Showing posts with label 30-21. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 30-21. Show all posts

#21 - 100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello

We’ve all got enemies in our lives. If not you must at least have someone you really dislike, that one person that irritates the hell out of you. What would you do if a member of a shadowy organisation offered you a gun, a hundred bullets and a license to shoot that person down? Would you take it?

Course not; we live in the real world. That would be a choice that only the most morally-starved person could take. In 100 bullets though, morals don’t come into it. The characters just accept the proposition in the interests of moving the story forward and get on with reaping their revenge. It's a good thing too - this could have been a philiosophical look at the nature of revenge and the trappings of the human conscience, but instead it is one of the most thrillingly plotted comics of all time.

The propositions themselves are given by Agent Graves, one of the best graphic novel characters ever and a man who is an enigma even to himself. He leads the Minutemen, a group of people who act as the strong arm for an organisation known as the Trust. The Trust are a powerful organisation that pull the strings of the leaders of the free world, much in the way that many shadowy organistions do in Hollywood conspiracy flicks.

100 Bullet’s biggest strength isn't in its use of freemason-like power brokers trying to rule the world, it is in its characterisation. Brian Azzarello writes the comic in an episodic style, focusing on one character for a few issues before moving on to another. He lets us get to know and love a character, and then before we are ready to say goodbye he plants us in the world of another. This happens so often that a lesser comic would struggle to keep its readers following along; after all, a fundamental element in a work of fiction is that there are one or two protagonists that the reader can get behind. But 100 Bullets doesn't just have a couple - it has several. Normally this would be tough for a writer to handle, but Azzarello is so skilled at making you love a character within five pages that you don’t mind when the story skips along because you know you'll like where it's going.

Besides, 100 Bullets always returns to its old characters to let you know how they're getting on. Due to the over-arching narrative of the story many of the character’s plots end up weaving together, and as the comic goes on we get to see our favourites interact with each other - often with spectacular results.

If you love a plot that sizzles, is clever, and is full of twists then you will love 100 Bullets. And considering that the comic has won masses of critical acclaim and handfuls of awards, you won’t be alone.

#22 - The Books of Magic by Neil Gaiman

We’ve seen lots of stories about young boys who have the potential in them to become powerful magicians. It’s a plot that appeals to the masses; just think of Harry Potter, Merlin and even the first few episodes of Star Wars. The Books of Magic by Neil Gaiman follows this theme, but it does it in a way that you have never seen before.

The first thing that stands out in the book is John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess and Paul Johnson's magnificent artwork. It is painted in a realistic style but portrays images of mystery and horror, and it is equally at home with zooming in to a close up of a characters facial expression to then zooming out to reveal a picture of the whole universe. There are shadows and demons, stars and suns. You can't read The Books of Magic without looking over each panel several times in wonder.

This is the story of a young boy’s journey into the world of magic, and he's guided by four dark mentors - John Constantine, Dr. Occult, Mister E, and another who doesn't take a name. They walk an overwhelmed Timothy on a path through the world of the occult starting at the dawn of time and leading him through the history of the universe, stopping off at places like ancient Egypt and medieval England all the way up to the modern day. It is a journey of amazement, terror and wonder, and it is no surprise that at points Timothy feels like he wants to throw up. When faced with the mysteries that Neil Gaiman and co show us, I think we'd all be feeling the same way.

This book is an exploration and explanation of everything occult that has ever happened in the DC universe. There are so many characters that make an appearance, both well-known and bit-part, that it reads almost like a visual Wikipedia of the occult side of DC’s titles. If you have a sense of wonder and are fascinated with magic, then you will find this book to be an amazing experience. Even if magic leaves you dry and you believe yourself to be firmly grounded in reality, the beautiful artwork and classic Neil Gaiman script on offer in The Books of Magic will still have you hooked.

#23 - Daredevil Visionaries by Frank Miller and Roger McKenzie

Suffering from a string of soft plot choices, cardboard characters and limp villains, Daredevil was a C-league comic book that looked all but ready for cancellation. That is until a then-unknown artist called Frank Miller was given the artistic  reins. Not much was expected of him, but Miller, and volume one writer Roger McKenzie, managed to take Daredevil and make him something special, and together they turned the character into one of Marvel's heavyweights.

Although full of crossovers and a multitude of villains, volume one is particularly good when the Hulk makes an appearance. Here we see parallels between Matt Murdock and Bruce Banner; both live with a disability, but one handles it better than the other. You can't help but feel sorry for Bruce when he wishes that he could cope with his split personality as well as Murdock copes with his loss of sight, and it is times like this that McKenzie's volume one writing stands out.

The writing got significantly better in volume two though when Miller took on scripting as well as art duties. Volume 2 saw the introduction of Elektra, Miller’s creation and one of the best Daredevil characters to see print. Two highlights are Daredevil’s fight with Kingpin and the clash of Bullseye and Elektra, an event that must rank as one of the most memorable in any comic book. It is fair to say that in volume two of Daredevil Visionaries Frank Miller made graphic novel history.

Daredevil Visionaries made the character a grade-A comic book star, it opened paths for Miller’s career that would lead him to great places, and the art style and writing shocked the comic book world into change. It is an influential work and a magnificent example of Miller’s mastery of style. Whether you’re already a Daredevil fan or not this is a book you should read. It represents a period of change in the graphic novel world, and if all you've read is modern superhero stuff then it will interesting for you to read a comic that helped shape what we have today.

#24 - Hellblazer: Original Sins by Jamie Delano

John Constantine might have been born in the murky depths of Alan Moore's The Saga of the Swamp Thing, but Original Sins is where he really came to life. If you’ve read Swamp Thing then you will know that John was originally created as a recurring support character to serve the story. He quickly became so popular that Jamie Delano, a British writer who has also worked on Night Raven and Doctor Who, was commissioned to come up with the story for the character's first solo outing.

I have already written about Hellblazer way back at number 78 in the best graphic novel list when I reviewed Hellblazer: Hard Times. As with any A-list comic character it is always going to provoke a reaction when you try to pick their best book, but for me Original Sins tops them all. It is where Constantine was given his roots, where his personality was made, and if it wasn’t for the success of Original Sins, then he might not be around today.

Constantine is a conflicted and dividing character. He fights for the good of human kind, ultimately, and his enemies come in the form of evil entities that are bent on causing us poor humans to suffer. It is not the motive for John’s fight that so splits opinion on him though; more the way in which he chooses to fight those battles. He is a single minded and ruthless warrior; a man who is not above feeding his own friends to the wolves if he thinks it is for the greater good. If he believed it would save the human race he would feed his best friend to the devil.

Delano makes that clear right out of the bat in Original Sins, though I won’t say more than that for fear of spoiling things for you. What I can say about this comic is that although some people think Hellblazer has a “monster of the week” theme, Original Sins completely debunks that theory. There are plots, sure, and they are horrifying and page turning plots, but this isn't a plot-focused book and they aren't what makes it great.

What makes Original Sins one of the best comics ever written is how Delano uses it to explore the deepest, dirtiest depths of Constantine’s soul. He shows why the man is as full of guilt and anger as he is, and in doing so he examines themes of how doing the right thing can be wrong and whether one person’s life is less valuable when put against a billion others.

This is a thoroughly British comic (Constantine’s slang is so English that he only just stops short of saying “Cor blimey, guvnah), thoroughly scary and thoroughly thrilling graphic novel. I encourage you to read it. As you turn each page you will watch your bedroom for shadows, and at the same time you will feel a shadow grow inside yourself as you come to realise that you are coming to love this character that is capable of doing the most ruthless things.

#25 – Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? By Alan Moore and Curt Swan

The second Superman book to appear on our list, Alan Moore and Curt Swan’s take on the popular hero is the best ever written (for my money at least). Coming in at 128 pages, this is one of the darkest and most complex editions of the Man of Steel’s adventures, but then would you expect anything less from Alan Moore?

Part of an effort by DC to simplify its multiverse for new comic book readers, the Man of Tomorrow is narrated by Lois Lane to a journalist named Tim Crane who works for Clark Kent’s old newspaper. Crane is investigating the decade long disappearance of Superman and obviously Lane’s was the first door he knocked on. The rest of the book is a flashback as she tells Crane what happened in the time leading up to the Man of Steel’s vanishing.

There is plenty of dark action in Man of Tomorrow as well as the appearance of some of the series best known characters and villains like Lex Luther, Bizarro, Toyman and Prankster. I won’t spoil anything here but there are some of the most memorable scenes in comic book history in this story, events that sent a tidal wave across the DC universe at the time of release. I'd love to be even a little more specific than this but I would hate to spoil anything for you.

As the years have come and gone it is becoming clear just how influential Moore and Swan’s Superman graphic novel is. It changed the way every single comic writer approached a Superman story as well as having a knock-on effect on the writing of other characters plots in the DC universe. This book was commissioned with the ending an era in mind; a stop to an era of multiverses, conflicting and contradictory character stories and confusing parallel worlds. Moore and Swan ended an era alright, but the work they did on The Man of Tomorrow was far from a real ending - the work they did on this book is still being felt in the graphic novel world today.

#26 – Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Recently the subject of an education board controversy in the US, Persepolis is a graphic novel that really means something. The author, Satrapi, wrote this book with the sole intention of getting a point across about a dark time in a country’s history, and to do so she has had to use some adult language and images. It the mature themes of the book that caused the Chicago education board to consider dropping Persepolis from their school curriculum – something they backed down on after public outcry.

Persepolis part one is Satrapi’s autobiographical look at her childhood in Iran. This is a harsh look at the Islamic revolution in 1979 but it is told through the eyes of Satrapi as a child. Here she shares a point of view of an important historical event that you just can’t get anywhere else; it is like if you could see the events in Schindler’s list through the eyes of the (fictional) girl in the red coat. Part 2 centres on the author’s senior school years, this time set in Vienna.

If have followed this list from the beginning or if you have taken a glance at the top 100 list, you will have seen that I included Safe Area Gorazde on the list. I love a graphic novel that gives you a unique insight into a real life event. Sure, you could get as much information as you wanted from a textbook and it would probably be a lot less biased, but I think graphic novels are in a unique position because they can imbibe the story with emotion and humanity.

This and more is what Satrapi achieves in Persepolis. It is an important work not just in the comic book world, but across all fiction and nonfiction mediums. It is a book that will entertain you, but it will also add to the sum total of your knowledge and give let you look through the eyes of someone else into a world you might not know much about.

#27 – Planetary by Warren Ellis

This is Warren Ellis’s third entry in our countdown, making him one of the most prolific and successful authors on the list. It is also his best work. Planetary, which ran for twenty seven issues from 1998-2009, is an attempt to delve into and explore the superhero genre by a master comic book writer. If you were to look at the genre share of the graphic novel market and see which sold the most, superhero books would undoubtedly come out on top. This makes Ellis’s exploration of it an ambitious and important task.

The plot of Planetary concerns the ‘Archaeologists of the Impossible’ (as they dub themselves), a group dedicated to discovering the secret history and mysteries of the world. The team is made of three heroes and they explore the planet to see what secrets are hidden in its cracks. Throughout the 27 issues they find things like super humans, aliens and fantastical beasts, many of them clearly modeled on existing fictional creatures.

Planetary is massively acclaimed by fans and critics alike, bagging four Eisner award nominations during its run. It is the pinnacle of Ellis’s comic C.V, and you would be hard pressed to find better artwork than what is on offer here by John Cassaday. People have compared Planetary to all sorts of things from the episodic X-Files and Alan Moore’s classic Watchmen, but ultimately this is an original work both in idea and execution.

At first glance the X-Files comparison is legit; each issue of Planetary sees them discovering something new then moving on, as though the series were episodic. As time goes by and the story progresses you begin to realise that each episode actually links in to an overall story. As for the Watchmen comparison, well I’ll let you make up your own mind there. But it might help you to know that Alan Moore has given Planetary his seal of approval by writing an introduction for volume one. If he likes it, who are we to argue?

#28 – Building Stories by Chris Ware

I’ve included Building Stories high up in the top 100 list because not only does it embody everything I think makes a graphic novel great – complex characters, beautiful artwork, deep themes, plenty of emotion – but it also takes things one step further and does something special. With this book, Ware has experimented with the graphic novel form and challenged how we define it. He had made it a truly interactive experience, something that even the best graphic novels lack.

The title ‘Building Stories’ is key to this – the reader has to actually build the story himself. The book comes in a cardboard box with different sizes and types of paper, such as newspapers and flip books, and each one has part of the story on it. The reader must shift and swap the different parts together in order to get the full story, and this makes you feel so much more involved in the whole experience.

The story itself is one of deep realism and emotion. It is about a three storey building in Chicago where the female protagonist lives, and Ware's plot follows her through various stages of her life. An important part of the story is the idea of loss, and Ware looks at all aspects of this – romantic loss, profession loss and physical loss (the protagonist lost her leg as a child).

The artwork on show is fantastic and the attention to detail on all the different parts of the novel are astonishing. The writing is human, genuine and full of characters that you will find things to both love and hate about. Building stories is another example of why Chris Ware is one of the greatest graphic novel creators working today, and if you want something different then this comic is not to be missed.

#29 – Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo

One of the first Japanese manga graphic novels to be translated into the English language, Akira is probably best known for the 1989 anime film but the graphic novel is where it gets its setting, story and characters from and this is where you should start.

Akira is set in a dark WWIII future, more specifically in a cyberpunk city called Neo-Tokyo. The book is full of violent action, gang warfare and anti-establishment struggle. In its pages we follow Kaneda and Ryu as they are sucked into a fight that just might be too big for them.

Critically, Akira is one of the most acclaimed manga works ever printed, winning numerous awards and building an army of fans from around the world. It is also an important and notable graphic novel for the influence it has exerted on the industry – Akira was the first comic to really bring manga to western graphic novel readers. If you’re a fan of manga then you probably know that the comics you read owe a huge debt to Akira for its pioneering efforts.

Earlier I mentioned the Akira film, which many people may be more aware of than the graphic novel. I highly recommend seeing it because it is an artful example of how to make a good comic adaptation, but I do think the book is a lot better. Firstly, the film inevitably has to cut parts of the story out to fit in the essential plot points. This is the case in all adaptations, and it is understandable, but why miss out on things when you can get everything in the graphic novel? Secondly, the telling of the story is completely different, and the comic format does it better. I won’t go into detail because I want to avoid spoilers, but by all means see the film, read the book and let me know which you prefer.

Akira is essential manga reading and one of the greatest graphic novels.

#30 –Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean

When Grant Morrison sat down to write Arkham Asylum there was a trend in the comic book and movie world where superheroes were given a realistic makeover. This meant they were given credible backstories, less extravagant costumes and more often than not were very grim and depressed individuals.

Grant wanted his 1989 Batman book to be “more like a piece of music or an experimental film than a typical adventure comic book.” This ambition was shared by artist, and long-time Morrison collaborator, Dave McKean, and his illustration throughout the book highlights the more out-there qualities that Morrison wanted in his script.

If you own a PlayStation 3 or an Xbox you’ll be somewhat aware of the plot of Batman: Arkham Asylum due to the 2009 game made by Rocksteady Studios, probably the first game to really do the character justice. The story sees Batman trapped in an Arkham Asylum that is now under the rule of an unhinged Joker, and Batman needs to both rescue the staff of the facility and find a way to escape it himself. Popular Batman villains such as Killer Croc and Mad Hatter make an appearance and do their best to hinder our hero.

I know that Christopher Nolan’s films have pinned down the whole ‘Dark Knight’ thing and made the character a grim and sombre entity, but Grant Morrison’s graphic novel is where it started. This is one of the darkest Batman comics ever written, and after reading it you’ll probably agree with me that it is one of the best. If you’re a fan of Batman and you still haven’t read this book to do, then you need to beg, borrow or buy it straight away.

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