The 101 Best Graphic Novels

The 101 Best Graphic Novels 

By Stephen Weiner (NBM)
ISBN 1-56163-444-1

WINNER: CCG ‘BEST COMIC RELATED PRODUCT AWARD’ FOR 2006

With the huge upsurge in Graphic Novels currently swamping the market it takes a braver man than I to try and limit any list to 101, but that’s what compiler Weiner (with a little fudging) has done. This is an updating of an earlier edition, and some books have dropped out to make way for others, but the point is surely not that this book is better than that one but rather to celebrate the uniqueness of the strip-cartoon medium and let it takes its place alongside other popular art-forms in the societal gestalt.

Each entry includes a cover illustration, brief synopsis, creator information, ISBN and price; every thing you need to order these books should they catch your attention. They even have an age rating so you could buy a copy of this reference work for your local library and then pester them mercilessly until they get all the listed books into their own Graphic Novel section.

© 2003 Stephen Weiner.

Y: The Last Man Vol 3: One Small Step

Y: The Last Man Vol 3: One Small Step

Brian K Vaughan, Pia Guerra & José Marzán with Paul Chadwick (DC/ Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84023-805-4

When a plague killed every male on Earth, only Yorick Brown and his pet monkey survived in a world utterly female. With a government agent and a geneticist escorting across the devastated American continent to a Californian bio-lab all the young man can think of is re-uniting with his girlfriend, trapped in Australia when the disaster struck.

Volume 3, collecting issues #11-17 of the monthly comic, begins a meandering progression of shorter tales as the trio make their way across a devastated America and picks up from the previous volume with the eagerly anticipated arrival of astronauts who have avoided plague contamination by the simple expedient of being in space when it struck. Moreover, two of them are hulking great healthy men!

Naturally it is all doomed to go wrong. Filling out the book is a two part story illustrated by Concrete creator Paul Chadwick, which examines the roles of Art and Mass Entertainment on the media (and especially TV) deprived women in a post plague world. It is, perhaps, in such smaller scale stories that Y shows the most potential, so let’s hope it’s a foretaste of things to come.

Ultimately, taken on its merits, Y is a somewhat glib contemporary reworking of a much-explored theme that is perhaps best realised by Philip Wylie in his novel The Disappearance, but it’s readable enough, very well drawn — and it does it all without resorting to coyness or exploitation.

© 2003, 2004 Brian K Vaughan & Pia Guerra. All Rights Reserved.

Y: The Last Man Vol 2: Cycles

Y: The Last Man Vol 2: Cycles 

Brian K Vaughan, Pia Guerra & José Marzán (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84023-728-7

When a plague killed every male on Earth, only Yorick Brown and his pet monkey survived in a world utterly female. With a government agent and a geneticist escorting across the devastated American continent to a Californian bio-lab all the young man can think of is re-uniting with his girlfriend, trapped in Australia when the disaster struck.

The second volume picks up as the trio end up in a curiously stable community in the Midwest where the sight of a male hardly seems to ruffle the assembled feathers, and consequently presents Yorick with his first instance of genuine sexual temptation. Sadly, the idyll is short lived as the Amazons catch up to the wanderers there, with tragic results.

The ongoing soap-opera tone burgeons in this comparatively ill-paced and sluggish volume and a faint “cliff-hanger” air starts to descend over everything. Israeli commandos are hunting for the last sperm-donor on Earth. There’s lots of lip service paid to the type of society the world would be without most of its pilots, entrepreneurs, mechanics, labourers and violent felons but there’s precious little story progression.

The volume even ends with a classic shock cliff-hanger. That might be acceptable for a periodical (these stories first saw print in issues #6-10 of the monthly comic) but is quite unsatisfactory for a collected volume and somewhat defeats the purpose of using these collections to lure non-collectors back to the fold and create a new readership.

 © 2003 Brian K Vaughan & Pia Guerra. All Rights Reserved.

Y: The Last Man Vol 1: Unmanned

Y: The Last Man Vol 1: Unmanned 

Brian K Vaughan, Pia Guerra & José Marzán (DC/ Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84023-708-2

An old, old science fiction concept gets a new and pithy updating in the Vertigo comic Y: The Last Man, as a mystery plague destroys every male mammal on Earth including all the sperm and the foetuses. If it had a Y chromosome it died, except, somehow, for amateur escapologist and slacker goof-ball Yorick Brown and his pet monkey, Ampersand. One night the guy goes to bed pining for his absent girlfriend (who’s an anthropology grad on a gig in Australia) and the next day he’s the last man alive.

His mother, part of the new – for which read Female-and-Still-Standing after a failed power-grab by the widows of Republican Congressmen – Presidential cabinet, is by default a Leader of the Free World until The New President can get to Washington and take office. Once Yorick makes his way to her through a devastated urban landscape – the plague hit during rush-hour on the East Coast and we all know that chicks just go to pieces in a crisis – he escapes from her half-hearted attempt to lock him a bunker and immediately announces he’s off Down Under.

Mum and Madam President then allow the world’s only known source of the next generation to undertake a cross-country trek rather than subjecting him to some more rational project… such as milking him for IVF resources. Off Yorick goes with a lethal and ambiguous secret agent known only as 355 to the secret West Coast laboratory of Dr Allison Mann. The good doctor is a geneticist who thinks she might be the cause of all the trouble, but even so… come on. His mom is a US politician, for Pete’s sake! Surely he would at least have a platoon of armed guards for the trip!

Also out to stake their claim and add to the tension are a crack squad of Israeli commandos with a hidden agenda and mysterious sponsor, plus post disaster cult The Daughters of the Amazon who want to make sure that there really are no more men. Throughout all this Yorick remains a contrary cuss. Defying every whim and Guy stereotype all he wants is to be reunited with his girl trapped in Oz.

Although this is mostly set-up the main are characters are engaging and work well to dispel the inevitable aura of familiarity and cliché this series can’t help but struggle against. This volume collects issues #1-5 of the monthly comic series for adults.

© 2002 Brian K Vaughan & Pia Guerra. All Rights Reserved

War Stories Volume 1

War Stories Volume 1 

Garth Ennis & various (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84023-912-3

Garth Ennis continues to blend his unique viewpoint with his love of the British war strip stories he read as a lad in an occasional series of WWII one-shots for Vertigo. The first four of these are collected in War Stories, with an impressive cast of illustrators assembled to produce some of their finest work to date.

“Johann’s Tiger” (with art by Chris Weston and Gary Erskine) charts the retreat of a Panzer crew from both the Russians and their own Nazi Field Police as their guilt-wracked commander seeks Americans he can safely surrender to. “The D-Day Dodgers” (illustrated by John Higgins) sees a raw English officer join a combat unit as it slogs its way through the supposedly “cushy” part of the war, namely the 20 month campaign to re-take Italy.

Dave Gibbons tackles the Americans in “The Screaming Eagles”, wherein a squad of G.I.’s take an unsanctioned – and thoroughly debauched – furlough in a freshly abandoned Nazi chateau. David Lloyd closes the volume with the moody and moving “Nightingale”, Ennis’s powerful tale of the dishonour and redemption of a British Destroyer on escort duty.

These are not tales for children. Due to Ennis’s immense skill as a scripter and his innate understanding of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances these stories strike home, and strike hard whether the author is aiming for gallows humour or lambasting Establishments always happy to send fodder to slaughter. These are the realest of people. This is war as I fear it actually is, and it makes bloody good reading.

© 2004 Garth Ennis, David Lloyd, Chris Weston, Gary Erskine, John Higgins & Dave Gibbons. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: Wrath of Gog

Superman: Wrath of Gog

By Chuck Austen, Ivan Reis & Marc Campos
ISBN 1-84576-066-2

Over the course of too many years I’ve followed the Man of Steel’s adventures, and realised that as well as being the absolute progenitor of the superhero industry, he’s probably the most re-worked character in it. I’ve seen a champion of the poor become a social redeemer, a boy scout, an interstellar policeman and even a grim ‘n’ gritty caped Rambo. Surely to keep following him through all those changes I must be some kind of fan, right?

Then why does the current incarnation leave me so cold?

Even when produced by – as was ever the case – some of the best contemporary creators around, the recent stories just seem to be lacking a certain something. This particular excursion, Wrath of Gog (reprinting Action Comics issues #812-819), rattles along and it’s competently illustrated, but it’s a superficial, slick kind of modern pick and mix of fight scenes.

After a brief, violent interlude with Darkseid and Co, Gog, yet another time-travelling villain (springing this time from the pages of Kingdom Come), attacks Smallville and not even the Teen Titans can stop him. When Superman appears, he is seriously wounded, leading to a mass attack by glory-hungry super-villains, and only Wonder Woman can protect him, until he recovers and wipes the floor with everybody.

To his credit, Austen does try to inject some depth with the return of extended sub-plots and these stories weren’t originally designed as a cohesive epic, but simply periodical publishing. The last tale, a Memento-esque parable, contrasts the relationship of husband and wife criminals trying to kill the Man of Tomorrow with the looming romantic triangle of Clark Kent, his wife Lois and the newly divorced Lana Lang. Although forced, it does have something more than a big, arrogant charmless ruffian hitting everything all the time, and the competing flashback technique does keep the attention.

Wait, perhaps that’s it? Maybe today’s superheroes don’t get to have charm anymore. The glorious sense of wonder, once present even in the darkest Superman tales, just isn’t there anymore. Is it all about tights, boots and hitting now?

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: Unconventional Warfare

Superman: Unconventional Warfare 

By Greg Rucka & Various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-026-3

I have some difficulty with the superficiality of many modern takes on classic comic characters. It’s probably because I’m old but it often feels that rather than write something new, creators simply get told to put a modern spin on the old stuff and keep it circling in a holding pattern until the current audience have grown up and moved away. I’d love to see some sales figures on retention of new readers as compared to people my age who keep buying out of love and inertia. I don’t care how much red paint you slap on a Fiesta, it won’t never be no Porsche.

But I digress. The latest Superman collection tells of yet another conspiracy to destroy the Man of Steel produced against the real world backdrop of America preparing to invade a Middle Eastern nation – in this case the oddly reminiscent “terrorist state of Umec”. Clark Kent is in the doghouse with his bosses and is trying to rebuild his career, so Lois Lane – or is it Kent, or Lane-Kent – is covering the story on her own. So what with job worries and a new super villain showing up every twenty pages, Superman is not there when his wife is shot by a sniper.

Normally I try to avoid spoiling the story, but no-one in their right mind believes a major character is going to stay dead at a company that has enough resurrected people in its stable to form their own football league. The point here is that writer Rucka has been able to rise above these woeful predictabilities and engage the reader by sheer quality of writing. Here is an instance of how it happens actually superseding what’s happening. Here is a classic character being treated with a little thought and a lot of respect.

It’s very well drawn too. You should read it yourself.

© 2005 DC Comics

Superman: For Tomorrow Vols 1 & 2

 Superman: For Tomorrow Vol 1

By Brian Azzarello, Jim Lee & Scott Williams (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-4012-0351-5 hardcover 1-84576-145-6 softcover Volume 1
ISBN 1-4012-0715-4 hardcover 1-4012-0448-1 softcover Volume 2

A major part of modern comic publishing is publicity-seeking and — hopefully — sales enhancing “events”. These are either braided mega-crossovers that involve a large number of individual titles in one big story (Gotta get ‘em all!) or extended storylines by celebrity creators. Occasionally you get both at once. Occasionally you strike gold.

Hot from his success with Batman in Hush, Jim Lee teamed with writer Brian Azzarello for just such an event with For Tomorrow which ran in Superman issues #204-215 in 2004 and 2005. For one year these star creators got to play with DC’s biggest gun.

Set notionally apart from the rest of the company’s continuity, although still packed with enough guest stars to sink a battleship, this story sees a Superman at odds with himself and looking for all kinds of answers as he consults a priest following the world wide catastrophe dubbed ‘The Vanishing’. Whilst the Man of Steel is away on a space mission a wave of energy washes over the Earth causing the evaporation of one million souls. As if that’s not tragedy enough, one of them was his beloved wife Lois.

Increasingly isolated, guilty and fixated, he becomes involved in a civil war, and by disarming the combatants causes an escalation to genocide. His quest becoming ever more desperate, he alienates his Justice League colleagues and discovers that governmental super-spooks are behind some if not all of his problems. Everywhere he turns there’s someone – or thing – itching for a fight. By the end of volume 1 he is aloof, stressed, almost monomaniacal in his determination to solve the riddle. But he does now possess the mysterious device that caused the Vanishing…

Superman: For Tomorrow Vol 2

Ramping up the action, the second book sees Superman find the missing humans by ‘vanishing’ himself. This only deepens the mystery, and his struggle to regain perspective and return the victims to Earth leads to a catastrophic battle with a dreaded foe and the destruction of a virtual paradise. Meanwhile in Metropolis, the unlucky priest has fallen to technological temptation courtesy of those super-spooks and he must pay a heavy price before he can find his own peace.

This is not a terrible Superman story and it is always good to see creators try something ambitious, but as is often the case with these event spectaculars, the result just can’t live up to the intent or the hype. And there are so many unanswered questions.

Why didn’t the entire planet go bonkers when a million citizens vanished in an eye-blink? Surely Superman isn’t the only one to notice or care? Wouldn’t even American media still be talking about it one year later? Wouldn’t some Governments mobilise, or at least form a committee?

Our hero is by turns smug and hapless, and his aggression towards his friends can’t be rationalised by his loss. Why would he turn to a priest when he has access to so many different sorts of spiritual and indeed supernatural guides? Where are his parents in all this? And why even bother with the clichéd war of liberation/government interventionists if you’re not going to deal with them coherently? Plot foibles aside, there’s also too much dependence on the well drawn and ubiquitous fight scenes to carry the narrative, but if you can swallow all that and simply want a gratuitous –if perhaps flawed – rollercoaster ride, these two books are a solid bronze read.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Star Wars: Visionaries

Star Wars: Visionaries

By Various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84576-110-3

In most creative endeavours, there’s a bittersweet edge that comes from what’s been made but which is left out of the finished piece, whether it’s a comics script or a motion picture. The fascinating premise here is that a group of talents involved with the pre-production of the Star Wars films have been asked to turn those inevitable runners-up concepts into comic strips.

Ranging from the magnificent to the just plain weird, Visionaries is a pictorial treat for fans of the franchise and simple science fiction followers also. Twelve creators from the Lucasfilm art department and from Industrial Light and Magic make a seamless transition to the sphere of graphic narrative in nine stories and two visual essays, based on the events of the Star Wars universe, concentrating particularly on the time between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.

By far the most memorable are Aaron McBride’s “Old Wounds”, “Entrenched” by Alex Jaeger and M. Zachary Sherman and the balletic, wordless, splendidly dark exercise in the nature of evil “Sithisis” by Derek Thompson.

As much a coffee-table art book as graphic novel, there’s plenty for all readers to digest here.

 © 2004 Lucasfilm Ltd & ™. All Rights Reserved.

Star Wars Infinities: Return of the Jedi

Star Wars Infinities: Return of the Jedi 

By Adam Gallardo, Ryan Benjamin and Various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84023-990-5

Here’s a third outing for the concept of alternative stories from “A Galaxy Far, Far Away…” This Infinities sub-brand uses the more familiar film canon as the basis for “What If?” tales extrapolating different events and outcomes from a pivotal change in the original storyline.

So what might happen if the scene in Return Of The Jedi where our heroes rescue Han Solo from imprisonment in a block of Carbonite goes hideously wrong? If you care you’ll want to buy the book, no?

At least you won’t feel cheated for quality, as the publishers always ensure a high standard of product. It’s all quite competently done by writer Gallardo and Ryan Benjamin’s art team, but I do wonder at the somewhat defeatist nature of the whole enterprise.

Surely there’s still a story to be told that adds to what is obviously a cherished franchise, before you have to depend on hackneyed gimmicks like “let’s pretend…” Once or twice is fine but eventually it does begin to pall and the reader has even less emotion to invest in the story if it’s not ‘true’. Or ‘real’ or … well you know what I mean.

© 2004 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™. All Rights Reserved.