Only now are comic books and graphic novels starting hit their stride in terms of mass appeal and pop culture acceptance. However, for as long as men have put picture and words together…great stories have been told. The following is the first installment in a series praising the Greatest Graphic Novels ever.
Feel free to chime in and add your favorites in the comment…or disagree entirely. You’ll be wrong, but we can talk about it.
The Dark Knight Returns
What It’s About
Years after Batman has retired and has been returned to the status of an urban myth, the Gotham City of the 1980s is running afoul with gangs, criminals, corruption, and greed. Bruce Wayne is feeling lost, without purpose, and has become obsessed with the notion of a good death. After feeling the weight of those years, he dons the cape and cowl again to bring the Batman back to Gotham and instill order to the city…and to himself. But this new Gotham isn’t the old one, and both the Dark Knight and his foes end up in very different places than we remember them.
Why It’s Great
Frank Miller’s gritty and unique style can bring the noir out of any story, but the influence is especially potent in a Batman story. Miller’s art style and keen awareness of positive and negative space create a visual that evolves throughout the story to reflect a growingly brutal Batman. The writing manages to capture—or possibly put—the dark in the Dark Knight exploring what happens to the Silver Age Batman when he reaches his own Silver Age. Putting an effective capstone on those oft goofy stories with a violent finish and ultimately answering the question of who would win in a battle between Batman and Superman, this story ultimately captures the Machiavellian aspect and vigilantism inherent in the character.
Y: The Last Man
What It’s About
On July 17, 2002 a global plague wipes out every Y chromosome from plant, to animal, to embryo, to sperm. Seemingly only one man, Yorick Brown, and his monkey Ampersand live through the day…and he can’t explain why. The world quickly becomes a very different place—fuel and food are becoming scarce, entire militaries are crippled, Governments are falling, and wild speculation about what happened to all the men is running rampant. Embarking on a quest that takes him across the world, while secretly being pursued by a number of parties interested in securing the last man, Yorick is dedicated to finding his would-be-fiance Beth. Accompanied by a super-secret US Government operative known only as Agent 355, and Dr. Mann—perhaps the only woman capable of reviving the male species of the world—Yorick is on a mission. It just isn’t the mission that everyone else is on.
Why It’s Great
Y: The Last Man explores an almost universal adolescent male fantasy to logical and insightful real world conclusions in ways that are humorous, exciting, and riven by both plot and character. There are moments in the book where writer Brian K. Vaughan offers stingingly amusing revelations, such as when Yorick declares himself the strongest man in the world, yet still requires the greater strength of Agent 355. The world visually offered by co-creator Pia Guerra is realistic, consistent, and appealing. The faces of the characters are distinct and expressive and really allow for a close relationship with the people in the story over time. Additionally, the book is highly addictive. One issue flows into the next so seamlessly that it is incredibly difficult to stop reading…and when you do your head is swimming with thoughts and feels. Ultimately, Y provides a sterling example of how comics can approach science fiction without capes and tights and does what all great fictional literature does: it makes you consider the possibilities and the realities.
What It’s About
Watchmen is about the return of an age of Superheroes. Set in an alternate 1980s, America is in shambles, Crime is rampant, the superheroes have disbanded, the world is edging towards a nuclear war, and the world is a bleak and seemingly hopeless place. Following the murder of The Comedian, a government sanctioned superhero-turned-agent, a vigilante named Rorschach takes up the case. Another government-sanctioned hero, the god-like Dr. Manhattan, is then accused of causing cancer in his former colleagues. In response he exiles himself to Mars leaving his longtime girlfriend, Silk Spectre to shack up with an old friend. Retired hero Nite Owl, takes in Silk Spectre. One night, looking for a thrill, he takes up his mantle again. The pair eventually team up with Rorschach as the dots surrounding the murder of the Comedian and the exile of Dr. Manhattan seem to line up. Yet another retired hero, Ozymandias, refuses to join their quest, preferring to focus on his private enterprises. The three heroes begin to delve deeper as the mystery turns to history driven conspiracy. They find that saving the day requires a lot more than capes and fists and their morality and sanity is called into question as they race towards a resolution.
Why It’s Great
Watchmen’s creative team is an undeniable force for change and innovation in comics. With Watchmen, Alan Moore pushed the subject matter of graphic novels well into the realm of adult-targeted literature. While exploring deep and fully realized personal histories, to intricate character relationships the development of the major players in Watchmen approaches super-hero legacies, parental pressures, rape, child abuse, emotional trauma, murder, and at its core Machiavellian approaches to justice and the subjectivity of morality. Using the archetypes of Charlton Comics characters such as The Question, Blue Beetle, and Captain Atom, he was able to place superheroics in an all-too-real alternate history of our world on the brink of global nuclear war. Artist Dave Gibbons also pushed the envelope visually utilizing a nine panel structure, dark color motifs, and realistic renderings that make this fantastical world seem viscerally alive. The coloring from Jon Higgins only added to this dimension of reality by transitioning from a cheery palatte to a grim and dark one by series’ end. The mini-series was designed to be self contained, with loads of additional material from in-world periodicals to detailed and intricate relationships and inter-relationships. Alan Moore has even stated that the series was designed to read four or five times to be fully digested. In all, Watchmen proves to be a landmark in comics story telling because of its exquisite scope and execution, and serves as an exemplary work for the power and depth of storytelling in the medium.
And let us never speak of Before Watchmen.