Disclaimer: These graphic novels are intended to be read by young adults and older. As they contain mature themes and imagery, I would not recommend them to anyone under the age of sixteen.
Epic doesn't really do justice to the six thick volumes that make up this Japanese classic. Set in the post-apocalyptic city of Neo-Tokyo, the series follows the adventures of juvenile delinquents Kaneda and Tetsuo, members of a biker gang who stumble upon a secret government programme involving individuals gifted with terrible psychic powers. After an encounter with Takeshi, a member of the government experiement, Tetsuo's psychic potential is unharnessed, transforming him into a power-hungry maniac with the goal of reawakening Akira - the source of the explosion that destroyed Tokyo thirty years earlier. The only person who can stop him is Kaneda. Headstrong and cocky, Kaneda has always made Tetsuo feel inferior, which drives him to strive even harder for more and more power.
Akira has everything a great graphic needs. Amazing artwork, some of which is so detailed it could be lifted straight from a technical illustration in some complex machinery blueprint. A vast array of colourful characters populate the world of the story, from the world-weary and resilient Colonel Shikishima to the enigmatic young terrorist Kei, also Kaneda's love interest. The plot mixes the grand themes of political intrigue and natural/man-made disaster with simpler tales of friendship, rivalry and loneliness. As well as being a very serious series, carrying heavy messages about Japan's experiences of nuclear war and natural disasters, Akira has many humourous asides, providing an effective contrast with the serious subject matter and sometimes dense scientific jargon. All in all, probably the best graphic novel I've ever had the pleasure of reading.
Still on the subject of nuclear war, but this time across the pond in the United States of America, Watchmen is set in an alternative 1980s, where the existence of superheroes has changed the course of history. America has won the Vietnam War with the help of the seemingly omnipotent 'Dr Manhattan', but as a result the Cold War has escalated to brink of nuclear disaster. The once-loved 'masked heroes' have been forced underground, vilified as common vigilantes. However, the death of Edward Blake, aka costumed crime fighter 'The Comedian', leads his one-time allies to uncover a sinister plot with far-reaching consequences.
Watchmen is similar to Akira in that the novel has a massive scope, its narrative stretching far beyond the realms of a simple superhero story. The structure of the book is interspersed with faux novel entries, news articles and psych profiles, as well as a metafictional 'comic-within-a-comic', 'Tales of the Black Freighter'. Although these elements may initially confuse the reader, may wish to skip on to the next scene in the main story, they serve to flesh out the main narrative, drawing you further and further into the world of the Watchmen. There are some great original characters to enjoy here, such as the unhinged and brutal 'Rorschach', whose ink-blot mask as become an iconic symbol, along with the 'smiley' pin flecked with a drop of blood. Although the story of Watchmen is one that covers world-altering events, it doesn't ignore the importance of the minute human interactions that shape the planet as dramatically as the power of nuclear bombs. Love, friendship, isolation and morality all play a part in this story, making it a serious tale with interesting lessons to impart.
Time for something a little less serious. But then again, what could be more serious than winning the heart of the most amazing girl in the world? Even if you have to defeat her seven evil ex's in deadly hand-to-hand combat? This is the challenge that Scott Pilgrim, 23 year-old Canadian loser/martial arts genius, must complete to ensure that the enigmatic and beautiful Ramona Flowers will be his girlfriend. Scott also has his plate full with trying to find and hold down a job, dealing with his vengeful former loves, and playing some awesome bass riffs in grunge/rock band 'Sex Bob-omb'.
As I said earlier, Scott Pilgrim doesn't exactly tackle the big issues raised by Akira and Watchmen, but this doesn't make it any less enjoyable. This comic takes an interesting post-modern approach to story-telling, never really addressing whether Scott's fantastical battles are a figment of his imagination, an allegory/metaphor for his internal emotional struggles, or just actually happening. My guess is that all three are true. In terms of artwork, this comic once again takes a simplistic approach, but in a really lovable and clever way. O'Malley's characters and backgrounds may invoke an 'I could do that' reaction in some, but I'm sure this isn't true in most cases. The real stars of Scott Pilgrim are the characters, who embody all the comedy, confusion and desire that life has to offer - whilst kicking ass across a variety of dimensions.
Cowboy Bebop - Hajime Yatate and Yutaka Nanten/Cain Kuga
As we return to Japan again, we take a giant step into a future where hyperspace travel has led to humanity colonising the far reaches of the galaxy, with crime springing up at every turn. Step in the crew members of the spaceship Bebop, a group of down-on-their-luck bounty hunters seeking to scratch a living from searching out the criminals the authorities are too busy to apprehend. Led by the distant and carefree former syndicate member Spike Spiegel, the hunters bumble their way through each assignment, mixing danger and comedy in fairly equal measures, making many enemies but also finding a few allies. Jet, a gruff former police officer, Faye, a luscious femme-fatale with an addictive streak, and Ed, an androgynous and youthful computer hacker, make up the crew, each adding another element of madness to this intergalactic journey.
Unlike the previous three entries, the Cowboy Bebop series only has a loose main narrative throughout, with each story working in isolation as well as part of an overall collection. The artwork in both sections of the five books has a fantastic manga sci-fi look, feeling simultaneously recognisable and original. In particular, the character of Spike has a great design, with his epically large hair and trademark scruffy suit, incomplete without the obligatory firearm. Like Scott Pilgrim, this series shies away from the heavy issues, opting for action and laughs - both of which it does well. However, their is an undeniable noir feel to this comic, hinting at the more serious and dark motivating forces beneath the characters' bright and flashy exteriors.
Everyone knows the origins of The Dark Knight, how young Bruce Wayne watched his parents gunned down in front of him, that moment defining him as the iconic caped crusader of Gotham City. But what about his purple-suited grinning nemesis? How did he become the crazed master criminal that taunts Batman at every turn? This novel offers one version of the events in The Joker's backstory that twisted his mind as well as his features. In contrast to this tale from the past, Batman must embark on a new diabolical mission; to save Commissioner Gordon from The Joker's clutches, facing a deadly labyrinth of challenges all designed to break Wayne's sanity, with the aim of reducing him to the level of his mischievous and amoral enemy.
Another contrast to place alongside the previous graphic novels and series, this story is only one short story in the Batman canon. The reason I wanted to read this story in particular was that it was cited as one of the influences for Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. Anything that helped produce the best Batman movie, possibly the best superhero movie, is definitely worth a read. This story is very dark, delving into The Joker's twisted mind. The artwork follows the classic Batman palette, with The Dark Knight in grey and black and The Joker in his vibrant purple suit and shocking green hair, which gives the book a timeless feel. Probably the biggest achievement of this story is to show that superhero narratives and comic books can deal with deep and heavy issues, commenting on sociopathic behaviour as apposed with societies norms and values.