Holiday gift guide: 10 must-read graphic novels that belong on every comic book fan’s shelf
Some graphic novels are so great that they simply need to be read by everybody. They deserve it and comic book fans deserve to experience them.
As well-read as many comic book veterans are, you’ll find that they won’t have read everything – there’s always at least one little gem that they haven’t heard of, or haven’t got around to starting. And those can make great gifts.
We’re here to make your holiday shopping easier – to arm you with a few suggestions that we think are ‘must-reads’, so you can make that comic book fan in your life really happy. We recommend doing some sly snooping first, to make sure they don’t already own the book.
Absolute All Star Superman – hardcover
Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple. Those eight words serve as the opening lines of the beautifully condensed Superman origin in Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman.
The twelve stories that encompass the entire run of All Star Superman take us on an emotional, endearing romp, touching every corner of the Superman mythos and does so with aplomb. Morrison’s deconstruction manages to be both respectful and distinct, and his Superman within manages to condense the qualities which everyone resonates with into one heartwarming characterization.
The art absolutely shines too, particularly in Frank Quietly’s brilliantly dynamic and understated pencils. Quietly’s pencils should be considered the quintessential depiction of Superman, for my money, as he comes across as the very definition of heroic in All Star Superman. Jamie Grant tackles inking and coloring in the book, his colors giving the entire book a warm glow that serves the optimism of the book, while his inks give the faces within unrivaled expressiveness.
The ‘Absolute’ hardcover version of the book also features increased page sizes on thick paper stock that serves the pop-art styled art and colors well, as well as background information on characters both minor and major, and proposal sketches and notes for the series.
Simply put, this is the best Superman story you’re ever going to read.
Vision volume 1: Little more than a man – trade paperback
A deeply personal tale of family and humanity, The Vision written by Tom King turns the superhero genre on its head and proves that meaningful stories are still left to be made with these timeless characters. Vision has grown tired of looking at humanity from the outside in, and returns to where his life began – in the labs where he was created by Ultron – to create a family for himself.
The book on its surface may seem bright and shiny but ultimately goes for something more subversive as we are led through twelve issues of Vision and his family struggling to adapt to a “normal life” (which can be hard for even us humans), all the while maintaining his status as a superhero.
Tom King has a knack for nailing the voice of his characters and nowhere is that more present than in The Vision. His simultaneously hopeful yet foreboding outlook for these characters is a fresh and unique take on the genre, and he does a wonderful job of stirring emotions in the reader from dread to jubilation.
The Vision is beautifully illustrated by Gabriel Walta, who encapsulates the archetypal “white picket fence” motif of idyllic suburban life and infuses it with a gritty realism that forebodes the disaster awaiting the Vision family.
Low Book One – hardcover
Just like The Wake (see below), this is perfect for anyone who loves anything to do with the depths of the ocean and the creatures that dwell within.
And just like The Wake, this comic is high art – Greg Tocchini’s art and colouring (Dave McCaig took over the colouring from issue #8 onwards) is a thing of beauty, with its bright, vibrant colours and delicate detail.
Rick Remender’s narrative is just as powerful. It’s a story about family and about getting revenge for having your loved ones torn away from you.
A Song of Ice and Fire and Saga fans will be in their element. And there’s even a few sneaky BioShock-looking designs too (take a look at the lead image for this article).
Reborn – hardcover
Image continued its string of hits in 2016 with the much anticipated Reborn from creators Mark Millar and Greg Capullo. Reborn explores the idea of rebirth, as the protagonist Bonnie Black, an elderly woman, is seen passing away in her hospital bed surrounded by friends and family.
Upon entering the other side, she is greeted by loved ones who had preceded her in death in the paradisaical land of Adystria. Rather than get bogged down in a sci-fi tale of the machinations of rebirth though, Reborn explores the fantastic world of Adystria and tells a tale of good versus evil as a man who had been a mass shooter is reborn in Adystria and comes to rule over the dark half of the world.
Millar is at his best in Reborn, creating interesting characters both heroic and villainous alike for us to love and hate, and in building the world around them.
Greg Capullo is on his game here too and it shows. Crafting Reborn after a long stint on Batman, to which he’s now returned, Capullo and fellow artist Jonathan Glapion manage to make every location we’re greeted with feel both unique and alive, which is no small feat for a fantasy comic.
Any fan of fantasy works or Millar fanatics should definitely check this one out.
Monstress Volume One: Awakening – trade paperback
Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda join forces here to create a stunning Japanese-inspired narrative. The creatures envisioned are highly creative – you’ll find everything from intellectual poet cats to brutal, beautiful mages among the two sides: the Arcanics and the Cumaea.
And best of all – there’s a huge focus on ancient gods, whose ghosts now walk the Earth. Maika Halfwolf – a young girl who seeks to bring down the wicked Cumaea – has one of the ancient gods residing inside of her, which has she can use to her benefit, but which also needs feeding.
Takeda’s art is glorious – especially the art deco motif that runs throughout this world. It’s a true gore-fest too – the Cumaea commit torture and genocide, and you’ll often find even the smallest battles laden with blood.
Plastic – trade paperback
A dark and demented crime story by writer Doug Wagner, Plastic follows the story of retired serial killer Edwyn Stoffgruppen while he tours the back roads of America with the love of his life. The catch? Virginia, the woman Edwyn loves, is a blow-up sex doll. Virginia is far from an inanimate object though, as Edwyn credits her for quieting his sadistic urges – until she’s doll-knapped by a billionaire from Louisiana.
Part John Wick, part Dexter, Plastic is an over-the-top thrill ride from start to finish. Doug Wagner spins a fantastic tale of revenge, psychosis, and violent urges and turns the hero – I use that term very loosely in this context – must come out of retirement shtick on its head. The book isn’t without its comedic moments too, as the absurdity of the situation provides much needed levity from the absurdly dark premise.
Daniel Hillyard and Laura Martin do a fantastic job on the artwork as well, bringing the dark and gritty world of Plastic to life. At times the art seems to take pleasure in the violence, though for me it never seemed gratuitous or that it went too far. It’s definitely not for squeamish readers though, but then again not everything should be.
Southern Bastards Volume 1: Here was a man – trade paperback
Jason Aaron is a highly respected name in the field. His writing is gritty, honest, original and often very brutal. While others might choose other Aaron titles, I think Southern Bastards is Aaron at his very best.
It’s perfectly southern, thrillingly violent and most important of all – it’s full of characters you care about; even the villains. The best thing this series does is relocate its point of view. Certain things happen that shift the focus to other characters, some of whom are outright villains.
You learn about who they really are and you even grow to sympathise with them a little. All of this is steeped heavily in American football. If you dislike sports, like me, have no fear – this is one of those sports narratives that makes you admire its inclusion, because the men who hold it in high regard it are so damned interesting.
Betty & Veronica Volume 1 (2016) – trade paperback
Whether you’re a fan of classic Archie, of modern Archie, of Riverdale, or of all three, this Betty & Veronica run is the epitome of Riverdale narratives.
Centering on everyone’s favourite leading ladies, Betty and Veronica, it’s the tale of the gang’s efforts to save Pop’s (which has happened a few times, over the years), with Betty on one side and Veronica on the other.
The two spiral into a viscous and brutal feud, which is enormous fun to witness, especially when you find out that the divide is more than it seems.
Alongside the bickering, Adam Hughes delivers heaps of levity and comedy. The whole thing is narrated by Jughead’s dog (who’s an intellectual here), Hot Dog, who does everything from smoking a pipe to eating entire pages of the book.
The art is gorgeous and it’s drawn by Hughes, making it a very special auteur venture that deserves to be revered by every Archie fan.
The Wake – hardcover
I ventured into this comic book because of my affinity for stories about the depths of the ocean, but I came away thinking of this as one of the greatest comic books ever written.
The first half focuses on a team who dive deep to the ocean’s floor to unearth a mystery. The second half hurls the reader far into a drowned, dystopian future. Both plots tie in, culminating in a truly weighty and mind-bending finale.
Exceptional female characters is something I look for in my comics and there’s two brilliant examples here; Lee in the present – an intelligent scientist – and Leeward in the future – a punk-looking, dolphin-riding badass.
Sean Murphy’s ragged but luscious art adds a great deal, making this 10-issue limited run an unforgettable experience. And if you’re as into your ocean monsters and mysteries as I am, you might just come away smitten.
Black Hammer Volume 1: Secret Origins – trade paperback
The world of Black Hammer is a world where the age of superheroes has already ended. After a multiversal crisis occurs, superheroes Abraham Slam, Golden Gail, Colonel Weird, Madame Dragonfly, and Barbalien are transported to a new plane of existence – a small farm in a remote mid-western town. The first six issues, which are encompassed in the first volume trade, deal with the forced retirement and life changes in the now defunct superhero teams lives.
Essentially an ode to the golden age of comics in modern wrapping, writer Jeff Lemire constructs a world where heroes are more human than super with all the baggage and sadness that entails. The heroes are interesting too and are analogies of a sort to heroes in the “big two” companies, and they all have an opportunity to shine in their own right, breaking the mold of the heroes they were loosely based on.
Dean Ormston is on art duty for the book and does a fantastic job capturing the essence of Lemire’s story, while adding his own intricacies to the characters as well, particularly in the heavy line work that adds a sinisterly tragic feeling to the book. Trust me when I tell you, once you read this first volume you’ll immediately want more.
Whether you’re into standard cape and cowl fare, looking to turn superheroes on their head, gory horror or fantasy worlds, it’s clear that comics has something for everyone. The quality of writer and artist is as diverse as any art form, and the diversification of subject matter in the medium is promising for long time fans and people who have never considered themselves fans at all.
Did you find anything that interests you? Maybe you already own a couple of these titles? Let us know what you think in the comments below.
Image credits: DC, Marvel, Image, Vertigo, Archie Comics, Dark Horse