• Blankets - Craig Thompson, 2003
    • One of the few serious (early) 21st-century contenders for the title of "classic" in the world of graphic novels, Thompson's brick of a book is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story about a young man struggling to reconcile his Christian faith with, well...growing up, a conflict brought to bear by a beautiful girl named Raina. Is lust inherently sinful? Is desire inherently selfish? Complemented by an artstyle that swirls and flows and eddies like water, Craig's story is pretentious and melodramatic only insomuch as teenagers are pretentious and melodramatic; like life, too, his narrative fizzles and fits and unwinds itself into threads that fray out into the empty air without anything resembling closure.... 
  • Hawkeye #1-22 - Matt Fraction, 2012-2015
    • Capitalizing on the unstoppable success of Joss Whedon's The Avengers (2012), Matt Fraction's run on Hawkeye offers up Marvel's iconic archer in a witty, self-aware, slice-of-life presentation: "This is what he does when he's not being an Avenger," states the increasingly tongue-in-cheek tagline at the beginning of each issue. Clint Barton is battered and bitter; his mirror is the feisty, relentless Kate Bishop, who (often literally) commandeers her mentor's name and narrative. Fraction struggles to wrangle meaning and momentum from multi-issue arcs and the few longform narrative threads that feature in his run, but his scene-to-scene work is exquisite and unexpected: inventive, imaginative, full of surprises and delights that sound cute in concept but burst onto the page with conviction. 
  • The Killing Joke - Alan Moore, 1988
    • Alan Moore's portrayal of a pivotal confrontation between Batman, the Gordon family, and the Joker is one of the all-time iconic Batman stories, an exploration and examination of the ways in which different people react to traumatic events. Moore went on to speak critically of The Killing Joke in the decades after its release (and rightfully so; there are some truly cringeworthy storytelling decisions, from eye-rollingly silly to downright offensive), but there are flashes of brilliance throughout—and it's difficult to overstate the immense importance of The Killing Joke in the subsequent Batman mythos. 
  • Marvels - Kurt Busiek, 1994
    • Kurt Busiek reflects upon pivotal moments in the Marvel canon—Phineas Horton and the creation of the original Human Torch, the marriage of Reed Richards and Sue Storm, the coming of Galactus, the death of Gwen Stacy—through the eyes and lenses of photographer Phil Sheldon in this four-issue limited series. There's a sense of mournful existentialism that runs throughout these pages as Busiek's non-superpowered protagonists grapple with the meaning of a meaningful life in a world filled with gods and monsters, but the real highlight here is Alex Ross' unbelievable artwork; he brings a realistic touch to classic characters and showdowns, and the results are nothing less than unforgettable. 
  • Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi, 2000-2003
    • Although it neither invented nor popularized the genre of graphic autobiographies, Persepolis is probably responsible for their mainstream success in the early 2000s—Craig Thompson's Blankets and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home likely owe a great deal to Marjane Satrapi's memoir. Chronicling her childhood in the midst of the Iranian Revolution and eventual return to her home country as a young adult, Satrapi deftly captures an estuary of Eastern and Western culture from the perspective of someone who doesn't entirely understand the ways in which they do or don't mix. Apart from a few profoundly (and unintentionally) disturbing moments created by Marjane's startling lack of self-awareness, Persepolis is as riveting as it is sobering, as compelling as it is audacious. 
  • Sandman #1-75 - Neil Gaiman, 1988-1996
    • It's borderline impossible to summarize what exactly you'll be getting when you read Sandman. Gaiman's revered magnum opus in comics is a sprawling epic that follows Morpheus (or "Dream")—one of the so-called "Endless" along with Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium, and Destruction--on a variety of fantastical adventures as he seeks to rebuild his kingdom after a seventy-year imprisonment. It's a series in conversation not just with multiple genres, but with the history of DC comics and the written word. A towering work that remains essential reading for any lover of comics—or literature. 
  • Scott Pilgrim - Bryan Lee O'Malley, 2004-2010
    • Possibly the single most joyous series of graphic novels ever created, Scott Pilgrim is so saturated in video game and nerd culture that it's easy to forget how eloquently constructed and sharply-written it is. The premise is absurd enough that it actually works: in order to woo the lovely Ramona Flowers, Scott must defeat her "seven evil exes." But this isn't a regressive story about men beating up other men to win a woman's love; disguised in O'Malley's bubblegum-pop artstyle and snappy dialogue is a smart commentary on the way we understand and react to relationships, especially in our tendency to demonize others while glossing over our own flaws. These six books are nothing less than a treasure. 
  • The Ultimates & The Ultimates 2 - Mark Millar, 2002-2007
    • Although the MCU is inspired in many ways by Mark Millar's Ultimates series, it takes out the teeth from this rich and resonant satire of American imperialism in a post-9/11 world. The Avengers might as well be called The Assholes here: they are murderers, they are domestic abusers, and they threaten to rape as much as they promise to save. But they have arguably never been more compelling as characters, and the scathing portrayal of what happens when greatness is unaccompanied by goodness is exactly what the United States needed to hear in the first decade of the 21st century. Bryan Hitch's top-of-the-line artwork doesn't hurt, either—he brings The Ultimates to life in gloriously cinematic fashion. 
  • X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills - Chris Claremont, 1982
    • I have always been fond of and fascinated by the X-Men due to their inherent function as social allegory, shifting alongside the times to represent those who have been oppressed and marginalized. Rarely has this quality been thrown into such sharp relief as in God Loves, Man Kills, a brief stand-alone arc in which Reverend William Stryker condemns mutants as abominations against God and attempts to have them executed. It's a truly painful read—even thirty-five years after its publication, when I opened its pages for the first time, the dialogue might as well have been ripped verbatim from the things I hear people say every day—but God Loves, Man Kills is a testament to the power of comic books (and all literature), highlighting their ability to reveal our humanity through metaphor.