Here Come the Superheroes! Part III of Josh’s Look at His Favorite Graphic Novels!
Over the past two days I have listed several of my favorite graphic novels. (Click here for part I and here for part II.) You’ll notice that most of them had nothing to do with super-heroes. This was purposeful — although super-hero stories dominate the American comic book scene, there are so many other types of stories that can be told using the comics medium. That’s something I wanted to highlight.
But that’s not to say that I don’t also love a terrific super-hero story, because I certainly do! Here are some of my favorites, that are available in graphic novel or collected-edition formats:
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns — Following the death of Robin, Bruce Wayne retired his Batman persona. It’s been 10 years, and Gotham City has sunk into an urban decay of crime. Bruce Wayne is a broken man, empty and lost. But when something drives him to put on that mask one more time, everything changes. (Although not necessarily for the better!) Along with Watchmen (which was also released in 1986), Frank Miller’s magnus opus changed the comics industry forever, demonstrating without a doubt that it was possible to tell sophisticated, mature stories with super-hero characters. (It also was a tremendous influence on the look and tone of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film.) This story is intense and shockingly brutal. It is also a gorgeous work of art, filled to the brim with overlapping narratives that tell the stories of an enormous cast of characters, all struggling to make their way in the brutal urban jungle that Gotham City has become, and all of them somehow affected by the shadow of the bat. The Dark Knight Returns is also infamous for Miller’s depiction of an almost fascistic Superman, and his battle with the Batman in the series’ final chapter is a show-stopper. (I should also mention that I am quite fond of Miller’s Batman: Year One, illustrated by David Mazzucchelli, from which a great deal of the story of Batman Begins was adapted.)
The New Frontier — Darwyn Cooke’s brilliant series re-tells the origins of many of DC Comics’ most familiar characters, albeit set in the years in which they were originally created. Similar to the way in which The Right Stuff showed how American fighter pilots gradually became our astronauts, The New Frontier tells the story of how the pulp heroes that came out of the second world war gradually became the costumed super-heroes of a brave new age. Cooke’s somewhat retro, simplified art style is stunningly gorgeous and absolutely perfect for the story being told. The New Frontier captures the innocence and wonder, as well as the growing dangers, of the 1950’s and 60’s. It is an epic saga, filled out by an enormous cast of characters, all of whom Cooke wonderfully brings to life. I only discovered The New Frontier about two years ago, but it immediately became one of my absolute favorites.
Astonishing X-Men — Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly) and John Cassaday crafted the greatest X-Men story of the past decade, which I wrote about at length here. A scientist declares that she has discovered the cure for mutants (that storyline was incorporated into the lackluster third X-Men film), Professor X’s mutant-tracking system cerebro attains sentience and threatens the students, and an enormous extra-terrestrial threat is revealed. But all of that takes a back seat to the characters’ story-lines. Whedon has a quite a gift for creating vibrant characters, and his stories are intense and also filled with delightful humor. Whedon & Cassaday’s entire story is available in four softcover editions or two hardcovers.
Spider-Man: Kraven’s Last Hunt — I probably read this at too-young an age, but it certainly captured my imagination at the tim. I am pleased to say that it also holds up today as one of the most compelling Spider-Man stories ever told. In the ultimate tale of revenge, Spider-Man villain Kraven the Hunter shoots Spidey, buries him, and then, in order to prove his complete superiority over his foe, puts on his costume and takes his place. And that’s just in the first chapter. This jaw-droppingly grim and serious story takes the reader on a powerful journey through the haunted past and disturbed psyche of Kraven, while also giving us great insight into the mind of Peter Parker as he faces his mortality and struggles to overcome a seemingly impossible situation and an indomitable enemy. J.M. DeMatteis’ wonderful prose (which follows the inter-weaving narratives of several major characters) and wonderful, over-lapping dialogue was way ahead of its time, and Mike Zeck and Bob McLeod’s art is dense, atmospheric, and truly gorgeous. I can’t tell you how many times I have read this story, and it never ceases to amaze me.
The Ultimates by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch and Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross — I recently re-read both of these, and I have longer posts in the work about them both that will be coming in the next few weeks. For now, let me just say that they are both true masterpieces, and must-reads for any comic fans.
OK, whew! This has been a fun look at various amazing comics over the past three days. I like being reminded about just how terrific this medium can be. Did I leave out one of your favorites? Let me know! And if you’ve never read a comic book and are just bewildered as to what the heck I’ve been going on about for these past few days, I do hope that you’ll give one of these great works that I have listed a try.