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.
For someone who’s interested in issues-based/social justice fiction
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.”
The Rime of the Modern Mariner – Nick Hayes (2011)
The Rime of the Modern Mariner is a retelling of Samuel Coleridge’s classic epic The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Set in the modern-day, Nick Hayes’ graphic novel is concerned with issues of environmental waste and the climate crisis.
It’s no easy feat to take on a classic as revered as Coleridge’s, but Hayes is surprisingly successful, with his efforts summed up by Rachel Cook in The Guardian: “As a draughtsman, Hayes here places himself firmly in an English romantic tradition that includes Thomas Bewick and Eric Gill, Samuel Palmer and Stanley Spencer. As a result, holding this exquisite book in your hands (his publisher, Jonathan Cape, has spared no expense) feels akin to a sacramental act.”
Unterzakhn – Leela Corman (2012)
Set on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early-twentieth century, Unterzakhn follows the lives of two sisters, Esther and Fanya, and charts the path from childhood to adulthood. Navigating two wildly different worlds, Unterzakhn paints a moving portrait of the desires and sacrifices that make up the fabric of immigrant life.
Citizen 13660 – Miné Okubo (2014)
Miné Okubo was one of the thousands of Japanese-Americans forced into internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Citizen 13660 is an illustrated memoir of her life in relocation centres in California and Utah and has been described by the New York Times Book Review as “remarkably objective and vivid, and even humorous.“
Mis(h)adra – Iasmin Omar Ata (2019)
Mis(h)adra details the life of Arab-American college student, Isaac, who struggles to live with his epileptic condition. With the graphic novel’s name being taken from two Arabic words: “mishadra”, which means “cannot”, and “misadra”, which means “seizure,” the novel paints a heartfelt portrait of what it means to live with an oft-misunderstood condition in modern society.
Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts – Rebecca Hall (2021)
Using authenticity and nuance to probe the history of Black resistance, specifically women-led slave revolts, Wake has been described as “[highlighting] the deep, unhealed, intergenerational pain of rape, torture, and death that was the lot of untold women.“
For the romance-lover
Blue Is the Warmest Color – Jul Maroh (2010)
Consider yourself warned: while this is a beautiful love story, it’s equally as heartbreaking. Following the relationship between two French women, Emma and Clémentine, in the late ’90s — Blue Is the Warmest Color is an intensely emotional, profound exploration of class differences, sexuality, and addiction. If the title sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard of the film adaptation of Blue Is the Warmest Color which unanimously won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013.
For someone looking for comedic relief
Cerebus the Aardvark – Dave Sim (1977)
Running for over 25 years, Cerebus the Aardvark is a comic book series that follows the anthropomorphic aardvark of the same name and has been heralded as one of the greatest graphic novel series of all time.
More than halfway through the series run, English comic book writer Alan Moore described Cerebus the Aardvark as being what “Hydrogen is to the Periodic Table, and one of the only comics that [he] still [reads] and [enjoys] regularly every month.”
The Cowboy Wally Show – Kyle Baker (2003)
The Cowboy Wally Show chronicles the life of a fictional, debaucherous entertainer named Cowboy Wally. Satirizing the worst parts of our society’s obsession with fame and celebrity culture, as well as exploring themes of masculinity and romantic relationships, the graphic novel is wickedly funny, with visually stunning illustrations.
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.”
For someone who loves crowd-pleasing classics
Watchmen – Alan Moore (1987)
Although technically a comic series in its origins, the stories that Watchmen is made up of, 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 — wins the Vietnam War, avoids the Watergate scandal, and changes 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.
For someone who loves a philosophical yarn
Asterios Polyp – David Mazzucchelli (2009)
Asterios Polyp follows the eponymous character, a middle-aged, alcoholic womanizer, whose life is torn apart the day his NYC apartment burns down. As he escapes the city for the American mid-west, Polyp embarks on a journey of self-revelation.
Deftly moving through memories of the past, and Polyp’s meditations on the present, David Mazzucchelli’s graphic novel is a brilliant, expansive story that investigates the trappings of modern relationships, existential crises, and what it means to be human.
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.
For the burgeoning history buff
Pride of Baghdad – Brian K. Vaughan (2006)
Albeit a fictionalised account, Pride of Baghdad tells the very-real story of four lions who escaped Baghdad Zoo during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, led by the U.S. Lauded by IGN as an “instant classic,” it was further described as being able to “be enjoyed on several levels. Those wanting a ‘simple’ tale of survival and family will find that.
“Those wanting a powerful, gripping analogy of war will find that as well. Writer Brian K. Vaughan was also careful to avoid pinpointing any one particular viewpoint—each lion represents a different attitude, which is refreshing since many books do not allow that choice… There is no way any comic book reader should pass up this graphic novel.”
March: Book One – John Lewis, Andrew Aydin (2013)
Telling the life story of the author, famed Civil Rights activist and former Congressman John Lewis, March is an illustrated, autobiographical account of Lewis’ childhood, life-changing meeting with Martin Luther King Jr., and his involvement in burgeoning stages of the American Civil Rights movement. A profoundly affecting book, on the life of a man who was devoted to justice, equality, and freedom — March is a graphic novel you can’t miss.
Strange Fruit – Joel Christian Gill (2014)
Named after the history-making Billie Holiday song, Joel Christian Gill’s Strange Fruit tells the true story of nine African-American heroes from history. Included are stories such as those of Alexander Crummel and the Noyes Academy, the first integrated school in America, established in the 1830s; Henry “Box” Brown, who escaped from slavery by mailing himself to Philadelphia, and Marshall “Major” Taylor, a.k.a. the Black Cyclone, the first black champion in any sport.
A moving celebration of African-American culture and Black success, Strange Fruit brings to light many of the heroes who were previously erased from pages of American history.
Heretics!: The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy – Steven Nadler, Ben Nadler
While being filled with factual events, Heretics! is still wildly entertaining. The graphic novel details the journeys of several 17-century philosophers who challenged authority (think Galileo, Spinoza, Descartes, Newton, and more). Heretics employs gorgeous illustrations to paint a portrait of the era’s most rebellious, ingenious, and transformative thinkers — the same people who created the foundation for modern philosophy and science.
For someone obsessed with fantasy
The Books of Magic – Neil Gaiman (1990)
The famed creator of DC superhero Sandman, Neil Gaiman is an icon of the comic book world. The Books of Magic is a graphic novel series that follows the adventures of protagonist Timothy Hunter. As he ventures on a tour of the magical realms, Hunter is guided by a mysterious group of mystics called the Trenchcoat Brigade, with the novel detailing the former’s journey in deciding whether he wants to join their occult-y ranks.
Multiple Warheads – Brandon Graham (2012)
Described in a Goodreads review as the “closest a comic book has come to a rapidly paced, completely engaging pop-punk album,” Multiple Warheads is filled with post-Soviet surrealism. Set in the “Dead City” after an apocalypse, the graphic novel is filled with sharp wit, fantastical illustrations, and a wildly inventive plot.
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. 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.
Sharaz-De – Sergio Toppi (2013)
Inspired by the classic fairytales of 1001 Nights, Sharaz-De is a witty retelling of the original legend of Scheherazade, the woman who tells the stories of the Arabian Nights to escape execution.
For someone who loves coming-of-age tales
Skim – Mariko Tamaki, Jillian Tamaki (2008)
Set at a Canadian private girls’ school, Skim follows high-schooler Kimberly Keiko Camero and explores what it means to come of age, through the passage of girlhood to womanhood. Dealing with themes such as sexuality, suicide, crushes, and social pressure, Skim is an edgy, poignant take on the idiosyncrasies of modern adolescence.
El Deafo – Cece Bell (2014)
El Deafo is a loosely autobiographical graphic novel that follows the life of Cece and details her life as she navigates a new school, whilst being hearing impaired. Cece finds her coping mechanism in the form of “El Deafo,” a superhero alter-ego that is built with nerves of steel, and El Deafo follows her journey as she tries to assimilate amongst her peers, and find a true friend.
For someone looking for kids/YA targeted fiction
American Born Chinese – Gene Luen Yang (2006)
American Born Chinese interweaves three storylines: the old Chinese fable of The Monkey King, the life of Jin Wang (the only Chinese American student at his school), and another student, Chin-Kee who is the ultimate negative Chinese stereotype. While seemingly separate, Gene Luen Yang’s extraordinary talent weaves these three narratives into an epic fable that explores identity, racial stereotypes, and the immigrant experience.
Pashmina – Nidhi Chanani (2017)
Pashmina is a whimsical young adult/children’s graphic novel about an Indian-American teen named Priya who attempts to reconnect with her mother’s homeland. Through her discovery of a magical pashmina shawl, she is transported to a strange new world and must unravel the secrets of a family that she’s never known. Pashmina is a wonderful meditation on hyphenated identities, and the multiple cultures they have to balance when finding themselves.
For someone who loves sci-fi
Patience – Daniel Clowes (2016)
Patience is a true epic from a master of the graphic novel 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.
Far Sector – N.K. Jemisin (2019)
Published by DC Comics, Far Sector follows the newly chosen Green Lantern Sojourner “Jo” Mullein as she protects the City Enduring, a sci-fi metropolis of 20 billion people. While the city has remained safe for over five centuries, Jo faces the prospect of everything being turned upside down — taking the reader on a thrilling journey of adventure, sacrifice, and freedom.
Written by award-winning author N.K. Jemisin and illustrated by acclaimed artist Jamal Campbell, Far Sector is one of the most exciting artistic collaborations in the past few years.