Graphic novels experienced a late-20th-century renaissance whose impact continues to be felt today, as a new generation of artists have taken the comic form to innovative heights that would have been unimaginable to comic book pioneers like Stan Lee and Will Eisner.
Covering memoir, journalism, history, and science fiction, the best of the graphic novel boom demonstrate a stunning range that impart a vision of the world that is by turns enlightening, horrifying, and somber.
Far from the cult of superhero comics that once dominated the market, titles like Maus and Jimmy Corrigan have become widely-taught classics, and in the recent My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, the genre has a true masterpiece that breaks new ground in expressive art. Below are 11 graphic novels that bring the world into sharp focus and bridge the gulf between commercial and fine art, literature and pulp.
The first word in any discussion of comics-as-art, Spiegelman’s Maus almost single-handedly transformed the industry after winning the Pulitzer Prize. The story of Spiegelman’s father’s escape from the Nazis, it uses animal iconography (Jewish characters are mice, Nazis cats) to retell the story of the Holocaust in poignant and devastating clarity. The contribution of Maus to modern comics is inestimable and made Spiegelman—who began his career designing the popular Garbage Pail Kids trading cards—a star.
Frequent New Yorker contributor Chris Ware’s first graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, established his inimitable style—something between a Sunday Funny and a flow chart. Something of a love letter to Chicago, Ware unfolds a unique family chronicle about the hapless Jimmy Corrigan, chubby and unlovable, and his efforts to meet the father who abandoned him as a child while partaking of fantasies in which he is “the smartest kid on earth.”
2017’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is nothing less than a masterpiece, a brilliantly-drawn and riveting coming-of-age story that must be seen to be believed. 10-year-old Karen Reyes is a monster-obsessed girl growing up in Chicago in the 60s; when one of her neighbors dies under mysterious circumstances, Karen resolves to solve the mystery, unearthing a cast of fellow outsiders and the legacy of recent history in the process.
Joe Sacco pioneered the field of comics journalism and Palestine is his most sustained project, a report from Gaza and the West Bank that examines Arab and Israeli politics with a humanist lens. Sacco’s work catalogues the endless wars of the Middle East and the effects of foreign policy on the prisoners, farmers, and children who call Palestine home.
Persepolis deserves its reputation as a watershed both in world literature and the comics form, as Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of her childhood in Iran presented a nuanced portrait of a Tehran riven by political upheavals, as her liberal parents face repression at the hands of the newly-empowered Islamic government and she eventually leaves her country for Vienna, where she encounters a new set of double-standards. The effect is a story at once universal and brilliantly drawn-from-life.
David Mazzuchelli’s Asterios Polyp could just as easily have been a literary novel rather than a graphic one, which is not to say that it doesn’t take advantage of the form, only that it is a work of substance beyond its illustrations. The story of an architect whose foibles threaten to upend his comfortable New York City existence, it is both bleak and funny in its invocation of a tragically flawed eccentric.
Fun Home, Alison Bechdel’s memoir of family life and the awakening of her sexuality, has won unanimous acclaim for its courage and the poignancy of its storytelling (particularly in the characterization of her closeted father). But that’s not to overlook Bechdel’s art, which has a certain Charles Addams-type gothic appeal that is perfectly matched to the story’s cheerfully mordant tone.
Phoebe Gloeckner crafts an almost-uncategorizable story with The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which chronicles a 15-year-old’s struggles with drugs and sex in 1970s San Francisco, making full use of comic and prose innovations in the process. Edgy, honest, and endlessly evocative, Gloeckner’s novel became the basis of a film starring Bel Powley and Kristen Wiig in 2015.
Daniel Clowes has gone on to write many acclaimed graphic novels that have made his style one of the most-recognized in the world. But it is still 1998’s Ghost World that resonates the most. Even if it hadn’t gone on to inspire the beloved movie of the same name with Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson, its depiction of two teenage girls’ friendship would still be timeless, and one of the definitive works of art of the 1990s.
Along with Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine’s art style has come to define the world of independent comics. Summer Blonde collects his Optic Nerve strips into a single volume, making for a sweet and sadly funny collection of short stories that examine human loneliness from a variety of vantage points, including those of a telephone service rep, a derivative writer, and an obsessive, socially-challenged stalker.
Alan Moore is perhaps overfamiliar for books like Watchmen, From Hell, and The Killing Joke, which are frequently cited as the high point of mainstream comics writing. But V for Vendetta isn’t just a good comic; it is a great science fiction story that ranks beside Orwell’s 1984 in terms of its portrait of an oppressive future state and the importance of challenging injustice against all odds. For better or worse, V for Vendetta continues to age well, partly because the trends that it was responding to in 1989 have only grown more dire in the intervening years.