Around the early 2000s, someone reading an anthology of Hellblazer comics would have been seen as unwilling to make the jump to more adult fare and sink their teeth into the great American novel. In 2008, we had Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Suddenly, people looked at graphic novels a little differently. A lot of comics are for kids, but there have always been comics for adults, dating back to the Golden Age before the Comics Code Authority. Listed below are some of the most epic graphic novels from the Golden Age onward. Think of this as a primer for the world of comics designed to make you pause.
Kingdom Come by Mark Waid & Alex Ross
In the DC universe, the A-list members of the Justice League are more or less considered gods. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Green Lantern, The Flash, and Aquaman are all set up as a pantheon of beings with powers beyond the reach of normal humans. Kingdom Come is an epic graphic novel that looks at what happens when gods leave. In other words, Kingdom Come is a contrast between the titanic presence of older heroes that represent something greater than themselves, and edgier newcomers to the comic scene. The culmination of this series is an attempt to divine what our own mythical heroes—cemented into popular culture—should do. Should they serve as beacons of hope and examples for all, or should they be nothing more than forms of wish fulfillment, with no morals to hold them back?
Preacher by Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon
Preacher was created by Garth Ennis, which means it’s pretty much guaranteed to be violent, sexual, and controversial. The series protagonist, a small town preacher named Jesse Custer, is possessed by a being that is the result of the taboo copulation of a demon and an angel. Gifted with powers of good and evil that quite possibly rival God, Custer goes on a long, arduous quest through a disturbing, spiritual America. On this journey, he interacts with supernatural beings while looking for answers from a god who left heaven as soon as Genesis—the being possessing Custer—was born. Custer’s encounters range from almost mythical to the painfully personal as he has to confront his family of backwoods rednecks.
The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen & Jamie Mckelvie
This epic graphic novel poses an interesting twist on the question of what one would do with ultimate power. 12 people find that they are the reincarnation of various deities. However, the power and fame with which they are gifted come with a price—they will die within two years of this discovery. There may be high hopes and ideals for people with god-like powers, but as you might expect, it turns out that gods are just as petty and fallible as humans. They use their newfound powers to bicker among themselves, kill humans and each other, and revel in the time they have left. The series has an internal logic that brings a new take on what gods would look like in the modern era.
Absolute Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis, Darick Robertson, & Rodney Ramos
Take Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and mix it with a heavy dose of classic cyberpunk. Then add a dash of surreal anti-authoritarianism, and you have just a hint of what Transmetropolitan is like. The protagonist of the series, Spider Jerusalem, is a gonzo journalist in the tradition of Hunter S. Thompson. Forced back into a sprawling, decadent, hellscape of a city rife with political corruption and obsessive consumerism to finish the last two books of his publishing deal, Jerusalem takes on politics, the police, and anyone who makes him angry (which is pretty much everyone). Unsurprisingly, he does so with his brutal writing and his unsparing bowel disruptor—a weapon designed to cause instant and painful loss of bowel control.
Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
Watchmen is a dystopian look at superheroes, and one of the most enduring and popular epic graphic novels around. It poses a simple question: “Who watches the watchmen?” A bunch of unhinged, masked vigilantes enforce the law, which brings about all sorts of strange and dangerous changes in the world. We all love Batman, but Rorschach is probably a more realistic depiction of what a violent, slightly crazed vigilante with a sense of moral absolutism would look like. If you’ve only seen the movie, do yourself a favor and read the book. The ending makes a lot more sense, and it leaves you with a much better sense of just how brilliant Ozymandias really is.
Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison, Karen Berger, & Dave McKean
A rare combination of beautiful abstract art and potent storytelling makes Arkham Asylum worth reading. Then foist it on your friends to make sure you have someone to talk about it with! Every page is so full of imagery and symbolism that you have to take time to decipher both the story and its meaning. It’s a dark, rich world that poses a question important to the Batman mythos: is Batman crazy? Should he be locked away in the same asylum as the mentally disturbed personalities he sometimes has a hand in creating? It’s these kinds of stories—rather than the cyclical, insipid weekly publications—that cement our childhood comic book heroes into pop culture.
Sandman by Neil Gaiman, Sam Keith, & Mike Dringenberg
Based on an old comic book character of the same name, Gaiman’s off-the-rails update of the series is the crown jewel of Vertigo’s string of successes in the nineties. Successful enough that it launched at least two spinoff series (and a number of standalone companion pieces), Sandman is at once a deeply personal character study and a sweeping epic determined to examine the whole of creation. It manages to do so by giving us an intimate look at Morpheus, an embodiment of the very concept of dreams. Not nearly as whimsical as one might expect, Morpheus broods his way through a picaresque series of stories which lead to a shattering series of events.
Saga by Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples
Saga is currently the hottest thing in the world of comics. As of 2016, this combination fantasy epic, space opera, and love story is outselling The Walking Dead. Yeah, let that sink in for a second. The artwork is gorgeous, and the narrative is compelling enough to fuel five volumes with an expected six coming during the second half of 2016. The series is a weird, surrealist mix of genres including ritual magic, ghosts, dueling empires, and a robot monarchy with television screens for heads. You might think that with so much going on, it would be a little too frantic and oversaturated. Brian K. Vaughan is an experienced writer, and this isn’t his first hit series—so he manages to pull everything off with aplomb.
We3 by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely
I would not suggest reading this unless you’ve got a box of tissues handy and some spare time for a good cry. We3 is a mashup of sci-fi cyborg action and the heart-wrenching, soul-crushing pathos of stories like Homeward Bound, Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, or Plague Dogs. If you’re wondering how that would even work together, the answer is all too well. The futuristic tech included in this story feels like a natural extension of the greater theme of human cruelty—especially when faced with the raw emotion and loyalty displayed by these animals. Perhaps the most troubling aspect is how well Morrison manages to capture both the lower animal intelligence of his three main characters and the fact that it shouldn’t matter, because they are just as capable of pain and emotion as humans.
From Hell by Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell
I’m sure what I’m about to say may alienate some people, but I think this one is amazing. This is an epic graphic novel with an appendix—and that is awesome! The amount of research that went into this book is just mind blowing. Moore went trespassing and ended up getting thrown off of private property because he wanted to get a good look at the interior of one of the mansions included in the book. That’s the kind of dedication you’d expect from a man who looks like a wide-eyed psychedelic prophet who put love into every page. The book is gorgeously drawn, and is an amazing, historical story drawing on the underground occult movement. The story takes its time, establishing everything it needs rather than rushing through material in a few issues. If you want something a little less lurid than your usual superhero graphic novel, this would be a solid choice.