Recently, a friend of mine recommended some comics to a co-worker who had just started reading them with Watchmen. He leaped right in to Warren Ellis and other authors that I think present a fairly high barrier to the average reader, so I wrote this response detailing what I think a new comics reader should be looking for. Ellis is on the list, sure, but now that everyone uses Amazon, I don't see why you can't start with some older works. There's Byrne and Gaiman, Claremont and Moore. All the great comics authors of the last 25 years are your playground, so mix it up and have fun.
Regarding Warren Ellis: he's an acquired taste. He delights in trying to shock the reader, and at times it falls flat (Ignition City's poo-fixation for example). However, he's written some brilliant stuff (e.g. the early Authority and Planetary) and I'll keep reading what he has to write (and the movies they're making from his stuff). If I were going to point someone to Ellis for the first time, though, I'd probably go with Transmetropolitan, which you did suggest. That's a sort of futuristic take on the famous journalist Hunter S. Thompson. It's funny, crazy and shockingly thoughtful for what presents itself as a drug-fueled rant.
As an easier intro to the past 25 years or so in comics, I'd suggest this tour:
The evolution of the superhero:
- Superman: The Man of Steel - Superman re-invented by John Byrne in the late 80s. Lots of fun with "making him real" including changing how he flies and simple things like how he shaves.
- Batman: The Dark Knight Returns - Batman with a punk twist. Ends with one of the best superhero crossover battles of all time.
- Booster Gold - In the late 80s or early 90s this was bought by DC comics and re-started by Byrne. A con man from the future plays superhero for profit.
- Watchmen - We started off with this, but I had to throw it in there. The axis on which superhero stories turned in the late 80s.
- Supreme - What if Superman became aware of his own revision history? It's one of those Superman but with the names changed for copyright reasons books. Very postmodern. Somewhat uneven after the first book, which is brilliant.
- Rising Stars - Only a hundred or so supers exist, all created by a strange meteor over the midwest. The story is about how the country reacts to them and how they react to each other in the face of public concern. It's J. Michael Straczynski's story who previously wrote the Babylon 5 TV series.
- The Authority - Warren Ellis does superheros with his usual over-the-top flair. What would you do with the world if you could sink Italy with a thought? Would you protect it? Rule it? Is there a difference?
- Planetary - Also Ellis. A strange science re-take on many genres of fiction including quite a few superheroes.
- Kurt Busiek's Astro City is perhaps the most interesting re-take on supers. This story introduces the concept of the over-crowded superhero city that Alan Moore would later run with to the extreme in Top Ten. In Astro City supers are an every day thing, but the story isn't about their massive battles with supervillains, it's about their lives. How they make time for a day job; how the citizens manage to go about their days; and how a young man starts off being a side kick. The only flaw Astro City has is that it makes you want to know more about each character, but keeps rotating through them to tell their stories in such a way that you never really get to know any one of them other than The Confessor who takes up most of the second collected book.
Neil Gaiman's Sandman changed comics. An age of post modern storytelling was brought in by this re-take on about 6000 years of human stories, dreams and myth. The story is essentially a soap opera about a dysfunctional family. The twist is that this family are the embodiments of the forces that drive humanity (Dream, Death, Destiny, etc.) It's a review of how and why we build myths clearly influenced by Joseph Campbell and others. He tears down and scrutinizes everything from Egyptian mythology to Shakespeare. This series goes about 50ish issues (something like 8-10 collected books) and has various spinoffs that follow Death and other characters.
Following that there were a number of interesting meta stories. I've already talked about Supreme and Planetary. There is also Promethea, which I just finished. That's the tale of a young woman who is possessed by a semi-mythological entity known as Promethea. This is essentially Alan Moore's excuse to explore the history of mostly Western magical theory from its roots in Egypt but mostly focusing on the post-Victorian sympathetic symbolism.
Neil Gaiman's Sandman starts off with a little tie-in to normal superhero stories, but in Marvel 1602, he goes all the way, re-tooling the whole stable of Marvel superheroes in the world of 1602 Europe. It's a fun read on its own, but even better if you brush up on X-Men and The Avengers first.
Comics that have become movies:
X-Men has a long history and there are some awesome stories tucked in there. I would probably start with either one of the really old collecteds or Joss Whedon's recent Astonishing X-Men series which is now being written by Warren Ellis. A good starting point for the group is probably the Dark Phoenix Saga by Claremont and Byrne which was butchered in a recent movie.
Spider Man. Frankly, there's little to recommend, here. Spider Man goes through phases of good and bad, but there's very little that's truly great. About as close as it's come is J. Michael Straczynski's run which explored the idea that Spider Man was more of an expression of the spider as a symbol than a radioactive freak. Neat idea, but not on par with his other work such as Rising Stars (above)
Superman. Beyond the Man of Steel, I'd also recommend Whatever Happened To the Man of Tomorrow by Alan Moore and Kingdom Come which is probably one of the best "the weight of the world" type Superman stories, and has some of the best watercolor and pencil art to grace a comic.
Batman. Along with Dark Knight Returns, there are some really interesting one-shots series about or involving Batman. The DC alternate history line of comics, Elseworlds has some great batman "what if" stories. (search link) Gaiman also does a nice one-shot Whatever Happened To the Caped Crusader which is modeled on Whatever Happened To the Man of Tomorrow, but does rely on a fair bit of Batman lore that you might not be familiar with.
XXXenophile is a series of graphically sexual comics that tell cute science fiction and fantasy stories as pornography. It might not sound like a recipe for success, but it's some of the funniest stuff I've read. Just to give a sense, one of the covers is a picture of a guy dressed up in a Godzilla suit standing over a woman in bed who is clothed only in strategically placed miniature Japanese houses. It's that kind of humor throughout. Artist and author Phil Foglio is the star, here. His slightly bulbous drawing style really brings out the funny in naked people. While he doesn't draw every story (nor write them all), it's his work and humor that glues the whole together and prevents it from becoming simply lurid (not that it isn't lurid... it's just not simple ;-)
Foglio and wife Kaja also wrote a more family friendly and less silly comic in the steampunk genre called Girl Genius. The first volume is in black & white, the rest are in color. Well worth it, though it failed financially and eventually became a Web comic, it was a great read.
Side note on Foglio: he was responsible for the cute little devil/deamon that's the logo for BSD Unix.
Also, there's the old She Hulk stories that many of my friends in college were avid readers of.
Comics have been a serious medium as well as a place for fantastic or funny stories.
Maus is a Pulitzer Prize winning story of the holocaust with the edges slightly rounded by the replacement of the people involved with anthropomorphic mice.
Understanding Comics is a comic about the art of making comics. It's a really fun tour of the medium.
Most comic book fiction is of the superhero variety which melds fantasy and science fiction in a modern setting. A few stories are purely fantasy. Sandman is an obvious example, but it opened the door for a number of others.
Fables, one of the more recent entries in this lineup, is a great post-modern fairy tale read at first, but I'd only recommend going through to the end of the first major storyline which ends very well. After that it gets a bit soap opera.
Some of the things I've regretted reading:
Just about any "death of" series. The only one worth reading was Crisis on Infinite Earths which was literally the death of 50% of DC comics heroes and their fractured storylines up to that point. Some major characters were among the casualties along with entire alternate Earths that DC had been telling stories in up until then. But I got sucked into the whole Death of Superman and Death of Batman storylines before I wised up. Ugh. Fortunately by the time Marvel did the death of Captain America, I'd gotten the clue.
Preacher. OK, let me be clear: Preacher is excellent at what it sets out to do. What it sets out to do, however, is annoy the reader. This is a stab at the American myth in much the same way that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was. However, instead of touring the American dream on drugs, Preacher follows a down-and-out preacher whose congregation was killed by a freak accident (or was it) as he searches for God, encountering a hit-woman ex girlfriend, a hard-drinking Irish vampire, murderously insane Vatican secret agents and all manner of scary rural Americans on the way. It's really creative and interesting. Problem is, it's also a study in finding what you won't tolerate in a story and taking it to an extreme. Be it graphic violence (imagine Quentin Tarantino trying for an NC-17 rating... hard), rape, abuse of the deformed (there's a recurring character named Arseface... you can imagine why), sexual ... well, anything. Heck, the whole story is based on the idea that God is the moral equivalent of a deadbeat dad and should really be smacked around for what he's done. Clearly he was trying to accomplish something, here. I made it through the whole series, but I don't really recommend it.
Series that have gone down-hill are all too common. An author often comes up with a great idea, but later authors or even the same one fail to keep up the momentum. Often this happens after years of a comic's publication. Examples include The Authority, Teen Titans and the aforementioned Fables.