Chris Peruzzi is a comic book superhero historian who is passionate about how today's comic book heroes are the new mythology for America.
Starting a Passion
As with many things, you never forget your first.
My earliest comic book memory came when I was six and my cousin Glenn left me a shoe box full of Marvel Comics. Unlike the collectors of today, no one cared what condition the comics were in. They were read for pure enjoyment. Each of the comics were well used. I remember my cousin had actually cut out the collector stamps from many of the pages that left holes to the fan mail pages and I remember the fantastic art that could only come from the Buscema brothers, John Romita (Sr.), and the immortal Jack Kirby.
Stan Lee was still known as Smilin' Stan.
Upon reflection, it was a treasure trove of fantastic stories. I remember seeing Amazing Spider-Man #120, 121, 122 (The Death of Gwen Stacy and The Death of the original Green Goblin), many of the early X-Men stories, as well as concurrent issues of the "Avengers vs. Defenders War". To this day, I have yet to thank my cousin properly.
People start reading comic books and graphic novels for a variety of reasons. The one common denominator I've found is that they rarely begin without someone introducing them to the medium. In recent years, I've taken the role of indoctrinating many people to this fantastic medium.
It's my way of passing the "human" torch.
Many of these story lines have been assembled in the form of graphic novels. A few of these stories are "one-shots" and stand alone. Here are my recommendations for the graphic novels that no enthusiast should be without.
The Dark Phoenix Saga by Claremont and Byrne
If you spent ten minutes talking to X-Men fans, they will inevitably start talking about Chris Claremont. Two minutes after that, they'll start talking about the Dark Phoenix Saga.
No, this isn't about the X-Men relocating to Arizona.
This is about the sad heartwrenching story of Jean Grey and her death, resurrection, and death. There's more to it than that as well as more to the continuity of Jean Grey. However, for the point of the story, we see the tale of a long established character seduced by love, power, and corruption that climaxes in the death of billions and leaves an open wound in the team for decades.
Not only does this story define well-established characters, but it also sets the standard for X-Men tales for years to come. The dialogue is great and Byrne's artwork is outstanding. While I recommend the trade copy for anyone who wants to experience the story in full-color, ultimately true collectors will try to hunt down original issues. The Dark Phoenix saga starts with her initial death in X-Men #129 - 138 from January 1980 onward.
This story has been told within the cinematic universe and will be told yet again. Why? Well, it's a freaking awesome story.
This twelve issue Hugo award winning limited series written in 1986-87 by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons broke all the rules of the traditional comic book hero.
Each of the heroes is flawed one way or another.
The story, set in an alternate universe's 1985, deals with an America that has outlawed superheroes (except for the ones sanctioned by the government) and portrays a realistic human depiction of these heroes. While the movie adaptation is probably the closest one ever to an Alan Moore story, it falls short of the exquisite subtlety that Moore is known for.
I can read and re-read this book a thousand times and always find a subtle nuance to the story - whether it is in the pictures, the writing, or the unique tell-tale angle of a panel. I own two copies of the trade edition in case one starts falling apart.
Read the book, then see the movie.
The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
It's one thing to write a good graphic novel with a great story and a well-known character. It's quite another when it's your first one and you redefine the character into what it is today.
The Dark Knight Returns written in 1986 by Frank Miller (of 300 and Sin City films) takes the character of Batman, who has not been seen in over a decade and brings him out of retirement at the age of 55. Miller's writing is masterful as much of the story returns the character to urban myth and breathes a new mission to an old character. Much of the story is told through the eyes of the media or what we now know as television's "talking heads", each complementing and condemning the protagonist for his apparent actions.
The story climaxes in the much-needed battle between the Dark Knight and the government law-abiding Superman. While many of Miller's compatriots at the time had criticized him for "ruining the character", time has shown that this story has best defined Batman as we now know him.
The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman
I think one of the best comic con experiences I've ever had was listening to Neil Gaiman read from his book The Graveyard Book. If you've ever treated yourself to anything that Gaiman has written whether it is American Gods to Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett) to watching Lucifer on television, you need to start reading his Sandman series.
Here we see Neil Gaiman at his best. The pure creativity of him with his best protagonist Morpheus (aka Dream of the seven Endless). Gaiman has carved out new niches within the DCU with his version of Death and his take on Destiny.
In this story, a man wants to achieve immortality by holding Death ransom but mistakenly kidnaps Morpheus instead. The thing about these stories is how wonderfully intricate and how the author is able to draw the reader into the story.
Once again, if you're a fan of Lucifer, Constantine, and/or the Swamp Thing, you'll love the Sandman series. This book is certainly one of the best of the bunch.
The Death of Gwen Stacy
This is one of the series that Marvel wisely collected marketed as one story. The Death of Gwen Stacy (of The Night Gwen Stacy Died ASM #121 and #122) from Lee, Romita, Conway, and Kane is still talked about today.
Recommended by Walt Flannigan (of Kevin Smith's Comic Book Men) as one of the best Spider-man collectibles, it is truly one of the biggest turning points in the life of Peter Parker. This story written in 1973 still resonates with readers today as the story that not only killed Spider-man's first true love interest but also brought about the death of his greatest opponent, the original Green Goblin (Okay, yeah, I know. He comes back eventually. But he stayed dead for the longest time). True collectors should try to get their hands on the original issues, but read it for the stories as they are told best in the trade paperback.
Trivia Fact: The story of Harry Osborne's drug addiction is one of the first to be told without the Comic Book Seal of Approval.
Green Lantern/Green Arrow by O'Neill and Adams (Vol 1&2)
Written by Denny O'Neil and illustrated by Neal Adams, Green Lantern/Green Arrow trade paperback volumes 1&2 tackled some of the more controversial issues of the day from racism to drug addiction. Most notable among these stories is the addiction and recovery of Green Arrow's sidekick, Roy Harper from heroin abuse. These stories represented a new change in DC Comics that reflected the problems of the time and a break away from the classic comic book hero mold.
The thing that makes this collection magical is that for the first time we see a true bond between heroic friends. While we know that there's a bond between Barry Allen and Hal Jordan and friends, the bond between Ollie and Hal is profound. These are two guys that decided to chuck it all and go on the road to really know the world. While they're on the road, they see the world they've so easily ignored.
This 12 part mega comic book epic collectible is a good fun story. It introduces the Beyonder and has given us the Venom symbiote (as well as an introduction to Spider-man's black costume). It was a true Marvel event and a great story with good villains.
Current readers of the Marvel Universe can now see this as a common theme within the Seige and Secret Wars (current) storylines. While the current storylines are much more dynamic than this skirmish back in the eighties, this was the first and it kept fans riveted for a full year of crossover storytelling.
Here we change from typical comic book illustration to prime artwork. This series written by Mark Waid and drawn by the incredible Alex Ross (in watercolors no less) is a story about power and the precarious road it is in the wrong hands. Seen through the eyes of minister, Norman McCay, and guided by The Spectre, Superman with the survivors of some of the original Justice League return to show a new generation of super powered youth that there are repercussions to misusing powers. Met with paranoia from the human front (as well as Batman, Green Arrow, Black Canary, and the Blue Beetle) things come to a head in a final battle that can have only one outcome.
This story is a page turner from every edition that was made from it. I recommend whatever the latest edition is or even getting the Absolute Kingdom Come edition (in larger hardcover) for your own enjoyment.
Batman: The Killing Joke
Once again, this story is not only good but is famous for its repercussions. Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland, The Killing Joke is the story of Joker's origin as he remembers it. I need to stress that as what we are reading may not be the actual fact of his origin. The Joker as a psychopath has almost separated himself from reality. He, himself, says within the novel that he remembers his past one way one day and then remembers it differently the next.. "If I'm going to have a past, it might as well be multiple-choice." The artwork is superb and, as always, Moore's storytelling with the use of overlapping images is pure entertainment. This is a MUST HAVE without any debate.
The 2016 animated rated R feature is based on the Moore novel. It stars Kevin Conroy as the voice of Batman and Mark Hamill as the voice of the Joker. I recommend that you not only pick up this book but you should also see this movie.
Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison
The problem with writing an article like this is that you really need to update it every so often. One of the worst crimes I've committed against the comic book community as a whole is that I forgot to include this book.
This story is simply amazing.
There is a hostage situation at Arkham Asylum and the Joker challenges Batman to save them. This story is told in tandem with the story of Amadeus Arkham and the tale of what happened to his family at the hands of Mad Dog Hawkins.
The story is masterfully illustrated by Dave McKean of Sandman fame and Neil Gaiman's Mr. Punch. One of the more poignant elements of this story is that whenever Batman is drawn, he doesn't seem to be real - it's as if he's still part of the urban legend of Gotham City. I hate to say this, but it's really a "must have". Morrison made his bones on this tale and has proven to be a master comic book writer.
The Life and Death of Captain Marvel
This is a collection of two graphic novels. I recommend you buy the trade paperback with both.
The first is the Life of Captain Marvel, which is a collection of Jim Starlin's run on the failing Captain Marvel run. This was a turning point. Starlin's illustrations are without peer and this graphic novel is a personal favorite of mine. We watch the character of Mar-Vell go from military warrior to cosmic protector after his transformation by the entity, Eon. Within this collection is one the best-illustrated fight issues made in comic history. Starlin introduces the world to his new villain, Thanos - a worshipper of Death. It is Captain Marvel (and his partner, professional sidekick, Rick Jones) who must stop him.
The second part, also written and illustrated by Jim Starlin, is the Death of Captain Marvel. This heartbreaking story is the first and only comic book story to deal with the issue of cancer. Marvel's death in 1984 was a fantastic and tragic representation of a hero who was able to defeat every enemy he was faced with only to be defeated by his own body.
I had my trade paperback signed by Starlin himself. If you get your hands on a copy, it's worth every penny.
Justice League: Identity Crisis
I have to say that they got me with the illustrations first. The seven issue storyline was nothing but addicting. This is what happens when the DC Universe villains get organized. So many people die in this story, I don't even want to spoil it with a summary. This story deals with issues of trust as well as the bigger story on how heroes cope with the death of a loved one. It is a pivotal story that affects Batman, Superman, The Flash, Green Arrow, Robin, and, most of all, The Elongated Man - in a story that you'll never forget. Rags Morales' inks are an incredible companion to novelist Brian Meltzer's story.
From a long distance between publication to 2016, the ramifications of this story are still felt. Ray Palmer still is estranged from Jean Loring and the Batman continues to trust no one. Since this story's publishing, not only is Sue Dibney still dead, but now Ralf has joined his love on the other side.
How many of you remember watching The Super Friends as kids? This story is taking that premise and doing it right. This is taking the Justice League and all of the villains that were the Legion of Doom and putting it to a story that is so sophisticated and so masterfully drawn that you will do anything to collect every issue you can get your hands on. I bought the first run of this and then bought the three volume hard cover set. Once again, Alex Ross delivers his extraordinary talent to water colors for a story so captivating you'll ask yourself midway through, "Who are the good guys?"
I loved this story and recommend it to everyone.
The story is dynamic. The plot is ingenious. And the art is just astounding. I originally picked this up issue by issue. Then I picked up the three volume collection and when it's collected in one book I will buy that too. This is a great read from both a superhero appreciation side and from nostalgic view as well.
Final Words and Honorable Mentions
There are so many really good stories that have been told through graphic novels that it's almost impossible to limit it to thirteen. In addition to these, without comment, I offer these honorable mentions:
- V for Vendetta by Alan Moore
- Bone by Jeff Smith
- The Boys by Garth Ennis
- Deadly Class: Reagan Youth by Rick Remender
- Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite by Gerard Way
- Daredevil: Born Again by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
- Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
- The Flash Rebirth by Geoff Johns
- Crisis on Infinite Earths by Marv Wolfman
- Zero Hour: Crisis in Time by Dan Jurgens
- Green Lantern: Rebirth by Geoff Johns
- Green Lantern: Blackest Night
- JLA: Earth 2 by Grant Morrison
- Batman: Hush by Jeph Loeb
- Batman: The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb
- The Death of Superman
- Allstar Superman by Grant Morrison
- The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore (Vol 1&2)
- Punisher Born by Darrick Robinson
- Daredevil Visionaries by Kevin Smith
- Wolverine by Chris Claremont
- Wolverine Origin
- 300 by Frank Miller
- Sin City by Frank Miller
- Wolverine: Old Man Logan by Mark Millar
- Kick Ass by Mark Millar
- Invincible by Robert Kirkman Volume 1
- Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar
- The Walking Dead Omnibus Volume 1 by Robert Kirkman
Please if you don't see something that is glaringly obvious, please mention it within the comments section. If I've never heard of it, I'd love to read it.
What did you think?
Questions & Answers
Question: Why did you not add "Batman: A Death in the family", Jack Kirby"s "New Gods" and "Code name Wolverine"?
Answer: I would respectfully disagree on several levels.
First - While I'm a huge Jim Starlin fan and while "Batman: A Death in the Family" is indeed a historical issue with the death of Jason Todd (No longer a thing), added to that the 1-900 (pre-Internet) campaign to kill off the character - it really wasn't a good story. Seriously, the Joker getting recruited by the Ayatollah Khomeini? Yeah, it did have resonance for a bit and it did show Jason Todd for being a loose plank on a tight ship. Even now, when I watch an episode of Titans, I look at Jason Todd and think "What a waste of time."
Second - New Gods is a title. It isn't a graphic novel. Hey, show me a Jack Kirby one-shot graphic novel for that title that is a must-have, I'll consider it. But that wasn't really how the King did things.
Thirdly - "Code Name: Wolverine"... Just no. I would sooner say the Claremont/Miller Wolverine limited series made into a graphic novel is more of a must-have than that. After all, Marvel was pulling so much of that for the Origins films. Hell, even Wolverine: Origin was more of a must-have than that one - given the big reveal of Logan's real name as James Howlett. The just isn't enough resonance and staying power in that story.
Question: Why did you not add Bone and The Action Bible to your list of graphic novels no comic book fan should b without??
Answer: Bone will be added as an honorable mention. Jeff Smith is awesome.
Question: I know you put Red Son as an honorable mention but I think that it's one of the most well written and Kafkaesque graphic novels ever. And there are so many alternate DC timeline hints all over the book. I truly think it's incredibly underrated?
Answer: It is. It’s a wonderfully crafted continuity story that loops back to the beginning.
© 2012 Christopher Peruzzi
Christopher Peruzzi (author) from Freehold, NJ on July 06, 2020:
I don't believe Locke & Key belongs on this list at ALL.
When you consider that Hill ripped off most of the concepts from his dad's books, it's kind of redundant. Seriously, read some more King and you'll see every one of the elements in his formula from the mean girl psychotic bullies to the beloved slow-witted supporting character. Hell, I'm surprised that Roland of Gilead didn't make an appearance.
My mailbox is bursting from so-called "experienced" comic book readers that somehow think by reading Manga makes them comic book veterans. Dude, you have no idea. When you have suffered through some really bad pre-crisis stuff dreamed up by Gardner Fox or Bob Haney, come back and talk to me.
I've read the books you mentioned - really... I wouldn't give any of them as a "must-have".
ComicBook Brother on June 25, 2020:
Man, this list kinda sucks. It's nearly all the famous stories people have heard about 500 times by now.
Learn to step outside the Marvel/DC world. I love superheroes, don't get me wrong.
But it you're missing comics like Saga, Locke & Key, Rat Queens, Scott Pilgrim, and more... you are just a comic book reading youngling. There's a thousand other worlds out there besides Marvel and DC, find them and enjoy.
Allison on January 12, 2020:
My Favorite Thing is Monsters
Christopher Peruzzi (author) from Freehold, NJ on December 10, 2019:
Just a few things.
I agree that many of the series suggested are awesome. Really, I do. But the point is to look for a story that would constitute a graphic novel. So, while talking about Avatar is good, the field should be narrowed to a specific story. For example, V for Vendetta was a maxi-series that was one story in twelve parts (if I remember correctly), but saying Moore's run on Swamp Thing is not (apologies to ST fans - my favorite story always goes back to "Anatomy Lesson").
So, understand me. There are great series out there. Morrison's Animal Man and Doom Patrol are great series - but those should be focused on one story within the series that would constitute a graphic novel.
Dan on December 09, 2019:
I agree with most of your list, but l would have also included Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing and Miracleman, as well as much of the Hellblazer series, especially the Garth Ennis run. Also would have included Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's Preacher and Warren Ellis and Daerick Robertson's Transmetropolitan, and James Robinson's Starman.
Ben on December 02, 2019:
What about Hellboy tho? Mignola is an essential
Henry on December 01, 2019:
Should have at least one of the Avatar graphic novels
Christopher Peruzzi (author) from Freehold, NJ on November 12, 2019:
Know what? I think you’re right. Not only was this one of the best works of Darwin Cooke, it was a damn good story. I’m going to add it to the list