New Adventures of the Infinity Legion
New X-Men – in 2001, Marvel hired Grant Morrison (you’ll see his name crop up a lot on this list) to revitalize the flagging X-Men franchise. He took his mission statement seriously and made forty of the best X-Men issues ever, breathing new life into the comic with wild new characters and ideas. They’re compelling action comics at its finest, completely accessible to anyone with even a basic familiarity with the X-Men concept and are packed with details that reward attentive readers on a second and third reading. Available in trade or giant hardcover omnibus.
The Ultimates, vol 1 – the Ultimate Universe was conceived as an effort to revitalize Marvel’s flagship characters without the fifty years of accumulated cruft. The experiment ultimately didn’t work out, as the new versions quickly grew their own barnacles – but that doesn’t lessen the impact and excitement of this introductory volume. Glib comics populist Mark Millar populates the book with widescreen, cinematic versions of the classic heroes, while Bryan Hitch’s detailed art adds a sense of colossal scale and state-of-the-art action.
Marvels – The classic origin stories of Marvel’s earliest days, reinterpreted by writer Kurt Busiek and acclaimed painter Alex Ross as events in the life of photojournalist Phil Sheldon, who was on the scene for everything from the debut of the original Human Torch in 1939 to the attack of Galactus in 1965. Sweet, nostalgic and perceptive, this is a wonderful tribute to decades of storytelling.
JLA – Marvel picked Morrison for the New X-Men job because he’d done so well here, with DC’s JLA: Justice League of America, where he took a dead comic and made it the company’s top seller for the mid-1990s. It’s forty-two issues of DC’s biggest heroes fighting mind-bending cosmic threats on a scale never before seen in superhero books. Available in trade.
All-Star Superman – Last year DC hired Morrison, along with uber-artist Frank Quitely, to tell twelve Superman stories unshackled by rules or continuity. The result was the single best Superman story ever, moving and powerful, backed by incredible art. Available in trade or in a huge hardcover omnibus.
Justice League International – before Morrison revived the “classic” Justice League lineup in 1994, the best run on the title had been this hilariously irreverent take on superhero tropes. This Justice League is a collection of misfits, losers, and horndogs who have to somehow learn to work together to save the world while at the same time dodging manipulative bureaucrats, angry exes, and lawsuits. Currently being collected in a series of hardcover omnibuses.
Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier – in 2004, animator-turned-artist Darwyn Cooke told this story of what might have happened if DC’s greatest heroes had gotten their start during the heyday of 1950s atomic paranoia and McCarthyism. Gorgeous art with a space-age, lounge lizard flair complements a really cool, politcally savvy story. Available in trade or giant hardcover omnibus.
Superman: Birthright – More 2004 vintage: Mark Waid and artist Leinil Francis Yu retell Superman’s origin and early days. It was written to tie the comics version into “Smallville”, but Birthright is about eight thousand times better than the show. Waid’s really good at earnest, heartfelt writing and it’s used to good effect here. Available in trade.
Seven Soldiers – Grant Morrison’s most recent megaproject: seven super-obscure DC heroes are reinvented for the 21st century and have to work together as a team to fight off an invasion – without ever meeting each other. Each character has their own separate story (with their own, usually awesome, artist) but read together they combine to form a super-complicated single narrative. Available in four trades.
Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus – The long-awaited rerelease of Jack Kirby’s massively ambitious comics opera about the “New Gods”, beings of good and evil fighting a cosmic battle on Earth, with characters like Superman and Jimmy Olsen getting caught in the crossfire. Nearly forty years later this still blows most modern comics out of the water in terms of sheer craziness and energy. Available in four hardcover omnibuses.
Suicide Squad – the team that created Justice League International also, around the same time, brought us this deadly-serious and gritty take on espionage and black ops. In the DC Universe, convicted supervillains can earn a chance at freedom by joining the Suicide Squad on deadly missions for the US government across the globe; if they survive, they can get early parole. One week the Riddler and Captain Cold might be fighting terrorists in North Africa, the next week Count Vertigo and Poison Ivy might be infiltrating a domestic hate group. Well written, with compelling characterizations and a lot of real-world authenticity, it’s an interesting look at how superheroics might collide with realpolitik. Available in trades.
Sandman Mystery Theatre – DC’s original Sandman, Wesley Dodds, a playboy who solves crimes that he predicts in dreams, reinvented as a 1930s pulp crusader. The stories were scrupulously researched and historically accurate, but had the adventure and flair of the classic pulps. Underrated at the time it came out, it’s now recognized as a classic. The first couple trades are out; more will become available later.
Doom Patrol – Grant Morrison’s first really big splash at DC was with this title, reinventing a little-known superhero comic into a bizarre odyssey into mysticism and Dada art. Some of the weirdest shit you’ll ever read is right here, but it’s all backed up with a genuinely sweet and moving love story and relatable characters. Available in trades.
Flex Mentallo – But my personal favorite of Morrison’s books – possibly my favorite comic ever, and many other people’s as well – is this four issue opus. Flex Mentallo is a character from Doom Patrol, but you don’t need to know anything about him to appreciate this story. A young pop musician has overdosed and called the suicide hotline to reminisce about his boyhood as he lays dying in an alleyway; meanwhile, muscular superhero Flex Mentallo is trying to solve a mysterious threat to the whole world. The two stories converge in an incredibly powerful, moving way. Unfortunately a lawsuit from the Charles Atlas company (to whom Flex bears a resemblance) has made this series difficult to obtain legally, but rumor has it that it might be collected in the last Doom Patrol trade.
Stormwatch – in the late 90s writer Warren Ellis took a shitty action comic about superheroes working for the UN and turned it into an epic political thriller about black ops, sabotage, and assassination. Available in trade.
The Authority – after Stormwatch dies at the hands of Aliens (as in, Aliens from the movie, yes, really) Ellis launched this spinoff. The surviving members of Stormwatch, and some new characters, do battle with huge “widescreen” threats using increasingly fascist methods, eventually turning their eyes towards America itself. Available in trade or big hardcover omnibus.
Planetary – another Ellis comic in the Stormwatch universe, about the Planetary Society, a team of super-archaeologists who travel the earth in search of the strange, mysterious, and extraordinary: ghost cops in Hong Kong, lost cities, forgotten heroes and even the corpse of Godzilla. Available in trade or hardcover omnibus.
Top 10 – After his run on the classic Superman homage Supreme for Image, Wildstorm gave Alan Moore his own division of the company to run wild with, and he created some of the best work of his career. Top 10 is one of these, about cops in a city where everyone – the police, the criminals, the citizens, the garbagemen – has superpowers. With insanely detailed art by Gene Ha. Available in trade.
Promethea – a modern girl gets the power of Promethea, a heroine from the realm of the imagination, and goes on a psychedelic tour of the history of art, religion, and consciousness itself. If you liked Sandman you should love this. Available in trade.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – forget the shitty movie, this is the real deal. Captain Ahab, Allan Quartermain, the Invisible Man, Mina Harker (from Dracula), and Dr Jekyll versus the great villains of literature. Fuck yes. Available in trade.
Supreme – comics legend Alan Moore’s take on the Superman mythos. A loving homage to 50s comics as well as a powerful story in its own right. Available in trade.
G0dland – Writer Joe Casey and artist Tom Scioli take Jack Kirby’s style of storytelling into the present day: cosmic gods are here doing battle on earth – for good, for evil, or in one case, for really sweet drugs. It’s simultaneously a homage to and parody of stuff like The Fantastic Four and Johnny Quest, and is a deliriously good time. Ongoing and regularly collected into trades and hardcover omnibuses.
Shade the Changing Man – One of the original early-90s Vertigo titles, along with Sandman – this was about Rac Shade, a secret agent from the planet Meta, sent here to stop a disease made of sentient madness from taking over the world. Along the way he befriends and falls in love with a troubled, vulnerable girl and her brash, lesbian New York girlfriend. The book was a wildly experimental look at culture, politics, and psychology that didn’t always make a lot of sense but was always fascinating. The first couple trades are out; more are due later.
The Invisibles – This is Morrison’s life work, the thing that he’ll most likely be remembered for. A team of occult revolutionaries, “the Invisibles”, use magic and James Bond mojo to battle a global conspiracy, with human free will as the prize. Morrison tosses everything into this book: science fiction, superheroes, movies, great literature, pop culture, music, art, history, politics, cutting-edge science – all with the goal of explaining life, the universe, and everything. A tour de force in every sense of the word, very possibly one of the most important comics ever made. Available in trade.
Preacher – A young, disillusioned Texas pastor becomes the unwitting host of a heavenly being, and goes on a road trip with his girlfriend and an Irish vampire named Cassidy to escape the religious conspiracy that wants his power for themselves. Which sounds really gothy and serious, but it’s the total opposite, with wild comedy, ridiculous ultraviolence, anal-raping cannibals, and a kid named “Arseface” because he has a face like an arse. Available in trades.
Transmetropolitan – Warren Ellis’ magnum opus is this science-fiction story about Spider Jerusalem, an irascible, drug-abusing, Hunter S. Thompson-like journalist battling hypocrisy and political corruption in The City, the sprawling megalopolis that covers most of 22nd-century America. Available in trades.
100 Bullets – a mysterious black-suited man finds people who’ve been wronged somehow and offers them a briefcase containing two pistols, one hundred untraceable bullets, and photographs and documents proving who was responsible for what happened to them. What happens next is up to them. Available in trades.
Y: The Last Man – Yorick, a twentysomething slacker dude in New York, is the last survivor of a disease that’s killed every last male human on earth. As he embarks on a postapocalyptic odyssey across America to find his girlfriend, various forces are hunting him to get the secret of his survival. Available in trades.
From Hell – the movie was bullshit, but the book is solid gold. Alan Moore and artist Eddie Campbell present their uber-researched, super-detailed take on the Jack the Ripper crimes, and it’s pretty much a total tour de force and an essential piece of comics even for people who don’t usually read them. Available in trade.
Alec – This is Eddie Campbell’s solo book, an autobiographical story spanning three decades and giving insight into his family life, his artistic career, and the ups and downs of the British and worldwide comic business from the 80s to today. Available in trades.
Strangehaven – A dude on a road trip through rural England wrecks his car and finds himself stranded in the village of Strangehaven, a mysterious town with very odd residents, and finds it impossible to leave. It’s like the Twin Peaks or Prisoner of comics. Ongoing, available in trade.
Optic Nerve – writer/artist Adrian Tomine’s collection of short stories about teens and twentysomethings, ranging from a couple of pages long to a couple of issues, in the style of Raymond Carver: quiet, observational, and intensely realistic. His draughtsmanship is impeccable and his writing has a gift for understatement. The stories depict the very smallest of incidents – a boy and girl meeting at a concert, or a kid stealing from the copy shop where he works – but manage to linger in your mind for weeks afterwards. Available in trades.