It’s way beyond cliché at this point to call Watchmen the greatest superhero comic ever written-slash-drawn. But it’s true. In the world Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created, it’s 1985, Nixon is still president, the Cold War is at absolute zero, and the nation’s superheroes consist of a bunch of neurotic, washed-up has-beens, mostly without actual superpowers, mostly retired.
As the novel begins one of them, the Comedian, is murdered. What follows is an astoundingly dense, beautiful, sad story that begins as a noir mystery and ends with the destruction, or possibly the redemption, of the entire world as we know it. To tell this story Gibbons and Moore deployed about a dozen fugually interwoven plots and an intricate system of echoing visual motifs. The result is a masterpiece so powerful it caused the entire genre of superhero comics to immediately rethink its most sacred conventions.
2. The Dark Knight Returns
The Dark Knight Returns is a brutal reboot of one the greatest comic book characters ever created. Frank Miller pushes Batman into his 50s: he has retired 10 years earlier, after the death of Robin, and has sunk into brooding oblivion. Gotham has sunk too. A vicious gang forces Batman out of retirement, but once he’s out of the cave, all his old foes come back out to play too.
A major superhero had never felt this real before—all stubbly chin and aging sinews and black thoughts. This is the book that begat the Batman of the movies.
Morpheus is the Lord of Dreams. As our story begins, he has been magically captured by an occult group. A pale, skinny man clad in black—he’s the quintessence of goth—Morpheus escapes, but his kingdom, the Dreaming, a kind of geographical expression of our collective unconsciousness, has fallen into disrepair, and he must restore it to its former glory.
Melancholy and occasionally very ruthless, Morpheus is one of the Endless, a pantheon of beings that includes Death, Despair, Destruction, and various other eternal principles that begin with D. In writing Sandman, Neil Gaiman merrily pillaged the world’s mythologies, and those of his own brain, to produce a rich, literary and often beautiful mix of horror and philosophy.
4. The Adventures of Tintin: The Black Island
Hergé’s tufted, virtually sexless reporter investigates mysteries ranging from the criminal (counterfeiting) to the science fictional (a mysterious meteorite that causes things to grow at an astounding rate), in the company of a drunken ex-sailor, a half-cracked scientific genius, two identical bumbling detectives, and of course his white, apparently sentient dog Snowy.
Tintin is a weird mix of comedy, mystery and adventure—you never quite know what you’re going to get when you open one of those skinny, oversized volumes. Hergé’s art is an utterly inimitable mix of cartoonishness and photographic hyper-realism, inked in luminous, oversaturated colors, which renders Tintin’s timeless, ambiguously European world utterly believable. We’ll see how well Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson can reproduce it onscreen when the movie comes out in 2011.
5. Ghost World
Two teenage girls are whiling away their nothing lives in a nameless nowhere exurb of malls and fake diners and empty sidewalks. They’ve graduated from high school, but in their hyper-ironic state any ambition they have feels cheap and pointless, so they just wander from day to day, sifting through the broken refuse of popular culture. Their sardonic banter is so funny, and their anomie so total, that on the rare occasions when an actual authentic emotion breaks through Ghost World, it’s like a battering ram that crushes the reader’s heart.
The movie—starring Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson—is fine, but it’s no substitute for the book’s pale blue-washed panels, so orderly and still and perfect that you just know nothing is going to happen, ever.
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