13 Graphic Novels That Have Helped Shaped the Genre

Photo of Sophia White
12 December 2016

The 20th century saw the rise of film and the graphic novel as the two of the most important new media. This trend shows no signs of slowing down. The two feed each other, with a growing number of films adapted from graphic novels, and the success of the films have brought new consumers to the once-niche graphic novel market. Here are 13 graphic novels you’ll need to start your collection.

Akira | © Dark Horse Comics

Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo

This is arguably the most famous manga series to hit the West, complete with a successful film that helped facilitate the growing Japanization of culture throughout the ’90s. Start at the beginning with Akira Vol. 1 as an introduction to the great beast of manga and, then, the 2000-page tome of the complete Akira. The series is set in ‘Neo-Tokyo’ and follows two friends after one picks up on paranormal activities. Akira is a post-apocalyptic saga that is both engrossing and quite unlike anything else that had been written before,and which many have tried to replicate since.

Asterios Polyp | © Pantheon Books

Asterious Polyp, David Mazzucchelli

For those who think the graphic novel is a medium for people too lazy to read ‘real’ literature, Asterious Polyp will shatter that thought and showcase the medium as the modern thinking man’s — or woman’s — medium of choice. The inventive illustration shows how the graphic novel has an upper hand over its traditional counterpart. This modernist work is a character study of a complicated, unsympathetic man who goes on an aimless journey after his New York apartment burns down.

Black Hole | © Kitchen Sink Press

Black Hole, Charles Burns

Graphic novels are a different form from regular comic books; they cross genres and use their graphic elements to give readers an extra dimension. In this case, the graphic novel takes on the horror genre, with its social commentary raising it up and giving it high standing within both the comic and literary communities. Black Hole is set in suburban Seattle in the mid-1970s, when a strange plague, transmitted by sexual contact, descends upon the area’s teenagers. Scarier than your teenage years, and more cutting edge than your favorite novels.

Dark Knight Returns | © DC Comics

The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller and Klaus Janson

Placing the graphic novel as a higher form than the comic book is, in some cases, quite unfair to the comic book; many of the most successful graphic novels were originally comics, after all. Frank Miller has written some of the most popular graphic novels of all time, and with The Dark Knight Returns he and co-writer Klaus Janson have arguably written the finest superhero graphic novel of them all; one which made Batman cool again and enabled an acclaimed film trilogy.

Daytripper | © DC Comics

Daytripper, Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá

The writing duo of brothers Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá are two of Brazil’s finest artistic exports. The ten-episode Daytripper is a frank, imaginative exploration of death. Each issue ends with its main character dying, only to return alive in the following chapter. This allows the possibility of death and its effects on our lives to be explored in a way that ultimately gives us hope.

Ghost World | © Fantagraphics Books

Ghost World, Daniel Clowes

Daniel Clowes is something of a hero in the graphic novel world, to the point that he even prompted quite a high-profile case of plagiarism a few years back. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as they say. His most well-known work, Ghost World, has developed a cult following. It follows two witty, pseudo-intellectual, cynical teenagers — Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Doppelmeyer — as they face their impending adulthood. This story will strike a chord with many young readers, and its realness, combined with the common anxieties that it explores, surely elevates it from the ranks of cult to classic.

Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth | © Pantheon Books

Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware

From the comic strip to the comic book: Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth was first published in the Chicago newspaper Newcity before taking its current 380-page form. On release, it gained a slew of awards and has since been hailed the finest graphic novel ever written and among the finest debut novels by several people in the know; it has also received some comparisons to another pop culture phenomenon for those less so. This is an autobiographical tale of a Chicago everyman who meets the father that abandoned him as a child. It is a moving tale that shows the striking possibilities of the graphic novel.

Maus | © Pantheon Books

Maus, Art Spiegelman

Maus is one of the few graphic novels that can really call itself a classic, and it is certainly in a league of its own as a Pulitzer Prize-winner. First serialized between 1980 and 1991, this tale of Jewish survivors in Hitler’s Europe is still as affecting and thought-provoking as it was when it was first released some 35 years ago. The Nazis are cats and the Jews mice, which may at first seem diminutive, but as the story draws you in, you will be left feeling haunted long after you put the book down.

Persepolis | © Pantheon Books

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi

Some have said that Kafka’s Metamorphosis is the finest autobiography ever written, and it surely is hard to beat, but Persepolis can be said to be among the finest traditionally-structured autobiographies to ever have been produced. Marjane Satrapi tells the story of her childhood growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution. This is a unique testimony of a period that was largely unspoken about, moreso considering the interrelationship and contradictions between Satrapi’s home and public life. An incredibly raw tale, brought further to life by the simple yet striking drawings.

Pyongyang | © Drawn and Quarterly

Pyongyang: A Journey Through North Korea, Guy Delisle

Pyongyang is a series of experiences and observations of the Canadian cartoonist Delisle, who found himself in North Korea’s capital after being given a work visa for a French film animation company, making him one of the few westerners to experience this guarded and quite surreal city. This is quite an insightful read and shows the terror and madness that many people experience, as well as the less-known lives of everyday citizens.

Saga | © Image Comics

Saga, Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples

The Saga series is an epic space opera/fantasy which is, along with many other pop culture winners of the past few decades, heavily influenced by Star Wars. The story follows Hazel, the infant child of star-crossed lovers on opposite sides of a galactic war — which may also remind you of several other great works of fiction. It nevertheless carves its own niche, and its zaniness and strong characterization make it one of the most enjoyable reads in the graphic novel aisle.

Through The Woods | © Margaret K. McElderry Books

Through the Woods, Emily Carroll

‘It came from the woods. Most strange things do.’ So begins Emily Carroll’s collection of Gothic tales, Through the Woods. The combination of the words and imagery create a vivid, unsettling journey through Carroll’s evocative and chilling tale. As we become increasingly desensitized to horror in our everyday lives, Through the Woods achieves the impressive feat of having stories that truly have the capacity to frighten readers. These are classically styled tales for the modern reader.

Watchmen | © DC Comics

Watchmen, Alan Moore

The film version may not quite have been to everyone’s taste, but Watchmen is still undeniably one of the great masterpieces of the graphic novel genre. What Maus did as a graphic novel for the Holocaust, Watchmen did for the Cold War. It starts as a murder mystery but quickly unfolds into a planet-altering conspiracy. A dark, psychological, challenging tale that turns the original notion of superheroes on its head, this is an intelligent and rewarding read that changed the course of graphic novels ever after.

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