DC comics have got an ambitious (and I suspect largely futile, unfortunately) initiative devoted to trying to persuade those who are coming to the comics medium for the first time as the result of Watchmen mania to try some other stuff they may never have heard of before. Which struck me as a good enough excuse for me to once again parade a handful of my own preferences and hobby horses, since there are quite a few comics (or graphic novels, as we're supposed to call them nowadays, in the hope of imbuing them with some kind of dignity) that came out before the internet existed to spread word of their goodness. Stuff which is well known and revered within comic geek circles, but maybe not quite as well known as it deserves to be out there in the land of 'comics are for kids'.
No superhero tomfoolery here (which isn't as dismissive as it might sound, since I quite like a bit of superhero tomfoolery now and again, personally - well, not personally, since me-in-spandex would be pretty much a synonym for "No! Just No! Please, somebody cover that up!", but you know what I mean.). Anyway, this is a different kind of comics, which even those with an allergy to superheroics might find of interest:
Concrete by Paul Chadwick. Man's brain is transplanted into virtually-indestructible, clunky stone body. Were this a superhero book, crazy battles with eeeeevil supervillains would ensue, but it's not, so instead we get exploration: literal exploration of remote and hostile bits of the world, and not-so-literal exploration of human relationships and behaviour. It's gentle, humane, often funny, sometimes sad, occasionally perhaps just a little too worthy and thoughtful. Now reprinted in a very nice series of collected editions.
Ronin by Frank Miller. What Frank Miller did before he did Dark Knight Returns and Sin City and 300 etc. It's a mad, dark, slightly bewildering (at least it was for me) fusion of samurai vs. demons saga and near-future technothriller. An early work - and perhaps not quite as polished as some of his other stuff, for that very reason - from a highly distinctive artist and writer. Good stuff.
American Flagg! by Howard Chaykin. Crime and sex and politics and media craziness in a near future dystopia. Almost Bladerunner-like in its attention to peripheral detail and the texture of the world, and expects a pretty similar level of attention from its readers, if they're to follow the complicated plots and multitude of characters. Brash and brazen and unlike anything else I've ever read in comics - at least there's nothing quite like it I can think of right now.
The Adventures of Luther Arkwright by Bryan Talbot. Page after page of awesome, IMHO. Alternate history, parallel universes, Cromwellian stormtroopers on motorcycles, tantric sex, doomsday weapons, a glamorous and charismatic title character flitting between worlds and timelines, all of it beautifully drawn. And all of it as British as fish and chips. Brilliant.
Love & Rockets (the Palomar stories) by Gilbert Hernandez. All the stories produced by the two Hernandez brothers in Love & Rockets magazine/comic have now been reprinted in chronological collected editions. They're pretty unique, and not to everyone's taste I imagine, but I like more or less all of them. The most serious and substantial are Gilbert Hernandez's tales of the inhabitants of the little Latin American town of Palomar (volumes 2 and 4 in the collected editions). Flashes of magical realism, but at its heart it's a saga of the lives - full of little pleasures and not inconsiderable suffering - of ordinary people, told in unflinching detail. This is, I think, comics as high literature.
Previous installments of pre-web books wafflings are to be found here and here and here, by the way.