Essential reading

  • Ex Machina, Book 1 (Deluxe Edition)
    by Brian Vaughan

    In this alternate history of the United States, a strange man wearing a jetpack saved one of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 before going on to become the Mayor of New York City. Ex Machina is this man's story, and it is one that's less about action and cool pseudo science (although there is that) and much more about a very grown-up discussion of politics that is of course full of drama and intrigue. Think The West Wing meets The Dark Knight.

    I recommend reading Ex Machina in the deluxe hardcover format -- there will be five in total, and if you read book 1 you will want to read them all. They're a better value than the shorter paperbacks, and just look handsomer on the wall.

    Award-winning writer Brian K. Vaughan (PRIDE OF BAGHDAD, Y: THE LAST MAN) uniquely combines big city politics and superheroes in this much-lauded series. Set in our modern-day world, EX MACHINA tells the story of civil engineer Mitchell Hundred, who becomes America's first living, breathing super-hero after a strange accident gives him the power to communicate with machines. Eventually Mitchell tires of risking his life merely to maintain the status quo, retires from masked crime fighting and runs for mayor of New York City, winning by a landslide.

  • Planetary Vol. 1: All Over the World and Other Stories
    by Warren Ellis

    Put very simply, Planetary is a book about the secret, strange history of the 20th century, and its characters are superpowered archeologists. Each chapter of this inaugural volume spotlights a different sub-genre of the fantastic: the end of the pulp era of adventures, Japanese monster movies, ghost cops of Hong Kong, massive ships that travel the Multiverse, and so much more. In the world of this series, all these stories of our bygone century are completely real but hidden from our view. The heroes of Planetary map these secret truths not just to reveal the connections between them, but also to learn why they have been concealed in the first place... and by whom.

    Layers of mystery wrap Planetary: All over the World like rice candy. Follow the enigmatic heroes Jakita Wagner, Elijah Snow, and the Drummer as they excavate the secret history of the world from its wealth of bizarre happenings. The stories are both broad and deep, exploring a web of conspiracies and shadowy superheroes that manipulate and "protect" our world. Clever retellings of primal comics myths are interlaced with X-Files-esque secret government tales, and they drive the reader back and forth to collate evidence; the characters can't do all the work. Illustrator John Cassaday mirrors Warren Ellis's script from circumspect to sublime, befitting the best successor yet to the pulp comics of the 1940s.

  • The Tarantula (Sandman Mystery Theater, Book 1)
    by Matt Wagner

    If you like an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery but want some decidedly modern sensibilities (sex, violence) thrown in, Sandman Mystery Theatre is about to become your new favorite book. This first volume, "The Tarantula", introduces us to a slightly peculiar but very friendly and wealthy young man called Wesley Dodds. He's captured the curiosity of plucky socialite Dian Belmont, daughter of the District Attorney, and what she doesn't know about Wesley just makes her all the more interested. For reasons both dark and terrible, Wesley's sleep is haunted by dreams of cruelty and injustice, compelling him to step out into the crime-ridden streets of 1930s New York City and right horrifying wrongs as the mysterious Sandman. Armed only with a gasmask, gas-gun and a cunning intellect, The Sandman investigates brutal crimes comparable to those of Jack the Ripper or the Black Dahlia murders. Meanwhile, the clever and beautiful Miss Belmont inches ever closer to discovering Wesley's dangerous secret. 

    Sandman Mystery Theatre is available in inexpensive numbered volumes that reveal a larger narrative when read in sequence, but each can be read on its own as a brilliant, self-contained tale of murder and suspense. If you're like me, you will become instantly hooked on The Sandman's dark dreams and writer Matt Wagner's (Grendel: Devil by the Deed) beautiful words:

    "What is it that sucks at my soul so acutely? What emptiness drives me out into the night time and again to fight forces I cannot hope to defeat?" 

    "You will answer my questions, or you will face a lifetime of Hell nights in your dreams."

    "What is the price of vengeance for those whom it consumes?"

    "No one can escape The Sandman's dark dreams."

    Those who prefer the down and dirty to the airy and fantastic may also prefer Sandman Mystery Theatre, which features the comics' original Sandman, millionaire Wesley Dodds, who, clad in trench coat and gas mask and armed with sleep-inducing gas, fought criminals in the 1940s. Wagner backtracks Dodds to pre-World War II New York City and models Dodds' adventures less on superhero comics than on 1930s pulp magazines. He and cowriter Steven T. Seagle create twisted crime stories that Guy Davis illustrates by expertly evoking the period looks of the pulps. SMT story lines are far franker than their 1930s inspirations. This one depicts, besides the killings, a circle of lesbian lovers, and the dialogue is R-rated. Although it hasn't matched the popularity of Gaiman's creation, SMT is one of the most successful revivals of a vintage costumed crime fighter.