According to a retrieved 2000 interview with the acclaimed writer, the intention behind its creation in the 1980s was right. Some visual stories did indeed deserve to be classified as novels in terms of theme, structure, length, etc. He gives the examples of his own Watchmen, as well as Art Spiegelman’s Maus.
However, as Moore puts it, the phrase has come to mean “expensive comic book” over the years. Companies such as Marvel or DC, whom he’d fallen out of grace with, used it to slap a glossy cover over six or more issues of the same comic book and call it a novel.
I am a big fan of Alan Moore, in case that needed to be said outright. I do agree with his analysis of what graphic novels should be and what they shouldn’t. The five stories on this list are the best DC graphic novels in my book, and they make up the ideal starter kit for anyone trying to get into the genre.
I can’t speak for anyone else’s opinion, but this is mine. So, without further ado, let’s begin.
The 5 Best DC Graphic Novels
1. Batman: The Killing Joke
- Reading Time: 1 hour and 18 minutes
- Live-Action Film: No
- Animated Film: Yes (2016)
- TV Series: No
- Animated Series: No
- Video Game: No
Alan Moore’s and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke is hands down one of the darkest comix I’ve ever read. For this reason and many others, it holds a special place in my heart as far as DC graphic novels go.
It was the first work in the so-called superhero genre that I bought with my own money, after spending a couple of years interested only in visual stories such as Maus, Persepolis, or Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.
Before The Killing Joke, my perception of comics was very much black or white. Although I grew up with Marvel and DC cartoons and stories, I maybe had trouble integrating this passion into my adult life? I can’t put my finger on it now.
Batman: The Killing Joke is a very short graphic novel. However, its 48 pages tell a story that adds a humanizing touch to the franchise’s most simultaneously adored and detested villain, and one of the best DC characters ever: the Joker.
Once an unnamed chemical plant engineer, the soon to become Joker quits his jobs to pursue dreams of being a standup comedian. Failing at it, he realizes that he can no longer provide for his pregnant wife. Out of despair, he agrees to assist two hardened criminals in a heist of the playing card company located next to his former place of work.
Although he initially agrees to guide them through the plant and to the business next door, he finds out that his wife has died in a tragic household accident. He no longer wants to go through with the robbery but is coerced into it by the criminals regardless.
Everything goes wrong when Batman confronts the trio at the scene, and the unnamed engineer tries to escape the superhero vigilante by jumping into the waste pound lock of the chemical plant. This is where his story ends, and the Joker’s begins.
In the present time of the comic, the Joker kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and severely maims his daughter Barbara in the process. Batman jumps to his friend’s aid, and what ensues is a delightfully disturbing descent into madness.
The Joker tries to drive Commissioner Gordon insane to prove to him that there is no difference between what society perceives as good and bad people. The wholesome Gordon resists every twisted test, and the graphic novel ends on an ambiguous note with a confrontation between its hero and villain.
At the beginning of the comic, the Batman points out that things always play out the same between the two of them. Moreover, one of them has to kill the other to end this vicious cycle. But does he seize the opportunity to kill the Joker in the end? Or do they laugh about it and walk away being fully aware now that they are two parts of the same whole?
I used to be a firm believer in the first theory, then the second one upon rereading the story, and so on. Open endings are open for a reason, and I won’t ruin the comic for myself by attempting to close its finale once and for all.
What makes The Killing Joke stand out even more to me is the drama behind its creation. On the one hand, Brian Bolland hated the original shade palette put in by John Higgins, the colorist behind Watchmen. Bolland envisioned an array of muted late autumn colors, while Higgins made it bright and garish. In 2008, Bolland re-colorized the comic to restore his original artistic intention.
Alan Moore, on the other hand, came to despise his work in true Alan Moore fashion. In his more recent opinion, Batman: The Killing Joke is a “terrible book” that “doesn’t say anything.” However, the very allegorical mirroring of the Batman in the Joker and vice versa that the author hates now is what I loved about the comic.
I’m not even sure that Alan Moore would consider Batman: The Killing Joke a graphic novel. However, I do, and it will always be one of the best DC graphic novels in my book.
- Reading Time: 9 hours and 6 minutes
- Live-Action Film: Yes (2009)
- Animated Film: Under consideration
- TV Series: Yes (2019)
- Animated Series: Yes (2008-2009)
- Video Game: Yes (2009)
Who watches the Watchmen? Nowadays, I would argue that the answer to this is the whole wide world. The critically acclaimed graphic novel is a fan-favorite among many Alan Moore and DC Comics buffs due to its witty satire of the superhero concept, as well as apt dissemination of the social unrest and anxieties specific to the decade it was launched in.
Circling back to the satire for a minute, it’s worth noting at this point that Alan Moore hates the heroes he creates more than any reader or critic ever could. His history-altering characters are flawed, selfish, whiny, irreverent, or downright repulsive. Their shortcomings often get the best of them, as they end up driven by pride, lust, or rage on their quest to “save the world.”
And then there’s Dr. Manhattan. Inspired by Charlton Comics’ Captain Atom that was acquired by DC at the same time, he was once a human nuclear physicist that went by the name of Jon Osterman.
However, when one experiment went wrong, he was practically dematerialized to a subatomic level. Instead of disappearing for good, Jon appeared around the research facility briefly for months to come, until he was finally “reborn” into the form of Dr. Manhattan.
Dr. Manhattan is practically a demigod, even more so than DC’s all-star American hero Superman. He has no apparent weaknesses, and he can do it all. Human emotions fail him, but do they really? According to Janey Slater and Laurie Jupiter, yes.
To me, various portions of the graphic novel read ambiguously from this point of view. Was Dr. Manhattan clutching Laurie’s clothes after she left him because he didn’t understand what human possessions were anymore, or was he genuinely melancholic about their breakup? I think that’s the beauty of the character, though. Ultimately, he’s completely unrelatable.
At the other end of the spectrum, the rest of the Watchmen are relatable, but it’s a mixed bag nevertheless. I despised Rorschach’s far-right views that would make today’s alt-right quiver but empathized with his backstory and unyielding moral compass.
The Comedian was as godawful as most all-American heroes are, but he was so good at it. Laurie Jupiter…what did she think was going to happen? I could carry on, but you get the point.
The reason why Alan Moore’s superheroes (and I’m using this term loosely here) are so easy to judge and loathe is that they are as human and flawed as we are. We might see things in them that we recognize in ourselves, and we hate them for it. And isn’t that what art should do?
3. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
- Reading Time: 4 hours and 33 minutes
- Live-Action Film: No
- Animated Film: Yes (2012-2013)
- TV Series: No
- Animated Series: No
- Video Game: No
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns takes place in 1986’s dystopian Gotham that, similarly to Watchmen’s 1985 New York, is dominated by a smoldering sentiment of anti-vigilantism. But unlike Moore’s unlovable protagonists, Frank Miller’s Batman is an exemplary hero in spite of his often violent and questionable means.
While Gotham might not love Batman anymore, Batman loves Gotham as much as he can. Much like the Watchmen, he comes out of retirement to save a city in peril, but he doesn’t do it for his own gratification or to feel alive and needed again like Nite Owl or Laurie Jupiter seem to do. He does it because he has to. He is a hero, and that’s what heroes do.
According to Dave Gibbons, the artist behind Watchmen, Frank Miller’s story could have easily felt like playing in the same sandbox, especially since the two were released just one year apart. However, it didn’t feel like that at all. I believe that’s because Miller admires and empathizes with his heroes.
There are still a few similarities between Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. For example, Ronald Reagan uses Superman as a governmental weapon as much as Richard Nixon used Dr. Manhattan or the Comedian for that matter.
However, Frank Miller’s four-part visual story plays out like a real superhero tale. Batman fights off a slew of his worst enemies, both familiar and unfamiliar. We see him go against Two-Face/Harvey Dent, as well as the Joker, but also the Mutants, a gang that terrorizes the city at Dent’s order.
He even fights Superman in the end, which is a fan-favorite among superhero battles. “We must not remind them that giants walk the Earth,” Superman wisely exclaims in the third issue of the series. This is before diverting a nuclear warhead and coming face to face with his black-clad “rival” in the fourth and final part of The Dark Knight Returns.
Frank Miller’s final confrontation between Batman and Superman doesn’t play out like Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice in any way, shape, or form. The battle is brief and anticlimactic in a sense. Batman spares Superman, only to have a heart attack later at home. He fakes his own death and continues his plans to protect Gotham from the shadows. The end.
What makes this story one of the best DC graphic novels is that, in spite of their flaws and weaknesses, its heroes indeed are giants. People might not want to see them walk the Earth, but they do it anyway and protect humankind for no personal gains.
4. V for Vendetta
- Reading Time: 6 hours and 1 minute
- Live-Action Film: Yes (2005)
- Animated Film: No
- TV Series: Under consideration
- Animated Series: No
- Video Game: No
Illustrated by David Lloyd of Hulk and Doctor Who fame, and penned by Alan Moore yet again, V for Vendetta is the most recent addition to my list of favorite graphic novels. It was picked up for publication by DC Comics between 1988 and 1989, then moved to their Vertigo imprint once it was established in 1993.
V for Vendetta is one of Vertigo’s most renowned dark graphic novels for adults. It tells the story of V, a cloaked vigilante wearing a (now iconic) Guy Fawkes mask and fighting for justice in the dystopian Britain of the late nineties. We never find out who V is, but we do get an insight into his backstory early on in the book.
After the fascist party Norsefire took over a decaying England following the global nuclear war of the 1980s, most of the country’s ethnic population, as well as its LGBT inhabitants and religious minorities, were shipped off to concentration camps. V was among them, although it is never outrightly stated why.
There, doctors performed experiments on four dozens of prisoners. The sole survivor of these cruel tests, V devised a plan and blew the facility up, escaping naked among the flames. The narrative of the graphic novel follows him reaping vengeance on the camp’s former staff members, as well as the government itself.
And boy, does he succeed big time. With the help of his young mentee, Evey Hammond, V designs a revolution so cunning and inconspicuous that the government doesn’t see it coming until it’s too late for them. The story is a lesson in rebellion that propagated huge echoes among protesters and activists nowadays.
After all, who hasn’t seen those images of young demonstrators donning the very same Guy Fawkes masks V wears to hide his presumably disfigured face? However, it would be a disservice to the story and its author to reduce V for Vendetta to that.
What frames the narrative so skillfully is precisely V, or more so his character arc. He is a morally ambiguous character from every single point of view. It is never specified whether the author wrote him as a rebel with a cause, or an insane person. Is his torture of Evey truly meant to be in her favor, or does he do it for sport at this point?
We never know, and that’s the beauty of V for Vendetta. It’s up to the reader to decide whether V’s outrageous actions aim to serve a greater good, or if they’re nothing more than the erratic ramblings of a lunatic.
Although I had been reserved about reading it for the longest time, it is now one of the best DC graphic novels, in my opinion, and I’ll explain why right now.
The American film adaptation of the graphic novel was reimagined in a post-9/11-world, where the real threat was the conservatives rising to power. It doesn’t explore the story’s critical concepts of fascism and anarchy, abandoning them in favor of prolonged civil wars, deadly viruses, and an overplay of the 5th of November motif.
Of course, fascism being on the rise might not have been on people’s minds in 2005, but it is now. Nowadays, the book speaks volumes about the current political climate and societal unrest that plagues the world. It is perhaps as apt of a representation now as it was thirty years ago, and that’s what makes it one of the best DC graphic novels of 2019. It’s equal parts scary and riveting.
5. Death: The High Cost of Living
- Reading Time: 2 hours and 6 minutes
- Live-Action Film: Under consideration
- Animated Film: No
- TV Series: No
- Animated Series: No
- Video Game: No
Anyone familiar with the graphic novel medium has heard of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. This seminal dark fantasy series published under the DC Vertigo imprint ever since issue 47 follows the story of Dream (or Morpheus), one of the seven Endless.
The Endless are a dysfunctional family of primordial beings that control the Universe. Dream’s siblings are Destiny, Desire, Delirium, Destruction, Despair, and Death. The latter is the protagonist of the graphic novel I am about to discuss. Set in New York, it tells the story of Didi, Death personified, and her one-day encounter with a sullen teenager named Sexton.
Including The Sandman on this list wouldn’t have done it justice, as it deserves a thinkpiece all of its own. Therefore, I decided to discuss my favorite spinoff of the series, namely Death: The High Cost of Living.
I read a review of the graphic novel a couple of years ago that called Didi a “manic pixie Death girl,” and I believe that to be an apt description of her character. She guides the suicidal Sexton through a tumultuous and entertaining journey of self-discovery, and guess what? By the end of it, he doesn’t want to kill himself anymore. Shocking, right?
Not really, at least not to anyone familiar with that particular character trope. Nevertheless, Neil Gaiman will do as Neil Gaiman does and make the entire thing a lot more enticing, magical, and bearable than you’d imagine from my crass description.
Death: The High Cost of Living is, paradoxically enough, an exploration of life. Didi has just one day on Earth, and she tries to enjoy small pleasures, while at the same time helping a homeless witch named Mad Hettie and confronting a potential villain that calls himself The Eremite.
The premise behind Death: The High Cost of Living first came about in the 21st issue of The Sandman. There, it was stated that Death takes mortal form for one day every 100 years so that she can taste mortality and better understand the value of the lives she reaps.
The graphic novel cleverly nods at this portion of The Sandman, with Didi asking Sexton whether he’s heard that before or not. It is a short comic (not the shortest on this list, but still) that explores tough topics in a fun, yet nevertheless poignant manner. Death: The High Cost of Living deals with life, death, and anything in between, and it does it in just three issues.
This has been my list of the five best DC graphic novels that, as the title of the article states, will make you love the genre. They are undoubtedly mainstream and accessible, which makes them the ideal starter kit for genre novices, as well as perfect reread material for certified veterans.
As far as this spectrum is concerned, I fall somewhere in between. I’m familiar with the body of work in this category, but I don’t claim to be a diehard fan or expert. You don’t have to take my word for it, but I hope you enjoy reading these comix if you haven’t already.
So, did you read any of the graphic novels on this list? Are there any other best DC graphic novels you’d add to it? Sound off in the comments below; I’m always looking forward to reading interesting opinions and thought-provoking recommendations.
Other than that, see you soon, and happy reading. Until next time!
My fascination for everything geeky, be it science fiction or fantasy, began at an early age. I was eight years old when the first Harry Potter film came out, and I haven’t looked back since. Fast-forward 17 years, ten books, and ten films, my passion grew into more than the magic of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world.
These days, I enjoy collecting graphic novels and fawning over the mastery of Alan Moore and Frank Miller, reading anything sci-fi, watching the latest superhero film (Marvel or DC) as soon as it hits theaters, and arguing with my friends over what horror film to watch next. Oh, did I mention I’m a huge horror buff?
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