When you want to recommend music to someone — and not just any music, your passion music, the music that makes you dance or thrash or bump asses or have stupid sex and fall in love- what’s the best way to get them interested? You make them a mixtape and cherry pick the best tracks from your favorite bands. The songs you fell in love with. You don’t throw in “Stairway” or just burn Sgt. Pepper’s just because they’re great.
Well, we want to recommend you comics. And not just any comics. These are our passion comics. The ones that make us want to dance, thrash, bump asses and have stupid sex. All at the same time.
This is not a list of The Greatest Comic Books Ever Made because you’ve already heard of Watchmen and Maus. This is our tracklist of comics we fell in love with — a comic book mixtape. - Danny Djeljosevic
Written by Alan Moore
Art by Eddie Campbell
Top Shelf Productions, 1991-1996
Anyone even remotely familiar with the field of comics has heard it now a million times before — Alan Moore is the single greatest writer the medium has ever known. He is the Grand Magus of the graphic novel, a great shaggy shaman ensconced in his dungeon lair, banging out with jewel-encrusted fingers a seemingly endless series of brilliant, magical, formally daring masterpieces: Swamp Thing, V For Vendetta, Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The list goes on, but one work towers high above them all: From Hell, Moore and artist Eddie Campbell’s encyclopedic dissection of the Whitechapel murders of 1888. Moore has no interest in masking the identity of Jack the Ripper- From Hell is not a whodunit. No, he comes right out and tells us that Sir William Gull is our man. A high-ranking Freemason and personal physician to the throne, Gull initially sets out to kill by order of the Queen – as cover-up for her nephew, Prince Albert’s indiscretions. But soon he takes control, deliberately orchestrating the murders in such as a way as to form the bones and sinews and gore-splattered skin of a vast, awe-inspiring magickal act. William Gull plans to give birth to the 20th Century, and by Jahbulon, he will bloody well do it.
Not enough attention is paid to the contributions made by Eddie Campbell. Campbell is an artist of deceptive simplicity and control who only looks as if he’s scratching out his lines willy-nilly. But that’s why he’s a genius, and why From Hell is his magnum opus. Nobody else could have conjured up all the soot, the filth and the bleak human tragedy of Moore’s 19th century London milieu. And nobody, but nobody, could have been better suited to illustrate the gruesome fucking nightmare that is Chapter Ten. From Hell one of the most horrific works of art of our, or any other, time. - Shannon Gramas
by Charles Burns
Charles Burns’ horrifying not-quite-horror book, Black Hole, feels like the labor of love that it was, a handmade solo effort that spanned nine years of creation. It’s a masterpiece, deeply alienating, but hugely identifiable, empathetic and humane, complicated and rewarding; an essential work of comic art. The story focuses on a small selection of teenage, suburban Seattleites living in the mid-’70s, who each come down with a sexually transmitted disease called “the Bug,” which mutates its hosts in a variety of bizarre and often grotesque ways. As the horrifying permanence, and rising viciousness, of their mutations set in, the kids grow increasingly desperate and an air of creeping violence begins to seep in. Meanwhile, they’re falling in and out of love and trying to figure out their places in a world that feels as if it wants them less and less with each day.
The narrative is carefully observed and precisely metered; it’s often strongly internal. What’s beautiful is the layering Burns is able to poetically achieve throughout via an intensely developed approach to layered visual symbolism. Pages will evolve into kaleidoscopic spreads which refract a number of recurring images, and sometimes they will either literally or poetically be embedded within the depiction of the present-tense “reality” of the story itself — already largely perceptually-based if you choose to take the central conflict of “the Bug” not entirely literally. These hallucinatory visuals dramatically or subliminally serve to create a stronger sense of immersion and identifiability towards all of the characters. The book is heavily psychological, often alternating between a character’s internal and external realities evenly throughout the course of a single sequence. Above it all is Burns’ unique and beautiful artwork, which is precise, impactful, pitch-black and thick with atmosphere; utterly captivating and more than reason enough to read through Black Hole once, on its own. - Andrei Alupului
by Brian Lee O’Malley
Oni Press, 2004-2010
Scott Pilgrim is one of the only comics that can truly appeal to everyone. Brian Lee O’Malley has created a universe so vibrant and so full of pop culture savvy, great comedic timing and delightful silliness that it is simply lovable. The story of eternal slacker Scott Pilgrim and his quest to make his life relevant is rife with humor, spirit and video game references, but O’Malley proves his talent with an equally strong sentiment for emotion, human interaction and relationships. Scott begins the series a 21-year-old dating a 17-year-old high schooler named Knives Chau, but soon collides with fate in the form of an Amazon.ca delivery girl named Ramona Flowers, who changes Scott’s views on relationships as quickly as she changes her hair color. To win Ramona’s heart, Scott doesn’t have to write her poetry or impress her best friend. The only way to Ramona’s heart is to defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends. That isn’t a creative metaphor either — Scott must physically defeat them in combat.
While the series is primarily concerned with the eponymous character, the real meat of the story is in identifying with the idea of youth. All the archetypes of people we knew are here: the young clingy girlfriend, the mature and unattainable older girl, the gay best friend/roommate. O’Malley avoids the pitfalls of stereotypes by writing the characters with a sense of humor, so they don’t feel like they’re defined by their roles in the story.
Scott Pilgrim is a comic about it all — the difficulty of overcoming yourself, the joy of living life, and the idea of finding happiness for yourself and others. For nerds and “normies” alike, the series is a refreshing example of how comics can reach beyond the cape-and-tights variety and still maintain the storytelling sensibility that draws us back to them. - Rafael Gaitan
by Taiyo Matsumoto
Viz Media, 1998-2000
Manga goes beyond unrequited love, magical girls and martial arts mesomorphs hadoken-ing one another into mountains and mesas- but most of us will never know. Sometimes, though, other less conventional works make their way across the Pacific and reveal vague hints of a medium that caters to a variety of interests. Take Tekkon Kinkreet, Taiyo Matsumoto’s 600+ page epic following the adventures of two free spirit homeless kids — the violent Black and the naive, violent White.
Clad in whatever junk they can find- goggles, animal costumes, bandages — these stray cats bash in the heads of Yakuza who plan to turn the city of Treasure Town into an amusement park. They must battle Yakuza-enlisted superhero-shaped assassins that seem parodies of boy’s manga archetypes in an alt-manga world. Black and White exist in their own fantasy that grinds against the adult reality of crime bosses, police and prefabricated fantasy.
Tekkon Kinkreet is about kids growing up in a world of violence, but its also about cities. For all their violence and griminess, we love our cities and we hate when people try to “clean” them. We’re excited by that which can kill us, and we build steel beams encased in concrete to tower over our tiny frames, as if to remind us how miniscule we really are. Matsumoto, with his weird angles and imperfect lines, draws Treasure Town as more organism than a collection of structures- you can practically imagine the city bouncing and waving like early Disney animals as Black and White jump between rooftops and battle grown-up assassins and Yakuza in Matsumoto’s European-influenced style as energetic and DIY as the kids’ outfits. - Danny Djeljosevic
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by John Cassaday
It’s no secret that the history of comics is as convoluted and crazy as the history within some comics. For knee jerk skeptics, the medium’s origins in Sunday paper gags and pulp are barriers that keep it from being art and even for its defenders it can be difficult to make sense of, let alone justify, all that baggage. Enter Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s Planetary.
The beauty of Planetary is that it doesn’t try to make sense of or defend that history, instead it embraces it through a concept that finds a team of “archaeologists of the impossible” exploring the lines that connect pulp, horror, monsters, superheroes, and every other weird inhabitant of comic history. For Ellis and Cassaday, these aren’t things that need to be justified, these are just facets of a medium that thrives on its complexity and depth even as it is criticized for being juvenile and odd.
With Cassaday’s gorgeous pencils breathing an immense amount of life into Ellis’ deep mythology, Planetary effortlessly glides between realities and worlds, enabling it to be akin to a hyper-intelligent, slightly more serious Venture Bros. Through reader surrogate Elijah Snow, one of Ellis and comics’ greatest creations, subjects as diverse as ’50s-era monsters and ’30s-era pulp heroes are turned into cases for examination, all in the attempt to make the puzzle of the world that much clearer. Watchmen may be the most well-known deconstruction of comics, but Planetary is by far the most enjoyable. - Morgan Davis
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Chris Weston
The Filth is an epic, Pynchonian sci-fi romp through multiple layers of reality, an exploration of the dark forces of the world through a miring within them. Greg Feely, aging pensioner, wakes up to find that he’s always been just a “parapersonality” for the dormant agent Ned Slade, operative for The Hand, a secret organization dedicated to maintaining “Status Q” throughout the world via direct intervention and reality manipulation. Semi-episodic, the continued adventures of Ned Slade attempting to maintain himself as Greg Feely while battling variously alongside a diehard Soviet-faithful chimp assassin named Dimitri-9 and against the megalomaniacal and aggressively deviant porn director Tex Porneau, he of the perpetually digitally blurred penis, as he attempts to unleash swarms of giant homicidal sperm to take over the world.
One of the most challenging writers working in comics today, Grant Morrison is something of a modern miracle. He continues to gain access to major, popular characters like Superman and the X-Men in addition to his more far out, creator-owned series like The Filth and The Invisibles, but he doesn’t really compromise or try to make them any less weird in light of their popularity, which only serves, somehow improbably, to raise his own. Overwhelming brutality aside, and that dinginess is the point in this case, The Filth is an astonishing piece of virtuosic storytelling, dense and elegantly constructed, uncompromising and unrepentantly challenging, constantly enfolding itself and deliberately built to reward multiple revisits and interpretations, a feat of storytelling engineering and one of several masterpieces to Morrison’s name. - Andrei Alupului
The Left Bank Gang
The idea of Norwegian artist Jason crafting a story that turns Hemingway and his peers into graphic novelists living it up in 1920s Paris couldn’t be more perfect. Like Hemingway, Jason is an artist known for his minimalist, sparse style that mostly forgoes dialogue and color, instead relying on line work and shading to get the point across. In The Left Bank Gang, Jason’s art and plotting are at their finest, the artist’s surrealist, dreamlike tendencies more in check than normal, instead leaning on a concept that is just too interesting to be held to the rules of reality.
Though The Left Bank Gang utilizes plenty of truth to enhance its fiction, it’s mostly concerned the power of the question “what if?” Indeed, what if Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce were all cartoonists instead of great novelists? And what if they got together and decided to rob a bank since their writing isn’t bringing any money in? Jason uses these authors’ larger-than-life status as well as their almost outlaw-like qualities to make this a feasible concept, rendering the creative titans as anthropomorphic animals in his signature style.
Like Maus before it, the anthropomorphism is surprisingly effective, forcing readers to stop themselves from expecting realism and instead letting the story carry itself. This allows Jason’s meticulous research to sneak up on readers as the animals distract from the normal questions of how much is real and how much is fiction. With that barrier removed there’s nothing left except to fall for the well-paced story and deceptively simple art. - Morgan Davis
Y: The Last Man
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Art by Pia Guerra
Challenging The Sandman in popularity, Y: The Last Man proved the definitive Vertigo comic of the ’00s. Combining an insight into human interaction as well as a keen ear for dialogue, Vaughan’s characters felt like reflections of people every one of us might know. Amateur escape artist Yorick Brown is the only survivor of a plague that wipes out every male on the planet, save him and his pet monkey Ampersand. As the last man alive, Yorick sets out to find his girlfriend Beth, last seen in the Australian wilderness. Along the way, he discovers society has devolved into a Road Warrior-like wasteland, featuring one-breasted warrior women named Amazons, secret government agents and others intent on killing him. Or worse.
Yorick himself is the most unlikely survivor of the Apocalypse- essentially an overgrown child, perpetually telling jokes and making pop culture references while the world comes undone. As the series progresses his demeanor becomes less agreeable and more understandable. As much as the characters deride him for his personality, how would they cope with being the last of their gender?
As intriguing as uncovering the mystery behind the plague is, and although the comic has its fair share of awesome shit like shootouts with Israeli commandos around a crashed Russian space capsule, it’s the simple human interactions and moments like Yorick discovering his sister’s whereabouts that put the series streets ahead of other comics of the era. The final issue, “Alas…” acts as a capsule for the series- an epilogue focused entirely on the characters sixty years into the future. Vaughan’s words are terse but touching; as we find the fates of our friends, we realize we’ve come a long way with them, and as the final chapter closes, we realize a far more important thing. We’ve come to grow with and love people that don’t exist. - Rafael Gaitan
Written by G. Willow Wilson
Art by M.K. Perker
Air proves difficult to nail down from issue one, and just when we think we have a premise- Blythe, a blond flight attendant with a fear of heights, finds herself entangled in international intrigue caught between purported anti-terrorism groups and mysterious organizations and she’s not quite sure who are the bad guys- suddenly G. Willow Wilson springs on us Quetzalcoatl, a still-living Amelia Earhart and the complicated concept of Hyperpraxis which involves (I think) thought-directed travel via symbols and representations. And then we realize, oh shit, Air is something very special.
Influenced by her own life as an American convert to Islam and as an internationally traveling journalist, Wilson wants to explore a lot in Air. She explores travel, the power of maps and symbology and interactions with the “foreign.” Countries are inaccessible because they’ve disappeared from maps. Amelia Earhart literally flies out of history into the blank landscapes of thoughtspace to be turned into fiction. Quetzalcoatl slithers around the page, free of oppressive panel borders.
She also writes Air with a predominantly female cast, which one tends to forget about because it doesn’t feel forced or like pandering. In fact, there’s nary a major heterosexual white male to be found in the book. I hadn’t noticed until right this moment, and it doesn’t really matter, does it?
At the moment, Air isn’t finished yet, which means that, like any long-form work, there’s potential to change and evolve as its creators change. It can get better, it can take a nosedive in quality or decide it wants to explore something else entirely. This makes following Air an exciting journey- appropriate for a comic about traveling. - Danny Djeljosevic
The Walking Dead
Written by Robert Kirkman
Art by Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard
Image Comics, 2003-ongoing
In the 2000s, zombies suddenly came back into fashion, enjoying a late period renaissance that may have even dwarfed their previous heyday in the ’70s. At the forefront of this latter-day boom were two works that made the idea of zombies as fodder for art a reality, Danny Boyle’s bleak post-9/11 film 28 Days Later and Robert Kirkman’s unforgiving epic The Walking Dead.
Kirkman’s series debuted at the same time he was similarly altering superheroes with his other long-running series Invincible, the two works establishing the previously little-known Kirkman as a serious comic threat. Like 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead is less a story about zombies and more a story about people overcoming insurmountable odds and attempting to survive in a world that is increasingly more hostile.
Structured like the best television shows, The Walking Dead has a revolving cast of characters, none of whom are ever safe. Throughout its run, Kirkman has shown that he has no qualms killing off seemingly major characters, no matter how beloved they may be. This isn’t out of some form of masochism or for sick thrills but to reiterate the main point of The Walking Dead: the world you know is long gone and the one you now live in will kill you, it’s just a matter of time. That sense of danger gives The Walking Dead an added heft, forcing readers to genuinely doubt the safety of the characters at every turn as even those who continue to survive are forced to withstand brutal circumstances. Yet what’s most chilling about the series is that Kirkman makes it abundantly clear that the biggest threat of all isn’t the monsters roaming the land devouring everything in sight- it’s humanity itself. - Morgan Davis
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Jamie McKelvie
Image Comics, 2006-2010
You love music, but do you really love music? Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie really love music. They love it so much they made 13 comic books about it and called it Phonogram, where music is magic and its practitioners are called Phonomancers- a concept made even more intriguing by the fact that Gillen and McKelvie don’t bother to explain it away into mundanity. What matters is the magic as a metaphor for the inherent power in music- and the power it has over us.
Volume 1, Rue Britannia, follows Phonomancer/music snob David Kohl as he delves into his past tastes to thwart the resurrection of Britannia, the dead goddess of Britpop. Part musical Odyssey, part treatise on the evils of nostalgia, Rue Britannia is where youth and music obsession collide, and what happens when we grow out of such concerns and, worse still, what happens when we desperately hold on to the halcyon days.
Volume 2, The Singles Club, is much younger in point-of-view but shows its creators hitting their stride and turning a really good comic into a great comic. Rue Britannia’s rough, black and white pages are replaced by gloss and full-color artwork as Gillen and McKelvie experiment with form and background Kohl in favor of seven interconnected but self-contained stories all taking place on the same indie night at the same dance club. We find the fully-formed characters of the previous volume juxtaposed with young Phonomancers in their early twenties, none of whom don’t quite know who they are or even know that they don’t quite know who they are.
Like its music-obsessed characters, the book is stuffed to the gills with references to bands and songs, and even conveniently includes a witty little glossary to semi-seriously explain it all, complete with recommendations, making Phonogram part treatise on music fandom and part mixtape in comic form. - Danny Djeljosevic