Let's Get Graphic: 100 Favorite Comics And Graphic Novels
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Summer's the time for comics — Marvel and DC blockbusters are in movie theaters, fans are preparing to descend on San Diego for its epic annual Comic-Con, and if nothing else, your friendly local comic store or library is there to provide an air-conditioned Fortress of Solitude where you can escape the steamy streets.
So it's a perfect time for our super summer reader poll — a few months ago, we asked you to tell us all about your favorite comics and graphic novels. We assembled an amazing team of critics and creators to help winnow down more than 7,000 nominations to this final list of 100 great comics for all ages and tastes, from early readers to adults-only.
This isn't meant as a comprehensive list of the "best" or "most important" or "most influential" comics, of course. It's a lot more personal and idiosyncratic than that, because we asked folks to name the comics they loved. That means you'll find enormously popular mainstays like Maus and Fun Home jostling for space alongside newer work that's awaiting a wider audience (Check Please, anyone?).
So poke around to find old favorites — and discover some new ones.
Here are some quick links to make it easier for you to navigate: Fantasy and Science Fiction, Graphic Nonfiction, Graphic Novels, Manga, Series Comics, Superheroes, Web Comics, Newspaper Comics, All Ages and Last, but Not Least.
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Bad Machinery/Scary Go Round
John Allison just announced that he's bringing an end to his Tackleford strips — the series of stories that began as Bobbins back in the internet Dark Ages (think 1998) and morphed into Scary Go Round and eventually became Bad Machinery, a kid detective strip featuring the younger siblings of the original cast. But luckily for you, they'll all stay up online and you can discover for yourself the magic Allison makes out of a humdrum fictional British town and a bunch of aimless 20-somethings. His art is constantly changing and evolving – but one thing stays the same: The rhythms of his dialogue are entirely his own, and they'll stick in your head until after a few pages you're thinking in the same cadences as the characters.
After some discussion, the judging panel nixed the idea of singling out specific comics on thenib.com, (which you really should bookmark, like, yesterday), a one-stop shop, overseen by cartoonist Matt Bors, for a daily mix of nonfiction comics narrative and political cartooning – often, both at once. The Nib offers a bracing reminder, to those who need it, that comics as a medium can tell urgent, controversial, hugely vital stories in ways no other medium can. If your local newspaper's editorial cartoons strike you as fusty and predictable, click over to The Nib and poke around.
David Malki ! (Yes, that exclamation is supposed to be there — he considers it an honorific like "Ph.D.") creates Wondermark from his own personal collection of old books, 19th century woodcuts and engravings, taking starched-collar gentlemen and ruffle-laden ladies and putting funny, profane monologues in their mouths, about everything from the gig economy to personal insecurities to Where's Waldo. Just watch out for Mr. Meanscary, the alien disguised as a puppy butt.
Hark! A Vagrant
Ever wanted to go dude-watchin' with the Brontes? Had an unhealthy fascination with obscure Canadian history? Really been annoyed at physically impossible female superhero costumes? Have we got a comic for you! Kate Beaton's deliriously silly (when it isn't giving you all the feels) Hark! A Vagrant is one of those comics that makes you feel smarter for having read it — and then makes you head to the bookshelf to catch up with her universe of literary and historical references. Her beady-eyed characters smirk and caper, her rubbery lines dance all over the screen, and she can use a word like "velocipedestrienne" and make you love it.
"Web comic" isn't quite the phrase to describe Andrew Hussie's Homestuck, which is more of an interconnected star system of stories, crossed with a choose your own adventure game, liberally salted with animated GIFs and chat logs and all kinds of ephemera. Readers loved this story, which starts with a kid in his bedroom, playing a beta copy of an unreleased video game — and then a meteor shower hits his house. He and his friends soon learn that by playing the game they've accidentally triggered the end of the universe — and what's more, they have to use the same game to play a new universe into existence. And did we mention that in the world of Homestuck, internet trolls are actually trolls?
As The Crow Flies
Melanie Gillman's gentle colored pencils belie the seriousness of their story about Charlie, a black teenager who's questioning her sexuality — and whose parents send her to a pretty dangerous place: An all-white Christian summer camp. Charlie bonds with Sydney, a trans girl, as the campers hike toward a mysterious mountaintop ceremony, and Gillman uses their growing friendship to illustrate, in a beautifully organic way, the challenges gay and trans kids face on a daily basis.
Oh Joy Sex Toy (Adult Content)
Erica Moen and Matthew Nolan's charmingly NSFW Web comic began as a review of sex toys (starting, of course, with the legendary Hitachi Magic Wand) but has branched out into a friendly and accessible clearinghouse of information on everything from consent to polycystic ovary syndrome — often illustrated by well-known guest artists like Lucy Knisley and Trudy Cooper. Our judge Spike Trotman also points out that Oh Joy is an invaluable resource for teens growing up in areas where accurate sex education is not on the curriculum.
Stand Still Stay Silent
In possibly one of the most beautiful comics ever created, for web or otherwise, Minna Sundberg sets her story in a post-apocalyptic Scandinavia, 90 years after a plague turns most of Northern Europe into "The Silent World," teeming with monsters and magic. No one wants to venture outside the few safe spaces ... until now, when one ragtag research crew sets off into the unknown. Sundberg's art, tinged with Nordic mythology, helps fill out a frozen world with elaborate, loving detail — check out this language tree she created to help set the stage for her story.
This is possibly the cutest, sweetest thing you'll read all year — and we absolutely mean that as a compliment. Ngozi Ukazu writes and draws this Web comic about Eric "Bitty" Bittle, a former figure skating champion (and avid baker) who joins his college hockey team and finds love with his handsome team captain — and loving acceptance from his fellow players. She has also created a world of ephemera, from social media accounts for her characters to an ongoing supplementary series explaining hockey jargon. You might have thought a comic about a gay, pie-baking college hockey player would be too obscure, too specific. You would be wrong.
Tom Siddell's Gunnerkrigg Court is one of the grand old dames of the Web comic world, so if you're into magic, mythology and goth-tinged boarding school hijinks (Harry Potter fans, I'm looking at you), there are years' worth of strips to dig into. Young Antimony Carver arrives at her new boarding school, Gunnerkrigg Court, and almost immediately stumbles into a mystery involving a second shadow, mysterious woods and a possessed robot. Self-possessed Annie and her best friend, tech genius Katerina, play well off each other as they explore the Court's secrets, and Siddell's art evolves along with their friendship.
Kill Six Billion Demons
Cartoonist Tom Parkinson-Morgan sometimes goes by Abbadon, which is a pretty good name for the creator of this popular Web comic about an ordinary barista who — in the middle of an awkward encounter with her boyfriend — is suddenly transported to the ancient, chaotic city of Throne, built of god-corpses, center of the omniverse, and apparently, the place she's destined to rule. Once she finds her boyfriend ... and kills six billion demons. Layered with myth, fantasy and religion, every page of KSBD is an offering, but to which god, no one knows.
O Human Star
Alastair Sterling, robotics pioneer, has been dead for 16 years. And now he is somehow alive again, in a synthetic replica of his original body, in a world where robots have advanced in a way he never dreamed of — and where his old partner and lover has made yet another version of him ... this time as a young girl. Blue Delliquanti's warm, organic lines and frequently wordless panels blur the same boundaries between machine and human that her characters are carefully, painfully trying to work out.
The Less than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal (Adult Content)
This road trip romance gets off to an explosive start: In one day, Amal calls off his arranged marriage, comes out to his disapproving parents, blacks out drunk and wakes up the next morning to find TJ making eggs in his kitchen. Amal has to get from Berkeley to Providence for his sister's college graduation — so he and TJ make a deal: TJ pays, Amal drives. As they get further across the country and closer to Amal's family, what began as random circumstance deepens into friendship — and then something significantly more intimate.
Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal
One of the few comics our readers chose that doesn't have an ongoing story, SMBC is your one one-stop shop for daily jokes about science, politics, relationships, deconstructing The Wizard of Oz and pretty much anything else creator Zach Weinersmith sets his pen to. Plus, you can click the big red button underneath each strip for an extra joke!
Evan Dahm's mesmerizing tale of a nomadic tribe — Those Marked in White — whose unchanging existence is turned upside down by the arrival of a colonizing empire. Imperial soldiers take a young tribal girl, Vattu, as tribute; back in their capital city, she learns there's far more to the world than endless marches through the grasslands after game. The comic moves slowly; some panels are completely wordless, but you'll be drawn in by its story of culture clash and colonization, and Dahm's wildly imaginative world building. Ancient Rome with strange dog-snake centurions? Yes please.
Nimona unfolds like a flower, growing from a lighthearted tale about an irrepressible girl with mysterious powers who worms her way into a gig as sidekick to her town's designated villain into something much richer and deeper. Noelle Stevenson's spritely line work gives the story even more lift, building a world where temp agencies handle evil-sidekick gigs and fantasy-armored bad guys plot to attack modern-looking city skylines with genetically modified dragons.
Everything you've heard about this graphic novel, first published as a 12-issue series in 1986 and 1987, is true. It broke the ground; it changed the game. There is a reason people still press it into the hands of those who've never read a comic before. Alan Moore's jaundiced deconstruction of the American superhero — "What if they were horny, insecure sociopaths?"— is showing its age, given that it continues to inspire hordes of lesser, grim-and-gritty imitators. But Dave Gibbons' art, laid out in that meticulous, nine-panel grid, still works astonishingly well, whether he is capturing the intimate (a fleeting facial expression during a couple's argument) or the cosmic (a crystalline clockwork castle rising out of the red dust of Mars).
Maus: A Survivors Tale
Admit it — you're not exactly surprised to see this book turn up on this list. This is a comics list; we're NPR. We get it. But Art Spiegelman's two-volume feat of historical memoir wasn't simply grandfathered in. It received the many votes it did because it remains such a standalone accomplishment — a success in both conceit (Spiegelman's father haltingly relates how he survived a concentration camp, with Jews rendered as mice and Nazis rendered as cats) and craft (Spiegelman explores shades of survivor guilt, father-son frustration and the way the Holocaust forever reshaped the lives of those who made it through — and their children). A stunning work whose astounding success, including the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to a graphic novel, helped move the medium out of dingy comics shops and into the literary mainstream.
The book's subject — the way death retroactively imposes a shape on a person's life — belies the sense of hope that saturates every panel of this expressive and poignant story by Brazilian twin brothers Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba. Chapter after chapter, we meet an obituary writer at different ages and follow him through some of the most important days of his life, and every one of those days — incongruously, magically — ends in his death. With each death, we read the obituary he would have written for himself, which does not come close to capturing the rich imagery, emotional nuance and lyrical language of the chapter we've just read. But that is the point: The merciless way death forces us to reduce lives to narrative arcs, to turn a person's existence into story beats and act breaks. Daytripper is the product of a clear-eyed perspective — the kind that only emerges once death isn't something feared, denied or raged against, but confronted. And embraced.
This One Summer
Comics about awkward young men struggling with adolescence are thick on the ground, which makes sense, given that the medium seems expressly suited to exploring the anxiety, self-consciousness and other ephemeral emotions that come with puberty. But relatively few comics have taken up the transition from girlhood to womanhood, and none have done so as sensitively and searchingly as This One Summer, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki. The story, about two girls whose families have been spending summers at the same lake for years, perfectly captures the moment when everything changes — when feelings, both expressed and unexpressed, begin to color and distort a childhood friendship, when long-simmering jealousy, fear and rage finally bubble over. It's nothing so pat and simple as a coming-of-age story; it's a beautifully wrought, bittersweet and achingly real examination of two young women — one who believes herself ready for adulthood, one longing to remain a child for just a little longer.
For such a young cartoonist (he is 41), Jeff Lemire's output is considerable and sufficiently diverse that the judges each had their favorites. Arguments were made for his Essex County Trilogy, about life in a small Canadian county, and The Underwater Welder, a ghostly meditation on fatherhood; his superhero work at DC, Marvel and Valiant had its proponents as well. Ultimately, the judges agreed on this odd, post-apocalyptic tale starring a naïve young human-deer hybrid and his taciturn protector who is harboring a secret. It brings together everything that makes Lemire such a sought-after creator: his singularly emotive artwork and stripped-down dialogue (he is confident enough in his storytelling to allow a character's facial expression to do the narrative work that other cartoonists would buttress with exposition) and his tight plotting, filled with shocking reveals and reversals.
Through The Woods
"It came from the woods. Most strange things do." Emily Carroll's book of short stories is horror, yes – but it's the psychological horror of isolation and alienation, not the pulpy, visceral horror of the slaughterhouse floor. We're left disturbed, discomfited and unsettled by her stories, but also beguiled, because Carroll is so thoroughly in control of the comics medium. Her captions and dialogue curl and bend around her characters like sinister tendrils, drawing our eye across the page and into the shadows that lurk under the bed or down the hallway or just outside the front door. Her colors can blaze or cool to serve her narrative, and her lettering slyly underscores every shift in mood. Beautifully creepy stuff.
Craig Thompson wrote and drew this bittersweet, 600-page, semiautobiographical story of a young man raised in a strict evangelical tradition, haunted by feelings of guilt and shame as adolescence gives way to adulthood. His attempts to navigate a sexual relationship cause him to question his most deeply felt beliefs, and it's that extra, achingly heartfelt layer that elevates Blankets above similarly themed "sensitive artist is sensitive, artfully" indie comics. Thompson grapples with big ideas about faith, art and sex, yet his art is always expressive, intimate and highly specific.
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters
After West Nile virus left illustrator Emil Ferris partially paralyzed, she learned to draw again by duct-taping a quill pen to her hand. Her drive to recover — and her childhood love of horror films — are evident in her ferocious, semi-autobiographical work, set in Chicago in the late 1960s and starring a young girl who thinks of herself (and draws herself) as a werewolf. Ferris' dense, intricately crosshatched art gives a glowing, sculptural formality to this tale of murder and multiple monstrosities.
Bright colors, clean lines, simple shapes — a Chris Ware comics page is meticulously designed to invite the eye in, echoing the feel of a beloved picture book from your earliest childhood. And then you read the thing and — oof. Ware is a master of the comics medium's unique ability to create tension between words and images — his best stuff crawls inside that tension and roosts. While his art is bright and clean, the lives he writes about are anything but. Case in point: poor Jimmy Corrigan, the sad and feckless young boy who grows into a sad and feckless adult. Ware plays with time throughout Jimmy Corrigan, unpacking moments of Jimmy's shame or yearning — or, quite often, his shameful yearning — to ensure that we feel each one like a series of gut punches. This book is nothing less than a masterpiece, albeit one that will make you want to lie on the floor for a while after finishing it.
It takes a village: Blacksad is a French comic by two Spaniards — writer Juan Diaz Canales and artist Juanjo Guarnido — who've crafted a hard-boiled noir set in an America filled of anthropomorphic animals: It stars a black cat private eye, his sidekick (a literal and figurative weasel), and cops of various breeds of canines. Come for its cleverly whimsical riffs on noir tropes, stay for Guarnido's painterly art, which is lush and gorgeous, with muted colors underscoring the sometimes seedy underworld violence. This is no funny animals comic.
Reading reviews of comics gets frustrating when the writer focuses solely on critiquing the story, ignoring that comics can only exist in the space where text and art come together. It's great, then, when a comic like Here comes along, because it forces critics and readers alike to engage with the potent narrative power of the wordless comics page. Here's conceit: We look at one corner of a room. No — not merely look at — we truly see it, because Richard McGuire shows us that same tiny patch of real estate over thousands of years, from the distant past to the far future, overlaid — literally — with selected mundane moments of the life that happen in and around that space in the meantime: births, deaths, parties, arguments. That narrow focus produces a work that is both hugely expansive and quietly, thoroughly mind-blowing.
How To Be Happy
When a very recent work is nominated in the popular vote, the judges feel it incumbent upon them to really interrogate it — to ensure that it justified its presence on the final list. That said, Eleanor Davis' 2015 collection of comics short stories sailed through that process with unanimous, enthusiastic consent. Davis writes and draws surreal, deeply funky comics about people who find themselves in a funk. "Find the stories that help you comprehend the incomprehensible," one of her characters says. "Find the stories that make you stronger." Her art expresses both raw emotion and the stringent denial of it; she carves out a place that is both deeply felt yet coolly introspective. She also avails herself of widely different styles, using color — or the lack of it — perfectly matched to the narrative mood.
One thing to admire about Simon Hanselmann's Megahex is its utter, unambiguous, blank-faced commitment to its stoner aesthetic. Megahex collects several years' worth of Hanselmann's Megg and Mogg Web comics and follows the adventures — well, the determined lack of adventures, anyway — of a layabout witch and her friends, which include a black cat, an owl and a werewolf. Together, they do drugs, watch TV, make ruthless (often downright cruel) fun of one another and struggle with depression. (Think your sophomore year in college. But with a werewolf.) Given the series' intentional dearth of forward narrative momentum — that is the whole point, really — Hanselmann's gorgeously funky, low-fi, slyly psychedelic art pulls a lot of this weirdly charming strip's weight.
A Contract With God
Comics nerds are a nitpicky, combative lot, so whenever Will Eisner's collection of comics short stories gets called "the first graphic novel," the "um, actually"s descend like so many neck-bearded locusts to remind everyone about Rodolphe Topffer and Lynd Ward and to point out that it's not a novel, it's a collection of stories. So let's put it this way: Eisner's 1978 A Contract With God is widely regarded as the first modern graphic novel. But it's not on this list because it was first, it's on this list because it remains one of the most beloved. Eisner sets his stories in and around a Lower East Side tenement building very like the one he grew up in, and it shows. He imbues each story with an elegiac quality reminiscent of the fables of Sholom Alecheim, replete with a fabulist's gift for distilling the world's morass into tidy morality plays. Moody, moving and darkly beautiful, this work helped the wider world accept the notion that comics can tell stories of any kind, the only limit being the vision of their creators.
The Color Of Earth (Trilogy)
Dong Hwa Kim's beautiful and elegant historical trilogy (including The Color of Water and The Color of Heaven) follows young Ehwa as she grows up amid the (exquisitely rendered) countryside of pastoral Korea. Together, the three books form an extended coming-of-age tale. Ehwa experiences the flush of first love, and no small amount of heartbreak, but the real triumph of the book lies in its depiction of Ehwa's relationship with her single mother, which informs how the young girl sees her place in the world. Their bond is rich, and satisfyingly complicated, and it deepens over the course of the trilogy in ways that will feel familiar ... and bittersweet.
The Encyclopedia Of Early Earth
Panel judge Glen Weldon is on record as loving this book. It was one of his favorite books of 2013, and when he reviewed it for NPR, he called it "a compendium of funny, sad and surprisingly moving fables from the pre-history of a world that exists only in [Isabel] Greenberg's febrile imagination — one that bristles with capricious gods, feckless shamans, daring quests and, of course, doomed love." Greenberg's art is big and bold, and it wears its folk-art influences — any given page resembles a delirious mashup of Inuit imagery with the Bayeux Tapestry — on its sleeve. It's fitting that a book that concerns itself so centrally with the act of storytelling makes for such a richly satisfying and accomplished story.
Love And Rockets
How to summarize, in a blurb, one of the singular accomplishments in serialized comics? Maybe start by assuring anyone who has never had occasion to pick up this series — which has been published, off and on, over the last 35 years — that its humor, pathos and rich characterizations are only continuing to deepen and grow. Brothers Gilbert, Jaime and, originally at least, Mario Hernandez tend to focus on two parallel narratives — one set in a fictional Central American village, the other set among punk musicians living in southern California. Though the series has happily spanned several genres in its time, its focus on its characters' relationships, which have grown increasingly complicated and layered over the years, remains paramount. Beloved as one of the first breakout series of the indie comics movement, Love and Rockets has inspired many imitators, but its charms are idiosyncratic and unmistakably its own.
This Fantagraphics volume collects the first 18 issues of Dan Clowes' hugely influential indie comics series, where some of his most notable works, including Ghost World and Art School Confidential were originally serialized (alongside shorter/one-off pieces of blistering satire and/or crude humor). Three other works that appeared in Eightball — David Boring, Ice Haven and Death Ray — have been collected separately, but this book grants you a ringside seat in Clowes' fevered, fractious and pugnacious young brain.
Monstress is the grandest of Guignol, a blood-spattered epic set in a matriarchal society torn by war between sorceresses and magical creatures. Sana Takeda's art blends art nouveau, manga, steampunk, Egyptian influences, you-name-it, to build a lush world where even the atrocities these women commit against on another look somehow gorgeous. And Marjorie Liu's morally ambiguous, complex characters are hard to figure out and even harder to forget.
The Wicked + The Divine
You will never be as cool as anyone written and drawn by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. But you can approximate that level of cool by reading The Wicked + The Divine, their color-drenched, pop-addled, gender-bent tale of a group of kids who've been taken over by deities and granted supernatural power and appeal with one major drawback: Within two years, they'll all be dead. But until then, they can enchant crowds, perform miracles and save lives. Gillen has described it as "a superhero comic for anyone who loves Bowie as much as Batman," which is pretty perfect, in our opinion.
The women in prison movie to end all women in prison movies. Well, okay, it's a comic book, but you know what I mean. Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro take a campy '70s trope and run with it, all the way to outer space, creating a misogynist dystopia where "noncompliant" women are penned up on a brutal prison planet. But rebellion is brewing underneath those bland prison-orange overalls. Bitch Planet mixes solid world building, action and emotional hooks with an unapologetic wallop of feminist philosophy. If you've been seeing women with "NC" tattoos recently, this is why.
Locke & Key
Writer Joe Hill is Stephen King's son, and his horror pedigree shows in this atmospheric saga about the Keyhouse, an old mansion in a New England coastal town (called Lovecraft, natch) and the family (called Locke, of course) who live there. As the Locke kids discover the magic keys the house keeps hidden, their family past comes back to haunt them — literally. And Gabriel Rodriguez's art brings limpid-eyed moppets and shadowy monsters alike to creepily glowing life.
Transmet is Warren Ellis' extended, profane and surreal love letter to Hunter S. Thompson (so, it's exactly the kind of thing Thompson would have loved). Set in a far-future metropolis that could be anywhere in America, it's an almost joyous dystopia, a world where anything you can imagine is probably already happening. Right in the middle of it all is crusading journalist Spider Jerusalem — and his filthy assistants — ready to break news — and heads — in the service of truth. (And once you've read the books, go back and spend a happy few hours trying to pick out every reference in Darick Robertson's over-the-top artwork.)
Warren Ellis shows up on this list a lot, but trust us, he's worth it. Planetary is on the more cheerful end of the Ellis spectrum — it's about an interdimensional peacekeeping force called Planetary, dedicated to preserving weirdness and wonder in the world. "Mystery archaeologists" Elijah Snow, Jakita Wagner and The Drummer travel through different themes and genres, digging up the secrets of their comic universe and battling The Four, a group of scientists bent on using the world's wonders to enrich themselves.
The Walking Dead
Before it became an international television franchise/cultural phenomenon, The Walking Dead was a scrappy little black-and-white horror comic. It still is, of course, though the plotlines of the comic and the TV show have diverged in ways that invite heated debate. There is an urgent, elemental power to Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore's bleak and battered vision of a zombie apocalypse and the survivors who attempt to hold onto their humanity, against impossible odds. Both creators clearly love the genre, and know how to toy with reader expectations. But in a very real sense, The Walking Dead has never been about the gore-splattered "Walkers." It's about how quickly, and how violently, humans will turn tribal to protect their own. Reading The Walking Dead can be a punishing experience (don't fall in love with any character), but thousands of readers, and millions of viewers, are gluttons for exactly the kind of punishment it serves up with dispassion.
Stan Sakai's comic about a rabbit samurai in 17th-century Japan has been running for more than 30 years and is jampacked with references to Japanese history, movies and culture — particularly Akira Kurosawa's 1960 film Yojimbo. But you don't have to be a Kurosawa buff to enjoy Sakai's clean, expressive art and his expansive, sometimes novel-length storylines — after all, this is a comic based on a simple visual gag: A bunny with his ears tied up in a topknot looks kind of like a samurai. Try "Grasscutter," the Eisner Award-winning arc about a magic sword, or just dive right in at the beginning.
Writer Grant Morrison and artist Richard Case took over the DC Comics series Doom Patrol in 1989 and, over the next four years, proceeded to infuse that fitfully published, perennially oddball title starring a small team of freakish, outcast superheroes created in 1963 with pure, uncut, pharmaceutical-grade craziness. Borrowing heavily from surrealist influences, they swapped out traditional villains for creations like the Brotherhood of Dada and the sinister, extradimensional Scissormen. They introduced new characters like Crazy Jane, a woman who evinced 64 discrete personalities, each one with its own superpower, and Danny the Street, a sentient, magically transporting city block ... in drag. As a feat of soaring imagination, there's nothing like it in all of superhero storytelling, yet its every flight of nitro-injected fantasy is grounded by Case's thick line work, which imposes a satisfying heft and structure to the proceedings.
David Petersen's Mouse Guard series boasts a rich mythology gorgeous, warmly colored depictions of the natural world vibrantly realized characters and spectacular set pieces featuring bold adventures and narrow escapes. Plus, it stars fuzzy-wuzzy mice with itty-bitty swords and teeny-tiny capes. But it's Petersen's meticulous commitment to world building and his determination to fully realize his fanciful conceit — an elite cadre of mice that defend mousedom from threats foreign and domestic — that transport Mouse Guard out of the realm of "funny animal" comics. His characters may have dots for eyes and cute ears, but he invests them with a sense of purpose and nobility. These are rodents with gravitas.
The MAD Archives
The venerable MAD is a humor magazine, yes, but it's also a comic book through and through and has always been so. This book collects its first six issues, from 1952 to '53, and reflects the no-gag-too-goofy, grab-the-reader-by-the-throat aesthetic of editor Harvey Kurtzman. It includes several pop-culture parodies, which would swiftly become MAD's bread-and-butter: "Dragged Net," "Outer Sanctum," etc. But it's Issue 4's Superman riff ("Superduperman!") that's still being talked about decades later, both for its ruthlessly effective skewering of the Man of Steel and for the art of Wally Wood, who lovingly stuffed every panel with background gags that invite — that demand — repeated reading.
In 1998, writer Greg Rucka and artist Steve Lieber produced this taut little murder mystery set at the McMurdo research station in Antarctica. That setting is a perfect setup, of course — the station's one big locked-room mystery where isolation breeds paranoia and escape is impossible because to step outside even briefly invites death. Fortunately, Deputy U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko — a fantastic, and fantastically tough, creation — is on the case. There are several stretches where Lieber's black-and-white art becomes ... white-and-white, to depict the punishing snow-blind panic Stetko faces as she is targeted by the killer. A propulsive, satisfyingly pulpy read.
Sex Criminals (Adult Content)
Matt Fraction makes another appearance on our list with the delightful and VERY not-safe-for-work Sex Criminals. Suzie and Jon seem like a regular couple – she is an earnest librarian, he is an overgrown man-child who hates his job. But both of them have a secret power: They can stop time when they orgasm and walk around alone in a frozen world. So naturally, they decide to use that power to go on a crime spree — and it's all fun and games until the Sex Police show up.
Carla Speed McNeil has a mind as big as several universes, and you can visit at least one of them in the Eisner Award-winning Finder. Finder covers so many genres it's almost impossible to sum up, so we'll just say, come for the hot-outsider-in-a-strange-future action, stay for the insanely extensive world-building footnotes that will tell you exactly what is going on in every corner of every panel, from random lizard things to genetically engineered TV screen vines.
Lone Wolf And Cub
Fans of Japanese cinema will find a lot to like in Lone Wolf and Cub, the epic story of a falsely disgraced warrior who hits the road with his toddler son in a quest to find and kill the powerful clan that framed him and killed his wife. (And in fact, these darkly cinematic comics have been adapted as movies in Japan.) Famous for its deep research and accurate representation of Japan's Edo period, Lone Wolf and Cub is 7,000 pages (yep, 7,000 pages) of sprawling samurai adventure — and one bad*** baby.
Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind
The judging panel was struck, and a bit dismayed, by the relative dearth of manga titles in the raw vote, but the strong showing for Hayao Miyazaki's groundbreaking Nausicaa series, about a headstrong young girl who becomes a military leader in a post-apocalyptic world, was heartening. There is no denying its popularity or its enduring influence, and its theme of humanity's corrupting influence on the pure power of the natural world is an essential Miyazaki touchstone. The series was turned into a hugely popular anime feature by what would later become Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli, which has produced many of the most beloved and renowned animes — work that has inspired generations of filmmakers and storytellers around the world.
In America at least, it was the 1988 anime based on this Katsuhiro Otomo manga series that wormed its way into a generation's consciousness. But that animated film, while widely credited as finding a new worldwide audience for the form, greatly simplified the satisfyingly byzantine plot of Otomo's original comics series. Oh, it kept the basics — kid in a post-World War III Tokyo biker gang gets psionic powers, only to be drawn into a mushrooming conflict involving rival gangs, shadowy government operatives, motorcycles and lots and lots of psychic explosions — but it cut out great swaths of the characters and subplots that made the manga so singularly immersive and unforgettable. Many Americans who loved the film dutifully sought out the comic, whetting their appetite for a lifelong love of manga.
This hugely popular manga series by Naoki Urasawa was inspired by a story arc in Osamu Tezuka's seminal Astro Boy. Urasawa recast one of that manga's most famous story arcs from the villain's point of view. In manga, of course, robots are thick on the ground, but this series examined the question of what it means to be human with a surprising emotional depth and served it all up under the guise of an addictively compelling murder mystery.
This is the best-selling manga series of all time, launched in 1997 and still going strong. Written and drawn by Eiichiro Oda, One Piece is the frenetic and freewheeling tale of a boy named Monkey D. Luffy, leader of a gang of pirates on a world dominated by two vast oceans. Luffy and his crew seek the One Piece, the grand treasure that confers the title of King of All Pirates. Oda fuses fantasy, science fiction and old-fashioned pirate adventure – together with a deep mythology all his own (there are three kinds of Devil Fruit, see, which grant different powers to the person who eats them, but those powers get canceled if the person is ever submerged in water, because ....)
Many manga series get freely adapted into other media, but Hiromu Arakawa's Fullmetal Alchemist is the one to beat, having to date launched films, television series, novels, video games, audio dramas and ... shadow puppets, probably? It's easy to see why: Set in a world that runs on rigidly structured rules of alchemy, two brothers who've attempted to resurrect their mother — an unforgivable overstepping of those immutable laws — must seek the philosopher's stone to undo the ensuing damage, which cost one brother an arm and the other brother ... his entire body. (Don't worry: His soul gets bound to an armored chest plate; he's good.) Dense, soaringly imaginative and — fitting for a tale that features the philosopher's stone — weirdly philosophical, Fullmetal Alchemist has a lot to say about the costs of war and human greed and the central importance of family.
You might think your life stinks but give thanks that you're not Punpun, the kid at the center of Inio Asano's surreal, cinematic manga. Well, we say kid, but Punpun (and his abusive parents) are actually crudely drawn, wordless cartoon birds, in contrast to the realistic world around him. The comic follows Punpun from childhood to early 20s, from quotidian silliness to dark, cynical violence — and while you could, if you had to, sum it up as a coming-of-age story, Goodnight Punpun is unlike pretty much anything else out there.
Marjane Satrapi's curvaceous but spare black-and-white artwork is the perfect complement to this lyrical, mournful tale of growing up in Iran during and after the Islamic revolution of 1979. Ten-year-old Marji struggles with wearing the veil, yet wants to be a prophet when she grows up. But as revolution and war turn her world upside down, she becomes increasingly rebellious (a chapter about new high-tops and a contraband Kim Wilde tape is a particular standout). Satrapi uses her own story as a backbone to tell the larger story of her family and of Iran itself, its rich culture and oppressive politics.
Alison Bechdel's painfully funny — and frequently just painful — memoir of growing up with her closeted father has been made into a hit musical. But no stage show can capture the intricate, non-linear nature of Fun Home, which loops in and out of Bechdel's childhood, incorporating pop culture references, literary references, family photos and letters all rendered in her dense, textured line work. Like all great graphic novels, Fun Home's art demands to be read with as much care as its text.
Congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis tells his life story in the National Book Award-winning March, scripted by Andrew Aydin and expressively illustrated by Nate Powell. Lewis is the last person alive to have spoken at the 1963 March on Washington, and he offers a ground-level view of the civil rights struggle, packed with sympathetic but unsparing portraits of the movement's movers and shakers. Modeled on a comic that inspired Lewis himself — 1958's Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story — this is required reading for everyone who has only seen those years in old news footage. And everyone else, too.
Your Black Friend
Ben Passmore's slim, 11-page mini-comic is an open letter, written in the second person, consisting of a litany of gentle admonitions for well-meaning but racially tone-deaf white people: "Your black friend hates that you slide into 'black' presentations thoughtlessly. He feels like you're mocking him, but knows that you are totally unaware of this ... Your black friend wishes you would play more than Beyonce. There are more black performers than Beyonce and he's worried you don't know that." That last sentiment is matched to a panel in which a clueless white guy sings along to "Formation," while his black friend shoots a hilariously weary side-eye at the reader. Your Black Friend is by far the shortest comic to make this list, but there is nothing slight about it. Beneath its sardonic tone lies a truth that is urgent, sincere and deeply affecting.
Scott McCloud's masterpiece is perhaps the nerdiest, most joyous, most enthusiastic treatise ever written. McCloud wants you to understand that the medium of comics is wholly unique, and it deserves respect. So McCloud's cartoony avatar walks the reader through the sundry techniques and theories, the craft of comics — or in his words, sequential art. There are moments of excess here — McCloud's passion for defining systems causes him to make the occasional distinction without a difference — but it is a worthy passion and produces a book that remains a comprehensive, authoritative and hugely useful tool for getting newbies to give comics a shot.
Hip Hop Family Tree
Ed Piskor's multivolume history of hip hop is rigorously researched, but lovingly so, and his devotion to the music radiates from every page. When panel judge Etelka Lehoczky reviewed Volume 3 for NPR in 2015, she praised Piskor's exuberant and narratively innovative art in particular: "Piskor uses every trick in the comic-book playbook to keep things taut and crackling. He varies figures' sizes, adds and subtracts different gradations of color and moves from realism to cartoony exaggeration. The Fearless Four, rapping 'Problems of the World Today,' are four heads bobbing in space. KRS-One's graffiti bounces off the page. The Fat Boys alternately lumber, loom and swell." It's a long-form history lesson that's infectiously fun — one that should be taught in schools.
Wait, you're not ALREADY reading Saga? Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples' sci-fi-fantasy-romance-war-adventure epic has taken the comics world by storm, and for good reason. Our heroes — she has wings, he has horns — are star-crossed lovers from opposing sides of an endless war, on the run across the galaxy with their infant daughter. There is magic, profanity, television-headed robots, intergalactic bounty hunters, ghostly baby-sitters and spaceship trees, all beautifully realized in Staples' distinctive digitally painted style. Saga will punch you right in the feels, and you will love every minute of it.
Shade, The Changing Man
Writer Peter Milligan and artist Chris Bachalo hauled an old Steve Ditko character out of mothballs to lend him a defiantly weird, transgressive edge. Milligan set visiting alien Rac Shade on a cross-country quest to defeat the American Scream, a creature of raw, elemental chaos that manifested as the decaying corpse of Uncle Sam. Subtle? Nope. Neither was the violence (a serial killer figured largely — welcome to the '90s) nor Bachalo's trippy, swirling psychedelic images, in retina-sizzling colors. But then, the whole point of the series was to shake things up, to challenge and interrogate the rapidly calcifying tropes of superhero storytelling. What's more: Shade's sidekick was a trans woman, and Shade's shape-shifting powers caused him to evince an entirely literal genderfluidity that, with very few exceptions (the Morrison/Case Doom Patrol run, for example), just wasn't the stuff of superhero comics at the time.
It probably won't come as any surprise to fans of filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky that he would write a soaring space opera set in a dystopian future filled with birdlike aliens, bounty hunters, flying cars, powerful crystals and "technopriests." Jodorowsky is a visionary director, and this series — which began as a serialized comic in the pages of the French comics magazine Metal Hurlant in 1981 — is nothing if not ambitious and richly imaginative. But it's the art of Jean Giraud (who published under the name Moebius) that makes this crime/sci-fi/fantasy mashup so singular. You might expect Jodorowsky's world of techno-tyranny to resemble the dank gloom of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. You would be wrong — Moebius' line work is crisp and clean and often comical, and Yves Chaland's bright, bold colors (so many yellows!) sizzle and pop. It's a combination of writer and artist that works in surprising, revelatory ways, opening up this world and inviting us to stay.
Elfquest is kind of a legend in the comics industry — it is one of the first creator-owned comics, and it has been running in one form or another since 1978. Also, the adventures of Cutter, Skywise and the Wolfriders (and their amazing hairdos) are absurdly addictive; Wendy Pini's Tom of Finland-meets-Margaret Keane art and the fervid, earnest scripts she wrote with her husband, Richard, will keep you pinned to the page, far into the night.
Neil Gaiman is America's favorite nerd these days, but back in the late '80s, he was mostly known for fringe titles like Black Orchid and, well, writing a quickie biography of Duran Duran. And then he pitched DC Comics the idea of reviving an old character, the Sandman, and making him something completely new: A pale, tormented, goth-tacular Lord of the Dreaming who is rebuilding his kingdom after 70 years of occult captivity. Soapy, dramatic, mythic, gorgeous and sometimes terrifying, Sandman is the comic that fluttered the hearts of a million baby fans. (Plus, Death is adorable.)
This is it: Frank Miller's 1986 magnum opus, the gold standard against which all Batman stories will forever be judged, for better or worse. Miller's tale of an aged Caped Crusader coming out of retirement to fight a new breed of criminal was deliberately set outside DC's continuity, which gave Miller lots of room to play. The result is big and operatic (think Rambo meets Wagner's Ring Cycle). But it's also grim and gritty and helped usher in an era of dark, brooding heroes that remains the default superhero mode. It became such a hit both in and outside comics circles that readers of in-continuity Batman hungered to bring the book's dark vision of future Batman an in-canon reality, voting by phone to kill off Robin in 1988.
The announcement that Marvel contracted Ta-Nehisi Coates to write a Black Panther series was cause for excitement in and out of comics circles. (The fact that he was to be paired with veteran artist Brian Stelfreeze didn't hurt — although that excitement may not have spread beyond comics nerds.) The task Coates set for himself was a tough one: He had to pick up the pieces following Marvel's latest Secret Wars crossover event, establish a new status quo and then go on to tell a compelling story. Coates is a longtime comics fan, but this was his debut effort in the medium. The result is dense — prose writers who come to comics tend to load up their word balloons to the bursting point — but offers a fresh take: He explores Black Panther the king, not the hero, forced to make a series of unpopular choices that turn his people against him. Chewy, resonant stuff.
Obviously, our judge G. Willow Wilson recused herself from this part of the debate. But there's no question about it: Readers (and the rest of the judges) love Wilson's version of Ms. Marvel. Kamala Khan was an ordinary Muslim teenager in Jersey City — and a Captain Marvel fangirl — when an alien mist turned her into a shape-shifting superhero. Now, she has to balance school, friends and her loving-but-overprotective family, while saving the world. And like any kid, she doesn't always get it right. Ms. Marvel is a marvel — sensitively written, gorgeously drawn and, for a part-alien superhero, always achingly real.
Writer Tom King carved himself an out-of-the-way patch of Marvel Universe real estate — a seemingly bucolic DC suburb — and deposited everyone's favorite android-created-for-evil-who-turned-out-to-be-a-good-guy, The Vision, squarely inside it. King also doubled down on Vision's long-established hunger to be human by having him create a domestic life for himself — robowife, robokids, robodog, robo-white picket fence. And then, beset by the forces of intolerance lurking in the community, everything proceeds to go to hell. Gabriel Hernandez Walta's art creates a golden-hued, Eisenhower-era suburban paradise poisoned by fear and hate, and King's command of this tight, 12-issue story is masterful. It's a sad and haunting read that will stay with you.
Wonder Woman's much-buzzed-about movie may have granted her a bit of a popular-vote groundswell, but there wasn't much agreement on which run of comics from her long and storied life should make the final cut. Arguments were made for her debut comics, which remain bracingly weird; George Perez's mid-'80s reboot; Greg Rucka's tenure, when he turned her into a kind of superpowered diplomat; and Brian Azzarello's recent turn, in which he recast the Olympian gods as rival crime families. Ultimately, it was Gail Simone's run on the character (especially her four-issue launch tale, The Circle, with art by Terry and Rachel Dodson) that best managed to nail Diana's iconography by depicting her as powerful as we know her to be and as compassionate as we need her to be.
At once a sprawling adventure anthology and a witty metariff on the long, whimsical history of the superhero genre, Astro City offers a bracingly bright rejoinder to "grim-and-gritty" superhero storytelling. Writer Kurt Busiek and artist Brent Anderson — with Alex Ross supplying character designs and painted covers — don't merely people their fictional metropolis with analogues of notable heroes, though there are plenty of those on hand. The universe they've created pays loving homage to familiar characters and storylines even as it digs deep to continually invent new stories and feature new perspectives. Astro City is a hopeful place that dares to believe in heroes, sincerely and unabashedly; reading it, you will too.
Saga Of The Swamp Thing
Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson created Swamp Thing for DC Comics in 1972, a muck-monster who owed a lot to Marvel's similarly swampy Man-Thing created the year before. But Alan Moore's tenure on the character, beginning in 1984, redefined the character in a fundamental and groundbreaking way, turning him into arguably the most powerful hero in the DC Universe, albeit one shot through with the darkest elements of gothic horror. Penciler Stephen Bissette and inker John Totleben's images seemed to float in that darkness, imbuing Moore's literally epic tale (Swampy visits both Hell and outer space) with a sense of dread and foreboding, even when that tale involved Swamp Thing communing with Evil itself ... by walking into its giant fingernail. Yeah, look, you really have to read it.
This sadly short-lived cult hit should have been a mainstream one. Gotham Central's ingenious conceit: What is life like for the men and women of Gotham City's police force — and the citizens they protect? Writer Greg Rucka told tales of the day shift, Ed Brubaker the night, and both were penciled (originally, anyway) by Michael Lark, whose hatchy line work imbued America's most dangerous municipality with a grubby, lived-in feel. Batman and his rogues gallery showed up around the edges — the GCPD dealt with the sometimes horrific aftermath of their clashes — but this was a gripping, character-oriented police procedural, a nuanced look at life beyond the cape.
Given the enduring power of writer Chris Claremont's long and hugely influential run on the X-Men series, it was inevitable that some of that work would end up on this list. But frankly, the judging panel expected people to nominate one of his go-to X-Men story arcs — Days of Future Past, say, or The Dark Phoenix Saga, which is what most people think of when they think "X-Men." The fact that this odd outlier — a one-off, 1982 graphic novel written by Claremont with art by Brent Anderson that has flitted in and out of official X-continuity — got the most votes came as a surprise. A pleasant one: This is a story, after all, in which much of the X-Men's subtext becomes text. Xavier teams up with Magneto to defeat not a supervillain, but a preacher who is whipping up a hate campaign against mutants. It became the basis, albeit a freely adapted one, for Bryan Singer's second X-Men film.
"It's like Shakespeare! But with lots more punching! It's like Goethe! But with lots more crushing!" Okay, well, no, but you have to admit that the Marvel Z-listers who make up the Nextwave team have a way better theme song than any other superheroes. This is Warren Ellis at his silliest and most joyful, complemented by Stuart Immonen's gorgeously angular line work. It's an over-the-top parody of the Marvel universe, the antidote to grim 'n' gritty and the perfect book to press into the hands of anyone who says they hate superheroes.
DC: The New Frontier
The late Darwyn Cooke's bright, gorgeous love letter to DC Comics' superheroes is a marvel of raw logistics as much as storytelling. Cooke crams just about every DC character, including some real deep-benchers (The Challengers of the Unknown, anyone?), into a sprawling tale of alien invasion and sets it all in the gleaming American Space Age. Every page bristles with color and action — and crisp midcentury design — but there's more to it than crew cuts and car fins. Amid all this shiny, Silver Age hopefulness, Cooke finds time to linger over the less-than-glossy elements of the time: the specters of racism and war hang over the book, admitting nuance and context to his primary-colored spectacle. He also plumbs new emotional depths in characters who have never gotten their time in the spotlight, like J'onn J'onzz, the haunted, sensitive Manhunter from Mars. Plus, there are dinosaurs. So. I mean.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl
Eats nuts! Kicks butts! Ryan North and Erica Henderson's revival of an obscure '90s Marvel comic relief character is pure joy on paper. Computer science student Doreen Green has a secret superpower: She can talk to squirrels. Also, she has a tail. With college roommate Nancy and sidekicks Koi Boi and Chipmunk Hunk, Doreen uses a combination of tail tricks, computer savvy and irrepressible cheer to beat up pretty much every baddie who comes her way. (Also, you'll have to squint, but North's jokey footnotes are not to be missed.)
There is no one like Mike Mignola — his thick, angular, shadowy lines are instantly recognizable, almost like a silent movie in comic form. And Hellboy is a singular creation, a good-natured demon (who smells like roasted peanuts) brought to Earth as a baby by Nazi occultists during World War II and then raised as a normal boy by a kindly professor. So, just an everyday kid, then. Mignola's dry humor plays beautifully against Hellboy's fantastical adventures, and there is a LOT to explore in the universe he has created over decades of writing and drawing.
All Star Superman
On the book's much-admired opening page, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely distill Superman's origin into four images and eight words: "Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple." That same approach carries through the 12-issue series, as Morrison conflates decades of Superman's history — including some of the goofiest heights of Silver Age whimsy — to craft a story of the Man of Steel's final days that finds the character's essence and makes it compelling. Quitely's Superman doesn't look like any you've seen before (which is a neat trick, given Supes' longevity). He is a towering, barrel-chested galoot who manages to radiate kindness and compassion, exactly the way he should. Also: Quitely's super-suit wrinkles at the armpits and bags a bit at the knees, which turns this familiar object of pop culture iconography back into what it originally was: a circus outfit. A costume.
Aww, coffee! Matt Fraction and David Aja's run on Hawkeye turned a Marvel also-ran into a real superstar (okay, the Avengers movie probably helped, but still). This version of Clint Barton has no secret identity — Fraction's idea was to make him just an everyday dude, dealing with aging and divorce and everything that happens while he is not being an Avenger. Aja's artwork is dramatic but unglamorous, and Matt Hollingsworth's muted, retro colors drive home Hawkeye's workaday charm. Plus Kate Bishop and Pizza Dog. Need we say more?
Krazy Kat was never popular the way some of its contemporaries were. It was too weird, too aimless, too surreal and, frankly, too utterly fabulous. Luckily, it had one very important fan: newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, who kept the strip running for decades, until creator George Herriman died in 1944. Herriman's gender-fluid cat, his brick-hurling mouse, his looping, unique vernacular and his graphic imagination make Krazy Kat one of the greatest comic strips of all time. A kat, a mouse, a brick — a timeless love story.
Calvin And Hobbes
Sometimes called "the last great newspaper comic," Calvin and Hobbes barely needs an introduction. But we'll try anyhow: There's an imaginative little boy, his snarky stuffed tiger, his dubious parents and a lovingly warped universe of cardboard box spaceships, art, philosophy rule-bending ballgames, noir adventures and horrifying snowmen. "It's a magical world, Hobbes, ol' buddy ... Let's go exploring!"
Walt Kelly's lushly illustrated comic strip contained multitudes. On the surface, a bunch of funny-animal swamp denizens traded quips in a thick Southern patois for 27 years. But every panel was packed with visual — and often quite literal — poetry. Groanworthy puns jostled alongside more sophisticated, allusive wordplay, all informed by the beating heart of a wry humanist who often couched stinging political allegory within the lazy antics of a philosophical opossum and his friends. Kelly's characters managed to broadly parody humanity's manifold ills — our greed, our self-importance, our disregard for the natural world — even as they celebrated what this hugely influential cartoonist saw as our essential good-heartedness.
Dykes To Watch Out For
This is the strip that gave the world "The Bechdel Test." Before Alison Bechdel broke through with Fun Home, she spent years honing her craft on this beloved cult comic, one of the earliest representations of lesbian life in pop culture. Over more than 20 years, Mo, Sydney, Lois, Toni and Clarice and the rest of the gang grow and change, pair up and split up, argue about politics, culture and gender (and pretty much everything else, honestly) until they seem more real and rooted than a lot of people who aren't made up of lines on paper.
Pear pimples for hairy fishnuts! The original run of Berke Breathed's '80s strip is one of the most quotable comics of all time. A mix of pointed political and cultural satire and gentle, meadows-and-dandelions sentiment, Bloom County began with a bunch of misfits in a Midwestern boardinghouse but expanded to poke fun at everything from presidential politics to penguin lust. And with the introduction of Bill the Cat in 1982, discerning comics fans got an epic riposte to that other orange feline cartoon titan, Garfield. Ack oop!
Mary Perkins On Stage
Our panelist Maggie Thompson particularly wanted to include this charming 1950s comic about life backstage on Broadway. Other postwar soap opera strips are still running — think Mary Worth or Judge Parker — but Leonard Starr's Mary Perkins won critical acclaim for its finely drawn panels and memorable characters. "The favorite of many (ME! ME!) was Maximus," Thompson says, "a horror movie star obviously based on Christopher Lee ... What we learn in his first story: He puts on his makeup for daily life; for his horror roles, he takes it off. What's not to love?"
If you tend to lump the late Charles Schulz's long-running series alongside its fellow funny-page denizens — all those bright, breezy kiddie-fare strips — then hoo boy, it has been a long time since you read it. Sure, Charlie Brown and the gang are drawn in Schulz's distinctively (and deceptively) simple, big-head/button-nose style, but the Peanuts sensibility is shot through with an anxious species of melancholy that's achingly recognizable — it's nothing less than the human condition. Peanuts characters worry about their lot in life, they cling to coping mechanisms, they get depressed, they develop unrequited crushes, and, again and again, they get duped into trusting that they'll be able to kick a football (Spoiler: They will not). Yet sometimes — only sometimes, and only if they're Snoopy, the one Peanuts character who is completely comfortable in his skin — they dance. In Peanuts, as in life, that kind of joy descends only in fitful bursts, but descend it does, and it's enough.
Created in 1935 by cartoonist Marjorie Henderson Buell for The Saturday Evening Post, Little Lulu — a tough, resourceful girl with her hair in ringlets — went on to a long life as a newspaper strip and in comic books written (and drawn, at least initially) by John Stanley. Television, toys, films and international fame followed, keying off the strength and charm of Stanley's take, in which she was transformed from a typical comics-page irascible scamp into a scrappy young girl who always had her friends' backs (well, mostly). For decades, Little Lulu's presence on the comics page meant that millions habitually read the adventures of a young girl who consistently bested — outsmarted, outplayed and outmaneuvered — boys. It may not have been the sole reason for her runaway popularity. But it helped.
Ernie Pook's Comeek
Lynda Barry remembers what it's like to be a kid with a vividness and emotionality that the rest of us have irrevocably lost. All the confusion and logical leaps and frustrations of not being heard, all the hormonal hoops that puberty forces us to jump through — it's all still so richly available to her, and for years, in the syndicated strip Ernie Pook's Comeek, which appeared in alt-weeklies across the nation, she laid it all out on the page. To read her characters' adventures — many of which read like breathlessly confessional diary entries — is to feel the shock of recognition, again and again: young Marlys, blissfully unself-conscious, for now anyway; older Maybonne, yearning, aching to be cool; and poor lost Freddie, overmatched by the world. Their family life is hard — Barry never turns away from pain and heartbreak — but they find joy in music, and in creating something, even if it's just a daisy-chain tiara or a rubber-band ball.
Did you know that Olive Oyl was created years before Popeye? Elzie Crisler Segar had been drawing Thimble Theatre for 10 years when he came up with the character of Popeye the Sailor Man; originally it was about Olive, her brother Castor and her boyfriend Ham Gravy. But one day, Castor needed someone take him out to an island — and there on the docks was Popeye. He was only supposed to be a minor character, but readers loved him so much, Segar brought him back. The rest is history (and rather a large quantity of spinach).
Our judges had a hard time picking just one Raina Telgemeier book, but eventually we settled on the gorgeous, heart-tugging Ghosts. Cat and her family move to the beach town of Bahia de la Luna in the hopes that the air there will be better for her little sister Maya, who has cystic fibrosis. The town turns out to be full of gentle ghosts, and Maya wants nothing more than to meet one — but Cat can't face even the idea of death.
What happens when Sleeping Beauty wakes up and rides into the sunset with her magically appointed prince? She leaves behind a castle full of faithful retainers with no idea what to do without her. Linda Medley's lovely Castle Waiting picks up from there, with a band of ragtag refugees from assorted fairy tales making a new life for themselves in the titular castle. Medley's graceful black-and-white art will transport you to a world of bearded ladies, bouncy demons, noble-horse-men and strange little creatures chittering in the corner — plus Beauty's forgotten handmaidens, now elderly and comically querulous. Castle Waiting is a quest well worth going on.
American Born Chinese
Gene Luen Yang's much-praised 2006 book contains three stories — a retelling of the legend of the Chinese Monkey King, a tale of a second-generation child of Chinese immigrants attempting to navigate a white suburban school and a story about a white boy embarrassed by his visiting Chinese cousin. The disparate narratives link up in surprising, revelatory ways, and along the way, Yang interrogates the sundry many Asian stereotypes that Western culture has absorbed and tracks how his characters confront them. The result is an intriguing mashup that borrows from sources as disparate as Fu Manchu stories, political cartoons, John Hughes movies, Marvel comics and cheesy sitcoms to show characters pushing through self-hatred to craft their own identities.
Carl Barks' Disney Ducks
In the early days of Disney, artists weren't allowed to sign their names to comics — everything just said "Walt Disney." But there was one artist whose skill was so apparent that fans started calling him the "Good Duck Artist," until someone uncovered his real name: Carl Barks. Barks' elastic lines and expressive faces seem to almost bounce out of the panels on his pages; his scripts were complex and sensitive and marvelously silly. And if you're a fan of the cartoon DuckTales, you have much to thank Barks for — he is the guy that invented Scrooge McDuck. Pretty much any Carl Barks is good Carl Barks, but our judges feel this particular collection, which includes "Christmas on Bear Mountain" and "The Old Castle's Secret" is a great place to start.
Zita The Spacegirl
Our readers really loved Ben Hatke's charming story of a young girl who ends up on a strange planet after trying to rescue her best friend from an alien cult (that might have come to Earth because Zita found a big red mystery button, pressed it and created a rift in space). Torn away in a moment from everything she knows on earth, Zita becomes an interstellar adventurer, saving planets, battling aliens (the Star Hearts only sound nice ... they're really not) and escaping dungeons. Hatke's cute-but-not-cloying art stretches from realistic to truly weird, creating a delightful backdrop for Zita's heroics.
After her father dies, Emily and her family move to a strange old house in a new town, where she discovers an amulet in the library where her great grandfather once worked. Does it open the way to a brand new world of magic and peril? You bet it does. Emily ventures into the land of Alledia to save her mother, who has been attacked by a monster — but she stays to become a member of the resistance to the sinister Elf King, in Kazu Kibuishi's story that is a charming mashup of everything from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars. Plus, the house can walk, which is pretty cool.
Cece Bell's autobiographical account of growing up deaf was an NPR Book Concierge pick a few years ago, and clearly our readers haven't forgotten it. After losing her hearing to a bout of meningitis at the age of 4, Bell struggled. But when a new hearing aid gave her some interesting abilities, she began to think of herself as a superhero, El Deafo. Bell depicts herself and everyone around her as rabbits; their large ears a smart reminder of the importance of hearing in this story — and their speech bubbles the perfect way to convey all the ways sound can change and warp with hearing aids. El Deafo isn't all sweetness and light — Bell doesn't shy away from the difficulties she's facing. But it is genuinely positive, and often hilarious.
Inspired by cartoons like Pogo and Carl Barks' work for Disney, Jeff Smith's gentle, multiple-award-winning epic follows cousins Fone Bone, scheming Phoney Bone and goofy Smiley Bone — strange little large-nosed cartoon critters — who get run out of their hometown when one of Phoney's plots goes wrong. They go on a Tolkienesque odyssey, eventually ending up in a mysterious valley threatened by the dark Lord of the Locusts. Smith began drawing Fone and his cousins when he was only 5 years old — and this is, in fact, a great comic to start your little readers on.
Action Comics (1938-2011) #1
This is it, the comic book that launched a character and a craze and ultimately — among many other things — the state of our modern cinematic reality. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman leapt — literally — onto the scene in a patently ridiculous circus strongman outfit to save a wronged man from execution. Along the way, he beat up a wife abuser, rescued a tough girl reporter from a kidnapping attempt and secretly wooed that same reporter while wearing a clever (your mileage may vary on this point) disguise. Shuster's art wasn't big on detail — his eyes were slits, his mouth an em-dash — but it conveyed a tremendous sense of power and (thanks to the addition of a cape, snapping behind him as he jumped through the air) speed. Few remember the other characters who shared the pages of Action Comics #1 with Superman (Sticky-Mitt Stimson, anyone? Pep Morgan? Scoop Scanlon?), but he's still with us, in the ether, having pervaded the consciousness of the entire world. Yes, a couple less-than-stellar movies might have roughed him up a bit of it, but Superman can take it. He'll come back; he'll persevere. That's his whole shtick.