There was a time when comic books (and, by proxy, comic book enthusiasts) were considered somewhat of a joke. For whatever reason, the greater literary community did not seem to view it as a legitimate form of storytelling, even though so many of the classic literary themes – like humanity, heroism, and overcoming insurmountable odds – overlapped. Time would come to show, however, that this autocratic point of view was both shortsighted and asinine.
Now, comic books – or the long-form, graphic novels – are as ubiquitous in pop culture as any other “legitimate” variety of literature. Maybe because, like ancient myths, people are drawn to over-the-top stories about beings greater than, yet still bearing the same human flaws we all see in ourselves. Or it could be that they offer an escape into worlds and circumstances far removed from our own experiences. Perhaps, more simply, visual storytelling just offers a means of enjoyment unburdened by long and drawn-out prose. Whatever the reasoning, it’s clear that graphic novels are here to stay. But, like all things, there are some that are far more deserving of your time and effort than others. With that in mind, we’ve compiled this list of the best graphic novels out there right now. Excelsior!
Some people already realize the connection between comic book superheroes and Greek myth. For those that need a little more of an obvious nudge, there’s Frank Miller’s 300. This brilliantly executed graphic novel chronicles the legend of the Battle of Thermopylae – in which 300 Greek Spartans held off an entire invading Persian army. As you’re probably already aware, 300 was also turned into an incredibly popular action film. So popular, in fact, that it even received a big budget sequel. While this graphic novel certainly takes some serious liberties, it’s a superb read for anyone that enjoys gritty literature and beautiful artwork.
In this series, you’re not going to find your standard Marvel or DC heroes. What you will find, however, is a parody of sorts of those two universes – or, perhaps more accurately, a satire. Astro City, which is told through a series of short stories – each of which focusing on a different character – covers what daily life is like in a city full of super-humans while simultaneously highlighting real social issues, such as gender politics, paranoia, and whether we can truly trust the heroes we all look up to. Pair that with this graphic novel’s stunning visuals and you’ve got yourself a must-read for any socially enlightened comic book fan.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
If you’ve seen the recently released Batman V. Superman movie, you should know that a good deal of the inspiration behind that flick came from this Frank Miller-penned miniseries. In fact, this graphic novel is the first time that Batman and Superman went toe-to-toe. It also marked the reinvention of Batman into the gritty and dark hero we all know and love today. Just keep in mind, this book is loaded with gruesome violence, political satire, and social commentary that is as relevant today as it was when it was released in 1986.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
While some might find it blasphemous not to include The Killing Joke on our list of best graphic novels, we are unabashed at our choice to leave out that dated story in favor of this much more viscerally unnerving Batman tale. Jumping between time periods, this suspenseful thriller covers both the history behind Gotham City’s most infamous facility, Arkham Asylum, and it’s founder, as well as an event that takes place on April Fool’s Day – in which the institution’s worst inmates have escaped and taken it over. If that reminds you of a recent video game adaptation, you’d be right to think that this book inspired it.
City of Glass
A bit of a departure from the typical super-themed comics and graphic novels, this book tells a story that is equally, if not more, strange. Illustrated by David Mazzucchelli and penned by Paul Auster, City of Glass is an existentialist noir mystery that you really have to read to grasp, but it is well worth trudging through the inevitable confusion for what it delivers. If you like cerebral stories that will keep you guessing until the end, then City of Glass is for you.
Alan Moore might actually be the best short-form graphic novelist of all time. He’s tackled everything from government conspiracy, to compelling romantic drama, to this piece of crime fiction about infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper. And, like so many of his other stories, this one was popular enough to be turned into a movie of the same name (you know, the one starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham). You’ll just have to take our word for it, however, that the book is far superior to the film. Fans of historical fiction, this one’s for you.
Originally created as a series for Dark Horse Comics, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy has been compiled into a multi-volume library of graphic novels, has spawned several notable spin-offs, and also went on to become two feature-length sci-fi fantasy films (directed by none other than Guillermo del Toro). Each of these hardcover coffee table-level tomes covers two full story arcs (the equivalent of two trade paperbacks) and extended supplementary materials that covers everything from concept art to previously unreleased sketches and designs.
If you’re not familiar with Robert Kirkman, he’s the writer responsible for creating The Walking Dead – you know, the global phenomenon about a small group of folks trying to survive the zombie apocalypse. Well, he’s taken the same hyper-violent no-holds-barred approach into the world of superheroes with his Invincible series. He also worked on the series with artist extraordinaire, Ryan Ottley, imbuing this genre-breaking series with the pair’s now-signature ultra-violent style. Just remember, as with his other work, these comics are not suitable for children or the faint of heart.
If you like the idea of familiar characters but you’re also hoping for a bit of a departure storytelling-wise, Kingdom Come is a pretty good start for fans of the DC universe. Penned by Mark Waid and with gorgeous painted artwork from the masterful and legendary Alex Ross, the story follows an aging Justice League as they have to, once again, don their capes to protect the world from the very heroes that took over after they retired. This is one of the best selling graphic novels of all time for a reason and if you enjoy superhero stories, but have yet to read it, now is the time.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Another masterful work of art from the myth and legend that is author Alan Moore (and another that was turned into a film), this creative book follows the exploits of a number of vintage literary characters – including the Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde – as they must band together to save the world from impending doom. It’s a clever mashup of modern storytelling and classic literature that paints the iconic characters within it like the superheroes of a time before. And it is far far better than the disastrous movie from 2003.
If you appreciate the artwork of Alex Ross (after all, who doesn’t?), but you’re not a big fan of the DC universe, then you’ll be happy to know they don’t have a monopoly on the artist’s brilliant talents. Marvels is told through the eyes of Phil Sheldon, a newspaper photographer who has been documenting the exploits and follies of the Marvel universe’s superheroes. It’s a fresh and incredibly human take on the world of comic book heroes that serves both as a new perspective and a reminder that, at their core, these stories aren’t as much about heroes and villains as they are about the impact they have on mankind as a whole.
The Complete Maus
Before you look at the cover of this graphic novel and dismiss it as a cutesy take on an all-too-serious subject, understand that this Art Spiegelman work won a Pulitzer Prize. In fact, it is actually a retelling of the true story of the artist’s own father – a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe. It also served as a means for Art Spiegelman to chronicle his tortured relationship with his dad and come to terms with the man’s tale of horror and survival. Maus is a heart-wrenching story, but we believe it is one that needs to be told – and told incredibly well, it is.
Neil Gaiman is the writer of a number of critically acclaimed books and comics – including American Gods, now a television show on the Starz network. He’s also written for the Doctor Who television series and recently released a book on Norse mythology. But, the Sandman series might just be his best received work of all time. As is the writer’s style, this saga brilliantly weaves together mythology, folklore, and fairy tales in a new and refreshing manner, while still staying earnestly original and spellbinding.
Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Boxset
Most of the folks who have heard of Scott Pilgrim are familiar with it thanks to the Edgar Wright-directed film that starred Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and a gallery of other now-big-name actors and actresses. And while that flick stayed loyal enough to the comics to not be blasphemous, it still had to leave out a whole lot due to its short format. If the story struck your fancy, however, you can pick up this 6-volume set of the complete graphic novel series and get the whole story. We promise you won’t be disappointed.
If you like your graphic novels with a bit more grit, there’s not much better you can do than Frank Miller’s Sin City saga. Split into seven volumes, these books cover all the stories from the critically acclaimed film of the same name and a whole lot more. The stories are dark, brooding, and violent, but will serve to draw you deep into the saga’s profound fiction, especially if you are a fan of noir mysteries, crime thrillers, or gangster flicks.
V for Vendetta
Yes, another Alan Moore-imagined graphic novel. Like we said, he might just be the best there ever was. Taking place in a futuristic dystopian England, V for Vendetta chronicles a mysterious man donning a Guy Fawkes mask as he – very nearly single-handedly – attempts to topple the country’s totalitarian regime. It’s a sometimes depressing tale of what lengths a man might go to when pushed to the brink, but the artwork; too-real themes of hate, fear, and both human weakness and strength; and brilliant storytelling make this one a must-read, even if you’re not a big fan of comics.
The Walking Dead
Before you say “but, I watch the show,” understand that the path taken by The Walking Dead television series has, for the most part, traversed a very different pathway than the comics. Told by Robert Kirkman and with artwork from the brilliant Charlie Adlard, this isn’t a story about zombies, but rather about humanity and what we are capable of as a species when the metaphorical rug is pulled out from under us. Don’t write this one off as a simple horror story, as it certainly traipses the line between drama, action, and – sometimes – comedy, as well.
Not only does Watchmen top a number of ‘best of’ comic book and graphic novel lists, but this Alan Moore story actually graced Time Magazine’s list of the best novels of all time. Yes. Novels. Fun fact: this story’s characters were actually inspired by legitimate DC superheroes (like Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, and The Question), but the brand didn’t want to feature them due to the sensitive subject matters that encompassed the storyline.
X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills
The X-Men have always been the most allegorical group of characters in the Marvel universe, both for their circumstances and the things for which they stand. Nowhere is that more true than in this trade-paperback graphic novel. The series’ ongoing themes of oppression, fear, and blind zealotry are alive and well in this story. But, don’t worry, there’s still plenty of super-powered action to keep it from being too dark and depressing. All in all, however, this is one of – if not the – best X-Men story ever told.
Y: The Last Man
A strange theme, to be sure, Y: The Last Man is the story of Yorick Brown – the last human survivor of a planet-wide plague that kills every mammal with a Y chromosome. It is equal parts comical, socially relevant, and endlessly surprising and will certainly leave you wanting more. If you’ve got a hankering for some dystopian science-fiction and you don’t mind some jokes peppered in here and there, this is an excellent place to start.
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