It’s always tough to talk about “the one graphic novel to recommend to someone to convince them that comics are worthwhile,” because theoretically that’s like trying to recommend a movie that will convince of the merit of cinema – or worse, a prose novel that can stand for all of its kind. It can be done, I suppose, but it feels tremendously stifling. Paradoxically, I also have the opposite problem: there really aren’t that many novel-length works in comic form that are popularly liked and accessible. A lot of potential nominees are hampered by the inclusion of superheroes, which will turn off some automatically – even if it’s exploding or deconstructing genre conventions, it’s not terribly universal. “Watchmen” is a formal tour-de-force (our “Citizen Kane”) and has compelling ideas as well (many of them quite universal and timely), but it’s still a story about has-been superheroes come to terms with a world in which they are obsolete and which is going to hell. As such its full impact is limited on those who didn’t grow up immersed in superheroes and later feel the pressure to “put away childish things.”
Furthermore, not every one of the works we might consider has been published in a single volume. On the other hand, other works that might warrant a place were merely extraordinarily good runs on a long ongoing series, and as such are difficult to consider complete artistic statements.
I’ll try to hit some of the highlights.
SANDMAN (Neil Gaiman / a billion different people, 1988-1996) is still the one that, I suspect, brings in the most readers who wouldn’t otherwise read comics. As a whole, it’s too long to collect in one volume (usually it’s published in ten). It suffers from the circumstances of its creation: production values, for one thing – the art on the first half hasn’t aged well, particularly the coloring, and the creators’ initial uncertainty about what sort of story they were publishing is obvious from the wandering, fluctuating tone (There are some early attempts to “crossover” SANDMAN with other DC Comics characters before DC finally bit the bullet and admitted that they had a completely different animal on their hands). Nevertheless, Gaiman’s creative genius is there from the very beginning, and his imagination, characterization, and storytelling skill enable SANDMAN to transcend “a great comics story” and be “a great story.” 75 issues.
TRANSMETROPOLITAN (Warren Ellis / Darick Robertson, 1997-2002) is the second of the “big three” at Reed that draw kids in. A vicious futuristic social/political satire, TRANSMET stars embattled journalist Spider Jerusalem, a clear tribute to Hunter S. Thompson and a general misanthrope who lashes out scathingly against his ultra-commercialized dystopian world. There’s real insight here, but i get the impression that most readers tune in for their regular installment of “what wacky thing will Spider do next?”, as he’s prone to over-the-top violence and complicated revenge schemes, combined with furious critiques of society’s sins. He’s right, of course – a hyper-exaggerated expression of basic democratic/libertarian ideas that everyone can get behind – but I have a hard time seeing it as more than the simple pleasure of watching everyone you hate get what’s coming to them, verbally and physically – like Jesus in the temple, if he’d gone on to shove the moneychangers’ genitals in a wood-chipper. 60 issues.
PREACHER (Garth Ennis / Steve Dillon, 1995-2000) has a similarly graphic, take-no-prisoners, approach to violence, black humor, and “adult material,” but there seems to be a genuine and much bigger story underneath. Both TRANSMET and PREACHER, callous as they may be, have an indignant sense of righteousness and heroic morality at their core, but Ennis is much more honest and unashamed about his: PREACHER is both the most cynical and most earnest graphic novel I know. Essentially, it’s about America. Small-town America, the American South, the Vietnam War, the Alamo: everything uniquely American is addressed, which is all the more interesting since Ennis is Irish and Dillon is English. Other big themes include masculinity, honor, and religion. 66 issues.
FROM HELL (Alan Moore / Eddie Campbell, 1989-1996) is an exhaustively researched (and footnoted) retelling of the Jack the Ripper story. Not exactly a standard whodunit, as the killer is revealed fairly early, but an incredibly dense exploration of the whole sequence of events and setting. The work is obviously the product of monumental effort on the part of two virtuoso creators, but the story isn’t terribly accessible. 12 issues / 570 pages
V FOR VENDETTA (Alan Moore / David Lloyd, 1982-1988) is an exploration of totalitarian dystopia, with clear reference to the Thatcher administration, as well as other uniquely British tropes like Guy Fawkes Day. It contains some of the formal experimentation and graphic-narrative density (one issue has words and music for an original song drift across the bottom of each page) that would reach wider exposure in WATCHMEN, but to my eyes it’s serving a less sophisticated set of ideas. I’ve only read through it once, and should do so again, but my recollection of its themes doesn’t go far beyond “totalitarianism bad / anarchy good,” though to be sure, our terrorist main character is not meant to be swallowed without question. 10 issues / 286 pages
WATCHMEN (Alan Moore / Dave Gibbons, 1986) I discussed above. Aside from SANDMAN, this is the only novel on this list with any connection to superheroes or other comics. In this case, formal innovation is combined with murder mystery, apocalypse, and cultural critique, plus the aforementioned deconstruction and alienation. For the maturing superhero fan, or the general reader who can read superheroes as symbol. 12 issues / 413 pages
BLANKETS (Craig Thompson, 2003) is the big celebrated success of the moment (and coincidentally, the first American work on this list). It doesn’t get more accessible than this, as Thompson weaves his mostly-autobiographical coming-of-age story around relationships with his younger brother and his first girlfriend, all set in the wintry Midwest Bible Belt. Unapologetically youthful and passionate, Thompson deflects any criticism we might level at him with the naked beauty of his writing and ink. Strikes especially close to home for me. 592 pages
JIMMY CORRIGAN (Chris Ware, 1995-2000) is another monolith of formal virtuosity. Ware’s style, a combination of Victorian retro-futurism and genuine future-futurism, features a highly iconic and symbolic visual language in densely packed yet intuitive narrative threads and diagrams. His story, meanwhile, is intensely emotional and accessible, full of loneliness, alienation and self-doubt. Perfectly embodies the spirit of the times – or at least of my times. As more and more creators turn to online distribution of comics, Ware stands as perhaps the strongest argument for comic books as books, as physical objects; his design sense is unparalleled, and everything he produces feels like a work of art. 8 issues / 380 pages
BONE (Jeff Smith, 1991-2004) is a poster boy for self-published comics and a title I would recommend to all sorts. Often summarized by Smith as “Donald Duck meets The Lord of the Rings,” BONE begins with irresistably charming cartoon adventure and comedy and slowly introduces more serious elements which culminate in a pretty epic high-fantasy climax. The charm of the characters never wears thin and is constant throughout, as is Smith’s sense of timing and skill with a pen. A remarkable array of cartooning styles is seamlessly interwoven, and every page bursts with life. A great story to read with your family and enjoy on your own. Recently concluded, the entire novel has now been published in a single black-and-white paperback which will soon be out of print, if it isn’t already. I believe Scholastic is making plans to reprint the series in new colorized trade paperbacks. 55 issues / 1300 pages
CEREBUS (Dave Sim & Gerhard, 1977-2004) is the other biggest name in self-publishing, although one that’s become something of a black sheep over the years. Beginning as a sloppy parody of CONAN and other barbarian stories, CEREBUS quickly became Sim’s entire life and evolved with him over 30 years, both in artistic ability and narrative sophistication. Sim’s determination to break all the rules led to some astonishingly innovative graphic storytelling, and the addition of Gerhard one-quarter of the way in to draw backgrounds made CEREBUS visually (and narratively) top-notch. Sim, however, a self-taught eccentric intellectual, gradually descended into madness. His lengthy prose essays could often take up half of each issue, growing increasingly more strident and obtuse and bleeding into the storyline. CEREBUS itself followed Sim into misogynistic and fundamentalist idiosyncracy (he eventually became a devout follower of a pan-Abrahamic religion of his own devising), and by the end I imagine most buyers stayed with it just to see whether he’d make his target of 300 issues. A bizarre case altogether, but comparisons to William Blake (for example) would contain some truth, I think. 300 issues
There are others which I haven’t read and which in all likelihood deserve a place on this list, including MAUS, actually, much of Will Eisner’s late works, the aforementioned LOVE & ROCKETS stories, and any of a dozen graphic novels published by Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly. Many creators (Adrian Tomine, James Kochalka, etc.) in the indie-comics world have put forth promising short work but nothing yet that feels like a novel.
As soon as I’ve sent this I’ll surely think of six more I should have included, but I’m pretty sure I’ve covered the bases of “long-form works of graphic literature that stand on their own as complete statements.”
Now to bed.