…aka…Everyone Else is Making One, Why Shouldn’t I?
I spent a long time trying to find a way to limit this list to complete graphic novels alone. Ergo, books that were sold in one full chunk; not collections of monthly titles. Alas, this simply wasn’t possible. There were and are far too many fantastic stories to limit this list by some arbitrary rules system. (I tend to do that far too much as it is, although I do love the challenge). So, without anymore hyperbole or reminiscing about the “Aughts” (my official name for the past decade), lets get with this sucker.
Number 10 – Superman: Red Son – DC Comics – Written by Mark Miller – Art by Dave Johnson & Killian Plunkett
DC stopped calling these type of books Elseworlds a few years back and I think this was a good choice. Look, when you see an image of the Man of Steel holding the flag of CCCP and sporting the Sickle & Hammer on his chest; you know this ain’t the Kansas Clark Kent. Writer Mark Miller, a man whom I’m convinced absolutely hates superheroes but can’t stop writing about them, spins an extremely simple but stunning concept. Superman still lands in the rural breadbasket of a powerful nation, but this one sits behind the Iron Curtain at the height of the Cold War. What follows is a brilliant and touching examination of Superman as an icon and a study of nature versus nurture. Would a Superman that fights a never-ending battle for Stalin, Socialism and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact still place the Man before the Super? How would America react and evolve without its moral compass, a role Superman slowly evolved into, at least within the confines of the DC Comics world. Pulling in other icons from both DC and the Superman myth, we see how Lex Luthor comes to term with being #2 being on the planet. Far beyond an Elseworlds tale, Superman: Red Son might be the most honest evaluation of the Last Son of Krypton in many decades. Sure, you all know the story, but not the soul. You will after you read Superman: Red Son.
Number 9 – Box Office Poison – Top Shelf Comics – Written & Art by Alex Robinson
The 2000s were a banner decade for the “personal comic”. Sure, the capes and cowls continued to dominate the scene (even more so with Hollywood catching the four-color bug). Still, history will record that the 2000s were the decade where comics grew up. At least as fully open vessel for storytelling. Box Office Poison is one of the trailblazers. Sherman and Ed are two under employed friends, each with dreams of something more. In fact, they are the very people making and reading comics today. While an arc runs through Box Office Poison, to call it a complete story would be akin to calling your own life a “complete arc”. Insightful. Touching. Funny. Painful. Honest. Life. That is Box Office Poison and if you haven’t yet discovered this fantastic graphic novel, you’re doing your heart a disservice. Or, perhaps you already love the comics format but just can’t convince that stuffy person in your life that comics are literature. Start them off with Box Office Poison. They’ll be hooked for life.
Number 8 – DC: The New Frontier – DC Comics – Written and Art by Daywyn Cooke
I will probably receive all kinds of grief for having so many superhero books on this list. Well, too bad. Superheroes are our mythical characters. They are the gods and goddess of the past. Just as the ancient Greeks, Vikings, Native Americans, Chinese, and other cultures imparted their own flaws and merits upon their myths; so too do we do upon the superhero. DC: The New Frontier is this concept perfected. Every aspect of human nature is elevated and expanded upon by Darwyn Cooke. Starting just after the second world war, a world of hope and fear, Cooke paints and exciting alternate history of the world that might have been. With stunning colors and whip-smart dialog, The New Frontier breathed fresh and needed life into a genre that’s grown dangerously dark.
Number 7 – The Walking Dead – Image Comics – Written by Robert Kirkman – Art by Tony Moore, Charlie Adlard, & Cliff Rathburn
If the personal story was the genre du decade for comics, the zombie was king of horror in the 2000s. Every single genre had a zombie angle attached. Zombie superheroes. Zombie comedies. Zombie satires. Zombie World Wars. Zombies. Zombies. Zombies. Still, very few captured the horrible reality of living in a world populated by the hungry dead. The horror of killing your child because it will soon crave your flesh. The horror of a world where mercy and compassion are hindrances that will only get your killed or worse. From book one, The Walking Dead does that. Mere words are often inadequate when describing The Walking Dead. Indeed, how do you explain a book that is both beautiful and heart-heartrendingly bleak? Indeed, many a fan often just sighs and hands over the book when someone asks “So, what’s the book about”? While not the lightest of reads, not by a long shot, The Walking Dead is some of the most powerful fiction out there. Period.
Number 6 – Captain America Omnibus #1 – Marvel Comics – Written by Ed Brubaker – Art by Steve Epting, Mike Perkins, & Michael Lark
Forget all that you know or think you know about Captain America. Push aside all the various and diminishing quality of Marvels multiple “events” of the 2000s. Shove all that crap to the side and then pick up this stunning tome of a superhero book. Very few writers can mix tights with global espionage and tension like Ed Brubaker. Pretty sure the guy lives on M.R.E.s and coffee grounds. Hyped as the “Death of Captain America” storyline, Brubaker and company took what was and is a tired as hell comic cliché and made it something truly special. This Captain America was a displaced solider that no longer understood the country he wore on his sleeve. A soldier that so passionately loves his country and it’s people, but finds himself more and more at odds with it’s leaders. A finer comment on patriotism and it’s ugly brother nationalism you won’t find within comics. Pulling in decades worth of history and making it approachable by any reader, Captain America Omnibus #1 is some damn fine storytelling. It is a shame that, in this writer’s less than humble opinion, Brubaker’s hard work is getting undone by a company that has a pending movie staring ‘ol Cap. Read it now, see how a legacy can rise, fall, and rise again.
Wait… Movie break!
And now, on with the countdown!
Number 5 – The Authority, Vol. 1 – Wildstrom Comics – Written by Warren Ellis – Art by Byran Hitch
Remember when superhero teams weren’t packed with violence crazed killers? When you could tell who was good and who was bad from page one? Yeah, me too. Remember when one book came out and changed that and we all thought “Bloody hell, this book makes me want to smoke, hump some folks and punch some wanker in the face with a spiked codpiece”! Me too and it is for that reason The Authority, Vol.1 is a game changer for me. Sure, every once in a while comic book companies would try and make an “edgy” team. (I’m looking at you Extreme Justice or any title with an “X” in it). However, Wildstorm made it stick with The Authority. While Morrison and Waid were putting the SUPER in superhero team books with their Jack Kirby inspired wonder (um, before it became Jack Kirby inspired madness), Warren Ellis had an idea. What I would have given to be in on that pitch meeting… “Oi, Jim Lee. Right. I got this idea. So, we take a couple of the blokes from Stormwatch, maybe the married couple and we”… “Um, Warren, didn’t we kill them in a Dark Horse / Wildstorm Comics Aliens crossover a few years back”… “Bugger that. I got this right bitchin’ idea. Okay, so follow this. Jenny, the sexy bird that chain smokes, decides she’s had it up to her arsehole with the world, so she”… “I take it this will be an older skewing book”? “Yeah, ‘das right, cause I’m gonna’ have a piss load of blood and two hot as balls dudes hump it out every time they lay the pain on bad guys. I mean, I’m gonna’ drop a fekkin’ ship on city”… “You sold me Warren. Now, help me pick up this bucket of garbage juice… We’re off to the Liefelds”! WOOOO! Ahem, sorry about that. But, if any of the above attempt at humor made you grin at all, then you need to read the The Authority, Vol. 1. In all seriousness, Warren Ellis takes the concept of superheroes as do gooders fascists and goes so far beyond Alan Moore and The Watchmen. Many detractors of superhero books often ask “why read about people that could just rule the world, but don’t cause it wouldn’t be right, blah, blah, blah”? First, put a cigarette out in their eye, scream “for England”, and then hand them The Authority, Vol. 1.
Number 4 – The Pro – Image Comics – Written by Garth Ennis – Art by Amanda Conner & Jimmy Palmiotti
Remember what I said about The Authority being the first and hardest of all the “edgy” superhero books out there? Yeah, that was all crap. I mean yeah, it’s has it’s moments. But, for a book to take the Superman sex talk from Mallrats and make it balls out hilarious (pun fully intended) simply must make this list. The premise is so damn simple I am shocked it took till 2002 for someone to do it. In fact, somewhere Frank Miller and Alan Moore are smacking their heads saying “I shoulda’ had a V-8”. One long satire on the nature of superheroes, The Pro doesn’t pull any punches (though it does pull out from time to time, see joke about Superman’s seed above). An alien known as The Watcher The Voyeur wonders if anyone, regardless of status, when given powers becomes a force for good. So, he gives a hard working single mother prostitute powers equal to the heavy hitters of both Marvel and DC. The results? One of the most vile, disgusting, perverse, and gut-numbingly hilarious comics of all time, let alone this decade. Some people take issue with how the main character gets her revenge on an abusive John once she comes into her powers. But damn if you don’t find yourself rooting for her during said event. Reading The Pro is like having an orgy with the The Girls of Penthouse, case of Wild Turkey, and Manchester United. You might feel horrible and ashamed the next day, but that night? Oh baby!
Number 3 – Scott Pilgrim – Oni Press – Written and Art by Bryan Lee O’Malley
As much as it might cost me my Geek Cred, I gotta’ say it. Kevin Smith just ain’t the voice of Gen X or Y anymore. (For whatever the hell those labels mean). Nope. Bryan Lee O’Malley has that new honor with his 8-bit driven Scott Pilgrim. Similar in genre to Box Office Poison, Scott Pilgrim is a charming, witty, and emotional coming of age story. Oh, except it has ninjas, monkeys, lesbian rock bands, and end bosses! Hell yes. Okay, I can see I’m not helping my “comics aren’t childish” argument with the previous statement. See, here’s the dirty little secret we highbrow comic readers don’t admit out in the open, at least among “the straights”. We like childish comics. We like seeing main characters turn into 8-bit kung-fu masters in an attempt to be with the girl of their (our) dreams. The fact is, that is exactly how we see the world. One big level mash-up of Super Mario Brother, Street Fighter II, and Ninja Gaiden. What Bryan Lee O’Malley did with Scott Pilgrim is a take on that rather bizarre (and even a little sad) outlook on life and turn it into some seriously subversive and dense piece of literature. Like the best films, Scott Pilgrim works on multiple levels. First is the ninja fights with end bosses. I mean, these are boss fights with ninjas! Then you peel back a layer or two and discover O’Malley is actually telling a strong emotional narrative. How much are we willing to do for true love. And, once we get there, will be happy? As Spock says, “having is not as pleasurable as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often the truth”. And, if ending a comment on Scott Pilgrim with a line from Amok Time doesn’t make you want to read it, then nothing will.
Number 2 – Y The Last Man – Vertigo Comics – Written by Brian K. Vaughan – Art by Pia Guerra
No, being the only man on a planet of women is not an appealing idea. At least it won’t be after you read Y – The Last Man from Vertigo Comics. Forget the instant jokes about sexy times for all. This is a strong exploration into the nature of humanity. Yorick Brown and his pet monkey Ampersand are the only males left alive on Earth after a plague kills everyone with a Y Chromosome. Instead of staying back and helping humanity, Yorick begins his own journey to peace and love as he seeks out his fiance. Many times throughout the span of Y – The Last Man you may find yourself angry at Vaughan’s choice of narrative direction. Paradoxically, you see yourself in Yorick’s shoes, regardless of gender or orientation, and wondering if you would make the same choices. After reading Y – The Last Man, you just might surprise yourself with the answer. Rare is the series that can make one solid arc from issue or episode 1 and not once stumble. Y – The Last Man is such a series.
Number 1 – Persepolis – Pantheon Books (original French publication by L’Association) – Written and Art by Marjane Satarapi
Yes, another bio book. Like I said, the 2000s will go down as the decade where personal stories rules the comic shelf. Another coming of age story, Persepolis tells the tale of young Marjane as she grows up in the socially and politically changing landscape of Iran in the 1960s and 70s. We watch the struggles of a women that is fiercely independent, yet loves her God. A woman that must come to terms with a culture and belief system that will force her family into exile, but still calls to her heart. Persepolis shows how education can be a strong force for revolution, but it must be tempered with morality and compassion. The artistic style brought by Marjane lends an air of whimsy to the book that often contradicts the events on the page. The protest beatings during the revolution clash with the simple black and white lines Marjane creates are truly powerful. Persepolis is a stunning book, even more so when one reads it against the backdrop of the current “Green Revolution” going on at this very moment in Iran. Perhaps, in time, another fresh graphic novel will rise from such events. However, one hopes less blood fills the pen.