Since I obviously love lists, here's a primer of comics that, taken together, would make a perfect introduction to the artform for those who haven't read much of modern comics. This is a topic that has occupied me from time to time over the years, and I wanted to finally set down my personal recommendations so I'll have something to point to if anyone asks. The idea is that if you read through the books on this list, you will doubtless come out the other end with a good idea of the artform's potential, its many styles and genres, and what kinds of artists you like and don't like. To that end, each item on the list also includes a brief indication of "where to go next" if you especially like one or two of the books included here.
Acme Novelty Library #18 (Chris Ware)
Many people would doubtless recommend Ware's well-known graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth instead, but to my tastes, this slim volume, collecting many of Ware's "Building Stories" single-page strips from various newspapers and magazines, is a much better indicator of the cartoonist's formal ingenuity. Ware's characters are invariably depressives with sad, boring lives, and the young woman who meanders through these stories a slightly pudgy, unnamed girl with a prosthetic leg and a broken heart is no exception. In other hands, this book would be a total drag, but Ware's mastery of comics language turns each page into an exciting exercise in design and storytelling. There is no better book for demonstrating what can be done with the sheer form of comics. The content is more or less neutral, consisting of routine anecdotes from daily life, but the form is dazzling: floor plans for buildings are reborn as storytelling devices, and Ware's minimal text zips around the page in abstract mazes, arrows indicating the flow of the story and the points of interest within the page. Other pages give a similar diagrammatic treatment to the human body itself. These stories reward intense, focused reading with a wealth of details and nuances.
Where to go next: Jimmy Corrigan, mentioned above, is a logical next step, although in that case Ware's depressing material is a bit more overwhelming and may be hard to take for some readers, even while his formal brilliance is still very much on display. Ware is also a good gateway to other creators who meld low-key storytelling with formal invention: Daniel Clowes (Ice Haven, David Boring), Kim Deitch (Alias the Cat, Boulevard of Broken Dreams), Dash Shaw (Bottomless Belly Button), and Dave McKean (Cages).
Buddy Does Seattle (Peter Bagge)
Peter Bagge's rubbery style traces the slacker lifestyle of hapless twenty-something Buddy Bradley, a representative of the grunge generation whose slobby ways and lack of ambition propel him through one hilarious story after another. Bagge is careful to neither glorify nor humiliate his creation, poking much fun at Buddy but also emphasizing his warmth, humor, and peculiar sense of integrity. These stories establish Buddy and his friends as complex, fully formed characters with a rich history and organic development over time. Bagge sometimes reaches for emotion and nuance, but more often his stories are wild and woolly, wallowing in the sex, drugs, and endless partying of Buddy's formless life.
Where to go next: Buddy's antics continue in the sequel Buddy Does Jersey, or you can travel back in time to Buddy's earlier years, living with his family in The Bradleys.
The Cowboy Wally Show (Kyle Baker)
I have deliberately made an attempt to keep this list from skewing too heavily towards the dominant stereotype of modern comics as whiny and depressing, but in case Chris Ware's introspective loneliness or Joe Sacco's uncompromising war reportage get too heavy for you, Kyle Baker's hilarious account of a multimedia cowboy entrepreneur should provide just the right corrective. The relentlessly dumb, offensive, and corpulent Cowboy Wally is captured in Baker's mockumentary about the media mogul's many TV shows, films, and testimonies before Senate subcommittees. Baker's dialogue is hilarious, and his art, a delicate balancing act between photorealism and caricature, gets the humor across with expressive faces and an impeccable sense of timing. There are stretches where the humor crackles like a particularly "on" stand-up routine, and others where the over-the-top parody is like This is Spinal Tap translated to the page.
Where to go next: Some of Baker's other books You Are Here, Why I Hate Saturn are only slightly less funny and sharp than this masterpiece. If you like this book (and there's no reason you shouldn't) go get some more Baker, immediately. Some other preeminent cartoon humorists: Michael Kupperman (Snake n' Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret), Joann Sfar (Vampire Loves), Ben Katchor (The Jew of New York). To find a similarly raucous, idiosyncratic comedic voice, though, you'd have to turn to E.C.'s Segar's Thimble Theater, the early 20th Century newspaper comic strip that gave birth to Popeye.
Curses (Kevin Huizenga)
No modern cartoonist gets more from less better than Kevin Huizenga, whose spare, minimalist style belies his great formal sophistication. Huizenga's stories mostly concern his generic everyman Glenn Ganges, whose minimally sketched facial features can convey a surprisingly wide array of expressions, but who never really develops much of a personality of his own. Instead, Ganges is a device for Huizenga's stories about suburban mysticism, religion, science, parenthood, and finding the sublime in the most prosaic places. This collection gathers together short stories published in several different venues over the course of a few years, but it is nevertheless a consistent overview of Huizenga's concerns and style. His stories can be formally inventive, particularly in their treatment of time, and range from the mundane (in one story, Ganges' mind wanders for six pages while he simply gets the mail from his mailbox) to the surreal and supernatural (an elaborate fantasy about a "feathered ogre"). Huizenga is the youngest and newest artist on this list, but he's already catapulted into the highest ranks of the artform as far as I'm concerned.
Where to go next: Curses is Huizenga's only full-length book so far, but he has published an equally impressive body of work in his mini-comic series Or Else (especially the very experimental and unfortunately out of print issue #2) and Ganges (#1 and #2), his entry into Fantagraphics' lavishly produced Ignatz series. Huizenga's contemporary Anders Nilsen is just as promising, but has yet to amass a really impressive body of work all in one place, instead scattering varied experiments across multiple anthologies and self-published comics. Dogs and Water, an abstract wartime parable, is his best book so far. Both Huizenga and Nilsen have also appeared in the experimental anthology Kramer's Ergot, which is the place to look for some of the most exciting avant-garde work currently being produced. Issue 6 and Issue 4 are currently available, with the massive Issue 7 coming soon. Another Kramer's alum, John Hankiewicz, is represented by the collection Asthma, which rounds up some of his obtuse, difficult, strangely poetic comics. Definitely not for neophytes, but if you find yourself drawn to Huizenga's more dazzling formal flights, this might be a next step.
Epileptic (David B.)
No summary of modern comics would be complete without an acknowledgment of autobiography (in fact, this list has two: see also Mary Fleener below). This introspective genre has dominated much of the conversation surrounding modern independent comics. It's not an easy genre to do well, though, and the French cartoonist David B. stands so far above many of his peers that some of them might as well just give up. His account of his brother's epilepsy and its affect on their family is inextricably interwoven with dreams, fantasies, and visual metaphors that turn each page of the book into a dense tangle of imagination, reality, and memory.
Where to go next: On the basis of its two issues so far, David B.'s new series Babel promises to be even better than its predecessor, further blurring the lines between reality and metaphor, while mixing in historical and political material with the autobiography. He has also contributed three utterly remarkable short stories of historical fantasy to the anthology MOME, an uneven series that frequently showcases amazing and mediocre work side by side. As such, it's not really a good starting point for new readers, but if you want to see a broad overview of the young, upcoming creators working today good, bad, and promising alike reading the full run of MOME is an easy way to do so. David B.'s work is featured in volume 3, volume 4, and volume 12
From Hell (Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell)
Most of the comics on this list were chosen for their relative accessibility and compactness no sense hitting a new reader with a massive, intimidating brick of a book that will overwhelm them right from the start. But From Hell is an exception, a 500+ page masterpiece that is surely one of the best, most audacious and ambitious graphic novels the artform has produced as of now. Writer Alan Moore takes on the legend of Jack the Ripper, positing a speculative solution to the murders, but more importantly using the investigation into the famous case as a framework on which to hang his ruminations about history, spirituality, psychogeography, gender politics, and morality. Moore's dense text interweaves the stories of Inspector Abberline, the Ripper's victims, the Royal family, and Moore's candidate for the Ripper himself: Dr. William Gull. Along the way, the story pauses for mystical time-traveling visions, linkages of the Ripper to other important historical moments of the era (most memorably, the conception of Hitler), and a breathtaking chapter that provides a tour of London's most famous sites with commentary on their secret occult meanings. Moore's vision is fully realized by artist Eddie Campbell, whose scratchy, expressive pen-and-ink drawings are perfectly matched to the writing's eccentric, eclectic style.
Where to go next: If Moore's writing intrigues you, it's hard to go wrong with his anarchist parable V For Vendetta, with art by David Lloyd. He's also written several great books which deconstruct and expand upon the language of superhero comics as few other writers have: Watchmen (with Dave Gibbons), Promethea (a magical textbook disguised as a superhero book, with J.H. Williams III and others), and the unfortunately uncollected Miracleman. If Campbell's stunning art is what really gets you here, his autobiographical series Alec is the obvious next step, followed by his short experimental work The Fate of the Artist, which reconsiders his approach to autobiography through a multitude of comics techniques. These two books also display Campbell's wry, surprising sense of humor, which will provide quite a contrast to Moore's serious tone.
Life of the Party (Mary Fleener)
Mary Fleener's raunchy, sexy, funny, inventively illustrated stories from her rock n' roll life prove that autobiography need not be the boring, sad-sack genre it has come to be known as from its more famous practitioners. Fleener's stories of playing in bands and hooking up would be enjoyable enough just based on her observational wit and sharp storytelling sense. But even more impressive is her art, which ranges freely from attractive clean-line cartooning to elaborate art-deco patterns and cubist abstractions. At her most abstract, she can suggest emotional states by dissolving forms into geometric figures and swirling patterns, creating tension through her carefully modulated use of lights and darks. The result would be intoxicating even if the stories were dull, and when combined with the details of Fleener's active life, the inventive art is simply perfect.
Where to go next: Fleener's closest kindred spirit is undoubtedly Julie Doucet, whose dream diary My Most Secret Desire and autobiographical account My New York Diary are strikingly drawn, revealing, and far from staid. Also worth noting are Chester Brown's The Playboy and I Never Liked You, which are closer to conventional autobiography but still have the frisson of energy and idiosyncratic style that sets Fleener apart. Megan Kelso's The Squirrel Mother is a great collection of short stories, some fantastical and some slice-of-life, told with a sparse but charmingly stylized aesthetic. Finally, Fleener, Doucet, and Brown have all done the art for stories written by Dennis Eichhorn and collected in his Real Stuff, which also contains great art by Peter Bagge, Joe Sacco, Jim Woodring, and many other cartooning greats. Eichhorn's life is, if anything, even more outrageous than Fleener's, and his colorful, blunt writing style perfectly captures his asshole demeanor and the hilarious situations he finds himself in.
Madman Comics (Mike Allred)
If you ask most people in the US what they think of when they hear the word "comics," they'll probably say something about superheroes. This list doesn't include much in the way of superhero fare because it is specifically targeted at two types of prospective readers: those who are already well-versed in American superhero comics, and those who don't care to be. Nevertheless, I felt like the list would be incomplete without at least one nod to the prevalence of the capes-and-tights crew, so I'm including Mike Allred's incredibly fun, charming, and often uproariously funny tribute to costumed heroics. Allred's character Frank Einstein is a reincarnated hipster whose goofy adventures include travels through time, tangles with aliens and mad scientists, brushes with the minions of Hell, and perhaps most importantly, worries over his squeaky-clean romance with his sweetheart Joe. Allred's pop-art aesthetic is reflected equally in his vibrant drawings and his golly-gee, whiz-bang pattering dialogue. These stories don't require much context to enjoy, so a good place to start might be with the first color stories, from the series originally called Madman Comics, now collected in either the Madman Volume 2 softcover or as part of the recently released Madman Gargantua, a complete compilation of every Madman comic. These stories are some of Allred's most fun and smart, culminating in an amazing sequence where a beautifully executed 13-page fight scene is paired with Frank's internal musings on philosophy, religion, and mortality.
Where to go next: Allred's poppy visuals are married to the wry, ironic writing of Peter Milligan in the duo's run on Marvel's X-Force (later X-Statix), which despite its title had little to do with the characters who previously bore that name. Other purveyors of smart, light-hearted pop-culture takes on superhero tropes include Robert Kirkman (Invincible), Brian Michael Bendis (Alias, Powers), and Grant Morrison (Seaguy, The Filth).
Safe Area Gorazde (Joe Sacco)
Starting with Palestine, his account of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Joe Sacco has been using comics to document world strife and current events in ways that few other artists have. His journalistic instinct is sharp and incisive, tending towards anecdotal storytelling rather than big-picture analysis. In Safe Area Gorazde, one of several books he's done about the Balkan conflicts, he gets down and dirty on the ground with soldiers, mercenaries, politicians, and civilians on all sides of the conflict, collecting interviews and aural histories into a stunning, passionate entreaty for decency, peace, and justice. Sacco's style is cartoony, though his dense crosshatching infuses his art with a sense of realism and weight. His stories are often heartbreaking and terrifying, but he also leavens the horrors of war with his sense of humor and his ear for convincing dialogue, including the inanities of everyday life. One of his characteristic themes is the way that normality continually tries to reassert itself even under the most horrific conditions. His work is bracing, powerful, and profoundly humanist, a much-needed tonic for the spread of political apathy and ignorance.
Where to go next: All of Sacco's books are worth reading, starting with his ground-breaking Palestine. His other books on the Balkan states include The Fixer and War's End. Otherwise, there are basically no other cartoonists who attempt long-form comics journalism in the same way or at the same level as Sacco, but Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus (a memoir about his father's experience in Nazi concentration camps) is very much worth a look as well. For more contemporary political material, the finest commentator in comics is arguably Jules Feiffer, whose long-running Village Voice comic strip is being collected by Fantagraphics, starting with The Explainers.
Tekkonkinkreet (Taiyo Matsumoto)
Any list of this sort would be hopelessly incomplete without at least one manga contribution, so Taiyo Matsumoto's urban adventure epic will have to stand as the token manga choice, pointing the way towards the breadth and variety of Japanese comics. Matsumoto's stylized character designs and warped perspectives are perfectly suited to his rapidly paced action sequences, including some of the best fight scenes in comics. His two protagonists are a pair of street urchins (nicknamed Black and White) living in a distopian future where rival gangs control rigidly maintained territories, while corporate forces seek to muscle in for themselves. Matsumoto's brisk, punchy art carries the book, but his writing is equally strong, deftly balancing action, humor, violence, and pathos. It's fun and fast-paced without sacrificing heart or intelligence; a very rare combination.
Where to go next: If American comics tend towards a dichotomy between arty/literary comics on one end and superheroes on the other, the Japanese manga industry is dominated by genre work of all kinds. In addition to sci-fi action books like this or Hiroki Endo's Eden, there's horror (Junji Ito's terrifying Uzumaki and deliriously weird Gyo; Kazuo Umezu's Drifting Classroom; Hitoshi Iwaaki's Parasyte), hard science fiction (Makoto Yukimura's space opera Planetes), thrillers (Naoki Urasawa's addictive Monster), contemplative fiction (Jiro Taniguchi's The Walking Man), and soap opera (Ai Yazawa's Nana). This is a hopelessly incomplete list, but a manga primer could easily take up a whole other list (or ten) in itself, and with my limited knowledge of the Japanese comics scene I am certainly not the person for that particular job. If it turns out that manga's where it's at for you, the titles above should provide a good starting place, though.
I should also note: the ONLY reason that this list does not feature the work of the Hernandez brothers, Jaime and Gilbert, is that there is really no easy way to be introduced to their long-running series Love and Rockets, which has been collected in an oft-confusing array of books. Within this shared comic, each brother has crafted continuing stories featuring their own casts of characters, plus one-off shorts and other ephemera. The series started off somewhat slow back in the early 80s, with both brothers struggling a bit before really finding their voice, another reason it's difficult to recommend their books to new readers. It's equally difficult to jump in at the middle, since so many of their stories depend on the long back histories they've crafted with their characters. But Fantagraphics Books has recently released a new set of affordable paperback collections that simplify things greatly, so there's really no excuse now for anyone not to check out Jaime's Locas, an exactingly drawn soap opera about former punk rock girls growing up and deciding what to do with their lives, or Gilbert's Palomar, a sweeping epic about the inhabitants of the eponymous South American town. Fantagraphics also provides a very handy guide on how to read Love and Rockets