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The Best Graphic Novels to Add to Your Reading List
Accessible, beautiful, engaging — graphic novels have so many qualities that make them utterly captivating. The tales they tell aren’t just interesting; their artwork adds another dimension altogether, making them a feast for your brain and your eyes. If you’re new to the graphic novel scene and are looking to dip a toe into its deep waters, then you’ve come to the right place. While it can be easy to get overwhelmed by the huge number of choices you have, certain graphic novels have established themselves as landmarks of the genre — or are definitely on their way there — which makes them great starters to pick up and peruse.
In celebration of Free Comic Book Day on May 1, take a look at some of the most iconic, celebrated and popular graphic novels in print. Whether you’re into memoirs or fantasy, and whether you adore colorful digital artwork or the homespun charm of pen-and-ink drawings, you’re sure to find something you love looking at just as much as you love reading it.
“Honor Girl,” by Maggie Thrash (2017)
In Honor Girl , Maggie Thrash recounts her teenage summers spent traversing the pressures of adolescence at the all-girls Camp Bellflower in the Appalachians. As the story unfolds, 15-year-old Maggie is surprised to find herself crushing on an older girl named Erin, who works as a counselor. Amidst the competition to become “Honor Girl,” the camper who best represents the qualities the camp tries to instill in those who spend their summers reenacting Civil War battles and shooting rifles, Maggie navigates heartache and the gripping fear of what other campers will do if they find out she’s gay.
The artwork in this graphic novel is simple, almost resembling something a teenager would’ve drawn during art class at camp, and that only adds to its charm — it’s immersive and folksy enough to make it feel as though you’ve fully been invited into Maggie’s mind. And the struggles and trials Maggie endures while figuring out her own identity during a transformative summer — along with period details that’ll transport you right back to the late 1990s — will resonate with anyone who’s encountered that uniquely teenage brand of hope and longing.
“Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me,” by Mariko Tamaki (2019)
Named one of Forbes’ Best Graphic Novels of 2019 , writer Mariko Tamaki and illustrator Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me takes an honest look at toxic relationships. The manga-style story follows Frederica Riley, or “Freddie,” a self-conscious teenage girl who finds herself in a relationship with the popular Laura Dean — who, as the title reveals, continually breaks up with Freddie at random whims, only to restart their relationship over and over.
As the on-again, off-again relationship continues to play out, however, Freddie is forced to take a look at whether riding this emotional roller coaster with Laura Dean is really worth the consequences. Juggling relatively adult themes — particularly because the characters are at the precipice of adulthood themselves — against a backdrop of bright colors and a familiar art style, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is ideal if you’re looking for deep characters and a story that champions diversity and queer themes.
“Persepolis,” by Marjane Satrapi (2000)
A veritable titan in the world of graphic novels, Persepolis is a highly acclaimed autobiographical tale that recounts the author’s childhood during the 1979 revolution in Tehran, Iran, and charts her adolescent years in Vienna, Austria. Aiming to show the realities of living in Iran during a time of major social and political upheaval — not the biased, agenda-driven media version of the Iranian Revolution that, according to the author “didn’t represent my existence at all” — Satrapi provides visual context for global readers using weighty black-and-white artwork and a beautifully woven story.
As one of the American Library Association’s “Top 10 Most Challenged Books” due to its depictions of politics, religion, race and other important topics, you shouldn’t expect Persepolis to be a walk-in-the-park read. But you should expect this award-winner to be illuminating and unforgettable. It’s a piece of literature in its own right, one that demands critical thinking and forces us to contemplate the realities of war and the way the media shapes our perception.
“Saga,” by Brian K. Vaughan (2012–Present)
Saga is a multi-issue (right now there are 54, and production has been on hiatus since 2018) science fantasy-slash-space romance created by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples. Named one of Time ‘s top 10 graphic novels of 2013, Saga follows two star-crossed extraterrestrials, Alana and Marko, who fall in love despite the fact that their races have long been at war. The married duo at the center of this space-age Romeo and Juliet epic struggle to care for their daughter Hazel and find safety as they combat a Star Wars -esque evil empire.
If you’re looking for something to really sink your teeth into, a new galaxy to get lost in while you shelter in place, this critically acclaimed series should do the trick — and not just because it’s won over two-dozen Harvey and Eisner awards. “ Saga is one of those comics that proves the value of the medium,” notes Luke Frostick of Bosphorus Review . “If you’re an adult…and you want to get into comics…then pick up Saga .”
“Blankets,” by Craig Thompson (2003)
Blankets recounts the story of a young Craig Thompson, who was raised in an Evangelical Christian family from the Midwest. In a tale told through flashbacks, the graphic novel follows Craig as he falls in love with a girl named Raina during a winter church camp and the two explore the struggles of faith, adolescence and relationships. This coming-of-age story also looks into the subtleties of family dynamics — in particular at how religion influences those relationships — and how we re-process and reframe our formative years when looking back on them as adults.
The winner of two Eisner and three Harvey Awards, Blankets is full of lush, flowing ink drawings that will drop you right back into the joys and angst of early adolescence. It’s a “ superb example of the art of cartooning: the blending of word and picture to achieve an effect that neither is capable of without the other,” and it demonstrates precisely why and how graphic novels can be so engrossing.
“The Sandman,” by Neil Gaiman (1989–1996)
Want to jump straight to the top and read one of the most acclaimed graphic novels — maybe of all time? Check out Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman , which was one of the first graphic novels to make it onto The New York Times ‘ Best Seller List. Between 1989 and 1996, Gaiman produced an incredible 75 total issues, along with one special and multiple spinoffs, which are now available in several volumes. How perfect is that if you’re looking for something binge-worthy and all-consuming?
Each tome is packed with gorgeous, colorful artwork from some of the most talented artists in the medium. But, woven with mythology from a variety of different ages, the storyline itself can be a bit tricky to summarize. When Neil Gaiman was asked to attempt to explain the plot in a single sentence, he replied , “The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.” Cryptic? Absolutely. But suffice it to say that if you like unique domains, all-powerful beings and dark fantasy, The Sandman has your name all over it.
“Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” by Alison Bechdel (2007)
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a bestselling graphic memoir that primarily tells the story of the author’s relationship with her father, the director of a funeral home that his family nicknames the “Fun Home.” It’s not until Alison comes out as a lesbian in college that she learns her father is also gay — right before he passes away just weeks afterward, leaving Alison to untangle the many questions she’s struggling to answer regarding her father’s hidden life.
Full of chilly, blue-toned artwork meant to highlight the bleakness of the subject matter and the “arctic climate” of the author’s family, Fun Hom e is an intimate, mesmerizing example of a graphic memoir — and a graphic novel — at its finest. It’s a story of unearthing the self and trudging through the grief that bubbles up when we think back on people we’ve lost, choices we’ve made and past selves we’ve abandoned, and the catharsis Fun Home provides is a reward all on its own.
“We3,” by Grant Morrison (2005)
For a story centered around animals, We3 hits on a myriad of deeply human themes. Loss, abandonment, and identity are just some of the motifs found throughout this harrowing tale. Bandit the dog, Tinker the cat, and Pirate the bunny are three cybernetically enhanced “animal weapons” created by the American government to serve as the ultimate soldiers – until they’re deemed expendable. The three are rescued from the military by their creators and set immediately out on a journey to find “HOME”.
Grant Morrison originally penned this three-issue series back in 2005 while Frank Quitely provided this story’s now-iconic artwork. We3 will be a hard read for pet parents and animal lovers, as animal cruelty is one of this project’s most intrinsic themes. But the cruelty, violence, and tragedy presented in this narrative aren’t without merit. Morrison juxtaposes death and callousness with love and compassion, then asks readers to determine how much a life is worth – be it a person’s life or an animal’s.
“Fables: Legends in Exile,” by Bill Willingham (2012)
At its core, Fables is a story about stories. This series examines how we shape stories, and how we’re also shaped by them in turn. Characters from fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and old wives’ tales serve as the primary protagonists, and antagonists, of Bill Willingham’s legendary series. The likes of Snow White, Pinnochio, Prince Charming, Beauty and the Beast, and the Big Bad Wolf dwell in the fictional New York community of Fabletown. There, they try to eke out normal lives for themselves – or as “normal” as these larger-than-life figures can manage.
There are over 150 Fables comic books as of this writing, most of which are available as multi-issue graphic novels. Fables: Legends in Exile is the starting point for newcomers; it offers the first five issues of the original comic plus an additional called ‘A Wolf in the Fold’. Fables’ litany of nuanced characters elevated the series above many of its contemporaries, alongside Willingham’s ability to tackle intricate themes – sometimes with grace and tact, and other times with harsh efficiency, but always with authenticity.
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What is a Graphic Novel?
What are Graphic Novels?
"Graphic Novel" is a format, not a genre. Graphic novels can be fiction, non-fiction, history, fantasy, or anything in-between.
Graphic novels are similar to comic books because they use sequential art to tell a story. Unlike comic books, graphic novels are generally stand-alone stories with more complex plots. Collections of short stories that have been previously published as individual comic books are also considered graphic novels.
Major Types of Graphic Novels
Like traditional novels there are endless ways to categorize different graphic novels. There are as many genres and sub-genres as in traditional fiction and non-fiction. The following are only a few of the most predominant categories.
Manga: The Japanese word for "comic" but in the US is used to descript Japanese style comics. Manga is read from top to bottom and right to left as this is the traditional Japanese reading pattern. Though, technically Manga refers to Japanese comics, many think Manga refers to a style rather than the country of origin. Titles: Death Note, Full Metal Alchemist
Superhero Story: Superhero graphic novels have taken the most popular form of comics and turned what were once brief episodic adventures into epic sagas. Superhero comics are dominated by a few mainstream publishers Marvel, DC, and Darkhorse. Titles: Batman: Dark Knight Returns, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Astrocity.
Personal Narratives ("Perzines"): are autobiographical stories written from the author's personal experiences, opinions, and observations. Titles: Fun Home, Blankets, Lucky, The Quitter.
Non-fiction: are similar to perzine's in that they are written from the author's personal experience, but the author is generally using their own experience to touch upon a greater social issue. Titles: Pedro and Me, Maus, Persepolis.
What is a Graphic Novel — The Art of Pictorial Storytelling
G raphic novels have been steadily gaining recognition as a legitimate form of literature, moving from the fringes to the mainstream. They offer a unique blend of art and narrative that captivates audiences of all ages.
But what is a graphic novel exactly and how does it differ from traditional novels or comic books? This article aims to answer these questions, delving into the history, structure, impact, and future of graphic novels.
What is a Graphic Novel in Literature?
First, let’s define graphic novel.
A graphic novel is often confused with the likes of other literary mediums such as the comic book. To better understand the differences between the two, let’s first look at the graphic novel defintion.
GRAPHIC NOVEL DEFINITION
What is a graphic novel in literature.
A graphic novel is a format, not a genre. It refers to a long-form work of sequential art, often with complex narratives and developed characters.
The term "graphic novel" is used to describe any book in a comic format that resembles a novel in length and narrative development. This can include fiction, non-fiction, history, fantasy, or anything in-between.
Unlike comic books, which are usually part of serialized narratives, graphic novels contain complete narratives, whether or not they are part of a larger series. Graphic novels use both text and illustrations to tell the story, making them similar to comic books but generally more detailed and substantial.
Characteristics of a graphic novels:
- Text and Art: Uses both illustrations and written language.
- Full Narratives: Contains standalone stories or complete arcs.
- Genre Diversity: Covers any genre.
- Length: Typically longer than comic books, allowing for complex plots.
History of Graphic Novels
The birth of graphic novels.
The history of graphic novels can be traced back to ancient civilizations that used pictorial forms to tell stories, but their modern iteration didn't emerge until the mid-20th century.
The term "graphic novel" was popularized in the late 1970s when writer and artist Will Eisner used it on the cover of his book A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories . This groundbreaking work, composed of four interconnected short stories set in a Bronx tenement in the 1930s, is often hailed as the first true graphic novel.
A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories by Will Eisner • Graphic novel examples
The success of Eisner's work paved the way for other artists and writers to explore this medium. In the 1980s and 1990s, graphic novels such as Alan Moore's Watchmen and Art Spiegelman's Maus achieved critical acclaim, pushing the boundaries of what could be achieved in this format and solidifying its place in the literary world.
Today, graphic novels encompass a wide array of genres and styles, reflecting the diverse interests and experiences of both creators and readers.
- What is Anime? →
- What is Animation? →
- Best Superhero Movies of All Time →
Characteristics of Graphic Novels
Graphic novels vs comic.
The graphic novel format uses both text and illustrations to tell a story, similar to a comic book. However, while comic books typically serialize stories, graphic novels differ in a few different ways.
Length and Completeness
Comic books are shorter, often part of serialized narratives that unfold over multiple issues. Each issue may not provide a complete story arc, instead contributing to an ongoing plot . In contrast, graphic novels are typically longer and often contain a complete narrative within a single volume, much like a traditional novel. While a graphic novel can be part of a series, each volume usually presents a self-contained story.
For example, Comic books, like Batman are shorter and often serialized, with stories unfolding over multiple issues. Graphic novels, such as Persepolis , are longer, typically presenting a self-contained story in each volume.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi • Graphic novel examples
Binding and presentation.
Comic books have a magazine-like format with stapled binding and lower-quality paper. In contrast, graphic novels are book-bound and printed on higher-quality paper, reflecting their status as durable literature.
Content and Complexity
Comic books often focus on superhero narratives, while graphic novels, due to their length, can delve into more complex themes and genres , from memoirs to historical fiction.
For example, the comic book series The Amazing Spider-Man primarily focuses on the adventures of the superhero Spider-Man and his battles against various villains. The narrative is serialized, unfolding across multiple issues with each issue often ending on a cliffhanger.
On the other hand, Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus delves into the complex themes of Holocaust survival and intergenerational trauma. It's a memoir that uses anthropomorphic characters to depict the experiences of Spiegelman's father during World War II. This graphic novel provides a complete narrative within its pages, using the extended format to explore its themes in depth.
Maus by Art Spiegelman • Graphic novel exampels
Perception and reception.
Historically, comic books were often seen as lowbrow entertainment primarily for children, while graphic novels have generally been taken more seriously as a form of literature. However, this perception has been changing over time, with many recognizing the artistic and literary value in both formats.
Having explored the differences between the graphic novel vs comic it's clear that the former has carved out a unique space in the literary world. Now, let's delve into the significant influence and impact of graphic novels on literature and society as a whole.
What is a Graphic Novel in Literature and Art?
The impact of graphic novels.
Graphic novels have significantly influenced literature and storytelling. They make complex narratives more accessible and engage readers who might find traditional novels intimidating.
Alan Moore's Watchmen is one such graphic novel that has garnered critical acclaim. It deconstructs the superhero genre, presenting morally ambiguous characters and exploring political and social issues.
Alan Moore’s Watchmen • Graphic novel examples
Moreover, the graphic novel format has found its place in education. Teachers use books like Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese to discuss topics like identity and cultural assimilation.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang • Graphic novel examples
The combination of visuals and text in graphic novels aids comprehension and engages students in a way that traditional texts often can't.
What is a Graphic Novel Evolving Into?
The future of graphic novels.
Graphic novels continue to evolve, with creators pushing boundaries in both art and narrative. Digital platforms are opening new possibilities for interactivity, like the webcomic-turned-graphic novel Homestuck, which incorporates animations and games.
Additionally, diversity and representation are gaining focus. More graphic novels now feature characters of different races, genders, and sexual orientations. Marjorie Liu's Monstress is a notable example, featuring a diverse cast and tackling themes of racism and war.
Monstress by Marjorie Liu
Graphic novels are a dynamic and powerful form of literature, offering a unique blend of visual art and narrative. They challenge us, delight us, and remind us of the power of storytelling.
Whether you're a seasoned reader or new to the world of literature, there's a graphic novel out there for you—be it a fantastical saga like Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, or a heartfelt coming-of-age story like Blankets by Craig Thompson. So, why not explore this exciting medium? You might be pleasantly surprised by what you discover.
What is Anime?
Now that we have a solid understanding of the depth and breadth of graphic novels, let's transition from this form of illustrated storytelling to another popular medium originating from Japan. In the next article, we will explore the vibrant and diverse world of anime.
Up Next: What is Anime? →
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What is a Graphic Novel? || Oregon State Guide to Literary Terms
"what is a graphic narrative": a literary guide for english students and teachers.
View the full series: The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms
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"What is a Graphic Novel (Part I)" Transcript (English and Spanish Subtitles Available in Video. Click HERE for Spanish transcript)
By Raymond Malewitz , Oregon State Associate Professor of American Literatures
When you were a small child, you probably read picture books. In the next two videos, I want to show you some strategies for reading the adult equivalent of these kinds of stories: graphic narratives. Like those picture books from your childhood, graphic narratives usually include both pictures and words. However, as you would expect, the relationship between the pictures and words in graphic narratives written for adults is often much more complex that the relationship between pictures and words in a picture book written for children.
In those picture books, the images on the page usually reinforce or complete the textual narrative. In this example from Mo Willems’ terrific Elephant and Piggie series, Gerald the Elephant points to a bowl that Piggie carries, and asks “What is THAT!?” Piggie holds up the bowl and replies “THIS is slop!” Simple, right?
But what about this passage from Chris Ware’s graphic narrative “Thrilling Adventure Stories (I Guess)?”, a painfully awkward coming-of age tale of a young boy who is so obsessed with comic books that he dyes his underwear different colors so that he can look like a superhero. While he is looking for adventure, the story he delivers is far from “thrilling.”: “Once my grandmother told me this really funny story about [my grandfather]. She said she was up in the kitchen fixing dinner and he was in the basement getting dressed after taking his shower. She heard this really loud yelp and she ran to the top of the stairs to see what was wrong. He said that he’d zipped himself up in his fly.”
If we look at the images that accompany this narrative, we’re immediately confused. Why is a person being shot? Who is this caped superhero who crashes in from the glass roof to save the day? And what the heck does this have to do with the grandmother’s story?
As this (admittedly extreme) example suggests, graphic narratives can often be understood as two stories in one: a textual narrative and a visual narrative. These narratives are placed in juxtaposition to one another, calling our attention to differences or contrasts as well as to unexpected similarities between the two stories. In the passage from Ware’s graphic narrative, the seemingly simple and mundane TEXTUAL story that the boy’s grandmother tells him is somehow translated in his head into a hyperbolic , cartoonish VISUAL story. Reading the two narratives together is a strange experience for sure, and at first, the two stories appear totally unrelated to one another.
If we give it some thought, however, here and elsewhere in Ware’s story, we can begin to see some common features that cross over between the visual and textual narratives. Both narratives involve pain: the pain of being shot and the pain of, well, zipping yourself in your fly. Both involve observation: the grandmother checking on her poor husband and the superhero observing the crime in progress. Finally, both involve zips and flies, though the words are obviously used very differently in the graphic narrative and the textual narrative.
Identifying these ideas in juxtaposition with one another, we can begin to make sense of this very strange passage as the story of a boy’s struggles to translate unfamiliar phrases and events into his own limited (and comic book obsessed) worldview. When the boy hears that his grandfather “zips himself up in his fly,” a superhero zipping and flying through the roof is, perhaps, what he thinks.
This is, obviously, an extreme example, but it does remind us that we should slow down when we read a graphic narrative to consider how the words and the images on a page are juxtaposed with one another rather than reading the visual narrative as a mere complement to the textual narrative.
Consider one more example from Lynda Barry—a short comic called “Help You.” The textual narrative involves a young girl named Maybonne struggling to practice her typing skills in class while dealing with the trauma of being abandoned by her father. The textual narrative places this anxiety in juxtaposition with the visual narrative—her father at an anonymous bar seemingly oblivious to the destruction he has caused. There may be other contrasts and similarities at work in this passage, and if you spot any, I hope you’ll share them with me in the comments section in the video.
So, now that we have established a fundamental property of graphic narratives—the principle of juxtaposition—the next question that arises is how exactly to analyze visual narratives. As our literary terms series suggests, there are a ton of terms for describing what’s going on in literary texts, but students of English literature may not have as developed a vocabulary for close reading visual narratives. In the next lesson in this series, I’ll try to give you a handful of terms that I have found useful in my teaching and research to get you on the path to thinking about and writing about graphic narratives in as sophisticated a manner as you now read textual narratives. In the meantime, stay healthy and have fun reading your next graphic narrative!
Further Resources for Teachers
Art Spiegelman's Maus I and Maus II are often taught in high school and college English classrooms. These stories often ample opportunities to discuss moments in which the visual narrative departs from or complicates the textual narrative, most notably in Spiegelman's decision to represent Jews, Germans, Poles, and Americans as different kinds of animals.
Writing Prompt: Choose an interesting 1-2 page sequence within Maus I or Maus II in which the visual narrative operates in juxtaposition to the textual narrative (there are MANY). Try to explain the significance of this juxtaposition within this small moment of comic storytelling and consider how that smaller moment might help to illuminate some of the larger themes of Spiegelman's strange retelling of his father's story.
Interested in more video lessons? View the full series:
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The Daily Utah Chronicle
Graphic Novels Should Be Considered Literature
(Design by Mary Allen | The Daily Utah Chronicle)
By Ethan Blume , Arts Writer June 21, 2023
Since getting more into reading, I have discovered there is a lot of stigma surrounding the kind of things I like to read, be it from English professors or scholars. My favorite types of texts to read are genre works, like sci-fi, horror and graphic novels.
I have heard many stories of professors across the world talking down genre fiction, refusing to acknowledge it as literature. Graphic novels have long since had to deal with the same thing, but just as unrightfully so as genre fiction. Graphic novels are capable of telling incredibly powerful stories.
Comic books and graphic novels have been around for over a century. Subsequently, they have been helping younger people get into reading more complex narratives and parables. But alongside being good for children, comics and graphic novels have the capability to tell stories for adults.
Think of “ Maus ,” a graphic novel so important that it is one of the few to have transcended the barrier between graphic novels and literature. “Maus” is a harrowing depiction of the author’s father’s real-life experiences as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. However, this powerful story has been banned from some school districts for seemingly no reason.
Banning books is a whole other discussion, but for “Maus” to be banned from schools is bizarre. The banning gives so much power to the story itself and to the credibility of graphic novels as a whole. By being banned, “Maus” has joined the ranks of books like “ To Kill a Mockingbird .”
“Maus” is a story that is undeniably deserving to be treated as literature, but I fail to understand why some stories can get an exception and others can’t. “Maus” is still a graphic novel at the end of the day, and if that is literature, then why isn’t “ Watchmen ” or “ Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth ”?
This all loops back to my original problem, with people arbitrarily deciding what is and isn’t literature purely based on genre or if it has pictures. I recently read Alan Moore ’s incredible work on “ Saga of the Swamp Thing. ” About halfway through his issues, DC started putting the label “Sophisticated Suspense” on the front covers. Moore is famous for elevating the comics he writes to the level of literature, and is a great example of why I think they should be treated as such.
There are so many fantastic stories that have been told in comics. It is so sad to see them written off as unimportant just because they are comic books. Some of the best stories I have ever read have been graphic novels. There is so much promise in the medium. Dismissing them feeds into the unnecessary snobbism that comes from people turning their noses down on things without ever having given them a chance.
I highly recommend finding some comic books or graphic novels that interest you and reading them. There are so many great stories out there that are not getting the love they deserve.
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