A quick note about the comics covered here. All are stand-alone graphic novels and can be read with a minimum of knowledge of any type of comic "continuity" usually found in monthly comics.
Superman: For All Seasons by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale - Imagine the warmth and nostalgia of a Norman Rockwell painting injected into a Superman story and it doesn't begin to describe the innocent wonder of this book. This single-handily restored my early childhood love for the Man of Steel. The book is divided up into different seasons of Superman's life, from his high school days in Smallville when he first begins to realize the vast potential of his powers to his battles with Lex Luthor and witty banter with Lois Lane at the Daily Planet.
Without giving away too much of the story, For All Seasons concerns Clark's growth into the Superman role and his eventual acceptance of both the limits of his power and his responsibility as a hero. Each "season" is narrated by a different character, and there are homages to the feel of Frank Capra's films and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE in particular. Tim Sale's artwork is incredibly rich and bold, accentuating the 40's feel and making this something special that everyone will love. Absolutely essential, in my opinion.
Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross - From one perspective of Superman to another. Kingdom Come is an epic future look of the DC Universe where most of the classic superheroes have left the world in the hands of their descendants, who after stopping all the normal threats to Earth have become the threat themselves. After a nuclear bomb detonates in Kansas Superman, missing in action for almost 20 years, comes out of hiding to set things right according to his own view of right and wrong. Overseeing the events of Kingdom Come is a disillusioned priest who must ultimately act as judge and jury when the moment comes to decide the fate of the entire world.
Problem is, some people don't want the superheroes fulfilling their old roles, including Bruce Wayne, who leaves the vigilante justice to an army of Batman robots who patrol the streets of Gotham. A lot of Kingdom Come concerns the question of who should ultimately make choices - the humans or the meta-humans who consistently "save the day." Alex Ross is a giant in the field of comics, and his painted images are startling in how they can portray an equal amount of the familiar iconic imagery and a new-found darkness (check out the black that replaces Superman's usual yellow in his"S", as well as the bloodthirsty look of Wonder Woman) that perfectly matches the very dark morality tale told within the pages. Epic battles, new versions of old favorites, and stunning artwork makes Kingdom Come a modern comic classic.
Batman: The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Time Sale - The creators of Superman: For All Seasons bring a film-noir sensibility to the Dark Knight. The Long Halloween is essentially the story of the genesis of Harvey Dent into Two-Face, told over the course of an entire year. The artwork is very different from For All Seasons; Tim Sale opts for a darker, harder palette that fits the noir mood Loeb creates in his story of gangsters, murders, and madness. Almost the entire Batman Rogues gallery makes an appearance: The Joker, Scarecrow, the Mad Hatter...even Solomon Grundy makes an appearance. The main story follows Batman and Jim Gordon's attempts to find the Holiday killer, a mysterious figure who is murdering gangsters every month on a holiday. There's a twist ending that is satisfying, and I think that's the key word for this novel - it's satisfying. I think maybe after the thrills and high delivery of the previous comics, The Long Halloween feels at the end good, but nothing that was explosive or comes as an incredible surprise.
Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross - What Alex Ross did for DC with the amazing Kingdom Come he attempted first, with varying success, for the Marvel Universe in the beautiful if uneven Marvels. Using a similar conceit of having events witnessed through the eyes of a "normal" person - in this case a photographer for the Daily Bugle, Marvels is a look at some of the classic Marvel storylines as seen though the eyes of the people on the streets. Phil Sheldon, a great photographer who wants to tell the story of the "marvels" he witnesses and interacts with, provides a very human perspective as we re-live the first appearances of characters like Captain America and Namor, the almost-destruction of the earth by Galactus, the persecution of mutants and the heart-wrenching death of Gwen Stacy. Marvels works best when it's characters are directly involved in the events - the stories focusing on the mutants and the death of Stacy are so much richer than anything else in the book because of Sheldon's personal involvements as opposed to his more objective witnessing a la The Watcher. Ross's artwork is once again unequaled, but the story zigs and zags a little too much to put in in the first tier of some of the above stories.
I have one more graphic novel to cover, but considering there's only a few days left before we hit March it's going to have to wait a bit.
In the meantime, up, up and away!