Someone just getting into comics asked me where I get my recommendations for titles to try. I actually wasn’t that helpful regarding current stuff, because I’ve just developed a bit of an instinct over the last [many] years. But between that question and looking at the Eisner nominations, it did make me think of some classic collections that I can’t imagine my own shelves being without. So here are a half dozen recommendations of collected editions:
Grendel: Devil By The Deed (Dark Horse). This is the hardest of these to find, I promise. The story of Matt Wagner’s Grendel is fascinating; and not only the story on the page. The very first Grendel story appeared in the days of Comico, in their Comico Primer, but it was Wagner revisiting his original Grendel concept as a back-up in the pages of Mage - The Hero Discovered that got it attention, and that’s the story collected here. Not a piece of sequential art in the traditional comic book sense, it is nevertheless an illustrated story, and one of the most beautiful you’re likely to see. Drawn in a deco style in which each page is constructed to be as much a part of the design as the illustrations within it, the story’s ever-increasing darkness is at odds with the style and grace of its look. Telling the story of the first Grendel, the assassin Hunter Rose and his conflict with the ancient man-wolf Argent, the lynchpin of the story is the child caught between them, Stacey Palumbo. Her descent into their world of violence and terror gives the tale its real horror, and the book an edge that’s difficult to explain without spoiling its impact.
For a series that started its ‘proper’ life as a back-up, Grendel went on to have a far greater presence and longevity than its main feature. Wagner and various collaborators carried on the story of Grendel after Hunter Rose’s death, as various others took up the mantle. Or were possessed by it - there’s more than a suggestion as we follow Grendels into the far, far future, that Grendel is more a force than an identity.
The long and varied history of the published Grendel, which includes multiple visits back to tell more tales of the Hunter Rose years, has its inevitable ups and downs, but in Devil By The Deed you get (in several senses) the original and best.*
Thor by Walter Simonson Omnibus (Marvel). (Okay, this one’s quite hard to find too, but not as hard.) Weighing in at 1192 hardbacked pages, this one is a monster. Walt Simonson’s takeover of Marvel’s Thor series in 1983 was one of the first real auteur-style runs in Marvel history. John Byrne’s Fantastic Four predates it by a couple of years, and Frank Miller’s Daredevil predates that, at least in terms of his being the artist, and both are excellent, but neither has quite the same feel of a creator being given the reins and permission to run wherever he likes. Thor under Simonson has an epic quality that had quite frequently been inexplicably missing from a series that is, after all, about a god. Like many of the best runs in a shared universe, Simonson started from a basic principle of the series and asked an obvious question. In this case, it was established in Thor’s first appearance that according to the words carved on it, whoever holds the hammer Mjolnir, “if he be worthy” gets Thor’s power. Simonson’s question was; “what if someone else is just as worthy as Thor himself?”. Enter Beta Ray Bill, an alien with a head like a horse’s skull and as it turns out a nobility and, yes, worthiness, that entirely qualifies him. Being willing to play with the most basic principles established way back by Stan himself immediately showed Simonson was striking out into uncharted territory. Over the following issues he then wove Bill’s story together with the machinations of Dark Elves, intrigue in Asgard, and a mysterious figure in another dimension forging an almighty sword, to tell a story that was nothing less than the doom of the gods. Thor has done a lot of Ragnarok stories over the years, but this is the definitive one.
It would have been easy for Simonson to come in, tell his big ‘tipping over the pieces’ story and then wander off - any number of big name creators have done exactly that at one time or another - but Simonson took the unusual tack of sticking around. He explored the aftermath with as much care as he had planned the disaster in the first place, and stuck with the book all told for almost four years. Sal Buscema took over the art about two-thirds of the way through, but matched the Simonson style closely enough that at times it was hard to tell, and it still somehow feels as much one man’s vision at the end as at the beginning. Also, Thor spends three issues as a frog (seriously), so how can you not love it? This collection brings together all the Simonson-written issues, plus his four issue Balder The Brave mini that ties in, also drawn by Buscema.
Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection (Harper). Scott McCloud is possibly better known these days for his groundbreaking series of books Understanding Comics, Making Comics, and Reinventing Comics (and possibly also for a TED Talk that you really should check out), but the work which put him on the map was Zot!. Beginning in 1984, the original Zot! series was published by Eclipse Comics, and ran for an initial ten colour issues which told one extended story, then after a break came back in black and white for issues 11 to 36. It’s these twenty six issues which are collected in this volume.
Zot! is one of the most deceptive American comics I’ve ever encountered - its surface simplicity entirely belies the depth and complexity that McCloud achieves. In simple terms it’s the story of an ordinary girl (Jenny) from ‘our’ world who encounters a super-hero (Zot) from an alternate Earth where time stopped in the mid 1960s even though they had already achieved the flying cars and other cool stuff we still haven’t got to, and their adventures in his world and ours. Even on that level it’s an excellent creation - full of life and energy and a sense of wonder that comics should find so easy and yet so often flub. At a deeper level it’s about being a teenager and everything that goes with it. Jenny is one of the realest ‘ordinary people’ you’ll ever find in a comic, yet incredibly, her entire supporting cast on our Earth are very nearly as well-realised, even though they get far less exposure. Her friends Woody and Terry in particular stand out, especially in the issues within the ‘Earth Stories’ section of this book which they each lead. Zot himself is a brilliant idea - almost insanely optimistic due to his origin on a world where things are somehow geared to make the good guys win, he’s also disarmingly frank (“Want to have sex?”), so he’s the perfect narrative route to asking difficult questions and highlighting the aspects of life that serve McCloud’s story.
This collected edition, which is digest sized, includes a ‘director’s commentary’ by McCloud and previously unseen artwork. My original editions of the Earth Story issues are among my most treasured comic possessions - as would the earlier run, including the colour issues, if they hadn’t all gone up in flames in the early 90s. This edition is an outstanding collection, beautifully presented and with the additional layer of insight into the creative process that seems natural from a creator who has spent the years since he produced it taking the art of comic-making to pieces and reassembling it.
The Planetary Omnibus (DC). I hate to resort to cliché, but this is one of those efforts that almost insist on being called magnum opus. Warren Ellis, John Cassaday and Laura Martin spent ten years telling the story of the Planetary organisation. ‘Archaeologists of the Impossible’, Planetary exists to uncover the secret history of the world, primarily exploring by means of its super-powered field team. In the early parts of the series Ellis shows this by taking on multiple fictional milieus in a series of done-in-one issues - 1950s atomic horror, Japanese monster movies, a Constantine-like modern-day urban horror, Quatermass rocket sci-fi, Doc Savage pulp and plenty more all make a showing as Planetary digs beneath the surface of the ordinary world. Under Cassaday's slightly clinical hand, individually these stories can feel slightly cold and inconclusive, even as he replicates the relevant styles to an uncanny degree, but together they start to make clear exactly how extraordinary the history (and present) of the Wildstorm universe is.
They also begin to put in place the pieces of the bigger story that occupies the latter part of the series, which when you get to it makes it clear that Ellis has just decided to tell comics’ most protracted What If story: What if the Fantastic Four were evil and secretly ruled the world? The Four, the ongoing antagonists of the series, are relentlessly ruthless - they exterminate an entire planet's population so they can use their world as a storage space for their esoteric weapons collection. In a single issue they kill a Superman-analogue (as a baby, freshly arrived on earth), the Wonder Woman equivalent the second she leaves the safety of Paradise Island, and something like a Green Lantern, just to avoid any possible future challenges to their authority. They represent incalculable power in their world, meaning Planetary has to resort to cunning and chance to find ways to pick them off.
I know some people find the early issues quite hard going, but as a long form piece Planetary more than rewards sticking with, and given the impossibility of sourcing a copy of the entirely lovely Absolute edition, this Omnibus is currently the best way of experiencing it.
Bone One Volume Edition (Cartoon Books). Another monster (1300+ pages this time), the complete collection of Jeff Smith’s Bone is a delight. With clear influences from Walt Kelly’s Pogo and Carl Barks’ work, this is as much an epic as Simonson’s Thor. Telling the story of three cousins’ unplanned travels and eventual conflict with the Lord of the Locusts, Smith delivers an outstanding spin on the classic Epic Journey. The story itself here is great enough, moving from peril to respite to emotional development and back to peril pretty much perfectly, but it’s his decision to tell that story through the eyes of ‘cartoon characters’ that makes the book.
More times than you can count, Smith subverts the expectations the reader brings to the book based on its apparent genre - approach it as a ‘cute animals’ book and you’ll be tripped up by the adult themes and situations; think of it as a ‘traditional’ fantasy epic and you’ll fall over the fast food restaurants and contemporary references. I’d almost guarantee that if you haven’t read Bone previously, no matter what you go in expecting at some point (and then many others) you will be surprised. I’ve read occasional criticisms of the production values on this complete collection, particularly about the paper stock, which is certainly thin, but not to the point where it should stop you enjoying one of the most impressive long form stories in the medium.
Saga of the Swamp Thing Book 1 (DC). In the earlier part of his career, Alan Moore had a habit of taking on previously-established characters and reinventing them to create the generally-regarded-as-definitive version. He did it with Captain Britain, then again with Marvelman/Miracleman. The first time he did it in the US was when he took over Swamp Thing.
The parallel with his Captain Britain run is particularly pertinent; in both he took on the character and then quickly killed them before using the mechanism of their rebirth to rip the rug out from under everything they and the readers thought they knew. And so this collection begins with Swampie’s death from a bullet in the head before explaining in the rightly famous The Anatomy Lesson that he isn’t a human-turned-plant as he’d always thought - he’s 100% plant. And “you can’t kill a plant by shooting it in the head”.
At the time of publishing, readers of The Anatomy Lesson (and I was one of them) were so stunned by this revelation, which threw out everything known about Swamp Thing’s origin, that its implications passed us by. So Moore then spent the next couple of years explaining them. Along the way Swampie’s status shifted from Shambling-Parody-Of-A-Man(™) to 100% certified Plant Elemental and guardian of The Green. This first run, however, sees Moore beginning to set out the pieces he’s going to play with for the next few years, establishing some of Swamp Thing’s new abilities and his relationship with Abigail Arcane in light of his changing sense of what he is. A slightly unexpected cameo by the Justice League in the middle of the book comes as a shock because they simply don’t fit in the world that Swamp thing is now part of - Moore seems to be using them consciously to achieve exactly this kind of clash in the reader’s mind.
Important as Moore’s contribution to Swamp Thing’s history is - and indeed this is close to the point where he single-handedly becomes The Saviour of Comics - the art that graced most of his stories is every bit as important in establishing this as the definitive run. Stephen Bissette and John Totleben’s lush, organic look, awash with tiny details and beautiful textures, defined what people thought a Swamp Thing comic had to look like for a generation or more. When Moore’s story went into horror and mysticism rather than swamp life and the elemental planes they responded by crafting visuals that were as disturbing or awesome as the scripts demanded.
All of Moore’s Swamp Thing has been collected in various editions, and I recommend all of it. But even though there are extended runs of issues that deliver a more evolved sense of his aims with the series, it’s here that he sets out his stall, so this is where I suggest you start. And everyone who reads American comics really should have a copy of The Anatomy Lesson on the premises. It's that good.
I've deliberately gone for a diverse spread here, and obviously these are only the tip of the iceberg, but I can hand on heart say that they're all great pieces of work and all in their different ways represent a high point of their particular facet of the medium.
*Devil By The Deed is also available in volume 1 of The Grendel Omnibus, which is currently in print. It's not as nice an edition as the hardcover, but far more easily obtainable.