The complete edition of Will Eisner's groundbreaking "Spirit" stories is very expensive, and it spends several volumes documenting war-time strips created by lesser artists, but fortunately there is a low price sampler of some of Eisner's best stories available: The Best of the Spirit (Spirit (DC Comics)).
2) 1950s-1970s - The Golden age and silver age of comic books.
In the 30s and for the next few decades there was a boom in comics being printed in comic books sold from newsstands and drug stores.
Walt Disney's Donald Duck: "Lost in the Andes" (Vol. 7) (The Complete Carl Barks Disney Library) - The complete works of the great Disney artist Carl Barks will be released by Fantagraphics from fall 2011. This is the first volume. Barks is somewhat overlooked in his home country (The US), but in many European countries he's considered the greatest comics book artist of all time, and also one of the best creators of childrens 'literature' in the 20th century. His long epic adventure stories are somewhat similar to the later Indiana Jones movies, and his shorter satiric stories about life in Duckburg are a clear inspiration for the humor in The Simpsons. - Giant Size Little Lulu Volume 1 "Little Lulu" is a great 'girls comic' that's still good enough to be read by everyone. Dark Horse has been releasing the series in black and white pocket volumes, and is now starting from the beginning in larger format in color. The TOON Treasury of Classic Children's Comics authoritative 350 page hardcover collection of classic childrens comics, mainly from the 40s and 50s. Includes Carl Barks duck stories , "little Lulu", "Pogo" and lesser known gems. - "Corpse on the Imjin" and Other Stories (The EC Comics Library) EC Comics' horror and war titles were groundbreaking back in the 50s , but after too many parents became concerned about the dark content influencing young minds, EC comics would concentrate on the humor title "Mad Magazine". It was edited by the great Harvey Kurtzman, and was much more interesting than later Mad incarnations - Mad Archives, The: Volume 1 - Issues 1-6 [NOTE: The EC horror/war stories have been out of print, but Fantagraphics will now (july 2012) start publishing - hopefully - definitive versions] - The first wave of superhero comics (particularly Superman and Batman) had been a great succes back in the 1930s and 40s, but after a decade of public disinterest it took Stan Lee and great artists like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby to start a new superhero boom. For mere mortals the badly printed cheap black and white Marvel collections will often have to do: Essential Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 1 (Marvel Essentials) (v. 1) and Essential Fantastic Four, Vol. 1 (Marvel Essentials) - In the late 1960s and early 70s there was a boom of 'underground' comic book titles, often sold from 'head shops' and record stores. Robert Crumb is probably the greatest of the underground artists. A few fine retrospective collections are available, including The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book (Kitchen Sink Press Book for Back Bay Books). Also remember to check out the DVD of Terry Zwigoff's "Crumb" documentary - it's one of the greatest documentaries ever made, and certainly the best comics related documentary.
3) French/Belgian all ages graphic albums, the golden age 1940s-1970s.
In Europe comics were serialized in magazines and then printed in 'graphic albums', large format books, usually 48 og 64 pages long and printed in color on high quality paper.
Unfortunately this tradition has always been very under-represented on the English language market. It would be nice to have translations of Franquin's "Spirou" and "Gaston Lagaffe" and Macherot's slightly sinister funny animal comics. But at least all time greats like Tintin and Asterix ARE available, and a few more classics are getting translated at the moment.
- The golden age two part Tintin adventure "The Seven Crystal Balls (The Adventures of Tintin)"/"Prisoners of the Sun (The Adventures of Tintin)" is probably the greatest adventure comic ever. Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are working on three movies based on this and two other Tintin tales. - Many great Asterix books are avalable. Asterix and Cleopatra: Album #6 (Bk. 6) is one of the truly great early ones. - Lucky Luke (A Lucky Luke Adventure - Dalton City) is another classic humor series from Asterix writer Goscinny. It's always been enormously popular in Europe, - now it's finally getting translated into English. - Iznogoud (The Wicked Wiles of Iznogoud: Iznogoud Vol. 1) is yet another series from Asterix writer Goscinny. This one is more like a cult favorite. These strange and inventive Arabian Nights tales will appeal to fans of old Warner Brothers cartoons. Goscinny is one of the most widely read French writers, and has sold approximately 500 million books worldwide. - Sibyl-Anne vs. Ratticus (Sibyl-Anne) Fantagraphic has started releasing a line of new and old European graphic albums. "Sibyl-Anne" is a true classic, it is hilarious, and it has the perfection of the best Pixar movies. - The Smurfs #1: The Purple Smurfs - Believe it or not, the first few of the original smurf comics are actually hilarious and subversive all-ages masterpieces. Thanks to the upcoming CGI movie they're now being released in English. Too bad they had to censor "The Black Smurf" and make it into "The Purple Smurf"... but these books are so good they should be worth reading even in slightly compromised versions.
4) European graphic albums for mature readers, 1960s, 70s and early 80s
Comics for grown ups started appearing in the 60s in Europe, and they peaked in the 70s and early 80s. Unfortunately this stuff has been only sporadically translated into English, and that mostly happened back in the 80s and early 90s, so they are out of print by now. So you'll mostly have to shop around for used books. However, it's great recent news that Fantagraphics will start translating Tardi books from october 2009.
If you want to explore this period further, look out for artists like Hugo Pratt, Bilal, Moebius, Mezieres, Manara, Liberatore, Tardi, Schuiten, Druillet, Lauzier etc. And look out for old issues of "Heavy Metal" magazine.
- It Was the War of the Trenches A classic Tardi book about WWI finally getting translated into English. - The Incal This classic sci-fi adventure is a collaboration between visionary science fiction illustrator Moebius and just as visionary movie director Alejandro Jodorowsky. It's been available in ugly recolored versions for some years, but this edition has the original colors. Bits and pieces from the two creators aborted movie version of Frank Herbert's "Dune" feeded into this project. - Corto Maltese: The Ballad of the Salt Sea - Italian comic book creator Hugo Pratt's legendary literary adventure series "Corto Maltese" series will finally reappear in English in 2012. Umberto Eco is apparently a big fan of these haunting stories, so they might poaaibly have influenced his "The Name of The Rose".... and through him also influenced Dan Brown and similar lesser authors. Oh well. Dreamy sailor and adventurer Corto Maltese is a great character.
- The City of Shifting Waters: Valerian Vol. 1 Classic science fiction series from the early 1970s that strongly influenced the design of the original Star Wars movies. This early book is still pretty much 'all ages', but the series turned 'mature readers' later on. Also, this volume is about time travel and New York City being flooded, so this particular book doesn't look that much like Star Wars. But that will happen later on.
Japanese comics ('manga') were invented by Osamu Tezuka after World War II. Manga are often very long, sometimes thousands of pages, and they're printed in black and white in thick phonebook sized volumes.
- Japanese legend Osamo Tezuka singlehadedly invented Japanese comics, and wrote and drew more than 150.000 pages during his lifetime. Insane! Astro Boy (Astro Boy, Vol. 1), serialized 1951-68, was his first hit, and his great 3.000 page, 8 volume "Buddha" series (originally serialized 1972-83) is a good example of his mature style. (Buddha, Vol. 1: Kapilavastu) - Yoshihiro Tatsumi invented bleak Japanese 'alternative' comics in the 60s. (Good-Bye) - Koike & Kojima's "Lone Wolf & Cub" (serialized 1970-76) is one of the all time great samurai adventure strips: Lone Wolf and Cub, Vol. 1: Assassin's Road - Keiji Nakazawa's "Barefoot Gen" (1973-85) is a classic harrowing autobiographical tale of surviving the Hiroshima bombing. (Barefoot Gen, Vol. 1: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima)
The 1980s were a somewhat dark age for European comics, with the older generation dying off and many younger artists resorting to doing bland 'erotic' books - but in the 90s a bunch of alternative cartoonists started a new golden age - and this time the stuff is actually getting translated into English. Yay!
- The Rabbi's Cat - Jewish magical realism set in Algeria in the 1930s. Soon to be an animated movie. - The Photographer: Into War-torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders - True story about a photographer traveling in Afghanistan in the 1980s. - Approximate Continuum Comics - hilarious autobiographical anecdotes and great cartooning. Followed by the equally funny "Little Nothings" series. - The Complete Persepolis - Autobiographical story about growing up in Iran. Made into a much loved animated movie. Do a search for the DVD. - Epileptic - another autobiographical story. A masterpiece, but probably not for everyone - it's somewhat somewhat dark, austere and modernist. The art should appeal to people who love modernist fine artists like Picasso, Klee and Dubuffet.
- this period probably started with Will Eisner's comeback book "A Contract With God" back in the 70s. In the early 80s we got series like the Hernandez brothers' "Love and Rockets" and Dave Sim' Cerebus". The mainstream interest in "Watchmen" and "Maus" in the mid 80s didn't QUITE result in a broad artistic breakthrough, but that breakthrough happened belatedly 15 years later, when those books had influenced a new generation.
- Will Eisner's The Contract with God Trilogy: Life on Dropsie Avenue (A Contract With God, A Life Force, Dropsie Avenue), Eisner coined the term 'graphic novel' for the publication of the first part of this trilogy, even though it's actually more a collection of graphic short stories. But it's still a good book. - Gilbert Hernandez "Palomar" stories (Heartbreak Soup (Love & Rockets)) - these stories were serialized in the legendary magazine "Love and Rockets" back in the 80s. Latin American magical realism in comic book form. - Art Spiegelman's "Maus" (Maus : A Survivor's Tale. I. My Father Bleeds History. II. And Here My Troubles Began) - a modern classic. - Frank Miller's "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" and Alan Moore's "Watchmen" were the two big dark 'post-modern' superhero statements back in the 80s. They both later inspired a lot of truly terrible dark books by lesser artists. "Watchmen" has definitely aged better than "Dark Knight", but the Batman book is still worth a look for its graphic design and colors. Both books include rather unsettling apocalyptic scenes of terrorist carnage in New York City. Were those cases of weird cultural premonition? Possibly. - Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" (The Absolute Sandman, Vol. 1) - this strange and literate fantasy series is probably the greatest long saga ever told in monthly comic books. It started the modern practice of dividing a continued series into 6-12 issue story archs that can be issued individually as 'graphic novels'. The Sandman will most likely impress you, and if you're 16 years old it may possibly change your life. It has been collected in four high quality "Absolute Edition" hardcovers, but is also available as ten cheap paperbacks. - Asterios Polyp this recent book is an instant classic. Advanced yet very readable and accessible. - Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth - bleak, but wonderfully designed. - Bone: The Complete Cartoon Epic in One Volume - the breakthrough for 'all ages' comics in the US. The fantasy elements can be a bit dull if you're not a fan of the fantasy-genre, but the funny bits are still pretty funny. The color edition looks good and is great for kids, but for grown ups I'd go for the cheap one-volume black and white book.