Help a comix n00b find his footing
July 19, 2008 8:34 AM   Subscribe

I've long been intrigued by the world of comics, but the recent trailer for the Watchmen has finally pushed me over the edge. Where do I start?

The problem I've often run into with comics is that I find many of the story lines archetypical and boring. I'm not interested in reading about how Superman saves the day from the evil Lex Luthor and gets the girl. I need a little more nuance and subtlety if I'm going to read a comic. So, here's some things I'm looking for in a comic:
The darker the better
I'm not turned off about superheroes, but they better bring something different to the table
Artists who are pushing the boundaries
Stories that are informed by the issues of our times, somewhat like how Battlestar Galactica does it

While I'm asking, I live in a small, remote town without a comic store. Are there some internet stores that have these types of comics and won't charge an arm and a leg to ship to Canada? Thanks in advance.
posted by northernsoul to Society & Culture (32 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Aside from Alan Moore's stuff, Y: The Last Man and Preacher are also fantastic. Y could well be my favourite comic series ever.
posted by Nelsormensch at 8:40 AM on July 19, 2008

Here you go.
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:46 AM on July 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would really recommend just exploring the DC: Vertigo back catalog in general. Vertigo (and particularly Sandman) really convinced a lot of people that they could get into comics.

I'm currently reading through Lucifer and it's seriously good stuff. If you want dark, it doesn't get much grimmer than Hellblazer.
posted by selfnoise at 8:47 AM on July 19, 2008

The Walking Dead is also very good, if you dig zombies.
posted by Lokheed at 8:48 AM on July 19, 2008

If you want to understand and appreciate modern comics, you need to start with the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman.

Astro City is Kurt Busiek's self-contained and skewed take on the superhero genre.

Y: The Last Man just finished its long run and offers a great story about the last surviving dude after all the other dudes on Earth die of mysterious causes.

Other thoughts: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Fell, Preacher

posted by wintermute2_0 at 8:50 AM on July 19, 2008

The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and its sequel Heart Of Empire
Anything from Alan Moore but especially Watchmen, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman and its sequals
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:51 AM on July 19, 2008

Best answer: Well, not to be too obvious about it, but Watchmen wouldn't be a bad start if the trailer's got you interested. Certainly read it before the film comes out. Read The Dark Knight Returns while you're at it, since that's the other 1980's DC masterwork that everyone's always insisting everyone else needs to read.

I think you'd also enjoy Brian Michael Bendis' run on Daredevil. It certainly satisfies your grim n'gritty requirement. It contains some superheroics, but really does deliver a fresh take on the character and the situations he finds himself in.

Any and all Garth Ennis Punisher comics. Not since Chuck Dixon has someone nailed Frank Castle so perfectly. Again, heavy on the grimness, heavy on the violence. In the MAX line run that Ennis is just about to wind up, the Punisher's trials are informed by our times quite a bit.

If you want to hunt a little harder, try and find Mike Grell's run on Green Arrow from back in the early nineties. Like Watchmen, Grell's Green Arrow was at least in part an examination of what living this kind of life would do to your life. The stories are full of moral grey areas; I think you'll like them.

My first two suggestions will be pretty easy to round up on Amazon or a similar web-based bookseller, since they're all collected in trade paperbacks. Grell's Green Arrow will call for some diving into back issue bins next time you're in a town w/ a comics shop. It'll be some work, but it'll certainly be worth it.
posted by EatTheWeek at 8:52 AM on July 19, 2008

Batman: Blind Justice is very good.

Batman: Gothic and Venom are nice reads too.
posted by the_ancient_mariner at 8:55 AM on July 19, 2008

For superheroes with dark and something different, I suspect Planetary and The Authority (the eary stuff, anyway) would be up your alley.
posted by kimota at 8:57 AM on July 19, 2008

Powers: police procedural set in a world of people with "superpowers". Many trade collections are available.
posted by SPrintF at 9:21 AM on July 19, 2008

There's always things like Cerebus, as well... Yes, Dave Sim is crazy, but at the very least the first stretch of the comic is fantastic.
posted by vernondalhart at 9:25 AM on July 19, 2008

Stray Toasters by Bill Sienkiewicz. A tour de force, completely unhinged, and gorgeous art work. It's a gold standard.

World Without End by Jamie Delano (and pretty much anything he has done including Hellblazer). Criticisms aside (bit sexist), it is a thought provoking piece with great artwork.

RanXerox by Tanino Liberatore.

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Not dark, but perhaps the smartest book I've read, and really breaks down why comics are such a wonderful art form.

Of course there are the old standbys such as Akira or Maus which are very much worth reading even if they are not your oeuvre.
posted by quintessencesluglord at 9:25 AM on July 19, 2008

Batman: "Year One", the "Long Halloween", and "Dark Victory" are all great comics that give a great introduction into batman and the world he inhabits. When the stories begin gotham city is ruled by mobsters, but by the end it becomes the crazy supervillians become the problem.

Also, I'd suggest Evan Dorkin's "Dork Comics" and "Milk and Cheese" for a break from traditional comics.

I haven't read it yet, but Warren Ellis' "transmetropolitan" has been recommended to me many times.
posted by Large Marge at 9:51 AM on July 19, 2008

I just started reading comics about 2-3 years ago. Here's what I started with, most already mentioned:

V for Vendetta
Dark Knight Returns
Cerebus (specifically High Society)
Sin City
Kabuki - really innovative art AND storytelling in this one...
Y: The Last Man

As I go along, I've found I have more appreciation for the superhero stuff. There really is some good superhero out there.

For a fun read, superhero but clever and funny, I enjoy Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.

I recently started a comic called Powers and am enjoying it. (On preview, you beat me to it SPrintF.) I read pretty much everything in trades (the paperback collections) rather than issues; I read on my commute and would destroy issues quickly.
posted by misskaz at 9:52 AM on July 19, 2008

I started with Tintin, Asterix, and recently read Blankets. They're all very good comics, but not dark or superhero. I'm only recently getting into traditional superhero DC/Marvel style comics, and I plan to read Watchmen and Transmetropolitan.
posted by theiconoclast31 at 10:05 AM on July 19, 2008

Best answer: The Sandman, Maus, and Watchmen are all very good and also very important to the history of comics as artform. Maus convinced the world that comics could be art, though it was probably considered an exception by many. The fact that it was about the Holocaust made it easier for people to accept it as art. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns kicked off the idea that having vigilantes in spandex didn't require complete silliness. After those comics, a slow trend of more complex and serious storylines began in mainstream comic superhero comics. The Sandman convinced DC that serious comics were a huge market and so they started the Vertigo line, which opened the floodgates for lots and lots of serious comic titles (Preacher, Y: the Last Man, etc.) Vertigo has a tendency to equate dark with quality, which is somewhat unfortunate, but hopefully that trend is being bucked as we speak.

I highly recommend you read Watchmen soon, primarily because I feel it loses some effect after you've read a lot of other modern superhero comics which have adopted many (but not all) of the ideas that made it so revolutionary. Even having seen recent (post Tim Burton's Batman) superhero movies can dull that edge a bit.

There are many other good comics out there to read. I recommend (in addition to Maus, Watchmen, and The Sandman) The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (a mash-up of late 19th-century literary figures), Powers (a crime-drama take on the superhero genre), Kingdom Come (an extrapolation of the DC universe into the near-future), and Flight (an extremely varied anthology of short comic stories). If you really get into the shared-universe superhero thing, there's Batman: Year One, much of the Marvel "Ultimate" universe (especially Spider-man and The Ultimates, but definitely not X-men), Kevin Smith's Green Arrow run, 1602, and the Alex-Ross/Paul-Dini DC collaborations (Superman: Peace on Earth, Batman: War on Crime, etc.) If you miss the silliness but not the stupidity of old-school superheroes, Invincible may amuse you. Pretty much anything that Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Paul Dini, or Brian Michael Bendis writes is not bad (I've only been disappointed by too-high expectations).
posted by ErWenn at 10:23 AM on July 19, 2008

Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware, for a start. Then once you've read and enjoyed a book, review the "customers who bought this item also bought" section in Amazon for similar books. I've found lots of great graphic novels and comics collections that way.

Also, your local bookstore can probably order these books for you through their distributor, so you can avoid the shipping fee from Amazon. Get a list together and call/visit the store to see which titles they can get in.
posted by Koko at 10:52 AM on July 19, 2008

Transmetropolitan is still my absolute favorite comic book/graphic novel in this vein. Really off the wall, bright and colorful with fun and extremely detailed artwork. Spider Jerusalem is really the perfect hero you can hate and love at the same time.
posted by nursegracer at 10:58 AM on July 19, 2008

Persepolis is quite good. Darkness, darkness, darkness. No superheroes. Issues contemporary and timeless. Surprisingly effective artistic style. And it really happened.

Cerebus/High Society, deserves another mention.
posted by coffeefilter at 11:19 AM on July 19, 2008

Do not whatever you do start with Watchmen. Thankfully the movie is still several months off as you probably should read it before you see the movie but in order to really appreciate why it is considered one of Moore's masterworks you need to have learned the language of comics and the conventions of typical superhero comics.

I'd recommend reading Watchmen after having read Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud.

The following are a good starting point for your superhero fare and you do need some of this in your diet I think to appreciate Watchmen.

DC: The New Frontier (not particularly dark but it is bloody excellent. Extremely well written and is pretty to look at also)
The Dark Knight Returns
The Authority (The Warren Ellis issues)

Some non-superhero stuff
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
The Adventures of Luther Arkwright

And I wouldn't dismiss Superman because when he is written well - and unfortunately he rarely is - he is fantastic. So should you be so inclined then I'd add

All Star Superman by Grant Morrison
Superman for All Seasons by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

These two are not dark stories but they are in my opinion nuanced and in the case of the latter subtle also.
posted by electricinca at 11:19 AM on July 19, 2008

For dark, superhero-esque stuff, I highly recommend Sleeper, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips. It's sort of a mixture of superhero/spy genres. The characters are superpowered secret agents, basically, and it's written with layers and layers of moral ambiguity. It's based on a pretty simple premise (superpowered double agent in deep cover with the enemy gets trapped fighting for the wrong side, and finds himself trying to balance his survival with his ideals), but every issue complicates the situation, and twists the knife a little deeper into the protagonist.

I second All Star Superman, and also Grant Morrison's run on New X-Men. He's a wildly imaginative writer who revisits the basic ideas of these characters, but still brings something new to the table.
posted by cathodeheart at 11:48 AM on July 19, 2008

I'm going to buck the trend here a little—Don't start with Watchmen. Don't read Watchmen until you can appreciate the tropes of superhero comics. It's a wicked deconstruction, but it's much, much richer if you recognize the context that it exists and existed in.

Instead, start with Moore's From Hell, his take on the Jack the Ripper mythos. It's dark, mystical, dense and wicked. Then I'd recommend trying Moore's run on Swamp Thing, which also subverts superhero norms and is where the John Constantine/Hellblazer starts. From there, it's an easy shift into Hellblazer and the Books of Magic series. If you still want more, you can look to the Sandman series, which had a couple of great runs (Doll's House is probably the best), but often veers into pretentious twaddle. Daniel Clowes' stuff can be pretty nice, if more bleakly suburban than actually dark and action-packed. Caricature is good, and there's plenty more excellent, acerbic stuff from him. You can then move to Adrian Tomine if you'd like your pacing slower and more melancholic, and Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan series if you want even more bleakness.

If what you're really after is more series action, Walking Dead is probably the best going, though you might be well-served by checking out old EC collections (Tales From the Crypt, etc.), which are all little gutsy O. Henry-style grim twists.

A lot of the stuff other people have suggested is good, but it's not really what you asked for; people love an opportunity to tell you about their favorite comics and you should expect that and look forward to it as you go deeper into comics.
posted by klangklangston at 12:35 PM on July 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

No one has mentioned it so far, but how about MAUS. It is not a superhero book but a memoir as a graphic novel.
posted by hariya at 12:42 PM on July 19, 2008

oops. forget the no one metioned it so far parts
posted by hariya at 12:45 PM on July 19, 2008

Best answer: Matt Fraction, Gabriel Ba, and Fabio Moon's Casanova, by Image. Super-pulp super-spy all-over-the-board action, with a bit of autobiography thrown in under all the Paco Rabanne glamour. I love it.

Brian Wood and Ricardo Burchielli's DMZ, by Vertigo. No supers. Lot of future history defined by today's issues. Matty Roth, the reporter/ protagonist, is a deeply flawed, compelling lead.

Matt Wagner's Grendel, by Dark Horse these days. Shakespearean crime and revenge drama. Start with Devil By the Deed and move on to the other Hunter Rose stories before you get into the other Grendels. Also, Wagner's Mage series is a clever allegorical autobiography-- while the first series, The Hero Discovered is Serious Business in the Arthurian vein, The Hero Defined is very much like a Kevin Smith movie about schlep superheroes. Good, good times.

Grant Morrison's Invisibles, from Vertigo, is a huge chunk of British mysticism, ceremonial magick, chaos magic, and literary deconstruction wrapped up in a sort of bizarre secret-society setting. Everyone has some sort of superpower, but no one is very typical. If you dig that, try his run on Doom Patrol as well.

Seconding Fell, a warped little police procedural from Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith for Image. If CSI isn't weird enough for you, you'll love Fell.

Also, one obligatory superhero read: Green Arrow: Year One by Andy Diggle and Jock. Best book I read last year, should be out in trade paperback by now. Green Arrow's just a badass with a bow, he has no superpowers; he's also a Tony Stark-style flawed rich kid. The overall vibe is a lot like an episode of Survivorman with much higher stakes-- Les Stroud doesn't go after heroin producers, for instance.

You might also like Queen and Country by Greg Rucka, especially if you're a fan of shows like Spooks/ MI-5 or Alias. (It's not my thing, but it is generally a well-regarded book and I'd be remiss in not mentioning it, since you want to trend away from supers and into stuff influenced by real-life issues.)

Also, it's completely atypical and pushes the boundaries of page design and narrative-- Jonathan Hickman's The Nightly News is about as avant-garde as comics come these days. It's a suspense thriller about modern television journalism. I'm not sure I'd recommend it until you've had some more typical comics under your belt-- it's a love-hate book, and I'd hate to make you hate comics before you'd even read many. Hickman specializes in intricate worldbuilding and alternate history; you might also try his Transhuman and Pax Romana.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 1:29 PM on July 19, 2008

The Maxx. The whole run is collected in 6 trade paperbacks.

I'm actually a huge fan of anything by Kieth. Some other titles of his include Ojo, Four Women, & Zero Girl. He has a tendency to be a bit flaky with his release schedule though.

2nding Kabuki, but the painted color stuff is much nicer than the oldschool b & w.
posted by juv3nal at 1:37 PM on July 19, 2008

I second klangklangston and electricinca. Some comics subvert cliches in the superhero genre and may fall flat without that context, like seeing the Rocky Horror Picture Show without knowing Dracula, Frankenstein, etc. The Watchmen, yes, also the Invisibles.

Starting with the Scott McCloud Understanding Comics series and The Sandman sounds like a great idea. I think The Sandman takes a volume or two to really get going (others will disagree), but the "World's End" collection (I think it's vol. 7) nicely represents the flavor of the series, and is pretty self-contained. Also, as comics go, The Sandman is often available in libraries.

Also: Persepolis, The Sandman, Maus, Transmetropolitan, Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve.
posted by trouserbat at 1:40 PM on July 19, 2008

I'm going to buck the trend here a little—Don't start with Watchmen. Don't read Watchmen until you can appreciate the tropes of superhero comics. It's a wicked deconstruction, but it's much, much richer if you recognize the context that it exists and existed in.

Most people who grew up in the United States in the 70s to 90s will have absorbed most of those tropes and cliches whether they are big comics readers or not, though. I was never much one for comics but I thought WATCHMEN was brilliant and believe that I understood what was being played with.

It's true that older folk who weren't immersed in the popular culture of the time might have more problems.
posted by Justinian at 2:51 PM on July 19, 2008

Titles I didn't see mentioned yet:
Love and Rockets.

If you have any interest at all in conventional classic comics, you really cannot go wrong with any of the DC's Showcase Presents or Marvel's Essentials reprints. Several hundred pages of old comics for less than $20!
posted by MegoSteve at 3:33 PM on July 19, 2008

The culture of American Golden Age comics runs wide and deep, and you've got a lot of starting points into that genre.

If you want to look at Japanese comics, you could check out the trade paperback of Ghost in the Shell (translated).

If you're interested in a more character-driven underground sci-fi style, you could check out Finder.

Some of Oni Press's artists are pretty excellent as well. Whiteout was a great story, the first half of which is free on line.
posted by anthill at 4:08 PM on July 19, 2008

Ultimates V1 and V2
Squadron Supreme
Batman Killing Joke
Superman Red Son
posted by Rolandkorn at 8:42 PM on July 19, 2008

Grant Morrison is (my) king for darker, more psychologically and sociologically complicated action comics--best example off hand is The Filth. Plus, he's more openly unusual (at least in my girly opinion) than some of the other obvious answers. Think more '90s punk aesthetic than dorky Victorian-laced Alan Moore nerdiness. Kill Your Boyfriend and We3 are every bit as emotionally brutal as say, Preacher but the premises on paper don't seem like they would be. Slicker but arguably less challenging/"tough" are The Invisibles. He also did some runs with DC/Marvel superhero series too (X-Men, etc) and I've heard when he did things got darker--I know he did a comic about Arkham Asylum that was supposed to be pretty good, but I can't vouch firsthand for it. Makes sense though.

And of course given your description of what you want, the go-to answer is (unfortunately, because I rather dislike him but it's still the best of this kind of comic hands down...) Warren Ellis' Transmetropolitan. It is the quintessential prize, the ideal response to your inquiry. He also did The Authority, which a lot of people take a shining to...

If you can get a hold of it, you might like some of Renee French's early and out of print comics. They're not action packed, but woo boy are they misanthropic! There's also 100 Bullets, Y: The Last Man, Fables, From Hell (which the movie completely turned upside down, unfortunately), The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Cerebus, and The Maxx. And totally on the outskirts of what you're talking about, but emotionally on pitch with your pessimism, there's Adrian Tomine's early comics (I'm thinking Optic Nerve 1-10 mainly). The complete opposite of an action comic, it's all about the mundane interactions that make people hate each other. But it is very bitter, and the boy most definitely never gets the girl, so you might be interested.

Don't laugh, but if you never caught Batman: The Animated Series you should check it out screenwise. It's great and speaks to the sort of genuinely somber mood and message you desire.
posted by ifjuly at 9:31 AM on July 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

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