I've been reconnecting with my love for comic books recently. I used to read them all the time in the Eighties...mostly Iron Man, X-Men, and (for some reason) West Coast Avengers. I also read the Watchmen and the Dark Knight Returns back then, which were big influences on me.
A month or so ago I started getting back into comics - not collecting individual issues, but reading trade paperback versions of cool stuff I've missed. I should point out that all of these books are ones that comics people already know all about...so they're old news for some folks, but great new discoveries for me. Might I suggest the following:
All-Star Superman - This is just about the best comic I've ever read, period, and certainly the best Superman story I've come across. The art by Frank Quitely is beautiful, and the stories, by Grant Morrison, take advantage of Superman's nearly godlike power. These are all familiar characters - Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, Luthor...and they are everything they're supposed to be, but done in a way that's both new and original AND true to the roots of the Superman mythos. The end is both heartbreaking and hopeful. You can read more about it here, but there are some spoilers if you scroll down too far. I highly recommend this. I also just discovered that they're doing a cartoon movie version. I have owned this book for about a month and a half and I've read it six times. I cried the first two times - it's the only comic that's ever made me do that...!
Identity Crisis - This one is a classic murder mystery featuring the Justice League, so it's got a lot of different heroes in it and lots of interpersonal conflict between the members. One of the spouses of a JLA member is murdered, and it may be because of some past misdeeds by the heroes themselves. Very interesting book, although there is a lot going on and I had to read a few chapters twice to make sure I got it. Otherwise this is great stuff, and shows that a superhero story can go in directions other than fist-fights and world domination plots. This one suffers in comparison to the others on this list, perhaps, in terms of how much I liked it. But it's still A-level work. It was written by Brad Meltzer, who is primarily a traditional novelist and also hosts this interesting show on the History channel.
Kingdom Come - This book's art is by Alex Ross whose style I really like. He also worked on the story with writer Mark Waid. The story takes place in the future, with most of the heroes we're used to from the JLA aging. Even Superman sports Nick Fury-style graying temples. Several decades from now, a younger, brasher, less respectful generation of "superheroes" rises to prominence and eclipses the old-fashioned heroes of yesteryear (our time). They fight each other all the time, causing a lot of civilian casualties and losing sight of what heroes are supposed to do (save people). Superman comes out of self-imposed exile to set things straight, collecting an aged bunch of ex-JLA types to help out. But Batman, Green Arrow and some others don't appreciate Superman and Wonder Woman's ultra-conservative approach (Batman is especially offended by a prison Clark builds out in Kansas) and work against their old comrades. This is extremely compelling storytelling. I need to read it again but I'm pretty sure it's right up there with Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, as far as I'm concerned.
Astro City - I've only read the first collection of this (issues 1-6) but I'm pretty blown away by it. The setting is completely original - that is, not in the DC or Marvel universe - and the superhero stories here aren't like others I've read. For example, my favorite is about a small-time hood who accidentally sees a superhero's real face and spends the rest of the story trying to decide whether to sell the hero's identity to a villain, or to get out of town before the superhero can stop him. Another one is just about a date between Samaritan (a Superman analogue) and Winged Victory, and another is told from the point of view of a reporter who gets the story of the century and then can't print it. I can't wait to read the rest of these, but my local comics store only had the first collection. It's certainly true that you can do a new and compelling series about heroes. I also like the art in this one, which is kind of retro-looking. Reminds me of how comics used to look in the Seventies. Kurt Busiek is a fine writer!
Astonishing X-Men 1-24 - This is Joss Whedon's run on what would become DC's flagship X-Men book (there are so many X-Teams I can't even be bothered to keep up any more). I watched to motion comic version of this and went right out and got every issue Whedon wrote. There's more about this here.
You'll see that DC Comics weighs pretty heavily on this list. That's funny, because in high school, for some reason, my friend Jeff and I used to argue over which company was "better." I always took Marvel's side. Now, I'm not so sure there's an important difference. I do know that DC is much better at "branding" their characters. Everyone in the world knows who Superman is. I'm not sure you could say the same for Iron Man or Daredevil.
Comics make me happy. I'm not sure I could ever explain why and have someone really understand...unless they were also into comics.