Long dismissed as a less serious art form, graphic novels have finally started to gain more mainstream credibility over the last 20 years. There are many, many excellent examples out there, but if you’re looking for a place to start, start here! The world of the graphic novel is one that spans a wide range of authors, artists, styles, and subject matter, and this primer covers all the bases. While the distinction between graphic novels and comic books gets dicey (the term “graphic novel” was only introduced in the late 1970s), for the purposes of this list, they are lengthier, meatier book-like works — and they’re all brilliant for both their literary and visual merit.
Blankets by Craig Thompson
Clocking in at 592 pages, Blankets may not be a light graphic novel (physically or stylistically), but Craig Thompson’s autobiographical coming-of-age story is sweet and dreamy, covering the profoundly intense experience of falling in love for the first time, questioning your faith, and negotiating your relationship with your siblings. This is a complex undertaking because of its breadth and winding narrative, but it’s still an altogether cozy and comforting effort, set in a small town in Wisconsin — and, yes, it’s the kind of book to pick up on a chilly day when you feel like being wrapped up in a pile of blankets, or just your own fuzzy nostalgia.
A Contract With God by Will Eisner
Composed of four stand-alone stories that intertwine thematically, A Contract With God popularized the term “graphic novel.” It focuses on a group of poor Jewish characters who live in a tenement in the Bronx, and spawned two prequels, A Life Force and Dropsie Avenue.
Black Hole by Charles Burns
Charles Burns is probably one of the most distinctive cartoonists alive, and one of the boldest. He honed his style by contributing to a Sub Pop fan zine, and you can spot his striking, graphic illustrations from a mile away. This graphic novel is probably his most critically-acclaimed work, a dark and disturbing tale of an STD that plagues suburban Seattle in the mid-1970s. It’s a chilling take on adolescence, sexual awakening and transitioning into adulthood. And some of the images will forever haunt your dreams.
Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
Perhaps you’ve seen the Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch movie of the same name, but Clowes’ original provides a quieter depth to this wispy tale of disaffected youth, complete with perfectly sparse illustration.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
Yes, this is the cartoonist who spawned the Bechdel Test. But beyond her clickly contribution to our gender and pop culture lexicon, Bechdel also wrote this excellent funny, sad and sweet graphic novel memoir, Fun House, a “tragicomic” that chronicles her youth, particularly her relationship with her father.
Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli
Asterios Polyp is a architecture professor at Cornell, who leaves NYC after a lighting strike burns his apartment, and relocates to a town in the middle of America. And while Mazzucchelli’s comic book work may be more well-known — spanning most popularly Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One — Asterios Polyp is a true gem of a graphic novel, creating a world where past mingles with present, nothing is certain, eccentrics wear grey suits, and ties and everyone is searching for love.
American Widow by Alissa Torres and Sungyoon Choi
This graphic novel is an emotional autobiographical account of the events following September 11th, written by Alissa Torres, a woman whose husband died in the World Trade Center while she was eight months pregnant with his child. The harrowing tale — her husband’s first day at work was September 10, 2001 — depicts her marriage and her first year as a widow and a single mother, in heartbreaking fashion.
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
Picking between Satrapi’s two main graphic novel works, Persepolis and Embroideries, is a difficult task. Both are excellent, but Persepolis is more oft-cited as the entry point into her work. The autobiographical work depicts Satrapi’s life in Iran from ages six to 14, during and after the Iranian Revolution. Like the tagline says, it’s a story of childhood, but also a story inherently political in nature.
Maus by Art Spiegelman
There’s no other way to put it: this is a Holocaust story. But it’s a beautifully executed, Pulitzer Prize-winning one, telling the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jew who survives Hitler’s reign in Europe, and his son, a cartoonist who is trying to come to terms with his father’s story. The entire tale is depicted in allegorical form — the Nazis are cats, the Jews are mice — but it never feels like a shtick.
Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine
This is one of the best contemporary representations of the Asian-American experience around, dealing with issues of race and identity, but also just life in general. Told through the flailing relationship of cynical Ben Tanaka and his more political girlfriend Miko Hayashi, Shortcomings shows Tomine at his best. It’s also a masterful visual ode to the Bay Area and New York City, even when the two are at odds.
V for Vendetta by Alan Moore
Maybe you’ve seen the movie with Natalie Portman, maybe you haven’t, but V for Vendetta is one of Alan Moore’s landmark works. It’s a chilling account of a dystopian British society, and worth a good night of reading.
What It Is by Lynda Barry
Acclaimed cartoonist Lynda Barry’s how-to writing book is a more expansive take on the graphic novel. It comes chock-full with pictures and graphic illustration, asking quirky and thought-provoking questions about object, memory, creation, and more.
Epileptic by David B.
David B. is one of France’s most influential comic artists, and this book compiles six volumes of his work about growing up with an epileptic brother, with a wider perspective on the toll it takes on his family.
My New York Diary by Julie Doucet
Doucet’s seminal work follows her abrupt move to New York, complete with a jealous boyfriend, insecurities, epilepsy, and self-medication tendencies. It’s slightly neurotic, but that’s half of the adventure.
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware
This graphic novel glimpses into the world of a lonely “everyman” who has the chance to meet his father for the first time at the age of 36. It’s a jumble of fold-out instructions, paper cut-outs, and illustrated diagrams, all of which create a sympathetic portrait of a man who hasn’t yet grown up.
Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri
In this YA graphic novel, 11-year-old Roger tries to make sense of his classmate Yummy’s death, and life. It’s based off of real events in 1994 Chicago, exploring the complicated realities of gang life in a way that’s hardly ever represented in graphic novel form.
Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories by Gilbert Hernandez
Palomar is a compilation of 500 pages worth of the post-underground literary comics masterpiece Love & Rockets, put together in a novel-like sequence that follows the order in which the vignettes were meant to be consumed. The book follows the lives of the residents of a small Central American town named Palomar, and it’s a trip.
Stitches by David Small
Children’s book illustrator David Small’s graphic memoir traces his adolescence from cancer-stricken kid to runaway teenager. It’s a story about voicelessness — the story refers to an operation that left him basically mute — and coming-of-age with a desire to be an artist.
The Kampung Boy by Lat
Published in 1979, this graphic novel is more popular in Southeast Asian than the United States, but it’s a culture-spanning take on growing up in rural Malaysia in the 1950s, when a more traditional way of life started slipping away.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
This full-color, glossy graphic novel is a striking take on Chinese-American identity, weaving together three perspectives: Chinese folk character Monkey King; Jin Wang, a middle school student who wants desperately to assimilate; and Danny, an All-American student shamed by his Chinese cousin, the unfortunately-named Chin-Kee. Its deliberate stereotypes are uncomfortable, but they raise interesting questions about race in America.
The Sandman: Endless Nights by Neil Gaiman
Even if you’ve never picked up a Sandman comic book issue, you can still dive headfirst into The Sandman: Endless Nights. This book is more like an anthology, composed of seven standalone chapters, each devoted to a different character (the physical manifestations of dream, death, desire, destruction, delirium, despair, and destiny.) Each chapter is illustrated by a different artist, and also totally different stylistically.
Blue Angel by Julie Maroh
The heart-wrenching love story of two teenagers in France in the 1990s got turned into, you guessed it, Blue Is the Warmest Color.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World by Bryan Lee O’Malley
FYI, the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World film borrows heavily from the first book in Bryan Lee O’Malley’s series. At times, the film is an almost shot-by-shot representation of the graphic novel (which can be cool, as a viewer), but even if you’ve already watched the movie, read the series. The books are better, and way funnier.
Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse
While this graphic novel could easily be dismissed as a white guy trying to write about the Civil Rights Movement, it’s a more complicated story of homophobia and racism in the South. Cruse drew from his experiences as a gay man growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, and the art is absolutely striking.
A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
Yoshihiro Tatsumi is widely credited with starting the ‘more serious’ gekiga style for cartoonists in Japan, a precursor to the ‘graphic novel vs. comic book’ distinction in the States. This novel is purely autobiographical, his take on growing up as a child in Osaka after World War II, dreaming of pursuing a career like acclaimed manga artist Osamu Tezuka’s. It gets a little meta, but how could it not?