For many, the idea of a graphic novel* evokes images of superheroes in spandex, high budget movies, and damsels in distress. However, the graphic novel genre has evolved far beyond its comic book origins, though many of its famous predecessors (see Marvel and DC Comics) have maintained relevancy and importance. Truth be told, graphic novels are comic books; they’ve just remixed and remade the genre.
Graphic novels differ from the traditional comic in both their length and subject matter. As opposed to classic stories of good versus evil, graphic novels explore a variety of genres, from horror to memoir to the delightfully whimsical. And, though there are a few on this list, graphic novels for the most part are no longer just about superheroes.
In many ways, graphic novels are the next evolution of comic books. The visual aspects of superhero comics and Sunday funny strips gave way to a fully fledged medium for storytelling. Here are some great graphic novels and series for adults that transcend the comic book genre, separated into three sub-genres: non-fiction, fiction, and series (the closest this list comes to comic books).
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
Now an award-winning Broadway musical, Alison Bechdel’s emotional memoir artfully takes us through her family and childhood, largely dealing with her troubled relationship with her father. Bechdel’s father, a strict funeral director and closeted homosexual, obsessively renovated the family’s home for most of Bechdel’s childhood. As she grows up, Bechdel begins to come to terms with her own homosexuality, and walks the reader through her own acceptance and coming out process. She compares her experiences to her father’s, who eventually committed suicide.
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman
Art Spiegelman made history with Maus when it became the first ever graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, opening the door for many graphic novels on this list. Through a narrated frame story, Spiegelman shares with the readers his father’s experiences as a Jewish man in the World War II, from ghettos to concentration camps to the long lasting effects the Holocaust had on his father. However, in Spiegelman’s illustrations of events, Jewish people are portrayed as mice, while Nazis are drawn as cats.
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
Persepolis is the graphic memoir of Marjane Satrapi, following her childhood in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Daughter of radical leftist parents and great-granddaughter of the last emperor of Iran, Marjane sees in her childhood the overthrow of the Shah, the dangerous regime of Ayatollah Khomeini, and the effect of the Iraq-Iran war on the world around her. These details are relayed to the reader all through the innocent eyes of a child, making the loss and violence all the more palpable.
Stitches: A Memoir by David Small
When David Small was fourteen, he awoke from what was supposed to be a harmless surgery missing a vocal chord, and with a harsh line of stitches on his throat. This begins the tale of Small’s life and adolescence under strict and withholding parents, a journey that eventually leads to him becoming a successful and celebrated author of children’s books. From the traumatic experiences in his life, Small found time and time again that art was a way for him to heal and express himself.
March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
John Lewis’s autobiographical tale of his experience in the Civil Rights movement is actually a trilogy of three graphic novels, all covering a different chapter of his life and life’s work. Now a U.S. Congressman, John Lewis’s commitment to equality, justice, and nonviolence have helped shape the United States into the nation it is today. Aided by the beautiful art of Nate Powell, Lewis tells his story with unflinching honesty, from fighting segregation in schools to the march on Washington. All three books have now been published, and can be ordered through the library.
Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco
To discover the truth behind a horrific event that happened in 1956 in Rafa, a town on the Gaza strip, journalist and artist Joe Sacco immerses himself in the daily life there, speaking with both survivors and family members of the 111 Palestinians who lost their lives in that single incident. His graphic novel detailing his experience and the stories of the people he lived with is both heartbreaking, eye-opening, and tragic. With this book, Sacco has taken an event lost to history, to its footnotes, and brought it back into the spotlight.
Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton
Kate Beaton’s unconnected comics are great for fans of comic strips, literature, and history alike. Beaton makes comic strips about famous figures from history and literature, often pointing out the glaring errors that were made, like how Romeo and Juliet really did handle things in the worst way possible. Beaton’s comics started online, but soon became popular enough to prompt two book releases. The second anthology in this series, Step Aside, Pops, is also worth checking out.
Blankets by Craig Thompson
Craig Thompson’s massive graphic novel tells the autobiographical story of his childhood growing up in an Evangelical Christian family, dealing with themes of sibling rivalry and first love. Though he started a devout follower of his religion, after meeting and falling in love with a young woman at a church camp as a teen Thompson began to distance himself from the church. Thompson has said that his graphic novel was a means of telling his devout parents that he was no longer Christian.
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
One of the few superhero stories included in this list, Watchmen delves into the gritter side of superhero stories: aging. What happens once the criminals are caught, and the superheroes grow old and hang up their capes for good? Such is the case for the Watchmen, the novel’s eponymous super team, who find themselves reunited years after their heroic days have ended when a teammate is suddenly murdered. As the stakes get higher, the team once again falls victim to the human failings that led to their dissolution years before.
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
“It came from the woods. Most strange things do.” Originally started as a webcomic, Through the Woods is a horror anthology of five short stories, all delving into the dark and creepy things that lurk in the shadowy woods. Carroll’s chilling fairy tales gone wrong and her beautiful, haunting artwork combine to make this an unforgettable piece of graphic fiction. What lays beyond the Carroll’s eponymous woods is far scarier than we can imagine, but she gives us a brief taste through these five stories.
My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris
The story behind this visually stunning graphic novel is just as interesting as the one between its pages. Emil Ferris was paralyzed from the waist down and lost use of her drawing hand after contracting West Nile Virus. She used this book to teach herself to draw again. The story is of a young girl named Karen in the 1960’s who investigates the death of her neighbor, Anka, a Holocaust survivor. The novel is presented as Karen’s diary, where she includes her investigation along with theories about her favorite horror monsters.
Nameless by Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham
This disturbing tale of futuristic horror can be described as a cross between the gory sci-fi horror flick Event Horizon and the concept of magic, and features a level of gore and brutality that isn’t best suited for all readers. However, if you are a horror fan and want to brave an intricate, beautifully rendered story, then Nameless is for you. The novel follows an occult hustler known as “Nameless” as he is recruited by billionaires to save the world from an impending asteroid–and the crazed, ancient alien that calls it its home.
The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by by Isabel Greenberg
Despite its misleading name, The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is a work of fiction, chronicling an imagined society that existed before our known history began. These people of Early Earth were much like ourselves, and just as intelligent and emotional. In her graphic novel, Isabel Greenberg provides us a look into this long forgotten society, all through the eyes of a young man as he traverses the Earth, eventually falling in love. If you were wondering where the aforementioned “whimsical” side of graphic novels comes into this list, Isabel Greenberg delivers.
Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro
Ever wonder what it would be like if Orange is the New Black took place in space? Well Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro have some answers for you. This popular graphic novel series imagines a dystopian world in which women are forced by law to follow gender norms, and the punishment for failing to do so is incarceration on an off-planet prison colloquially referred to as “Bitch Planet.” The series follows the many inmates of the prison, including their backstories, arrests, and life as a prisoner.
Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch
For fans of the fantasy roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons, Rat Queens was created by Kurtis J. Wiebe as an homage to his many D&D campaigns. The series follows a group of four women of varying fantasy races known as the Rat Queens, who work to save the day from the variety of fantastical creatures and artifacts that endanger their magical world. And, of course, in between saving the day they must deal with their own personal relationships and lives, to sometimes hilarious, sometimes somber ends.
The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore
It’s hard to imagine someone being unaware of this graphic novel series following the wild success of AMC’s live action television adaptation, but I’d still be remiss to leave The Walking Dead off the list. Police officer Rick Grimes wakes up from a coma, only to find that the zombie apocalypse has broken out during his unconsciousness. Also spawning several video games, this series is still ongoing, and a must read for fans of the show or of the zombie genre in general.
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
This award-winning fantasy series follows two soldiers on opposing sides of a never-ending war who fall in love and start a family, causing great trouble for both themselves and their child. Suddenly fugitives, this small family will do whatever it takes to survive. Masterfully written by Brian K. Vaughan and beautifully illustrated by Fiona Staples, the Saga series is on the top of nearly every graphic novel fan’s list of favorites.
The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones
Neil Gaiman, known for his popular books such as American Gods, Good Omens, Stardust, and a many famous children’s novels, takes on comic books in this stunning graphic novel series. The story follows Dream, one of seven godlike beings known as the Endless. Each Endless serves a particular purpose, and the aptly named Dream is the Lord of Dreams. Along with him are his fellow deities Death, Destruction, Delirium, Destiny, Despair, and Desire, all who play major parts in this stunning tale.
The Adventure Zone by Clint McElroy and Carey Pietsch
What started as a silly podcast of three brothers and their father playing Dungeons and Dragons has now turned into a worldwide phenomenon, becoming the first graphic novel to ever top the New York Times best-selling trade fiction list. Adapted beautifully by the artwork of Carey Pietsch, the series tells the story of fighter Magnus Burnsides, cleric Merle Highchurch, and wizard Taako as they try to save the world from formidable forces of evil.
*A note on the term “graphic novel:” Though the term “novel” typically denotes a work of fiction, the term “graphic novel” is widely used to describe both fiction and non-fiction works alike.