcomic here, he has three print-only books (On the Origin of PCs, Start of Darkness, and Snips, Snails, and Dragon Tales) that serve as backstory and side adventures, while the trade paperbacks that collect the webcomic itself included ‘deleted’ scenes and invaluable commentary. If you like the story, check the physical copies out, as it makes a great story even better.
P – Power Girl, by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, and Amanda Conner
I have never laughed, on a pound-for-pound basis, at any comic as much as I have with the Palmiotti/Conner run of Power Girl. This twelve-issue run showcases a superheroine finding herself as well as finding friendship, and is an utterly human examination of this character without ever descending into tedious monologues of contemplation. And Conner’s artwork is, in my opinion, among the best DC has ever produced. Stupendously expressive, lavishly drawn, and stuffed to the gills with sight gags, she deserves all the accolades she gets, and a few more on top of that. The only reason I hesitated to put this comic on the list is because it is so good, it could spoil your ability to enjoy other great stories simply by not measuring up to the heights this achieves.
The Palmiotti/Conner run of Power Girl was recently re-released in trade format, Power Girl: Power Trip. This includes four issues written by Geoff Johns that showcase Conner’s artwork, as well as everything that I have railed against in this article about accessibility to people who haven’t been reading comics since the 1980s. While they’re fine reads if you have more of an understanding of the character, feel free to skip them and get to the good stuff, or just enjoy her gorgeous artwork.
Q – Questionable Content, by Jeph Jacques
Questionable Content, despite its name, is a slice-of-life comic with a PG-13 rating. Originally a comedy with a romantic main plot (with some jokes more suited for music nerds), it shifted towards exploring its cast and characters. It dips in to the realm of drama when the story calls for it, but with anthropomorphic PC robots and a background superhero known only as “Pizza Girl” inhabiting its pages, it can never descend to a world of tragedy. With a good sense of comic timing and constantly evolving art, each update is generally worth a smile and a bit of a laugh. Sometimes that’s all you need to start the day.
You can read Questionable Content at Jacques’ website, and he has collected (with new artwork) his comics in trade paperback format.
R – Rurouni Kenshin, by Nobuhiro Watsuki
Rurouni Kenshin is another in the long list of comics that brought a smile to my face the moment I was reminded of it. The story of a master swordsman who has sworn to never kill again, and the world he left behind drawing him in once more, effectively blends good drama with excellent action. I want to particularly praise the characterization of the villains in this series, which defies expectations and creates a subtlety not present in many such characters. He never took the easy way out with his characterization or storytelling, and it leads to a story that retains the traditional format of action manga without becoming predictable. The final arc is my favorite storyline, and the fact that its animated adaptation was cancelled before reaching that arc is utterly criminal.
You can find Rurouni Kenshin in the oversized VizBig format, which I highly recommend.
S – Sonic the Hedgehog, by many different hands
Sonic the Hedgehog is a member of the Freedom Fighters, some of the last remnants of organic life on a world which has been conquered by the mad Dr. Robotnik, who roboticizes the population to turn them in to mindless automatons. The comic originally had a much more humorous tone, similar to its TV series progenitors (as the games never had much of a story), but in time grew to tell a story all its own that still continues 23 years later. I’m bending my own rules a bit here, but I personally believe the comic took off around Issue #25 with Sonic Archives #7, and I think it’s a great place to start. Notes from the editor catch you up without ever having to go back to the older issues. Sonic has had many authors and artists over the years, but I’d recommend this to anyone who is a fan of the games, a fan of the old TV show, or just enjoys an action/adventure comic and doesn’t mind the funny animal people starring in it.
The absolute best place to buy Sonic comics is the Sonic Archives directly from the Archie website, which offers heavy discounts and promotions.
T – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird
Hard to believe that a one-shot parody book of Daredevil could spawn a multimillion-dollar franchise, but it did so with good reason – really great source material. Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird wrote and drew every page together, and that fusion makes for some incredible stories. Their initial run of 15 issues was two people clearly having a blast writing and drawing whatever they felt like, with aliens, urban crime, mysticism, and a heart that gave the series a charm that never let it descend into farce. Other artists and writers worked on the Turtles, but it is the Eastman and Laird work that I truly enjoy. Every time I open up my collection, I am in awe of their combined artwork and the unfettered freedom shining on every page.
IDW collects the Eastman/Laird specific material in its Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – The Ultimate Collection, covering the original 15 issues they produced together, their solo efforts, and the twelve part epic “City at War” that capped off the original series.
U – Uncle Scrooge, by Carl Barks
With good reason, Carl Barks is the maestro of Duck comics and an inspiration for not just artists on this list, but of masters such as Steven Spielberg and Osamu Tezuka. What elevates his work above the rest is a word I tend to use when praising series quite often: elegance. He never wasted a page, a panel, a line, or a word, keeping the stories tight and atmospheric in a way that makes the execution a marvel to behold – and the stories themselves become timeless reads. Superbly executed action, adventure, comedy, and a wit that never dulled, there is a reason that even after sixty years of publication, he remains The Good Duck Artist.
Fantagraphics is currently collecting his Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck work (which is wonderful in its own right).
V – ery sorry, but I whiffed this letter.
W – Welcome to the Jungle, by Jim Butcher and Adrian Syaf
The Dresden Files is my favorite book series, and the stories produced specifically for comics are a pleasure to read. Welcome to the Jungle is a prequel to the books about this Chicago-based wizard detective, a man with a nose for trouble and a mouth that gets mundane and supernatural criminals alike ready to break that nose. Written by Jim Butcher, author of the books, his first crack at comics paired with artist Adrian Syaf brings visual life to the world of The Dresden Files in a way never seen before. Welcome to the Jungle is self contained, requires no background knowledge, and is a great comic for anyone who enjoys a good murder mystery and all its trappings.
You can find Welcome to the Jungle in trade paperback format, with making-of information and some commentary from Jim Butcher.
Honorary mention: Watchmen almost made the list, as it is a comic which is studied to this day. But I believe that it is better suited to people more familiar with comics, or are interested in critical study of the medium, rather than someone who doesn’t know where to start.
X – X-Men, by Chris Claremont and John Byrne
Marvel is generally not my forte, but Chris Claremont carved a space in the Marvel Universe all his own. From a reprint-only title, Claremont brought X-Men to superstar status with detailed characters, emotional conflicts, and real world subtext (barely hidden subtext at times, but that’s okay) that X-Men would be known for to this day. Claremont is known in comic book circles for his verbose style and numerous plot hooks, but I don’t mind it at all because the characters are so fleshed out. The reason his comics have endured is because he stuck with his vision to the end, and the X-Men media created since then, from cartoons to movies, have drawn from his work. The message of prejudice, exclusion, and the threat of losing a single being simply because they are different is a timeless one.
You can read his run on X-Men with Marvel Masterworks Uncanny X-Men Volume 1, or the Uncanny X-Men Omnibus collections of his work.
Y – Young Justice, by Peter David and Todd Nauck
A comic produced by Peter David, a very funny and intelligent author, took the idea of sidekicks teaming up and came up with a radical (for DC, anyway) idea: make a traditional superhero team without grim and gritty drama, and have fun with it instead. With the core three of Superboy, Impulse and Robin helming the book, it had a large cast of sidekick characters and a sense of fun even as the team matures. It has all the good of a team book, with action, interplay and character beats, without the overdramatic writing that can plague this type of comic. Young Justice is a great way to be introduced to the DC universe of that time and see superhero action from someone who knows comics backwards and forwards, and is smart without being too clever for his own good.
You can read it here on Comixology, and the first issue is free.
Z – The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, by Shotaro Ishinomori
I have been waiting for this comic to be reprinted for decades, and the moment I saw that it would be, it took me less than 60 seconds to submit my pre-order. Originally serialized in Nintendo Power, this loose adaptation of the Super Nintendo classic by manga maestro Shotaro Ishinomori so perfectly captured the haunting atmosphere that I felt playing the top-down games that it is his work, not Nintendo’s, that I imagine when I think of The Legend of Zelda. This adventure shows a young man, a kidnapped princess, an evil wizard, a knightly rescue, and Ishinomori defies the idea of a fairy tale telling by injecting every panel with a visceral sense of dread and darkness. This is a masterclass in visual storytelling, and nicely written to boot, and I can think of nothing better to end this list.