Eight comics to die before you read... or something...Tony Collett points me to this article, and, naturally, I must exceptionalize:
First, here's what The Authoritaz (i.e., Peter Hartlaub of the S.F. Chronicle) say:
Y: The Last Man: Unmanned (Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra): I'm an even bigger fan of Vaughan's "Ex Machina," which weaves an intriguing alternate reality around the Sept. 11 attacks. But the recently finished Y: The Last Man is his masterpiece, taking a B-movie premise - what if every man on the planet suddenly died - and turning it into an intriguing, realistic, funny and ultimately touching epic.
Daredevil: Born Again (Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli): Forget that bad Ben Affleck movie. This mid-1980s work from Sin City and 300 writer Frank Miller is a powerful and wrenching tale, throwing the attorney-by-day-crime fighter-by-night down a staircase of addiction and betrayal. It looks a lot like the old X-Men and Avengers comics that you used to enjoy but shows a maturity that will mark much of Miller's later work.
Swamp Thing (Alan Moore): Another early work by a comic book legend, Alan Moore took over this DC Comics franchise in 1984 when it was all but dead. He completely re-wrote the character's history, but what could have been a "Highlander 2: The Quickening"-style disaster works in all the right ways, with narrative depth and a love story that resonates.
Marvels (Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross): Told from the point of view of a photojournalist, Marvels gives a street-level view of the greatest moments in superhero history - covering half of the 20th century. Busiek's story is interesting, but the selling point here is the hyper-realistic art from Alex Ross, who later drew the equally incredible-looking Kingdom Come.
Bone Volume 1: Out From Boneville (Jeff Smith): Imagine if someone took a handful of Looney Tunes characters and tossed them into a Ronnie James Dio song. This cartoonish independent comic, which ran for more than a decade in the 1990s and early 2000s, can be very funny but also has a "Lord of the Rings" vibe. And not just the happy parts in Hobbitland.
Watchmen (Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons): We'll have to see if the version from "300" director Zack Snyder, co-written by Lowell High graduate Alex Tse, can make what appears to be an impossible transition to the big screen. ("Watchmen" is coming in 2009.) The 1986-87 publication tells the gripping and incredibly dense story of costumed adventurers wrestling with their past and future during the Cold War. Arguably the greatest comic book in history.
The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes (Neil Gaiman): Gaiman is known as a strong storyteller, but his biggest gift is with language. This introduction to his most famous character - Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams - passes through a reality and fantasy world, painting an often pessimistic portrait of mankind. Later volumes are better, but this is a necessary introduction to the series.
The Dark Knight Returns (Frank Miller): The tale of Batman's rebirth as an aged crime fighter is packed with action, with a storyline that includes the Joker, Two-Face, a one-armed Green Arrow and an epic showdown between Batman and Superman. This 1986 series is Miller's best work, filled with darkness and despair but also an underlying hope.
My (spit) take:
I haven't read "Y: The Last Man", so, no real comment there.
DAREDEVIL: Born Again is solid work. Miller's apology for all that godawful ninja hackwork and retroactive insertions of ex-girlfriends turned assassin and crusty but lovable mentors we'd never previously heard of that he inflicted on Matt Murdock in his first writing assignment on the title, this particular Daredevil saga goes to eleven, and as such, was a very welcome breath of revitalizing air in the midst of the sea of stomach churning stupidity that the Daredevil comic book quickly became under Miller's first turn as writer, and remained under his various successors, especially the appallingly ungifted Ann Nocenti. Miller even seems to apologize for and retract his idiotic insistence that Matt Murdock had never had a radar sense, as Matt frequently makes use of said sense all the way through this story. Miller seems unable to write very well when he's doing his own art, so it falls on me to be especially thankful for David Mazzuchelli, whose brilliant visual depictions on this and on BATMAN: YEAR ONE seem to inspire Miller to the best writing heights he has ever achieved. Yeah, yeah, this is definitely a comic everybody should read.
Alan Moore's SWAMP THING: Up through the seemingly endless "American Gothic" story, this is some fine stuff. After "American Gothic" starts, it rapidly gets very tedious, other than a two part story guest starring Adam Strange, which completely rocks (but which seems to have been ret-conned into oblivion since).
Busiek and Ross' MARVELS -- The first two issues are great, the third is a let down, the fourth is pretty much crap, and nobody but me and Kurt's mom would have bothered with the thing at all if it had been illustrated by Sal Buscema (no knock to Sal). But, yeah, the Alex Ross artwork is a wonder to behold.
BONE Volume 1: I don't know. Maybe you can read BONE and enjoy it. Maybe you have it in you. After hearing people heap praise on it for decades, I finally tried to read one of the collections a few months ago (got it out of the library) and found it... disappointing, to say the least. I'm not saying I wanted to roll it tightly, set it on fire, and cram it entirely up Jeff Smith's ass or anything, but I sure couldn't see what everybody else apparently does in the fricking thing. Pass.
WATCHMEN, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons - WATCHMEN is overrated, but nearly everyone overrates it, so, whatever. Moore has done much stronger stuff than this since; I'd far sooner see an uninitiated non-comics fan (especially one with literary pretensions) exposed to PROMETHEA or FROM HELL than WATCHMEN, which is so full of inside-superhero comics references that a non-geek would probably find it mostly baffling, anyway.
Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN - Yeah, yeah. Good stuff, go read it, etc etc. I love Gaiman's SANDMAN, so does everyone else, and it's especially nice to read it all these days, because if you do, you can skip AMERICAN GODS, where he basically retreads all the cool concepts from SANDMAN without dumber and more boring characters. (I wanted to type 'without the pretty pictures', but, unfortunately, other than for brief artistic insurrections by Shawn McManus and Charles Vess, the artwork Gaiman works with on SANDMAN is near universally a horror to have to look upon.)
Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS - Nah. As with WATCHMEN, this is very overrated. Read Miller and Mazzucheli's BATMAN: YEAR ONE instead. As with their BORN AGAIN, this story very much seems to be Miller's apologia for all his idiotic excesses in DARK KNIGHT.
My own "Eight Comics to Read Before Dying"? Well, the arbitrary '8' number is a ridiculous limitation, but, well, let me take a hack at it:
FROM HELL by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell - simply breathtaking graphic storytelling, perhaps the finest the comics storytelling medium will ever see. Campbell's deeply unconventional visual stylings and lettering make this extremely hard to get into in the beginning, but once you're twenty pages in you'll realize that it's perfect for the story and never be bothered by it again. Moore tells his story in an equally challenging manner, mixing non-linear and layered narrative techniques in a way that is guaranteed to baffle and perplex nearly any ALL NEW, ALL DIFFERENT X-MEN fan who has ever lived... but if you can get through it, it's maybe the most rewarding comics work you will ever read.
Either "DAREDEVIL: BORN AGAIN" or "BATMAN: YEAR ONE" by Miller and Mazzuchelli. Both are fine works in the superhero comics sub-genre.
"The Laughing Fish" Batman/Joker two parter by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers. Or the "Nomad" story in CAPTAIN AMERICA AND THE FALCON by Englehart and Sal Buscema. Or the AVENGERS/DEFENDERS WAR by Englehart, Sal Buscema, and Bob Brown. Or the Sise-Neg/Genesis story in Dr. Strange by Englehart and Brunner. Or the Gods Go West/Squadron Supreme story in AVENGERS by Englehart and Perez. Or the Englehart/Milgrom CAPTAIN MARVEL stuff. Or... y'know what, just go read everything Steve Englehart wrote for Marvel or DC in the Silver Age. Yeah. That will cover it. Plus, Englehart's first eight issues or so of GREEN LANTERN, leading up to the CRISIS.
"Flash of Two Worlds" by Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino. You cannot be a superhero comics fan if you do not love this story. No. I'm not listening to you. You. Can. NOT. Be a superhero comics fan if you do not LOVE this story.
Steve Gerber's DEFENDERS. Or his MAN-THING. Or his HOWARD THE DUCK. Or his OMEGA THE UNKNOWN. Or his... y'know what I said about reading everything Steve Englehart wrote in the Silver Age? Same for Steve Gerber, plus, his FOOLKILLER series from the early 90s.
Jack Kirby's KAMANDI. I cannot speak with you as regards the art of comic book storytelling if you do not worship Jack Kirby's KAMANDI. And his OMAC. And his FANTASTIC FOUR. And his AVENGERS. And his X-MEN. Plus the whole FOURTH WORLD thing... well, maybe not FOREVER PEOPLE. Still. Kirby stuff, 60s and 70s. Go read. I'll wait.
Yeah, yeah, Gaiman's SANDMAN. Especially if you're trying to get that hot non-geek babe you know who just WON'T read comics to change her mind. SANDMAN will nearly always do it, especially if you start out with "Dream of a Thousand Cats". Chicks absolutely cannot resist that story.
Lee-Ditko's SPIDER-MAN. Have superhero comics ever been finer? No, no, I think they have not. Amazingly intricate Ditko crime-oriented plots and fantastically fluid Ditko pencils awesomely enhanced by some of Stan Lee's best dialogue and caption work ever. Life don' ged much bedda dan dat, at least, in superhero comics.
Well, except for Busiek and Perez's JLA/Avengers crossover. Which everyone should read, too, even if that makes nine, instead of 8.
Now, how about "Eight Comics To Die Before You Read", just to really piss people off?
* Anything by Warren Ellis. I know, I know, everybody seems to love Ellis, and I'd profess not to know why, but I'm pretty sure that in fact I do -- he works with fabulous artists, throws in a lot of sex and violence, and his characters are always really really pissy with each other. On the other hand, his plots make little sense and in addition to being pissy, his characters are also puerile little pud-wallopers with dumb ass powers and fucking retarded names. If you're all about the pretty titties and strange energy beams issuing from odd orifi... but wait, what am I saying? That's the Modern Age in a tokamak powered nanotech-augmented super-suppository right there.
* Anything written by Gerry Conway. Unless you're looking for a horrified laugh at just how bad superhero comics can be, avoid anything with Conway's name in the credits box at all costs. Possible exception: some of his run on SPIDER-MAN, around the time Gwen Stacy and the Green Goblin both died. However, I've heard rumors that Jim Shooter punched up a lot of Conway's dialogue around that time, too. Extra credit for being perhaps the worst thing ever to happen to superhero comics for being the Marvel Editor in Chief who drove Steve Englehart to DC and Steve Gerber off DEFENDERS.
* Every single post CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS reboot except BATMAN: YEAR ONE and Alan Brennert's lovely Black Canary story in SECRET ORIGINS.
* Everything ever published by Image Comics, unless it was written by Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman.
* Everything Chris Claremont has ever written. Except maybe IRON FIST, which I have a childish fondness for despite its histrionic wretchedness.
* Everything Marv Wolfman has ever written. Except maybe for TOMB OF DRACULA, which I have a childish fondness for etc etc etc
* DEATH OF SUPERMAN. Right hand to Jesus, if anyone ever says you have to read this comic or DIE, choose death. It is without a doubt the worst superhero comic book ever published, and yes, I am including all those truly appalling Jerry Siegel scripted MIGHTY CRUSADERS stories, too. A mesmerizingly meretricious story arc that climaxes with an issue entirely comprised of single and double page spreads in which Superman dies, kind of, for a little while, until he gets better. That final issue is like some sort of demented "WATCH A SPIKEY GUY POUND SUPERMAN INTO TROPICANA'S PURE PREMIUM EXTRA PULPY ORANGE JUICE" coloring book, that somebody has already colored for you, completely ruining what little utility it might have once possessed. Seriously, rip your own eyes out with a pasta ladle before you peruse this one, True Believer.
* AVENGERS FOREVER by Busiek and Pacheco. What? You think a miniseries in which a writer establishes that any character in the Marvel Universe could at any time in the past, present, or future actually have been or could still be or might well become a Space Phantom, without even necessarily being aware of it, is a good thing? Helloooooo, Warren Ellis fan! Also, bite me.
Okay, I have to go take a shower.