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25 Essential Graphic Novels

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 craig thompson

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 will eisner

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 charles burns

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 daniel clowes

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 alison bechdel

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 david mazzucchelli

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 OneAsterios 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 alissa torres

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 marjane satrapi

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 art spiegelman

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 adrian tomine

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

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 lynda barry

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 david b

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

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 chris ware

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 g neri

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.

paloma heartbreak soup stories gilbert hernandez

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 david small

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 lat

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 gene luen yang

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.

sandman endless nights neil gaiman

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 julie maroh

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 bryan lee o'malley

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.

SRB_CASE_FNL_2.qx

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 yoshihiro tatsumi

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?

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15 comments
Max Berger
Max Berger

I get that you weren't trying to give it to any author twice, but that said "Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron" by Daniel Clowes I really think should have been included on this list...

drnels
drnels

I like a lot of this list, but a lot of these are not novels. Thompson, Bechdel, Satrapi, Spiegelman, and others are writing about the things they lived, not things they made up. These are nonfiction memoirs not fiction novels. Writing a memoir requires different skills than writing a novel. Those skills and those lived experiences should not be diminished.

scweber
scweber

I shall begin by saying that you have included many of my favorite books and authors on this list.   


However, I agree with some of the comments left below.  


As an English Lit. major who was a literary snob for over 20 years, I understand your high art prerequisite, but also have come to terms with returning to super hero comic books as both a valid and at times 'high art,' medium (SEE the anagogic title for The Escapists, below).  Rather than perpetuate this debate, which is mostly based upon genre prejudice, I will add a few titles that would have been on my top 25 graphic novels list.  Purely for simplification, I have NOT included graphic novels, or serialized comic books by some of my favorite authors that are construed as 'super hero comics.'  Plus, that list would be too large and overwhelming to comprise on a Sunday morning.  


Books that maybe could have been part of this list:


"The Book of Genesis" Illustrated by R. Crumb

"Freddie & Me" Mike Dawson

"American Splendor" or "The Quitter" Harvey Pekar

"Forget Sorrow"  Bell Yang

"Pride Of Baghdad" or "The Escapists" Brian K. Vaughn

"Drinking At the Movies" Julia Wertz

"Market Day" James Sturm

EdwardCole
EdwardCole

Although I personally get nothing out of Alan Moore's bleak, pointless, nihilism I won't quibble about his inclusion here. One of his books is very much like any of his books so V for Vendetta or Watchmen. Same diff.


I do think any list of this sort must include something by Harvey Pekar. E.g. Our Cancer Year (with Joyce Brabner).

MarkisanNaso
MarkisanNaso

Ugh. This list should be renamed "25 Essential Graphic Novels for Pretentious Hipsters." At least half of any Best Comics/GN list should be superhero stories. If not it's a complete fail. 


This list definitely does not cover all the bases as the introduction states. And I'm not just talking superheroes. I see no sci-fi on here either.  It's also completely hypocritical to introduce this list as "Long dismissed as a less serious art form, graphic novels have finally started to gain more mainstream credibility over the last 20 years" and dismiss superhero books like Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns that have actually penetrated the mainstream far beyond anything on this list, except maybe Sandman and Maus.


I know someone will probably try and point out that this list focuses on stories that came out as single GN volumes. Except Black Hole didn't at first. Neither did V for Vendetta. If those serialized books can be included here, then the door must be open for other comics that were first released monthly.


The books on here are terrific, Brie, but it's simply a mistake to create an Essential GN list and not include superhero stories. If you are going to champion comics as a credible art form you should not forget the books that actually helped to make that possible.

JasonPowers
JasonPowers

I don't care if you've read 10,000 graphic novels.  If you've included nothing by Osamu Tezuka in a list of "essential graphic novels", you have not read enough graphic novels.   

DarthPraxus
DarthPraxus

Personally, I rank From Hell as Moore's magnum opus, but V for Vendetta is a close second (and has the better film adaptation).

steff worthington
steff worthington

No Watchmen, Hellblazer, We3, or anything from Moebius. Odd.

BobbyNoyes
BobbyNoyes

I love Frank Miller's Ronin. Maybe it isn't top 10, but I have read it dozens of times. 

AustenCaldwell
AustenCaldwell

Shortcomings is a collection of three Optic Nerve issues.  A novella at best.  If that's allowed, then Mother, Come Home, collecting issues  2-4 of Paul Hornschemeier's brilliant Forlorn Funnies deserves a nod as well.  As does Derek Kirk Kim's Same Difference and basically anything by Sam Hiti.  I think most of the artists in this list would describe themselves as cartoonists, and as you pointed out in your article, the term "graphic novel" is problematic.  Publishers like to use it because it convinces non-comic book fans to read comic books, because hey, they're not just for kids, you know.  But cartoonists hate it because it's often applied incorrectly.  I'm not sure how to combat this problem.  I just call them all comics.  


Other suggestions:

Nate Powell, Swallow Me Whole

Brandon Graham, King City  (but read his collection, Escalator, first)

Dylan Horrocks, Hicksville

Corey Lewis, Sharknife (if like Bryan O'Malley, who also played way to much Nintendo as a kid)

Jeffrey Brown, pretty much all of them

Farel Dalrymple, Pop Gun War

Paul Pope, 100%, Heavy Liquid, Battle Boy, etc.


Oh, and Watchmen, because no one's been able to find that one on their own.

skybox
skybox

yes, I think this article is trying to be provocative by excluding Watchmen  


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