Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth
by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean
This graphic novel is a stunner. It’s also quite dark and gruesome, so those of you who don’t like these types of tales will probably want to find other material to read. But truly, this is one of the best dark tales told in the graphics novel field. The basic plot: The inmates of the infamous Arkham Asylum have taken control of the place and are holding hostages; the Batman arrives on the scene and enters the asylum. If all you know about Batman is from the ’60s TV show and early comic books, you’re going to be surprised. This isn’t a story where Batman just waltzes in and rounds up the bad guys. This is a story about some truly disturbed individuals, the horrible things they can do to people, and then there’s the occult influence to this tale.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
by Frank Miller
For many fans of graphic novels and comic books, this is not only the best Batman story ever told, but quite possibly the best graphic novel ever told. Originally published in the 1980s, The Dark Knight Returns had an immediate, huge influence on just about every comic book being printed at the time, and that influence can still be felt to this day. If you’re a fan of crime fiction, especially noir, this graphic novel is right up your alley. This story takes place in a not-too-distant future where super heroes have been outlawed to some degree or others. As long as the heroes don’t operate, they are mostly left alone. But those who continue to operate as crimefighters come under the scrutiny of, and often the heavy boot of, the federal government. After 10 years of a semi-forced retirement, Batman decides he’s had enough. He’s seen the world go down the pits and he’s going to do something about it. Truly, an awesome story.
Batman: The Killing Joke
by Alan Moore
This graphic novel is probably the most traditional of the ones listed here, but don’t let that fool you. Yes, the art looks like it could come out of any one of a thousand Batman comic books, but it’s the story here that’s most important. This graphic novel is the first to give the Joker a background, and it outlines quite nicely how someone who was an average person could become the psychopath that is the Joker. This is a harsh story in many ways, though it is not filled with gore. The outcome is one of the most touching, in its own way, of any of the other graphic novels listed here.
Batman: Year One
by Frank Miller
Another Batman graphic novel, this one also by Frank Miller. If you liked Return of the Dark Knight, and if you enjoy hardboiled fiction, this should be another book right up your alley. But whereas Return of the Dark Knight was a story of an older Batman set in the near future, Batman: Year One is the tale of a young Batman. In this story, Batman begins his career by taking on the mafia underworld of Gotham City. This Batman isn’t perfect, nor is he quite as hardnosed as an older version of himself. This Batman makes mistakes. Sometimes he fails. But he’s always interesting to read about and fun to watch.
Cerebus: High Society
by Dave Sim
One of the few independent graphic novels listed here, meaning it was printed by a large company. This is the second graphic novel in a series of graphic novels about Cerebus the aardvark. Yes, I said aardvark. And he’s one of the toughest and funniest characters to ever grace the pages of comicbookdom. Cerebus initially lives in a world that is quite barbaric, similar to the real Middle Ages, but as the story has progressed to High Society that world too has progressed to something more akin to the late Renaissance. The humor here is quite witty, and the occasional action scene is tight and interesting to read. Mixed in with all that is plenty of intrigue. And chaos. Lots of chaos. It’s almost impossible to describe the genius that is Cerebus and High Society.
by James O’Barr
Forget the movie versions you’ve seen. Even the first Crow movie, which was pretty good, fails in comparison to this graphic novel. This is easily the most heart-wrenching tale of all those mentioned here. A young man and his fiance die in tragic circumstances, then he comes back from the dead to spread his own form of vengeance. The violence here can be shocking, but the story will make you come close to tears.
by Mark Waid and Alex Ross
The art alone would make Kingdom Come worth reading, but there’s a great story here, too. It’s the future. A new, young generation of super heroes and super villains are out of control, tearing apart the world. The older super heroes are at a loss of how to tone down all this violence. What to do? The outcome is quite shocking, and not fully expected. Literally, a cast of thousands from the DC Universe of comics. You’ll find many familiar faces, such as Batman and Superman, but there are also many new heroes and villains. Of the stories listed here, this one might be the most relevant to the violence of today’s world. Hopefully our real world outcome won’t be as drastic as the one in Kingdom Come.
The Sandman: Season of Mists
by Neil Gaiman
The Sandman was a series of comic books in the late ’80s and early ’90s that have been collected into a series of graphic novels. All of them are fantastic, and it was tough to pick just one for this list, but I went with Season of Mists because I felt it was the one story that could be read alone without the reader having had to have read all the earlier books. The plot? I hope you have an open mind. Satan leaves hell, locking the doors behind him. He’s decided he’s had enough and he’s going to retire. And he leaves the key to hell with the Dream King, the Sandman. Now every pagan god from every pantheon that’s ever been is vying with the Dream King for that key. And a couple of God’s angels are showing interest, too. The Dream King? He’s thinking it’s more trouble than he wants. So what to do with the key?
Superman: For All Seasons
by Tim Sale and Jeff Loeb
This is quite possibly my favorite Superman story of all time because I felt it looked at the character in a realistic way, without making him look like some country bumpkin with outdated morals and values. The conflict in this story isn’t overly strong, but I felt it worked here because this wasn’t meant to be a story about Superman fighting giant alien robots from other planets, but it’s a story about a very human Superman and how the world sees him as a symbol.
by Alan Moore
This is another one of those graphic novels that many fans believe is the greatest of all time. I can’t argue with them much. It’s an awesome story. The art is quite tradition, looking like it came right out of a 1970s comic, but storyline is epic and breathtaking. If you’ve only seen the movie, you’ve not seen anything yet. Plot basics: It’s the near future in an alternate world where Nixon is still president in the 1980s. Super heroes have been outlawed and forced to retire, other than a few who work with the government. Someone has begun to kill off the heroes. Who could it be? And why? The answer is not an easy one, and could be quite surprising and shocking. The ending to this tale is one fraught with questioning and morality. This is not a story with a perfect ending that ties everything up nicely in a bow. You’ve been warned.