The interesting thing about the limitation of not allowing titles like Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, or Maus, is that none of those titles would make my list regardless.
So what collected editions and graphic novels would I want with me if I were stuck on a deserted island?
Robert’s Deserted Island Collected Editions and Graphic Novel Collection Part 1
Planetary: Absolute Edition by Warren Ellis, John Cassaday, and Laura Martin (nee DePuy)Planetary is very close to being my all-time favorite series. It's a 27 issue limited series plus three one-shot crossover issues published separately that took about 11 years to complete.
My discovery of Planetary was almost accidental. I bought The Authority #1 because of the gorgeous Bryan Hitch / Paul Neary artwork and widescreen action. I enjoyed the story as much as the art. Someone in the comics shop told me that Planetary and Authority were going to crossover, so on a whim, I picked up the last copy of Planetary #1 and the then new issue #2. I was hooked. Planetary #3 with the Hong Kong ghost cop may very well be my favorite single issue of any superhero comic ever.
Laura Martin is the first comics colorist whose work I followed as I would pencilers, inkers, or writers. She "grew up" in Wildstorm's coloring group and helped computerized coloring progress out of the "gee whiz" era of the early and mid 90's into a mature artform. It was in reading some of what Warren Ellis had written about Laura in the early days of Planetary that led me to pay attention to her work and that of other colorists over the years.
John Cassaday is the other "unknown" talent that came out of Planetary. Cassaday's work on Planetary is another case of watching an artist fully come into his own and have his style develop to insane heights. It was Planetary that led to John getting Astonishing X-Men which is one of the most beautiful X-Men series in a very long time to come out of Marvel, regardless of how I feel about Joss Whedon's writing on the series.
As beautiful as Cassaday's art and Laura Martin's coloring is on the standard comics page; they are phenomenally gorgeous in the enlarged size of the Absolute Editions. If you can't get the Absolute Editions (Vol. 1 & Vol. 2), there is a Complete Authority collection out this January (now) that collects the entire series including the three crossovers.
You can also get The Planetary Omnibus, which contains the entire series in one large, oversized volume. The paper isn't quite as good. It's convenient to have in one volume that you can pack in that large suitcase you will have to check.
The Witching Hour by Jeph Loeb and Chris BachaloThe Witching Hour is one of those titles that is just offbeat, and you will either like it or you won't. First, I have to say that Chris Bachalo is one of my all-time favorite artists. I didn't become familiar with his work until Generation X and the two Death limited series but once I did, I followed his work like a hawk. Secondly, I have to say that I'm normally not a huge fan of Jeph Loeb's comics writing. Somehow in this series, Loeb managed to impress me.
This quirky book deserves a post of its own. I describe The Witching Hour as Fantasy Island meets Leverage. It's the story of Grey and his compatriots as they try to help people by giving them the opportunity to be better. As in real life, most of the time, those they are seeking to help slip right back into the morass they managed to climb out of but occasionally someone manages to stick it out and fight their way back on top.
It was a four issue square bound series. It's out of print, but I've had no problem finding the issues and graphic novels on eBay for reasonable if not cheap prices.
GI Joe: A Real American Hero by Larry Hama and friendsLike many kids who grew up in the 80s, the first comic book series that I followed faithfully was GI Joe: A Real American Hero, written almost entirely by Larry Hama.
What can I say about Larry Hama? The man is a craftsman. He is a talented artist, drawing the famous "Silent Issue", issue #21, but it is as a writer that Mr. Hama shines.
One of my favorite issues of the series was #34 where Ace and Lady Jaye in the Sky Striker go up against Wild Weasel and Baroness in the Rattler. It was this cool two scene (by scene, I mean the interior of the two planes) story where each set of characters were interacting together and with each other without any real communication happening between the two aircraft.
Other favorites were the issues of Storm Shadow's various transitions, including being somewhat possessed by the ancient warriors that were used to build Serpentor briefly.
The bonds between the "brothers" Storm Shadow and Snake-Eyes were some of the best moments in the series.
One of the big elements that run through the series, again and again, is the constant struggle between vengeance and forgiveness. There is the story arc of Zartan and his time pretending to be the Blind Master and trying to redeem himself only to slide back into being a criminal thanks in no small part to the machinations of Cobra Commander. There is also the scene where Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes reconcile after Storm Shadow breaks into the Pit II.
GI Joe: A Real American Hero had well developed plots with complex characters and very rarely, if ever, completely dropped a subplot, even if it took years to circle back around to resolve it. In many ways, GI Joe did a better job of being the book that Chris Claremont tried to make the X-Men in his 80s stories. Somehow Larry Hama could keep up with the balls he kept throwing in the air better than most other creators.
X-Men Inferno by a whole bunch of peopleThere is an entire group of X-Book crossovers that happened around this time. Some of them were good, and others weren't.
Inferno was the grandaddy of them all. It touched not only the X-Books but crossed over and affected almost every Marvel title at the time. It is one of the rare crossovers whose effects were felt for years to come. From the transition of Cyclops's wife into the Goblyn Queen and beyond to Hobgoblin's transformation into a real demon/goblin in the Spider-Man books, The Inferno transformed elements of the entire Marvel Universe either directly or indirectly.
Inferno is when the world including their former colleagues who were part of the teams Excalibur, X-Factor, and New Mutants learned that the Uncanny X-Men were still alive having been thought dead for some time.
The artwork by Marc Silvestri was dynamic and kinetic and beautiful.
Mutant Massacre by a very similar bunch of peopleIn many ways, the Mutant Massacre was felt just as widely as the Inferno, but it was also a much quieter crossover. Much of the action happened offscreen. We mostly heard about what was going on. Also, this was during the (first) time that Magneto had joined the X-Men and was the headmaster of the school. This meant that the New Mutants were Magneto's responsibility, and he didn't know where they were or what was going on with them.
The thing that makes the Mutant Massacre so rereadable is the emotions come through in many of the titles that were involved. It's the subtlety and the overwhelming sadness that affected the entire X-Men corner of the Marvel Universe.
The Immortal Iron Fist by Matt Fraction, David Aja, and friendsI've written about The Immortal Iron Fist before. All I'll add today is that The Complete Immortal Iron Fist Volume 1 was released and I bought it to keep in my truck so that when I was somewhere stuck waiting without didn't have a book with me (yeah right), I'd have something to read.
Hawkeye by Matt Fraction, David Aja, and friendsHawkeye is by the same core team that gave us Immortal Iron Fist. It's a street level Hawkeye book. It's Fraction's love letter to The Rockford Files.
Fantastic Four Visionaries: John Byrne by John ByrneJohn Byrne's run on Fantastic Four, as cliched as it is, is right up there with Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's run. He did more with these characters than anyone else since Jack and Stan and up until I'd dare say Matt Fraction, Mark Bagley, and Mike Allred's recent run.
There was the destruction and replacement of the Baxter Building. You had Doom II / Kristoff coming into power. Thing stayed behind on Beyonder World and the recruitment of She-Hulk, possibly bringing She-Hulk the status she deserves. Sue Storm-Richards coming into her own and her transformation from Invisible Girl into Invisible Woman.
Fantastic Four Visionaries: Walt Simonson by Walt SimonsonThis was one of the most fun runs on the Fantastic Four. We had time travel. We had adventures. We had dinosaurs. And of course, the "resurrection" and return of the one true Dr. Doom.
Plus we got the Fantastic Four II team of Hulk, Spider-Man, Wolverine, and Ghost Rider all drawn by Arthur "Don't Call Me Art" Adams for a three issue adventure.
All-Star Superman: Absolute Edition by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
I think this may be my all-time favorite Superman story in spite of Grant Morrison doing his best to create the ultimate Superman story.
All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank QuitelyAll-Star Superman crams in almost every trope of the Silver Age Superman stories into 12 issues and makes it work as a cohesive whole. The artwork by Frank Quitely feels like some of his best. It's almost like they almost gave him enough time to do it the way he wanted to do it.
It also fulfills the promise of every Superman story that Grant Morrison has ever told including the DC 1,000,000 mega event of the early 2000s. We get to revisit some of the future Supermen one more time and see where they originated.
All-Star Superman can be read and enjoyed completely on its own. The only exception is the Jimmy Olsen references. If you've never seen the stories where he gained powers and tried to be a superhero, you might not appreciate the jokes. Even with that caveat, if you happen to be aware of any of the other material referenced, it makes the experience all the more full but you can enjoy the title thoroughly without it.
Grendel War Child by Matt WagnerAll of Grendel would qualify but Grendel War Child would be a must. It’s my favorite of all of the Grendel tales. I’m not sure if it’s the whole Paladin protecting the young "prince" or if it’s the fancy lightsaber, but there are elements of this story that resonate with every post-apocalyptic heroic tale I’ve ever read or seen in movies. I can read this one over and over again.
I'd go with The Grendel Omnibus Vol. 4 because it's a highly portable volume and it contains not only War Child but the other parts of the Grendel Prime's story.
Titles That Are Conspicuously Absent From This List
WatchmenI read it once. I liked it. I can't possibly ever read it again. I've tried. It's too bad too. I like some of the characters, like Rorschach, whom we're not supposed to like too much, and Ozymandias. It could be that I came to Watchmen several (I think 10) years after it was released and I had read so many of the pretenders and copycats that came out after.
Dark Knight ReturnsOf the holy trinity, this one could almost make my list. I do reread The Dark Knight Returns. It's hokey and dated and yet at the same time, it's very readable regardless of the era.
Carrie Kelly is the star of this book, not Bruce Wayne or Batman. Superman is a parody of himself and treated as such.
MausIt's a damn good book but I can't reread it over and over again while stranded on an island. I do revisit it from time-to-time. It's good for a reread but it bums me out too much to have in my Deserted Island Collection.
Tell us what comics or graphic novels you'd want with you if you were stranded on a desert island in the comments.