Graphic novels are a relatively new style of novel, but they’ve grown to become one of the most cherished literary forms in recent memory.
Graphic novels are one of the most gorgeous, adventurous, and awesome intersections of art and literature. You may have heard of the Marvel and DC cinematic multi-verses, whose origins began with the humble comic book and graphic novel. Since then, the literary form has been popularised over more than a few decades — so, it’s no easy task to pick the best.
Our attempt has narrowed down some of the most exciting, challenging, and intricately drawn stories that have come across our desks. They explore the superhero trope, mortality, existentialism, adolescence, philosophy, and more — all richly accompanied by the magical artistry of illustrators.
Watchmen – Alan Moore (1987)
Although technically a comic series in its origins, the stories that make up Watchmen, created by British DC Comics team Alan Moore (writer), Dave Gibbons (artist), and John Higgins (colourist), have been one of the most influential maxiseries of all time. After the huge success of the initial four comics, it was released as a collected graphic novel in late 1987.
Watchmen constructs an alternative history where the United States — with the help of the superheroes — win the Vietnam War, avoid the Watergate scandal, and change the course of history forever. In a retrospective review, the graphic novel has been described by BBC reviewer Nicholas Barber as “the moment comic books grew up.”
The Dark Knight Returns – Frank Miller (1986)
Similar to Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns was also originally published as a multiple-issue comic book series (The Dark Knight Returns, Dark Knight Triumphant, Hunt the Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Falls), that was later collated and published as a singular title, graphic novel.
The Dark Knight Returns follows an alternative history of Bruce Wayne, whose post-retirement return to fighting crime is challenged by the American government, as well as the return of old foes like Two-Face and the Joker.
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale – Art Spiegelman (1991)
The first (and only) graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize, Maus is a critically lauded work that depicts the cartoonist Art Spiegelman, interviewing his father, Vladek, about his experiences as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor.
The narrative deals with themes of guilt, memory, and racism as it traces Vladek’s recollection of the events leading up to WWII and his liberation from the concentration camps. It also details the complex relationship between father and son, using a simple drawing style and post-modern narrative techniques.
Black Hole – Charles Burns (2005)
One of the most disturbing novels in the canon of respected graphic literature, Charles Burns’ Black Hole is a story of epic proportions: set in 1970s Seattle, the story follows a sexually transmitted disease that grotesquely infects the population.
A mesmerizing, existentialist portrait of adolescent isolation, Black Hole relentlessly explores American teenage-dom through heavily inked black and white portraits, flashbacks, dreams, and fantasies.
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood – Marjane Satrapi (2007)
Adapted into a Jury Prize-winning film, Persepolis is an autobiographical graphic novel that traces Marjane Satrapi’s adolescence and early adulthood in the throes of the Iranian Revolution and her migration to Europe.
Received to universal critical acclaim, Kristin Anderson of The Oxonian Review of Books of Balliol College, University of Oxford said, “While Persepolis’ feistiness and creativity pay tribute as much to Satrapi herself as to contemporary Iran, if her aim is to humanize her homeland, this amiable, sardonic and very candid memoir couldn’t do a better job.”
Essential Dykes to Watch Out For – Alison Bechdel (2008)
Alison Bechdel has been credited with some of the earliest, continual lesbian representations in pop culture, with her graphic novel Dykes to Watch Out For. Chronicling the lives of a diverse group of lesbians, the novel explores LGBT+ culture, politics, gender, and love through its satirical soap opera narratives and topical commentary.
Essential Dykes to Watch Out For is also responsible for the creation of the Bechdel test, a measurement of gender representation in fiction. It asks whether a work features at least two named women, who talk to each other about something other than a man.
Footnotes in Gaza – Joe Sacco (2009)
Footnotes in Gaza is a journalistic graphic novel, based on Joe Sacco’s conversations with Palestinians in Rafah and Khan Younis about the Israeli massacres of 1956. It also integrates the Palestinian dispossession of land, the consequences of the Iraq War, and the death of activist Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death by an IDF bulldozer during the second Intifada.
Released to wide critical acclaim, Publishers Weekly reviewed the novel as “epic [yet]intimate…”, along with The New York Times’ Patrick Cockburn writing: “Joe Sacco’s gripping, important book about two long-forgotten mass killings of Palestinians in Gaza stands out as one of the few contemporary works on the Israeli-Palestinian struggle likely to outlive the era in which they were written.”
Daytripper – Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá (2011)
Published by DC Comics, Daytripper details the life of Brás de Oliva Domingos, who spends his days writing people’s obituaries and his nights dreaming of becoming a successful author. The novel explores mortality and existence, with every chapter detailing a different, yet significant, moment in Brás’ life.
Drawn in a semi-realistic style, Daytripper is a haunting meditation on the meaning of life, and the profound philosophical consequences that the smallest choices in your life can hold.
Hark! A Vagrant – Kate Beaton (2011)
Cartoonist for the New Yorker, LA Times and Harper, Kate Beaton’s satirical political comics have become beloved around the world. Her hilarious cross-examinations of Western leaders, revolutionaries, leaders and icons, brings modern, absurdist humour to historical events, people and society.
Drawn in black and white, with the addition of watercolours and brush pens, Beaton’s distinctive aesthetic is characteristically complemented by the conversational tone of her writing. Again, while technically considered a webcomic, the physical compilation of Beaton’s subverted historical personages has been praised by The Atlantic as ” [a] collection [that] reveals Beaton’s flair for marrying dry historical facts of varying arcanist with cheap, childish gags in a way that never seems to get old.”
Nimona – Noelle Stevenson (2012)
Having won an Eisner Award, Cartoonist Studio Prize and Cybils Award, Nimona is one of the most critically acclaimed graphic novels of recent times. Set in a world that fuses medieval and dystopian settings, the novel follows the titular character, Nimona the teenage shapeshifter, who goes on adventures with a low-grade villain, Ballister.
Originally developed as Stevenson’s thesis at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Nimona was first published on Tumblr, where the first pages gained immense popularity and led to subsequent HarperCollins publication in 2015.
Patience – Daniel Clowes (2016)
Patience is a true epic from a master of the form. Brimming with Clowes unparalleled character depictions, it’s a three-way combination of sci-fi, psychedelia, and love story.
After Jack Barlow’s pregnant girlfriend, Patience, is murdered in 2012, the story zooms forward to 2029. Jack then travels back in time to try to understand why the murder — that continues to haunt him — occurred.