I've heard the question dozens of times.
"If I were to, like, get into comics, what would I read first?"
Whether it's a friend showing earnest interest or a family member just wanting to know why we've wasted so much time (and money) on a few stapled pages, comic readers are occasionally probed about suitable entry points into the medium. And it's not always easy to play the role of ambassador, especially when you can't explain why you're reading the 17th Green Lantern event in two years.
Of course, the answer is quite subjective. There are thousands upon thousands of comic book issues with different storylines, hooks and approaches to storytelling. And then there's the consideration of the audience. Are you talking to someone in your age group? Your best friend's younger sister? An elderly uncle feeling bored? That neighbor who obviously examines the sender label on your mail? Or maybe you are the person who is new to comics, and you've read down this far because you're hoping to get this question answered for yourself. When you look at any of these possibilities, it can be a bit overwhelming to tailor options.
So I've made it easy. In this piece, I've put together five graphic novel suggestions for the comic book newcomer - a lineup suitable for anyone curious about the medium. You'll notice that I gave myself some perimeters.
First, in consideration of how much there is out there, I've narrowed it down to releases following the turn of the century. "But," some may say, "what about Watchmen or Kingdom Come or [insert classic comic story]?" You can find that list anywhere. And let's give this medium a little more credit than concluding that the only solid introductions are decades behind us. For some, the "dated" aspects of comics from the '80s or '90s may even be a stumbling block for engagement. I like suggesting titles that are a bit closer to our end of the timeline, if not just because it restates the continuing power of the form.
Second restriction: Only two of the graphic novels I list involve superheroes. Despite what Hollywood would lead you to believe, the world of comic books extends far beyond capes and tights (though I do love capes and tights). Since its inception, the comic book has included genres ranging from horror and spy-thrillers to pure comedy and coming-of-age tales. It seems misleading to provide my five favorite stories featuring mutants.
As I said before, it's a subjective list, but I believe anyone who gives these books a chance will at least have their perceptions of the comic book art altered. Have your own list? Feel free to share in the comments below. Otherwise, let's dig in.
1) Ultimates Vol. 1
In 2002, Marvel was debuting its Ultimate line - a new universe with retellings of the imprint's flagship characters. Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch took the helm and somehow managed to encapsulate the best qualities of the Avengers (renamed the "Ultimates," with Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and the gang present) with a tale that somehow remains grounded, despite its otherworldly qualities.
The accessibility of this series is also rooted in its cinematic quality. Hitch's pencils provide a film-like world for the superheroes to inhabit, and the writing and look of the book are obvious influences on the current films. Stick with the series until the end of Ultimates 2 Vol. 2. After the Millar/Hitch team left, it all plummeted like an Atlantean who dropped a nickel.
2) Planetary Vol. 1
Warren Ellis' groundbreaking tale of the "Archaeologists of the Impossible" debuted in 1999, but its first printed edition hit shelves in 2000. Some would argue that the book features a broad stroke of superheroics, but Planetary covers far more ground. With every issue, the book tackled a different part of pop culture, its core group of investigators finding themselves on an island of monsters, staring down the ghost of a Hong Kong cop and encountering characters that stem from several genres of pulp.
Gorgeously rendered by John Cassaday, the man responsible for the interiors of other hits like Astonishing X-Men, Planetary is a love letter to geek culture - all of its tropes in tow. Through the lens of Elijah Snow, readers find that the secret organization attempting to uncover the weirdest parts of our world and beyond has secrets of its own.
3) Y: The Last Man Vol. 1
Yorick is a funny guy. He's actually the funniest guy on the planet. It's an easy assumption to make, considering he's the last guy on Earth.
Y: The Last Man, from writer Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, is the story of what would happen if every male on the planet perished, except one out-of-work 20-something and his pet monkey. The cause of the global event is just as mysterious as 355, the woman tasked with protecting Yorick. And despite its serious set-up, the series is as funny as it is moving. The comic is also notable for ending and tying everything in a bow at 60 issues, providing 10 graphic novels as the perfect seasonal reading project.
4) All-Star Superman Vol. 1
If Ultimates represents the sleek, action-packed superheroes of the 2000s, All-Star Superman is a tribute to both the original superhero and his Silver Age adventures. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely bring a collection of timeless stories featuring Superman, with an overarching plotline that spotlights the greatest aspects of the protagonist.
Superman deals with his own mortality, covers new ground with Lois Lane and has the ultimate confrontation with archvillain Lex Luthor. It's a story that takes place out of continuity, but for many of us, it's the definitive story of the Big Blue Boy.
5) The Unwritten Vol. 1
Few stories have examined the nature of celebrity and our relationship with fiction like The Unwritten. Mike Carey's ongoing series concerns Tom Taylor, son of famous author Wilson Taylor. Wilson used his son as the inspiration for his famous book series about a boy wizard, but disappeared off the face of the Earth mysteriously. Tom struggles with a lack of identity as he travels to conventions as the basis for a beloved literary character, but soon finds a different kind of problem: The main villain of the series may be real. And fans of the book are starting to think that Tom himself is a living version of the character he supposedly inspired.
The tale continues down a path of thrilling twists and convolution, and it stays utterly engaging in the process. Carey weaves a tight story, and the art of Peter Gross adds both elegance and complexity to the story of Tom Taylor.
So check out these titles, or suggest your own. Hoping to see you in a comic shop soon to talk about it.