To the uninitiated, graphic novels are picture books — immature, goofy, smutty playgrounds for weirdos who refuse to enter the real world. None of which is correct.
Sure, there are some misses. But Hollywood, pop culture and plenty of your friends have long accepted the best of the graphic novel for what it is: a great medium for incredible stories. Unlike comic books, graphic novels are easily digestible because they contain a single continuous narrative, usually collected in one edition; like any number of great storytelling venues, they’re addictive, engrossing and thought-provoking. Their underground, alternative culture is beautifully different: they’re weirder, and more comfortable with that weirdness, than pretty much any other medium. But they are often just as intense, and in fact more dark, brooding, unsettling and violent than any book or film. Not into superheroes or sci-fi? Many graphic novels, especially modern ones, deal with realistic, truthful (and sometimes non-fiction) drama.
These ten are great examples in the most digestible, single-book form (though there are some greats that span several or many issues). Give one a few pages and you might not look up until there are no more pages left.
The Underwater Welder
Best Ghost Story: Its introduction describes it as “The most spectacular episode of The Twilight Zone that was never produced”, and that comparison goes well beyond its heavily shaded black-and-white illustrations. Jack, the titular underwater welder, is a likable, flawed character facing down the pressures of impending fatherhood deep below the sea when he comes face to face with the haunting mysteries of his father’s disappearance 20 years before.
V For Vendetta
Best Dystopian Classic: The work that inspired the excellent movie goes much deeper than its silver screen progeny; it was one of the big three, along with The Watchmen (also written by Vendetta‘s author, Alan Moore) and The Dark Knight Returns, that moved the graphic novel solidly into the realm of mature audiences. That much is clear from the very first scene: Vendetta deals beautifully (and sometimes, brutally) with the threats to individual freedoms that misaligned governments can and have turned against their people, with drastic effect.
Best Autobiography: In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi retells her childhood and growth into an adult during the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Its simple black-and-white illustrations are nonetheless powerful and fitting, portraying both Satrapani’s struggle with her veil and the realities of life during a tumultuous, dangerous time in the Middle East.
Best Horror Story: Charles Burns is revered among comic book readers, and Black Hole makes it easy to see why. Set in the summer of 1970 in suburban Seattle, Black Hole is horror (disgustingly mutated teenagers), social commentary (alienation and the disintegration of civility, along with the growing danger of STDs during the sexual revolution) wrapped up in one big tome.
Best Comic Noir: Vengeance, in pure form: a victim of a horrible wrong, a mysterious agent named Mr. Graves, a handgun, information on their potential target, and 100 rounds (untraceable by any law agency) to get the job done. And not just 100 bullets, but 100 issues — that means a centennial’s worth of noir and juicy, bloody pulp.
THE WATCHMEN AND MAUS, THE CLASSICS
These two classics often make school reading lists — as they should. Both take on major topics and create meaningful, powerful literature: in Maus, the Holocaust; in The Watchmen, the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation.
The Dark Knight Returns
Best Batman: We’ve picked our Bruce Wayne, and he’s the one pioneered by Frank Miller. The first to feature Wayne as aging, desperate and gritty rather than hackneyed and KAPOW!-ing, Miller fills his novel with mutant gangs, an enticingly despicable Joker and an epic confrontation with Superman.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Best Reimagining of Classic Fiction: The Connery film was enjoyable but flighty, whereas the graphic novel got it right the first time around. That’s because the movie cut out some of the best reimaginings, like when the gang (Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain, Dr. Jekyll and Hawley Griffin and the Invisible Man) battles through H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, or foils the antichrist. And where do you know Alan Moore, the writer of the series? Oh yeah, those little books called The Watchmen and V for Vendetta.
Best Examination of Death: At the end of each of Daytripper‘s ten issues, its main character dies; at the beginning of the next issue he has returned, alive. By dealing with the possibility of death — and then ignoring its effects entirely — Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá weave a strange, intriguing tale where hope and life’s ultimate end coexist.
Best Modernism: A character study, just like the best novels and films, Asterios Polyp follows a complicated, unlikeable man who begins a meandering journey after his New York City apartment burns down. To see how illustration can affect narrative, crack this book: the color schemes and styles shift along with the characters, adding a beautifully creative element to a tale well told.
Best Manga: Manga is a whole beast unto itself, not that you should be intimidated; Akira is a fun, fast-paced dive into the deep end. Set in “Neo-Tokyo”, rebuilt after a mysterious blast leveled the old city and started WWIII, the classic story follows two street-smart friends, Tetsuo and Kaneda, after Tetsuo picks up paranormal abilities. Things get dicey from there. Its 2,000 pages are actually split up into six volumes, making it one hell of an epic.