Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
In Dark Knight, Batman is just as mentally anguished with his role of vigilante as the burdened superheroes of Alan Moore’s Watchmen comic series. Gotham is rotting and crime-ridden, not the sanitized comic book metropolis that is lucky to only suffer from the occasional super villain problem. Look no further than this for the basis of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in the last Batman film.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore
I neglected to include Watchmen on this short list because the movie was too hyped and recent, but here’s a less famous, still awesome graphic novel by Moore that was also made into a disappointing movie. If you’ve ever wanted to see classic characters from famous Victorian novels team up to save a steampunk version of England, this is the superhero comic for you! Think of League as the most over-the-top “superhero” graphic novel in Moore’s canon. It’s non-traditional, but nowhere near as serious or brooding as V for Vendetta or Watchmen. I would stick with older teens when recommending this one! Steer clear of the movie at all costs.
20th Century Boys by Naoki Urasawa
I absolutely had to include a manga on this little list, and there was never any question which one would make it here! Although it has been available in Japan for nearly a decade, 20th Century Boys finally began making its way to the United States last year, and Western Otaku breathed a sigh of relief! When Kenji and his friends begin an investigation into the bizarre suicide of their childhood friend Donkey, they don’t know that they’re involving themselves in a battle that will decide the fate of humanity. What connection does a symbol from their youth have to the fate of the world? This series should appeal to even non-manga fans through its mature artwork and engaging mystery. Kenji & co. aren’t superheroes, per se, though they will be forced to save the world. Recommend this series to older teens!
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware
Jimmy isn’t a superhero…but he often daydreams that he is. Saddled with a boring office job, non-existent family relations, and no hope for a love life, Jimmy spends much of his days in a fantasy world where he dons a costume that mysteriously resembles that of Superman and becomes “the smartest kid on Earth!” As the story progresses, we learn that a history of familial abandonment throughout the Corrigan family tree is once again threatening to consume the current generation. Chris Ware’s cartoon art is architecturally detailed without being overwhelming, and he is amazingly gifted at using distance to portray alienation and finding hope and pathos in bleak ordinariness..