I once saw someone reading a Hellboy graphic novel in the New York subway. For most of my life, reading comic books in public was a no-no, a remnant of a childish mind. Things have changed since then. Now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has caused a new renaissance for comic books. Reading comic books in public ceased being a childish act. In someone else’s hands, a favorite comic book was a sense of resonance and validation.

I remember my own comic book journey. I started reading comic books in high school. At the time, graphic novels—a series of comic books collected into one volume—were way above my allowance. Instead of buying my own, I borrowed everything from a classmate. My first taste was the ten-volume Sandman series.

Soon after, I learned why some comic books came with a “suggested for mature readers” warning. Albeit insightful, the Sandman series offers a different vibe for a teenage beginner. Most of the series’ mature themes were lost to me. Instead of digesting its themes, I merely stuck with the plot, expecting twists and turns. Of course, reading for the plot isn’t a bad thing. In fact, Sandman started me down a path that I have always enjoyed.

Easy mode: the essentials

I enjoyed Sandman. Despite breezing through its heavier plotlines, I gained an appetite for comic books fueled by the format’s beautiful art styles, gripping stories, and engaging characters. But Sandman was difficult, at first. I needed an easier series to get into.

At the time, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was pop culture’s biggest source of comic book lore. Batman fever was at its peak. Naturally, I went ham on all the Batman comics I could find.

For the more esoteric reader, Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim is an easy series to follow. The subject of the 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the six-part Scott Pilgrim series is a quirky take on slice-of-life genre, following the titular Scott going up against his girlfriend Ramona’s evil ex-boyfriends.

Even now, Batman is still the most entertaining hero to follow. The Batman universe contains the grittiest storylines, a ragtag rogues’ gallery, and the most eye-popping art. From the ubiquitous Joker to the more mysterious Hush, everyone in Batman’s universe turns heads and raises eyebrows. In my opinion, the best stories include Arkham Asylum, Court of Owls, The Dark Knight Returns, and Hush.

Years later, I grew tired of the usual superhero fare. Batman just kept beating up the Joker over and over. Spider-Man went against the same score of villains over and over. It was time for a change.

On the other side of the fence, Marvel offers its own wide variety of superheroes. Especially today, Marvel’s superheroes are huge facets of our popular culture. It’s impossible to pick just one specific character. Luckily, Marvel (and DC) frequently hold crossover events—multipart stories that bring several heroes together. The most popular of which is Civil War. Unlike the concise Marvel film, Marvel Comics’ Civil War covers a lot more heroes and arcs. It’s a good introduction to what the Marvel universe can offer.

The comic book’s greatest strength is its ability to reference and satirize itself. Outside of the superhero genre, the comics world has mastered various styles and stories. Soon after my superhero binge, I went for more mature graphic novels, eager to legitimize my comic-reading habits.

Moderate difficulty: the anti-hero

First on my list: Alan Moore’s Watchmen. In a superhero-dominated world, Watchmen is the proverbial anti-hero, challenging the traditional archetypes of superhero fiction. In Alan Moore’s altered reality, masked heroes have been labeled as vigilantes, operating either as outlaws or forced into retirement. The only officially recognized superhero, Doctor Manhattan, has altered the tide in the Vietnam War and the Cold War. Watchmen deals with a consequences of superhero culture in a hyper-realistic world.

Watchmen [Credits: DC Comics Inc]

For a slightly more lackadaisical anti-hero, Hellboy offers a dark take on more obscure mythological figures like Rasputin and the Baba Yaga. Usually, everyone knows Hellboy from Guillermo del Toro’s duology and the recent reboot. However, the Hellboy comic universe bleeds profusely from nuanced characters and a rich lore.

Expert mode: comics as art

Enough of heroes and anti-heroes. Outside of the constant cycle of superheroes and supervillains, the comic book has also explored the limits of art and literature. The world’s most popular literature—like To Kill a Mockingbird—have been adapted into graphic novels in the past. Besides that, the industry’s biggest writers and artists have presented their ideas and stories in truly creative formats.

For the reader of Western media, Dave Mckean’s works ring furiously. Unlike the traditional illustration styles of the format, Mckean uses sculpture, photography, and multimedia to create wonderfully beautiful comics. His works span different writers like Batman and Sandman. However, he also crafts his own stories like Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash and Cages.

For the manga lover, Junji Ito is one of more esoteric choices for comic book reading. Hitting almost Lovecraftian notes, Ito masterfully personifies graphic horror. His grotesque works can make ordinary objects terrifying, including spirals and shark. His most famous works include Uzumaki and Gyo.

Easy or hard?

Take your pick. Regardless of which difficulty you prefer, Sandman remains the best recommendation across the board. If you’re a beginner, Sandman offers the liveliest romp through a varied cast of heroes, villains, and side characters. For an experienced reader, Sandman explores the thin line between life, death, dreams, and everything in between.

Right now, I’m finally collecting my own copies of Sandman. The award-winning series just celebrated its 30th anniversary, releasing new editions this year. There’s nothing like picking up a favorite character once again; leafing through its pages, leaping through the same adventures, and picking up something new.

In his introduction to the reissue, author Patrick Rothfuss writes, “What you’re holding here is something special. The Sandman is, in my opinion, the finest comic book ever written.” Let me change that a bit. Every comic book is something special. Whatever it is; in my opinion, it’s one of the finest comic books ever written.