I resist calling them graphic novels, because "graphic novel" is a euphemism, which presumes that comic book is a bad word.
A friend recently was telling me he was in a big comic book store, but felt lost without a guide, so he asked my advice. Agreed completely. A lot of dreck. I normally depend on hcduvall. But here were my thoughts on things I have read recently.
Despite the large selection, there are a few authors that people universally seem to agree are the best. Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman fall into that category. I might put Ellis there as well.
Gaiman's 10 volume series Sandman series about the anthropomorfication of the concept of Dream. Finally finished. Amazing and impressive as a giant work. But spotty. Gets off to a rough start. And finishes a bit full of itself. But in the middle, amazing stories about what if concepts like Death and Dream and Destiny looked like people, and if they interacted with Lucifer and Cain and Abel and people like you or me.
Aside from Sandman, Gaiman has mostly tried to gain respectability by switching to novels. So not much else I'm aware of.
He has nice stories that rethink the 20th century in terms of a global conspiracy. And takes a sarcastic view of the world. Global frequency was among my favorite, (mostly for the innovative neat art style). but ended too soon. Planetary was a big 20th century conspiracy story. The Authority I just read recently, superheros at a grand scale, with very odd fascist politics. He has this new superhero series which is one of my favorite recent reads, Next Wave, which is superhero stories with pure sarcasm and not much else. Lots of fun to read though, nice sarcastic art too.
Considered a god it seems. Most famous for Watchmen. Superhero stories that delve into neat ideas about magic and reality and science etc. Promethea is amongst his most "serious" series. About how magic = art, and how both play a real role in the every day world. Helped change how I see the world. Top 10, is easier reading, about how the government forces all the superheroes to live in their own little city (like a concentration camp) and how superheroes deal with living in a world, where it is normal to have super powers. The story is a police drama, like CSI or something, but with superheroes. Recently read League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Not his best, but amusing.A superhero story that re-used historical fictional superheroes like James Bond, the Invisible Man, Captain Ahab, Gulliver, Dr. Jeckyl, Prospero from Tempest etc. The 3rd volume is most ambitious, but very text heavy. Rewrites Shakespeare and other writes. Contains the most memorable panel I have ever seen in a comic book (the setting is a giantess' cavernous VJJ).
Bryan K Vaughn
Media darling. Agree with hcduval, highly overrated. Got into him because of npr's and nytimes gushing reviews about Y: the Last Man (story of how a plague kills all the men in the world except for 1). You get the feeling that these reviews (especially from the crazy media hype of its last issue) were all written by people who have never read a good comic before and thus have low expectations. Sorta neat idea, pretty boring execution. Similarly, his Runaways series and Ex Machina (like Aaron Sorkin's West Wing but where the president is a former superhero, and inferior writing) are ok, but not great.
Other recent random reads:
Fables, about fairy tail characters: Snow White, Prince Charming, Big Bad Wolf, Cinderella, etc. but living in modern New York. A classic detective story. Interesting, neat idea.
Dungeon. A whimsical French series, child-like, coming-of-age story, of anthropomorphic animals in a medieval feudal world. Has a very french sensibility. Sort of aimed for kids, but includes hints of french philosophy, and includes cartoony sex scene when the hero, a kid, runs in on an embarrassed naked snake woman with breasts and pubic hair.
Marvel Civil War Series:
A huge cross over where all the Marvel characters get involved in a huge civil war. Read parts, including the main Story Arc and the Frontline series, which talks about the role of the reporters during the civil wars (a marvel version of the older Marvels series by Kurt Busiek). so still marvel style, like very mainstream-y, but yet, I'm impressed that it is basically about the War on Terror and Civil Liberties, and it does so in a reasonably balanced way.