Thee Comic Column #100: The Five Graphic Novels Everyone Should Read

Preacher-59For the 100th entry into this column, a column meant to be a celebration of all things great in comics, I wanted to do something a little special. A host of ideas came to me, most of which would require a heck of a lot more time to write than I currently have in any given week. But there’s one thing that I’ve meant to do since this column began, something that harkens back to every comic shop I’ve ever been in or even my time working at a big box bookstore with a fairly hearty graphic novel section. Inevitably, in either place of employ, the good folks working there are often called upon to act as gatekeepers for the curious – “what’s good?” “Where should I start?” “What do you recommend?” And in no time during my thirty-eight years on planet Earf has this question been more relevant than now, when comic book culture IS pop culture. Everyday more and more people take a tip from AMC’s The Walking Dead or whatever the newest brilliant Marvel movie is and they flit about online and (hopefully) wander into comic book stores looking to find out if comic books/graphic novels are for them. “What should I read if I want to try to get into comics?” Oh, how I love those words. I used to write a column on CHUD.com where I identified myself as “The Opinionated Bastard”, largely because as anyone who knows me will tell you I have a lot of opinions, especially when it comes to great content to consume, and in no other area is that expertise more honed than in comics (well, I’m no slouch with music either, but Joup’s Thomas H. Williams and Chester Whelks have shown me I have a long way to go in that department). And so, I thought for this 100th edition of Thee Comic Column I would give the world the top five Graphic Novels I feel everyone should read, not just because they showcase just how much more graphic fiction is capable of than the uninitiated often consider, and not just because they are by this time mostly all iconic, but because in every sense of the words they are great, life-affirming contemplations on the human experience.

5) the crow James O’Barr’s The Crow – Forget the bullshit movie. The Crow was not meant to be a Batman-esque superhero. The Crow is Absolute Loss. It is the loneliest, bleakest, most painful example of beauty I have ever seen. And if it sounds like I’m listening to The Cure while I’m writing this I’m not – but I most certainly will be the next time I re-read this book; a story that takes me to one of the darkest places I know yet always seems to reinforce what is important and wonderful in my life. Words are really hard to come by here – think of everything that movie is and then go completely the other way.

 

toucan_terrymoore_14) Strangers in Paradise – To be completely honest I must confess that I still have not even read this entire series. I read some of it back in the early 90’s but in those pre-teen years it didn’t make the cut (cuz I was stupid and too busy spending my meager allowance on that rockin’ first wave of – grek – Image stuff) but I watched it from the peripheral and eventually my good friend Missi had enough of my not having gotten into it and gifted me several trades. It’s perfect. In Terry Moore’s Strangers In Paradise there are no powers, no capes, no aliens. Just a handful of the best characters you’ll ever read who have better chemistry than a lot of ‘real’ people that I know. And like #3 below, the art and story coalesce in a way that just doesn’t happen unless they are products of the same loving hand. Love, life and the ins and outs of relationships, Strangers in Paradise is both charming and thrilling.

Stray Bullets 23) Stray Bullets – To call David Lapham’s StrayBullets a “crime” comic is a disservice to it, though it’s not exactly misleading. To call it neo-noir doesn’t quite fit the bill either, though there are elements. But Stray Bullets is more of a survival story than a crime story; it just so happens that although surviving is what we are all – to relative degrees – good at, but survival means different things to different people. To survive sometimes people have to do things they don’t like. And maybe those same things other people do like, whether they’re for pure survival or not. Bad deeds, great characters and the way David Lapham’s writing and art harmonize to tell a story is unlike anything else in the graphic medium. Cool Beans!

 

Preacher Texas2) Preacher – Preacher is about the best people have to offer and the worst, and how sometimes there’s not too much of a line between the two. Brilliant start to finish and has been known – like Ennis and Dillon’s Hellblazer run – to bring a wee tear to me eye. Not unlike The Rolling Stones or Slayer, this books has become such an iconic entity that it holds itself up by the boot straps, with enough blood sweat and tears to entice many and hold others at bay. If you’re weary don’t be – it’s a rocky ride (ask the armadillo) but it’s tough, rugged honor and beauty.

One thing that I realize all of these titles have in common – to some degree – is loss. While The Crow still stands as Absolute Zero in that department, Preacher carves its way into your heart with quiet moments spent between lovers and friends, and the betrayals that shatter those moments like the transient glass that they are.

 

1) imagesSandman – If left to my own preferences I would place Preacher as number 1, however Sandman is more of an, ahem, intellectual piece and as such I’d say has a slightly wider reach – remember these aren’t a list of my top five books (though kinda close if the mood is right) but a list of what I think everyone should read. And Sandman just feels like it would set a million lights on in a million heads all over the world. Neil Gaiman incorporates so much into this series, from direct literature allusions to religious and philosophical texts, historical comic book references, pop culture, true crime… the list goes on and on and on. If you sit down and read Sandman from start to finish in a tight, controlled burst over a couple of days you get the impression that Mr. Gaiman created a microcosm of our world. And, well, whether by meticulous planning or pure creative ‘lightning in a bottle’ he did, and with each layer of the onion Mr. Gaiman peels away in the Universe of this story he shows us a little bit more of the truth about our own lives. Brooding, fun, educational and genuinely challenging at times.

……………………..

Can’t find a comic shop? You can always use old reliable Comic Shop Locator at 1-800-COMIC-BOOK. Or you can take some of my recommendations. If you live in the greater Chicagoland area I recommend any of the wonderful four locations of Amazing Fantasy Books. In Los Angeles it’s The Comic Bug. Las Vegas it’s Alternate Reality Comics. San Francisco? Try the Isotope Comic Lounge and if you happen to venture a little further North I’d say you have to visit The Escapist Comic Book Store in Berkley (with the wonderful Dark Carnival Books next door and owned by the same folks). Read on!!!

 

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

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