What Do I Read First?

So you're here. Now what?

Although each genres/categories links on the left-hand side of this page provides a few "start here"-type suggestions in addition to a full listing of every book in that particular category, this page gives you the titles of a few books you might want to start with regardless of which genres you might later wish to explore. The following books are generally considered to be some of the best that the comic book medium has to offer.


Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman

Maus won a special Pulitzer Prize (in Letters) in 1992; the first--and so far the only--comic book to do so. This is the one every journalist cites when he or she reviews a "serious" comic book, as the standard example of how "comics aren't just for kids anymore." Maus might even be the comic book you heard about that made you want to learn more about the medium. The good news is that Maus deserves all the praise that's been heaped upon it. The better news is that there are literally hundreds of other comic books that are just as fascinating/thought provoking/heartbreaking as Maus (which is the reason for this site's existence).

But if you haven't read Maus, it really is one of the best places to start. It's both a biography of Vladek Spiegelman (the author's father, who was a prisoner in Auschwitz) and an autobiography of Art Spiegelman himself, whose relationship with his father is fraught with conflicts. I can't say Maus is the most entertaining book you'll ever read, given the subject matter, but it will affect you deeply, guaranteed.


Blankets by Craig Thompson

If Maus is the book primarily responsible for bringing mainstream attention to comic books in the '90s, Blankets is one that helped bring mainstream attention back to comics a decade later. Craig Thompson's autobiographical exploration of his relationship with his first girlfriend, whom he met at bible camp, and of his nascent questions about his religious/spiritual beliefs (and how his beliefs conflict with those of his devout Christian parents) is told with a powerful lyrical beauty seldom seen in prose, film, song, poetry, or any other artistic medium (including comics, for that matter). The force of Thompson's artistry shines through on every single page, proving that comics are sometimes uniquely suited to telling a story. Blankets could not have been told as effectively in any other medium.


Bone by Jeff Smith

If J.R.R. Tolkien had collaborated with Walt Kelly to write The Lord of the Rings as a comic book instead of a novel, the end result might have looked and read something like Bone. Jeff Smith's magnum opus is funnier than LotR, and the Bone creatures are cuter than Hobbits (just as the rat creatures are cuter than orcs), but the epic scale and heroic quest elements are also there and nearly as thrilling as those present in Tolkien's landmark fantasy novel. Though there are some slightly spooky elements to the story, Bone is nonetheless appropriate for readers of all ages--including adults (it's a favorite of librarians everywhere). Smith's art reminds one of a classic Disney cartoon, but the story he tells in Bone is far more complex than anything in which Mickey Mouse ever starred. Highly recommended for fans of fantasy and adventure books.


Strangers in Paradise, vol. 1 by Terry Moore

Strangers in Paradise is a perennial favorite of women who don't otherwise read many (or any) other comic books. This is not to say it's not also a favorite of men and women who do read comics regularly, but there's something about SiP that appeals to gals who would otherwise be happy to ignore comics altogether. If he's smart, the guy who loves Spider-Man and Batman, but whose girlfriend does not, gives SiP to his girlfriend as a gift--and more often than not she will love it. Basically, it's the story of two best friends, Francine and Katchoo, and their relationship as it evolves over the course of several years. It's also about their friend David, and how his presence complicates their feelings for each other. Then there's a shadowy organization (which Katchoo may have been a part of) that uses high-end call girls to influence leading members of the United States government. And there's some betrayal, and some reversals, and some melodrama, and lots of humor. It's a bit like a soap opera, honestly, but a really, really good soap opera, okay?


Maggie the Mechanic by Jaime Hernandez

Love and Rockets is the name of a comic book that was written and illustrated by Jaime Hernandez and his brother Gilbert (as well as their other brother, Mario, on occasion) from 1981 to 1996. It was the alternative comic book of its time (in other words, if Spider-Man and Batman are the comic book equivalents of Michael Jackson's Thriller, then Love and Rockets is the equivalent of Nirvana's Nevermind).

Jaime's half of Love and Rockets focused on Maggie and Hopey, two Mexican American girls growing up in the southern California punk scene. Maggie the Mechanic is the first of three volumes that collect all of Jaime's so-called "Locas" stories from Love and Rockets. Though this volume incorporates some sci-fi elements (e.g., robots and rocket cycles) in the first 60 pages or so, Jaime soon drops them to focus entirely on the relationships among his charismatic cast of characters.

It's also worth noting that the female protagonists of Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise (see number 4 above) owe quite a bit to Maggie and Hopey. So anyone who loves Strangers in Paradise should love Maggie the Mechanic just as much, if not moreso. (Though be advised that the Love and Rockets books contain some sexually explicit material.)


Heartbreak Soup by Gilbert Hernandez

Gilbert's half of Love and Rockets focused on the fictional Latin American town of Palomar and its equally fascinating residents. Though there are quite a few main characters, standouts include Luba, the curvaceous single mother of four girls who arrives in town shortly after the series begins, and Chelo, the town's original bañadora (or bathgiver) who eventually becomes sheriff. Heartbreak Soup is the first of two volumes containing Gilbert's original group of "Palomar" stories.

Where Gilbert's brother Jaime's Love and Rockets stories have a hip, angry-young-man vibe about them, Gilbert's stories are more nuanced and share much in common with the writings of Gabriel García Márquez, particularly One Hundred Years of Solitude. Veteran comics readers will inevitably develop a slight preference for one of the brother's work over the other's, but this is pretty much like saying you prefer Beethoven to Bach. They're both still amazing.


Scott Pilgrim, vol. 1 by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Scott Pilgrim is perfect for that person in your life who prefers playing video games and cruising the Internet to reading books. It's also perfect for people who appreciate stories about people who prefer playing video games and cruising the Internet to reading books. Scott Pilgrim, the book's eponymous hero, is a 23-year-old slacker who plays bass in a band and not much else. He spends most of his time annoying his friends with his self-centered attitude and obsessing over a girl who's haunting his dreams--literally. When he finally meets this girl, Ramona Flowers, face-to-face, he learns that to date her he must battle her seven evil ex-boyfriends.

Sound a little ridiculous? Well, it is, but in the best possible way. Scott Pilgrim is brash, fast-paced, and the kind of book that will make you laugh out loud, even if you're reading it in a place where you shouldn't laugh out loud--like in a library. (Alas, I speak from personal experience.)


Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware

On the other end of the emotional spectrum, Chris Ware's magnum opus is as depressing as Scott Pilgrim is funny. Jimmy Corrigan charts the ill effects of alienation and introversion on a contemporary 36-year-old man and, in a parallel story, on an 8-year-old boy (who is the man's grandfather) circa 1892.

Much like Blankets, this book shows that the comic book medium is uniquely capable of telling stories in ways that no other media can accomplish. Ware's mastery of the form is unsurpassed, and his tight control of the various story elements results in a beautiful, sparse, and heartbreaking tale.


Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel's memoir of her childhood and the years leading up to the death of her father (who was a closeted homosexual) was named one of the best books of 2006 by Time Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Salon.com, the New York Times, and many other media outlets. It was also a finalist for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award and spent two weeks on the New York Times's Hardcover Nonfiction bestseller list. If that doesn't persuade you to give it a try I don't know what would.


Box Office Poison by Alex Robinson

Honestly, I'm torn as to whether Box Office Poison or Alex Robinson's other massive tome, Tricked, is a better introduction to his work. Tricked is perhaps a more tightly constructed and cohesive work (with an actual plot) and, because it's his second book, he'd already worked out the kinks in his illustration style (which are present only in the earliest pages of Box Office Poison), but in the end I think BoP might be the better place to start. Robinson is a master of character-based drama, and BoP is filled with complex characters who will remind you, sometimes painfully, of the important people in your own life. But it's also a very funny book. Recommended for anyone who loves those witty, character-driven movies that always win at the Sundance Film Festival.


Curses by Kevin Huizenga

Huizenga's beautiful short stories, which frequently star his contemplative protagonist, Glenn Ganges, are philosophical without being preachy, and pensive without being melancholy (or at least not too melancholy). The stories have a quiet, ethereal power, often working with subtle metaphors that don't feel labored or clichéd. It's hard to put this book into any one category of fiction; there's a little bit of philosophy, theology, fantasy, humor, horror, etc. But it all works together to create a singular worldview that I find breathtaking.


The Walking Dead, vol. 1 by Kirkman, Moore, and Adlard

The Walking Dead won't be for everybody, that's for sure. If you have an aversion to blood and guts, or bad language, or stories about characters who aren't very nice to each other, then you'll probably want to pass on this one.

But if you like zombies you will love The Walking Dead! In fact, I would argue that, although this series owes its very existence to the movies of George Romero and John Russo, The Walking Dead nonetheless surpasses them in two very important ways: First, it never ends! So far the books in this series amount to about 2000 pages of horrific zombie action, with absolutely no end in sight. Second, the length of the series allows readers to actually get to know the protagonists (and, perhaps more importantly, grow to care about them). Though Romero's movies had their share of memorable characters, you still only got to spend a couple of hours with them before the end credits rolled. But not so with The Walking Dead. As its tagline says, it's "a continuing story of survival horror." Recommended for anyone who loves zombies, natch.


Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

Scott McCloud's magnum opus is the equivalent of a graduate-level seminar on the art of comic books--presented in comic book form. And when I say the "art" of comics I'm not just talking about the drawings. McCloud first defines what comics are, then explores how words and pictures work together to create effective comics, how time is expressed in comics, the artistic philosophy at work in various comics styles, and so on. All this may sound like pretty dry stuff, but McCloud's method of presentation is totally engrossing, even to a casual reader (trust me, I've taken a poll). For those who don't just want to read comics but want to truly understand the medium, Understanding Comics is essential reading.


A Few Books that Didn't Make the List
(But Should Probably Be Considered Anyway)

The Sandman by Neil Gaiman and various artists

Ask anyone familiar with it, and he or she will tell you that The Sandman is the best fantasy story in comic book form. It also happens to be one of the best comic books ever, period. But there are two reasons why I didn't put it in the top ten.

First (and this may be a personal prejudice stemming from the stated purpose of this website), The Sandman suffered from some initial growing pains, and exhibited a few slightly annoying "superhero comic" qualities early on--particularly in its use of superhero cameos. I don't think this was Gaiman's fault, but rather the fault of the publisher, DC Comics, which seemed to be initially skeptical of what Gaiman was trying to accomplish and insisted that he keep the book grounded in the DC Comics "universe." As a result, it may be hard for someone who isn't a fan of superhero comics to get into the groove of this book (though you have my word that persistence will be rewarded).

Second, I personally find a lot of the artwork in The Sandman to be ugly. There are notable exceptions (the art of Charles Vess, Jill Thompson, and Sam Kieth, for example) but again, it could prove to be inaccessible to the average reader.

From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

Arguably, this is Alan Moore's greatest work, and it's certainly notable for its extensively researched exploration of the Jack the Ripper mythos. However, as with The Sandman, From Hell is hindered a bit by its art, which definitely takes some getting used to--even for veteran comic book readers (myself included). The graphic depiction of the murders (particularly the fifth one) may also put some readers off.

Finally, here's a link from Bookslut.com, offering helpful advice on how to tailor comic book suggestions for the comics newbies in your life.