10 Essential Comic Books and Graphic Novels

Here are ten graphic novels and comic books worth a look. The list explores many groundbreaking works that have kept the medium popular well into the information age. Let us know about your essential reading lists in the comments.

1. Blankets – Craig Thompson

 Graphic

Blankets is an autobiographical story about Craig Thompson’s childhood and adolescence, growing up in an Evangelical Christian family, and documenting his renunciation of the faith. Through his retelling of his early life, Thompson shows us repressed memories covered up with childhood imaginations, guides us through the fantasies of teenage romance and heartbreak, and explains that during those periods of our lives, many of the obvious facts that we learn as we grow are still unknown to us.

Why you should read it now

If you ever feel yourself confused by the rampant emotions of younger generations, this book is a humbling and humanizing reminder of how difficult growing up is.

 

2. Maus – Art Spiegelman:

 GraphicMaus

 Maus brought a lot of attention to the medium through its controversial anthropomorphic depiction of the Holocaust–Jews are portrayed as mice, Nazis as cats, Americans as dogs and the Polish as pigs. Maus is not only a historical piece, but also an introspective story that explains the survivor’s guilt shared among historians and authors who study the Holocaust. Spiegelman used his father, a Holocaust survivor, as his source, and struggled to fully capture the pain that his father went through.

Why you should read it now

We find ourselves and Spiegelman trying and failing to understand that amount of suffering, Maus is a meditation on the sorrows of not knowing a loved one’s pain.

 

3. Sandman – Author- Neil Gaiman, Artist- Various through the series:

 GraphicSandman

Sandman follows the incarnation of dreams, Dream, and his brothers and sisters, Death, Delirium, Despair, Desire, Destiny and the retired Destruction, collectively known as the Endless. Gaiman uses these characters to explore philosophical themes by having them discuss and question the absolutism of their existence. Supporting characters include a suave & fashionable Lucifer, the biblical Cain, who obsessive-compulsively murders a reincarnating Abel, and the ghost of Richard Nixon, who harasses a future president through his dreams.

Why you should read it now

Effortlessly blending mythology, fantasy,history and philosophy, Sandman is without a doubt one of the most thought-provoking comic series ever written, and is worth reading for a multitude of reasons, if only to be immersed in the brilliant universe Gaiman has created.

 

4. Kick Ass – Author: Mark Millar, Artist: John Romita, Jr., Inker – Tom Palmer, Colourist – Dean White

 GraphicKickAss

Kick-Ass puts forward a semi-realistic view on what would happen if a teenager decided to act on his fantasies and become a superhero. It goes about as well as you’d expect, and that’s why you need to read it. Kick-Ass is completely devoid of catharsis and Millar’s bleak and borderline nihilistic storyline is perfectly complemented by Romita, Jr.’s art, which is intentionally sloppy and visceral. Kick-Ass should be read understanding that there isn’t going to be a happy ending, and even then, you will constantly find yourself surprised by how horrible everything ends up.

Why you should read it now

Millar has said that Kick-Ass is based on his own fantasies from adolescence and coming to terms with how terribly they would have concluded, and if there’s ever been a comic that could remind us that our fantasies don’t always go as planned, it’s Kick Ass.

 

5. Planetary – Author: Warren Ellis, Artist: John Cassaday, Colours: Laura Martin

 GraphicPlanetary

Planetary is an organization dedicated to investigating the paranormal, metaphysical and pseudoscientific history of the world. Ellis’ series is based off of this organization interacting with alternate versions of popular fiction and science-fiction characters, such as the Justice League, Godzilla, and Tarzan. Not only do these alternate versions deconstruct the original stories of these characters, but Ellis also manages to interweave an original story explaining the origins of the Planetary group itself.

Why you should read it now

Planetary is a phenomenal exploration of the origins of pulp culture, and a self-aware yet non-contrived commentary on how many of these characters would be seen if created in modern times. It would also be inconceivable to mention Planetary without praising John Cassaday and Laura Martin’s absolutely stunning art.

 

6. Y: The Last Man – Author: Brian K. Vaughan. Artist: Pia Guerra, Goran Sudžuka, Paul Chadwick. Inker: Jose Marzan, Jr.

 GraphicYthelastman

When a mysterious plague kills every mammal with a Y chromosome on earth, except for amateur magician Yorick Brown and his monkey, Ampersand, they are contacted by secret agent 355, who is tasked with escorting them to Boston where they can be studied. While ‘Y: The Last Man’ sometimes struggles with its feminist themes, the subplot is clear; Yorick is an average feminist-leaning male who has been thrown into a radically different woman’s world.

Why you should read it now

Both the character and the book are perfect examples of patriarchal men trying to understand the feminist perspective and having difficulty. It’s a touching and well-written story about a man and his monkey, wrapped in an endearingly and frustratingly naïve attempt at feminism.

 

7. Watchmen – Author: Alan Moore, Artist: Dave Gibbons, Colours: John Higgins

GraphicWatchmen

If you haven’t read Watchmen, go read it right now. Seriously, go read it. Arguably the single most important comic book in the genre, Watchmen is about superheroes whose political views, personal values, and interwoven histories clash in one of the most spectacular tour de force. ‘Watchmen’ is one of the most stunningly written critiques of the superhero genre, capitalist culture and the nuclear arms race. Watchmen is also the only comic book to be featured on the Time Magazine’s 100 All-Time Novels List

Why you should read it now

A portrayal of starkly different philosophies on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, ‘Watchmen’ showed the world that comics could be just as intelligent, poignant, and influential as any other medium.

 

8. Alison Bechdel – Fun Home/Are You My Mother?

GraphicFunHome

Bechdel revisits her past in two separate books, the first chronicling the life and death of her father, the other her mother. The story is told through non-linear vignettes, going through her youth, her formative years and early adulthood as she tries to come to terms with a past that lingers in every frame.

Why you should read it now

The graphic novels are funny and heartbreaking, but each frame is replete with internal references and hidden messages that turn the story into an introspective view of a melancholic but beautiful mind. Bechdel’s work is unsettling but it captures the difficulty of a life full of unanswered questions.

9. Pyongyang: Journey in North Korea – Guy Delisle

GraphicPyongyang

A non-fiction diary about a French-Canadian animator’s stay in North Korea, Guy Delisle spent two months overseeing an animation project that was outsourced to the isolated nation. In Pyongyang, he describes how truly bizarre the country really is; visitors are accompanied by tour guides almost everywhere they go, at night all the lights turn off except those illuminating the Leaders’ faces, and it’s mandatory that civilians wear a pin with Kim il-Sung’s or Kim-Jong Il’s face on it.

Why you should read it now

Pyongyang provides amazing insight into what North Korea is like by showing it through the eyes of a normal Westerner, not a photographer or a journalist, who are generally seeking something to bring out of the country. An intimate look at the shortcomings of the last bastion of Stalinism in the world.

 

10. Scott Pilgrim – Bryan Lee O’Malley:

 Graphic ScottPilgrim

Scott Pilgrim has to fight Ramona Flowers’ seven evil ex-boyfriends in order to date her. ‘Scott Pilgrim’ is on this list because it shows that for comic books to be taken seriously comic books don’t always have to be serious. The book is hilarious, juvenile, and fantastically written. The main character is an unemployed twenty-something who simultaneously takes his life too seriously and not seriously enough. O’Malley has captured what it is to be a young adult in metropolitan North America in the 21 st century, condensed it, and turned it into a book that both lampoons and applauds indie culture.

Why you should read it now

After you read all the heartbreaking and soul crushing books on this list, Scott Pilgrim acts as a great reminder that comics don’t have to be too cerebral to be enjoyed.

12 thoughts on “10 Essential Comic Books and Graphic Novels

  1. AA says:

    Y is among my favourites, I’ve very glad I read it. Still have yet to sit down with Scot Pilgrim though, so maybe that’s my next adventure. Never heard of Planetary. Looks interesting
    but it’s weird to have kickass and maus on the same list…….. I remember reading lists with maus before kickass was even invented. Can we just put that shit in the hall of fame now? I mean, of course it’s essential but goddam! i think it’s not essentialist! anyone who’se gonna read it either has already, or knows about it, so what other, fresher books are coming out? Flight is amazing, I think they have ,7 editions. Beautiful drawn collections of short comics. Great stories, highly original.

  2. dovvvi says:

    Y is among my favourites, I’ve very glad I read it. Still have yet to sit down with Scot Pilgrim though, so maybe that’s my next adventure. Never heard of Planetary. Looks interesting
    but it’s weird to have kickass and maus on the same list…….. I remember reading lists with maus before kickass was even invented. Can we just put that shit in the hall of fame now? I mean, of course it’s essential but goddam! i think it’s not essentialist! anyone who’s gonna read it either has already, or knows about it, so what other, fresher books are coming out? Flight is amazing, I think they have ,7 editions. Beautiful drawn collections of short comics. Great stories, highly origina

  3. Cathartes Aura says:

    If you’ve already read most of the comics on this list, here are some alternatives for you to check out.

    Spider-man: Blue – Author: Jeph Loeb, Artist: Tim Sale, Colours: Steve Buccellatto – Any understanding you have of Spider-man will be changed after reading this book, as Loeb devastatingly humanizes a familiar character.
    Batman: The Killing Joke – Alan Moore, Brian Bolland – Moore turns the Joker from campy themed villain into the psychotic force of chaos that most people are familiar with.
    Powers – Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Avon Oeming – Part police procedural, part film noir, part superhero comic, Powers is a look at what it’s like to live in a superhero universe without being a superhero.
    Literally everything Alan Moore has ever written.
    Frank Miller’s Ronin – Frank Miller – Less well known than 300 or Sin City, but just as awesome, Ronin is about a samurai who gets sent to the future by a malicious spirit. It’s actually the original Samurai Jack, and was a huge influence to Jack’s creators.
    Stephen Colbert’s Tek Jansen – various – This is probably the best thing I have ever read in my entire life.

  4. if watchmen is arguably #1 for its perfection and expansion of the comic book format (into the larger graphic novel), marjane satrapi’s “persepolis” should arguably be #2, for its existence proves the ability of the graphic novel to branch into touching, poignant memoir and striking social commentary. the story is as much a reflection on satrapi’s tumultuous life as it is a love letter to the unstable and at times terrifying iran of her past, the narratives of both culminating in the islamic revolution. the art is beatuitful and brimming with latent violence, whether the discrimination faced by a middle-eastern woman in 1980’s vienna or the threat of nuclear attack: the images are sharp and striking, in heavy-handed black and white. an eye-opening and heart string-pulling read. to back up my claim, i’ll add that newsweek named it the 5th best book of the decade in 2010. enjoy! – berney.

  5. alexandra berney says:

    if watchmen is arguably #1 for its perfection and expansion of the comic book format (into the larger graphic novel), marjane satrapi’s “persepolis” should arguably be #2, for its existence proves the ability of the graphic novel to branch into touching, poignant memoir and striking social commentary. the story is as much a reflection on satrapi’s tumultuous life as it is a love letter to the unstable and at times terrifying iran of her past, the narratives of both culminating in the islamic revolution. the art is beatuitful and brimming with latent violence, whether the discrimination faced by a middle-eastern woman in 1980′s vienna or the threat of nuclear attack: the images are sharp and striking, in heavy-handed black and white. an eye-opening and heart string-pulling read. to back up my claim, i’ll add that newsweek named it the 5th best book of the decade in 2010. enjoy! – berney.

    • Cathartes Aura says:

      If I had to re-write the list, I would probably take out Kick-Ass and put in something else; Persepolis and Bone being strong contenders alongside Blacksad, Sin City, The Long Halloween… Just so many amazing books and story arcs that could take the spot.

      That being said, this is a top ten list, and it was difficult enough not to just make all ten Amazing Spider-man issues from the 60s.

      Really glad to see people coming out with their own suggestions and favourites though, it makes me feel good about the present state of comics as a medium.

  6. stinkynose says:

    “Kingdom Come” by Alex Ross and Mark Waid. It is a super hero book which uses the major characters from the DC Comics canon but a reader needs no prior knowledge of the characters. It grapples with revelation throughout it’s narrative rather than simple superhero problems. And the art is amazing!

  7. Katia says:

    Wow! you’ve managed to squeeze in all of ONE work by a non-American writer… how broad of you. Eiter comics = US or nobody has ever read anything produced in Japan, France, Belgum or Italy.

    • qwiklit says:

      Katia,

      We appreciate your feedback. We were mostly focused on English-speaking writers, so our omissions are logical. That being said, your comment has inspired me to look into some of the best Graphic Novels from around the world, and I will begin my research promptly. We do not want to be an echo chamber for what is already known, but we also want to do due diligence on our research. If you have any other feedback, let us know. Thanks.

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