Some people already realize the connection between comic book superheroes and Greek myth. For those that need a little more of an obvious nudge, there’s Frank Miller’s 300. This brilliantly executed graphic novel chronicles the legend of the Battle of Thermopylae – in which 300 Greek Spartans held off an entire invading Persian army. As you’re probably already aware, 300 was also turned into an incredibly popular action film. So popular, in fact, that it even received a big budget sequel. While this graphic novel certainly takes some serious liberties, it’s a superb read for anyone that enjoys gritty literature and beautiful artwork.
In this series, you’re not going to find your standard Marvel or DC heroes. What you will find, however, is a parody of sorts of those two universes – or, perhaps more accurately, a satire. Astro City, which is told through a series of short stories – each of which focusing on a different character – covers what daily life is like in a city full of super-humans while simultaneously highlighting real social issues, such as gender politics, paranoia, and whether we can truly trust the heroes we all look up to. Pair that with this graphic novel’s stunning visuals and you’ve got yourself a must-read for any socially enlightened comic book fan.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
If you’ve seen the recently released Batman V. Superman movie, you should know that a good deal of the inspiration behind that flick came from this Frank Miller-penned miniseries. In fact, this graphic novel is the first time that Batman and Superman went toe-to-toe. It also marked the reinvention of Batman into the gritty and dark hero we all know and love today. Just keep in mind, this book is loaded with gruesome violence, political satire, and social commentary that is as relevant today as it was when it was released in 1986.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
While some might find it blasphemous not to include The Killing Joke on our list of best graphic novels, we are unabashed at our choice to leave out that dated story in favor of this much more viscerally unnerving Batman tale. Jumping between time periods, this suspenseful thriller covers both the history behind Gotham City’s most infamous facility, Arkham Asylum, and it’s founder, as well as an event that takes place on April Fool’s Day – in which the institution’s worst inmates have escaped and taken it over. If that reminds you of a recent video game adaptation, you’d be right to think that this book inspired it.
City of Glass
A bit of a departure from the typical super-themed comics and graphic novels, this book tells a story that is equally, if not more, strange. Illustrated by David Mazzucchelli and penned by Paul Auster, City of Glass is an existentialist noir mystery that you really have to read to grasp, but it is well worth trudging through the inevitable confusion for what it delivers. If you like cerebral stories that will keep you guessing until the end, then City of Glass is for you.
Alan Moore might actually be the best short-form graphic novelist of all time. He’s tackled everything from government conspiracy, to compelling romantic drama, to this piece of crime fiction about infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper. And, like so many of his other stories, this one was popular enough to be turned into a movie of the same name (you know, the one starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham). You’ll just have to take our word for it, however, that the book is far superior to the film. Fans of historical fiction, this one’s for you.
Originally created as a series for Dark Horse Comics, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy has been compiled into a multi-volume library of graphic novels, has spawned several notable spin-offs, and also went on to become two feature-length sci-fi fantasy films (directed by none other than Guillermo del Toro). Each of these hardcover coffee table-level tomes covers two full story arcs (the equivalent of two trade paperbacks) and extended supplementary materials that covers everything from concept art to previously unreleased sketches and designs.
If you’re not familiar with Robert Kirkman, he’s the writer responsible for creating The Walking Dead – you know, the global phenomenon about a small group of folks trying to survive the zombie apocalypse. Well, he’s taken the same hyper-violent no-holds-barred approach into the world of superheroes with his Invincible series. He also worked on the series with artist extraordinaire, Ryan Ottley, imbuing this genre-breaking series with the pair’s now-signature ultra-violent style. Just remember, as with his other work, these comics are not suitable for children or the faint of heart.
If you like the idea of familiar characters but you’re also hoping for a bit of a departure storytelling-wise, Kingdom Come is a pretty good start for fans of the DC universe. Penned by Mark Waid and with gorgeous painted artwork from the masterful and legendary Alex Ross, the story follows an aging Justice League as they have to, once again, don their capes to protect the world from the very heroes that took over after they retired. This is one of the best selling graphic novels of all time for a reason and if you enjoy superhero stories, but have yet to read it, now is the time.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Another masterful work of art from the myth and legend that is author Alan Moore (and another that was turned into a film), this creative book follows the exploits of a number of vintage literary characters – including the Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde – as they must band together to save the world from impending doom. It’s a clever mashup of modern storytelling and classic literature that paints the iconic characters within it like the superheroes of a time before. And it is far far better than the disastrous movie from 2003.