If you’re a graphic novel newbie, chances are that when you hear the term “graphic novel,” you immediately think, “Oh, a comic book!” or something else to that effect. And who could blame you? With the ever-growing popularity of the Marvel Universe and the continuous makes and remakes of the Batman franchise, it seems that comic books are everywhere—and they certainly are graphic novels. But as it turns out, there’s more to this variety of storytelling than colorfully-dressed, muscly people with inhuman powers! In fact, while superhero comics have their place (and it’s a big place, mind you), there are a whole host of graphic novels about real-world issues that delve into intriguing, funny, mysterious, and even downright scary stories.To help you get started on this exciting, visual reading adventure, we put our heads together, had some discussions about our favorite graphic novels, and finally compiled the top ten “initial must-reads” into this list. The following are presented in no particular order aside from that in which I wrote them down.
To start this list off with something a little heavy, we begin with Art Spiegelman’s autobiographical work about his father’s experience living as a Polish Jew during Hitler’s reign of terror in Europe.
The tale weaves between two primary storylines, one taking place in modern New York City and the other in Hitler’s Europe. Spiegelman’s use of anthropomorphic animals to tell the tale adds to the characterization of the various peoples and how they were depicted and seen during that time period. The cartoonish quality makes it equal parts accessible and haunting due to the historical subject matter.
Okay, number two on the list and we’re already talking about Batman. These stories are famous for a reason, and there are hundreds upon hundreds of Batman comics—the first one was published 77 years ago in 1939. We selected Arkham Asylum in particular due to its unique storyline and absolutely amazing artwork.
The story takes place on April Fool’s Day, and the inmates of Gotham’s Arkham Asylum have overpowered their guards and taken them hostage, demanding Batman in exchange for freeing the innocent. Of course, Batman being Batman, he answers the demands of his foes and has to face both his sworn enemies and his inner demons. (The Joker features prominently in this story, and he is the biggest baddie of the baddies, if you don’t mind me saying so.)
This is the comic that put superhero comics on the map—and “elevated” them to a more adult audience. Set in the 1980s, Watchmen follows the journey of retired heroes forced back into action with the onset of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The half-psychotic and gone-to-seed vigilante Rorschach uncovers a dastardly plot to murder the remaining superheroes and millions of civilians, and is forced to drag his fellow out-of-shape superfriends out of retirement to put an end to the madness.
Fun Fact: Watchmen is the only graphic novel to have ever made Time magazine’s Top 100 Best Novels List.
A lot of people are familiar with the story of V for Vendetta because of the 2005 hit movie starring Natalie Portman (and her shaved head that she totally rocked), but it may come as a surprise that this tale began as a graphic novel!
Set in a totalitarian England, in the aftermath of a globe-changing war, we follow the lives of a mysterious man in a white, porcelain mask and his young protégé as they fight political oppression through seemingly meaningless acts of terrorism. In a world where personal freedom is entirely nonexistent, the lines between ideologically-based notions of good and evil are inherently blurred, leaving it up to the reader to determine who is right and who is wrong.
If you’ve ever wanted to see some of your favorite literary characters united and fighting crime, then look no further than The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen! Mina Harker (who had a bit of a nasty run-in with Count Dracula back in Transylvania), Captain Nemo (who captained the Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), Allan Quatermain (assistant to King Solomon), and many more are brought into the same timeline and must set out to conquer famous the villain Fu Manchu (of his own series and fame).
The real question is: will they be able to stop fighting amongst themselves in time to stop Fu Manchu?
Taking a turn into the horror/fantasy realm of the graphic novel, Sandman follows the story of Dream (also known as the titular Sandman) as he is finally freed from decades of imprisonment and sets out to return his kingdom to its former state of prosperity.
Sandman is a series that delves deep into a realm of anthropomorphic embodiments of metaphysical realities. Undoubtedly intended for more mature audiences, Sandman delves into adult themes of revenge, death, darkness, and a fantasy realm that could be considered a place of nightmares as well as one of dreams.
To lighten the mood, we can look to Fables, a reinterpretation of classic fables and fairytales set in modern-day New York City. More specifically, the fairytale characters who can fit in are taken to New York City, while the others are sent to “The Farm” in upstate New York—you’d better believe this comes a point of contention between the anthropomorphic characters and those who appear more human, i.e. the Big Bad Wolf vs. Cinderella.
It seems that an unnamed evil force (known as “The Adversary”) has overtaken the Fairytale kingdom and forced its former inhabitants into exile. The exiled people have formed their own peaceful, secret society in which they live and plot to eventually overthrow The Adversary and regain their lands.
If you’ve gained only one thing from this list, let it be that Alan Moore is a comic-creating genius.
Swamp Thing is another comic character who, like Batman, has been around forever. Unlike Batman, Swamp Thing was in real danger of cancellation back in the 80s, that is, before Moore got around to saving the day (and the franchise).
Taking over after the Swamp Thing was allegedly murdered by a foe, Moore changed the game by deciding that the Swamp Thing was never actually human at all—he only believed that he had once been an acclaimed scientist. This plot twist put the saga back on the map, intriguing readers all over again with questions like: Where did Swamp Thing come from? And what happened to the scientist Alec Holland?
What would you do, female readers, if one day, every male mammal on planet Earth suddenly and inexplicably died? Well, except for one, anyway.
Y: The Last Man delves into that very question, following the life of protagonist Yorick Brown and his monkey sidekick (another somehow-surviving male) as they struggle for answers to the questions of their survival and the looming, apparently inevitable mass extinction of the human race.
A relatively short series, Marvel 1602 consists of only eight installments. Taking place in, you guessed it, 1602, our favorite Marvel superheroes (and villains) have been transported to the Elizabethan Era, where they face the usual suspects of good and evil, but also some more complicated adversaries, like their own government embarking on a “witch hunt,” and the presence of a hero who isn’t quite sure which century he’s in.
Published in 2002, the writing of Marvel 1602 began almost immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks; author Neil Gaiman was loathe to create a “typical” comic set in the modern era that involved any modern weapons or that contained the ideology of “might equals right.” As a result, a comic set in an earlier time was born. Sure, between the magic-fearing King James VI and the fight between wrong and right, there’s still plenty of conflict, but you’re not going to see any bombings or bazooka-esque weaponry.
It was super hard keeping this list to ten titles knowing there are many, many more! Which graphic novels would you add to a MUST read list for the graphic novel newbie?