Dear Closet Comic Obsessive,
It has been a delight to ponder what I consider the ten greatest graphic novels of all time. I'll address both of your questions individually, but to help address your monetary concerns I'll post the list price for all the books in my top 10 (what you would pay at a bookstore), as well as Amazon.com's price, and the lowest price for which they can be purchased in a used condition from an Amazon.com marketplace seller. I'll also post the lowest current ebay price I can find.What are the ten greatest graphic novels ever?
Wow. Your question opens up multiple cans of worms, not the least of which are the subjectivity of opinion and the problematic nature of the term "greatest" (best selling, highest quality narrative, best art, best writing, best delivery of thematic message, etc., etc.). Undoubtedly, many comic fans would take umbrage with what I include on the list, and be outraged that I did not include one of their favorite works. Such is the nature of these lists.
Also, the term "graphic novel" can be a bit problematic. Some people argue that graphic novels are only projects of sequential art that were produced to be book-length, and that collections of monthly comic books bound together into a single volume are "trade paperbacks," not graphic novels. However, I'm going to assume that anything that could be found in the bookstore under the "graphic novel" heading will be fair game for your question, and not quibble about whether the narrative started its life in monthly installments or was envisioned as a book-length whole from the get-go. Onward to the controversial list then, my friends.
10. Marvels, written by Kurt Busiek, drawn by Alex Ross
(Paperback: List price: $19.95; Amazon
price: $17.95; used on Amazon: $2.94)
(Hardcover: List price: $24.99; Amazon
price: $16.49; used on Amazon: $12.49)
(Original four issues on ebay: start at $1.00)
I was torn between putting Marvels
or Kingdom Come
on the list, both of which have stunning art by Alex Ross. I decided to go with Marvels
because the story is more accessible. Marvels
was a four-issue mini-series published by Marvel comics. It tells the story of what it's like to live in the Marvel universe, where super-powered spandex beings run around all over the city, from the perspective of an everyday normal person, in this case a reporter (the Marvel universe is home to characters such as Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four). It traces the history of the Marvel universe, which could certainly be intimidating for a new reader of comics, but does it in such a way that you don't need to know what issue of Fantastic Four
Galactus first appeared in, because the protagonist is an outsider looking into those events. For the longtime comic book reader recognizing the events the reporter sees are like finding easter eggs, because all the superhero battles he sees occurred in comic books the comic book fans may be familiar with. While Busiek's writing is fantastic, one of the main selling point is Alex Ross's art
. His realistic-painterly style was unlike anything else on the comic stands when he first started doing the art for comics, and it continues to influence the marketplace.
9. The Sandman: Endless Nights, written by Neil Gaiman, art by various artists
(List price: $19.99; Amazon
price: $13.59; used on Amazon: $9.50; ebay starts at: $2.99)The Sandman
was a 75-issue series published by Vertigo Comics, an imprint of DC Comics used to tell non-superhero (usually) mature stories. The entire run is considered one of the greatest comics ever published, Endless Nights
was a special book which features a short story about each of seven immortal siblings: Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium. The entire series is also available in ten trade paperback collections.
The series follows Morpheus, also called Dream, but it's hard to explain what the series is really about. Gaimain described the series thusly: "The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision." The stories in each issue were often stand-alone tales rather than telling a vast over-arching narrative.
The only trade paperback I own is Volume III: Dream Country,
which includes an excellent story about William Shakespeare writing A Midsummer Night's Dream
.A warning to anyone who plans to read this series
: it is meant for adult readers and it contains what has come to be called "adult content," including sexual content and strong language. If that bothers you, please don't take my recommendation to read The Sandman
. If you own a graphic novel, it is easy enough to edit your own copy by keeping a permanent marker handy for crossing out profanity and scribbling out nudity, which I've done on my first reading of some graphic novels with content I don't care for. You see everything the first time, but any re-reads are PG-rated, and you can lend it to family and friends who don't care for that sort of content. But if you don't want to see it the first time move on to another graphic novel on my list.
8. It's a Bird..., written by Steven T. Seagle and drawn by Teddy Kristiansen
(List price: $17.99; Amazon
price: $14.39; used on Amazon: $5.75; ebay starts at $.99)
This graphic novel was also published by Vertigo, but I don't think it has any adult content at all. It's a biographical piece about a comic book writer being offered the chance to write the Superman comic, but he can't get his head around what stories to write about an all-powerful almost-godlike being. It has fantastic sections where he ponders in-depth about various aspects of Superman (i.e., colors on his costume, the name Superman, his origins from a destroyed world). It also heavily features the difficult family interactions the author was experiencing at the time he was offered the chance to write Superman (illness and interpersonal conflicts). It's a very different graphic novel, and experiments with different art styles, but it is well worth the read.
7. Batman: The Long Halloween, written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by Tim Sale
(List price: $19.99, Amazon
price: $13.00; used on Amazon: $10.29; ebay starts at $5.99)
Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale have teamed up for many of my favorite graphic novels. Some of those will be listed down in my "Other recommended reads" section. Batman: The Long Halloween
is a year-long mystery in which Batman and Commissioner Gordon attempt to catch a serial killer who only murders on holidays. The trade paperback collects the original 13-issue mini-series which was published from October to October, and had one issue come out each month.
The movie The Dark Knight
drew lots of inspiration from this graphic novel, most particularly in the Two-Face storyline. The way the story goes, the graphic novel might more appropriately be called Two-Face: The Long Halloween,
but that wouldn't have been nearly as marketable.
6. Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 1: Power and Responsibility, written by Brian Bendis and drawn by Mark Bagley
(List price: $14.97, Amazon
price: $10.17; used on Amazon: $1.34; starts on ebay at $.99 (for the first four trade paperbacks!)Ultimate Spider-Man
is an amazing title, not least because the same writer and artist produced the first 114 issues (a near unheard of length of collaboration on a monthly title (the same writer is still writing it, but with a new artist)). Spider-Man was first created in 1962, and Ultimate Spider-Man
updates the characters' origins for the modern day. The ultimate version of the Marvel universe was created to be new-reader friendly, so that the characters were being created fresh without 40 years of continuity which new readers would not be familiar with.
But besides updating the origin and being new-reader friendly, Ultimate Spider-Man
is simply one of the very best titles out there. I eagerly await every new collection to add to my bookshelf. Ultimate Spider-Man
is my favorite on-going superhero comic book. I chose the first volume simply because that's where the story begins, but there are very few dips in quality in the series so far.
5. Bone: The One Volume, written and drawn by Jeff Smith
(List price: $39.95; Amazon
price: $31.32; used on Amazon: $16.25; ebay starts at $25)
First, let me sat that the $16 used price for this is a fantastic deal. Bone: The One Volume
is 1300 pages long (no, that's not a typo, I meant to include the second zero). This collects all 55 issues of the comic book series into one volume, and does it for a shockingly low price considering how much material is in there.
Bone is a strange-looking cartoonish creature who gets sucked into an epic adventure which TIME magazine compared to The Lord of the Rings
(but funnier). Scholastic has been colorizing the original black and white drawings and releasing them as trade paperbacks targeted at school children. This series is a delightful read for anyone of any age.
4. Fables Vol. 1: Legends in Exile written by Bill Willingham and drawn by Lan Medina
(List price: $9.99; Amazon price
: $9.99; used on Amazon: $5.00; ebay starts at $1.99)
I love this series. However, I did not love the first trade paperback. Why, then, did I recommend the first paperback? Because you need that foundation to appreciate the rest of the series. But trust when I say that every volume collecting the issues from the monthly comic is better than the last (there are currently 10 collections out). So if you're not wowed with the first volume, stick it out a little longer into the next couple collections.
So what is Fables
about? I could go on and on about the brilliance of this series, so I'll use the Wikipedia summary to keep things brief:
Fables is an ongoing Vertigo comic book series created and written by Bill Willingham, starting in 2002. The series deals with various characters from fairy tales and folklore – referring to themselves as "Fables" – who have been forced out of their Homelands by a mysterious enemy known as the Adversary. They have traveled to our world and formed a clandestine community in New York City known as Fabletown. Fables who are unable to blend in with human society (such as monsters and anthropomorphic animals) live at "the Farm" in upstate New York.CONTENT WARNING Fables
is published by Vertigo, the same imprint as Sandman
, and the same warnings apply. However, an interesting thing happens in this series. The first few volumes have a fair amount of profanity (including the biggun'), sexuality and violence (the death of Goldilocks is quite shocking). But as the series goes on, these elements disappear. I don't think the most recent volume had any swearing, sexuality, or gratuitous violence. This is pure speculation, but I think at first the editors wanted to prove this wasn't a kid's story, that it was mature storytelling, so they requested that stuff be added in. But, as the series became popular the author was allowed to tell the stories how he wanted to tell them, and he didn't need vulgarity to make the stories mature. So, once again, read the volumes with a permanent marker in hand the first time through, and you won't have to see content you don't want to upon re-reads. Or avoid the series altogether if you have no desire for that sort of content.
3. Maus: A Survivor's Tale, written and drawn by Art Spiegelman
(List price: $35.00; Amazon
price: $23.10; used on Amazon: $21.35; ebay starts at $19.99)Maus
is a memoir about the Holocaust, as told by the son of a Holocause survivor. Though the story is based on his true life experiences, Art Spiegleman, the writer and artist, anthropomorphizes all the characters in this graphic novel, which creates an odd response for the reader. Maus
won a Pulitzer prize in 1992.
2. Watchmen, written by Alan Moore, drawn by Dave Gibbons
(List price: $19.99; Amazon price
: $10.99; used on Amazon: $10.12; ebay starts at $5.99)
I already shared many of my opinions about Watchmen here
, so feel free to read that lengthy post. I will offer again my warning about the content, so if you're concerned about strong language, violence, and sexual content be warned. But if you can get past that content and read for thematic content, be prepared to be blown away. This graphic novel is amazing. But, I think you should read some Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and other classic superheroes before reading Watchmen.
It's important to understand the conventions of the superhero genre before reading an epic deconstruction of the genre.
1. Understanding Comics, written and drawn by Scott McCloud
(List price: $22.95; Amazon price
: $15.61; used on Amazon: $9.00; ebay starts at $5.99)
The number one pick I have isn't a narrative graphic novel, it's a graphic novel about the artistic theory behind the comic book medium. It's the perfect marriage of message with method of delivery. If I was to recommend a single graphic novel for people who didn't know much about graphic novels, it would be Understanding Comics
. It's used in universities across the country. There is no better graphic novel to demonstrate the strengths of the comic book medium than Understanding Comics
, and that is why I put it at number 1. It is an academic text, but it is a very easy and informative read.
You requested only the top 10, but here are several other recommended reads, in no particular order:Animal Man: Deus Ex Machina
(crazy, crazy postmodern fun (the protagonist looks at the reader and says "I can see you" at one point, and leaves the comic book to go talk to the author at another))Umbrella Academy
(written by the lead singer of My Chemical Romance, if that means anything to you)Agents of Atlas
(features a wise-cracking gorilla on the same team as Venus, the goddess of love)Kingdom Come
(more beautiful Alex Ross art, this time set in the dystopic future of the DC Universe)Superman: Red Son
(what if Superman's rocket had landed in communist Russia instead of Smallville?)Pride of Baghdad
(a story told from a pride of lions that escaped the Baghdad zoo just after the U.S. invasion)Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth
(Chris Ware, the writer and artist, does some fascinating experimental things with the comic book medium)The American Way
(a Black superhero sponsored by the government in the 1960s causes superpowered racial strife)Hulk: Planet Hulk
(my favorite Hulk story)X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills
(explores religion, prejudice, acceptance, and love)X-Men: E is for Extinction
(all sorts of crazy stuff happens to the X-Men)Astonishing X-Men: Gifted
(Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, writes the X-Men and it's oh so good)Owly
(intended for younger audiences, these text free comic books follow the adventures of a cute little owl)The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
(more from the mind of Alan Moore)Batman: Year One
(a mini-series about Batman's first year on the job)Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
(from the same writer/artist of Batman: Year One
, a tale about Batman coming out of retirement at the end of his life)Daredevil: Yellow
(a Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale collaboration, which curiously has no wikipedia page as of yet)Spider-Man: Blue
(a Loeb/Sale collaboration)Batman: Dark Victory
(Loeb and Sale's sequel to Batman: The Long Halloween
(Loeb teams with Jim Lee, one of my favorite artists, for a classic Batman mystery)The Death of Superman
(it's controversial, but I still think it's worth reading)Superman for all Seasons
(Loeb/Sale, yet again)Marvel: Civil War
(all the superheroes fight, with pretty pictures drawn by Steve McNiven)Essential Spider-Man Vol. 1
(the first 22 issues of Spider-Man comics, this is classic groundbreaking stuff, even if the dialogue feels dated now)DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore
(all of Alan Moore's superhero stories set in the DC Universe)Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane
(life from Mary Jane Watson's point-of-view...yeah, it's probably targeted at teenage girls, it's still a great read)
And now to address your other question:How would a poor college student be able to read them without having to spend a ton of cash?
Comic books aren't cheap, so the price is a hindrance. A couple ideas to help lessen the blow to your wallet:
1) Always buy used. This can cut the cost in half.
2) Find a friend who loves comics. I do regular graphic novel swaps with a few friends, I read theirs and they read mine.
3) Use those big comfy chairs in bookstores like Barnes & Noble. I've read more than one entire graphic novel sitting in those chairs. They're there for a reason.
4) Buy what are sometimes called "phonebook" volumes, which are black and white reprints on low quality paper which give you the greatest amount of story bang for your buck. From Marvel they're called "Essential," from DC they're called "Showcase" (i.e., Essential Avengers
or Showcase: Green Lantern
). For instance, Essential X-Men Vol. I
includes 26 issues of comic book stories for a list price of $15 (Amazon sells Essential volumes for about $12).
None of these solutions are perfect, but they can help.