Let’s get one thing straight right from the get-go: Graphic novels are not comic books. Where comic books tend to be only a couple dozen pages long, a graphic novel is often well into the scores of pages if not well past a hundred. And while comic books tend to tell long, ongoing (and essentially never-ending) stories in serial format, graphic novels are usually self-contained in either one long volume or a short series of books.
Still, graphic novels and comic books are similar in arguably most ways. They each use images as well as words, mostly in the form of dialogue and some inner monologue, to tell their stories. And both the artwork and story lines tend to be lurid and fanciful. While it would make little sense to create a graphic novel version of, say, All the President’s Men, it would hardly be as compelling to simply read the plot of one of the books featured here without the vivid artwork its illustrator(s) wrought.
So while graphic novels and comics are similar, the former tends to hold more prestige and are often more complex, nuanced, and aimed more toward the adult reader.
If you have avoided graphic novels in the past thinking they are simply long comic books and intended for kids or nerds, you’re pretty judgmental, aren’t you? Also you’re wrong. The graphic novel is a unique and compelling art form and many of its finest examples take storytelling to new heights. Start your visual/literary climb into the graphic novel genre with any of these works and you’ll be headed up the right hill.
The Watchmen by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons
The Watchmen is arguably the seminal graphic novel. When it first came out in the mid 1980s as a 12-part series, this brilliant, twisted take on an America that might have been (had only superheroes really existed and suffered from really human failings) all but created the genre of the modern graphic novel. It brought new readers to the medium and set benchmarks for richness of plot, quality and style of illustration, and depth of character that few other graphic novels have matched and fewer still surpassed. Read this graphic novel, and if you don’t enjoy it, consider just sticking with your grocery store dime novels instead.
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples
The nine books that make up the almost perfect Saga graphic novel series tell a story we’ve all heard a million times: A man and a woman from opposing societies — this time full-on warring societies and in fact warring species — fall in love despite all the odds against them and try to make their relationship work in a world that opposes then. Or in this case a series of worlds. And worlds “peopled” be all sorts of alien creatures, sentient robots, killers for hire, ghosts, magic, intergalactic soap operas, and more. All that sounds over the top and ridiculous, right? It’s not. Author Vaughan and illustrator Staples create profoundly real, deep characters you will love and care for, and others you will loathe and wish death upon, a wish often granted. Their worlds are believable, strange though they be. And the suffering and joy experienced on the stunning pages will be shared by any reader who gives these books a chance. (And no, I’m not a paid spokesman.)
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
The full title of Satrapi’s deeply personal graphic novel memoir is Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, and indeed what an intense childhood she had, if you can call most of it that. Born in Tehran in 1969, the author/illustrator was just ten years old when the Islamic Revolution overthrew the government, completely changed Iran, and soon led to fierce battles with neighboring Iraq. The hauntingly simple black-and-white illustrations and direct, often painful, often humorous writing tells the story of one little girl and one entire nation at the same time.
Maus by Art Spiegelman
Fair warning: Maus is heavy sledding. Like Polish Jews during World War II heavy. This is the story of the author’s father’s experience as the Nazis ravaged Europe both with physical violence as well as their malevolent ethos. It is a story of survival, but one beset by the greatest pain and suffering known to history. The fact that in these pages Jewish people are depicted as mice and Nazis as cats does not serve to soften the blow, but only to make the reader feel all the more powerless and afraid. Then you have the added complexity of the story also being largely about the author’s own strained relationship with his Holocaust survivor dad and his process of creating the very graphic novel you are reading.
300 by Frank Miller
If you saw the movie starring Gerard Butler, it’s probably no surprise that this was a graphic novel first, and one by the giants of the genre, Frank Miller. (Sin City? Same story.) Yes, of course the liberties taken here are many; surely the actual battle of Thermopylae back in 480 BCE didn’t look much like the vivid, often horrific scenes in this graphic novel, but who cares? The courage of the Greeks, the intensity of the violence, the suffering on all sides — it all makes for a magisterial work and one that is not to be missed if you want to read the pillars of the genre.
From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell
From Hell tells the story of Jack the Ripper as accurately as anyone is likely to ever get it. Moore’s writing and Campbell’s deceptively simple pen on paper drawings create an intimate, haunting portrayal of the Ripper’s London, peopled by prostitutes, policemen, and everyone in between. The artwork calls to mind newsprint images that well might have been read with rapid heartbeat in the days in which the tale is set, and the drawings are equally as direct whether depicting sex, an autopsy, a murder, or a casual conversation.