Watchmen – Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
Watchmen is Moore’s ultimate masterpiece, a triumph of the deconstructionist and superhero genre. The story begs the questions of what would happen if superheroes were real. Who would be superheroes? What kind of personal problems or motivations would make somebody dress up in a colorful outfit and fight criminals? And what would happen if a TRUE superhero, one who had ACTUAL powers, existed in real life? Summarizing the story of Watchmen is incredibly challenging. To keep things as brief as possible, it is about a group of vigilantes and one superpowered god-like figure who find themselves in the middle of a conflict that could end the lives of millions of people. Moore used the superhero genre to explore ideas of personal identity, postmodernism, and the role of power in society.
The characters, particularly the Objectivist street vigilante Rorschach and Doctor Manhattan, a scientist with god-like powers and control over matter and energy, have become touchstones within the superhero community, even though they have never been used outside of their original series. Watchmen was also responsible for jump-starting the weakened comic book industry in the late 80s alongside the seminal The Dark Knight Returns. It is also responsible for inadvertently changing the tone of comics to being dark, gritty, and violent for nearly a decade by cheap imitators. The 2009 film adaptation ofWatchmen was both highly successful and incredibly controversial as it was disowned by Moore and changed the comics legendary ending. Despite the film, Watchmen remains Moore’s crowning achievement and easily one of the greatest series in comic book history.
Punisher MAX – Garth Ennis
As part of the traditional Marvel Universe, The Punisher was always severely toned down as the company attempted to market him to kids as a hip action hero with a ton of cool gadgets. But when Marvel finally brought the character into its mature MAX line with writer Garth Ennis, the spandex costume and goofy sidekicks were replaced with a devastating arsenal of weaponry and a cynical, sociopath-like attitude towards others. Punisher was dead on his feet when the team behind Preacher were brought in to reinvigorate the character – and they turned him into a force to be reckoned with.
In this series, a much older Frank Castle lives in a realistic world where superheroes don’t exist and the villains are drug dealers and sex traffickers. During Ennis’ 60-issue run, Punisher shot and stabbed his way through countless law-breakers. The personal ramifications of his one-man war on crime, meanwhile, left him emotionally crippled and incapable of having anything that resembled a normal life.
Ennis added supreme depth to a character who was normally nothing more than a walking, talking cliché. Though you can still label this book as part of the superhero genre, it’s more akin to a blood-soaked crime title.
Fables: Legend In Exile – Bill Willingham
Fairy tale characters find themselves in exile in New York following the conquest of their country by dark forces – so far, so generic fantasy novel. What sets Fables apart is the fact that these are not the virginal princesses, gallant princes and cutesy cuddly animals of your bedtime stories, but bitches, bastards and creeps who have let the big, bad city go to their heads. Romping through taboos rather than fields of daisies and establishing a few nice crimes and puzzles along the way, this is every bit as compelling and gritty as its superhero competitors. And it’s not every day that you use the word “gritty” about a story starring – among others – Snow White
Y: The Last Man – Brian K. Vaughan
At the beginning of this series, every last man and male animal on Earth drops dead, more or less simultaneously. Except, that is, for a guy called Yorrick and his pet monkey. Why have they been spared? What do they do now? And how are they going to survive in a world where half the population’s gone and half the remaining half have gone a little nuts? The story that results is massive in scope but also intensely personal, taking in gender politics and geophysical realities but, in the end, coming down to a small group gathered around a boy and a monkey, with one of the most moving finales we’ve ever read.
Marvels – Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross
The story provides a look at the most memorable comic book moments from Marvel’s history through the eyes of a news photographer named Phil Sheldon. To see these characters from the prospective of the average man made these heroes look more like gods than simple comic book stars. It was a novel concept, but no matter how great Kurt Busiek’s scripts were, none of that would have mattered if the artist wasn’t up to the task.
Thankfully Alex Ross absolutely owned every page. His fully-painted work added to the characters’ respective mystiques. Readers witnessed Spider-Man battle the Green Goblin, the Fantastic Four take on Galactus, and the X-Men reveal themselves to the public in photo-realistic style. Imagine a marriage between Jack Kirby and Norman Rockwell. To be honest, the Marvel heroes have never looked better.
Preacher – Garth Eenis & Steve Dillon
Vertigo has been responsible for some of the most creatively daring comics to ever hit the mainstream. None of them, however, come close to being as blasphemous and dangerous as Garth Ennis’ Preacher.
A small-town preacher becomes possessed by the offspring of a demon and an angel, and sets off in search of the absentee Almighty to take issue with His management of the world. Garth Ennis’ bloody, twisted and sickly funny religio-Western epic is full of brutality, mutilation and the drunken ramblings of a mad Irish vampire, but it’s also – deep down – a love story that says all of creation can go hang as long as love has its chance. Huh. Despite the castrations and perversions and maulings, despite the Saint of Killers’ glowering menace, Ennis might just be a big softie after all.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns – Frank Miller
Despite the best efforts of creators like Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil, by the 1980’s Batman was still closely associated with the camp and silliness of the Silver Age and the 1960’s TV series. Leave it to Frank Miller to remind Bat-fans how dark and brooding the Caped Crusader can be.
The Dark Knight Returns was born out of Miller’s realization that he was now older than the superhero he idolized as a boy. He presented Bruce Wayne as an aging recluse in a world where most heroes had given up or gone to ground, only for him to be spurred back into action by the spiraling state of Gotham and the yearning in his heart. Together with a new, female Robin, this hulking, grizzled Batman set about striking fear into the hearts of criminals once more.
Like much of Miller’s work on this list, The Dark Knight Returns was hugely influential. It offered a bold new take on Batman and inspired a wave of “grim and gritty” imitators. ts influence can be seen on many other interpretations of Batman, including The Dark Knight Rises and the upcoming sequel to Man of Steel sequel.
The Sandman – Neil Gaiman
Comic books haven’t always been embraced by the mainstream. Back in the ‘80s, they were the horrible secret youngsters kept underneath their mattresses and away from parents. Then, as companies began experimenting with different genres and making these books more mature, comics slowly started getting noticed by a larger section of society. Eventually in some circles, they were hailed as fine modern literature. And the book that led this charge was Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.
Focusing on Morpheus, the god-like master of dreams, Sandman presented audiences with complex narratives and characters that were simultaneously divine and tangible. Along with his siblings, known as The Endless (which included Death, Delirium, Destruction, Destiny, Despair, and Desire), Dream (Morpheus’ alias) travels to different dimensions and time periods as his struggles often find him exploring the relationship between humans and reality.
Gaiman made sure that no two tales were alike. One story could feature a run-in with Shakespeare while the next could take place in the heart of hell. And with literary allusions and rhythmic poetry filling every page, Sandman was unlike anything that the comic book medium has seen before or since. It’s high-art conceived by a man who positively shattered an entire medium.
From Hell – Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell
No. Not the movie starring Johnny Depp, which is an insult to the genius that is From Hell. Alan Moore is the most iconic writer that’s ever walked the face of the planet. He is considered the father of the graphic novels genre and is unsurpassed to date. From Hell chronicles the tale of Jack the Ripper. There has been many a book about the infamous serial killer, but this one is different. It explores the world through the eyes of ripper himself, and jumps to everyone who’s affected by him. Moore creates complex characters and sets them in gritty, unapologetic, uncensored London. He also draws in the major writers of that era and the political scenario. Grotesquely beautiful, a must read.
MAUS – Art Spiegelman
A book that can win over even those who think that any story told with drawings must be for kids. Art Spiegelman tells the story of his Holocaust-survivor father over two breathtakingly powerful volumes, alternating between the story of his life during World War II and his later years in the US. The book’s conceit has the Jews drawn as mice, the Nazis as cats, Americans as Beagles and so on – but it’s the human stories that come unflinchingly through that give this work its power, both in the tragedies and trauma of mankind’s darkest hour and in the smaller tribulations of a survivor’s later life.