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Comics used to be so heavily associated with children, there was an entire Comics Code Authority to regulate what could and could not be in front of children. Comics for older audiences were always around, with one of the earliest graphic novels by Will Eisner, A Contract with God, setting a standard for using the medium to tell more serious, realistic stories. Graphic novels have a long history, though you could argue about when exactly they were taken seriously for their literary merit. The best graphic novels of all time embrace the form of comics to enhance their storytelling.
For this collection of great graphic novels, I focused on fiction, memoir, and nonfiction. There are a large number of influential superhero comics and even more excellent manga to dive into. I am an expert in neither, so I dove into the world of graphic novels that I am most familiar with. In college, I took an amazing graphic novels class with the brilliant scholar Hillary Chute. Her books Graphic Women, MetaMaus, and Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere are excellent entryways into the study of comics as a literary form.
The first comic that made me fall in love with comics was Calvin and Hobbes. The spirit of adventure, and his ability to make creative games anywhere with his stuffed animal companion have always felt particularly well-suited to the medium of comics. The best graphic novels of all time pull off this merge of enhancing the comics medium with storytelling.
Fiction of All Genres
Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Monstress immediately captured attention for its fantastic worldbuilding. In the 1920s (an alternate history version), a teenage girl makes her way in steampunk, art-deco world. When Maika discovers her psychic connection with Monstrum, her adventures begin in earnest. The artwork of this series is always arresting, while the story stays harrowing throughout.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Soon to be a show on Disney Plus, with the award-winning cast of Everything Everywhere All at Once, the intersecting stories of Jin Yang, the Monkey King, and Danny and his cousin Chin-Kee provide an extremely fun read. The imaginative art and unexpected storytelling elevate this book to comics greatness.
Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani
Priyanka wants to know more about India, but her mom refuses to answer any of her questions. When she finds a pashmina, she wraps it around herself and is transported to India. Though it’s the place she’s always wanted to know, there are more mysteries she has to discover in the land she’s found through the pashmina.
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell
Freddy is going through the classic teenage experience of love: she is devoted to Laura Dean, a popular girl who is sweet sometimes and cold just as often. Freddy goes to see a psychic named Seek-Her for advice, and she has to figure out if she’s going to keep going back to Laura or break the cycle.
Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
Two teenage girls, who seem to only be able to stand each other, wander around their town and look forward to growing up. Leaving behind what they know presents a host of new fears. They’re both slowly in the process of realizing that actions have consequences. It’s a great portrait of the difficulties of adolescent friendship.
Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton
My friends and I started reading Kate Beaton through her amazing comics website. Her deep knowledge of history and literary figures led to this beautiful, irreverent collection of comics that pokes fun at everyone from the Brontës to Charles Darwin. It’s the perfect book to open to any page for a good laugh.
Heartstopper by Alice Oseman
Even before the complete global domination of the Netflix adaptation, Heartstopper had amassed a fandom as a webcomic so large that Oseman self-published the first novel, and then got a publishing deal for the rest. It’s a beautiful, honest portrayal of the process of coming out and the difficulties of young queer life. Nick and Charlie are hugely appealing, and they have an excellent cast of characters around them as well. Probably thanks to Oseman, the show included the comic’s iconic floating leaves.
Unterzakhn by Leela Corman
Starting in 1910 on New York City’s Lower East Side, we follow sisters Esther and Fanya from their immigration to the city as young girls to their adulthood struggles. It’s an excellent exploration of the immigrant community in Manhattan in the early 1900s, and the struggle of making a life for yourself.
The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen
Tiến grew up in a Vietnamese immigrant family, and processes his emotions through reading fairy tales. While he’s dealing with burgeoning feelings for his friend Julian, we also learn about his family history and the stories they tell each other to make up for their past struggles.
Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel
Fun Home (with its musical adaptation) is a classic, but Bechdel’s second exploration of parenting and her own obsession with being the documentarian of her own life is equally harrowing. She reveals more of her relationship with her mother in this memoir, as well as her romantic life and the repercussions of being such a celebrated memoirist. Her conversations with her mother are restrained and heart-tugging in a way that only a familial relationship can be.
I Was Their American Dream by Malaka Gharib
Malaka Gharib grew up caught between multiple cultures — her Filipina mother in California and her Egyptian father in Cairo and other cities. When she was young, she tried to fit in at her American school and while navigating her parents’ expectations. Gharib is a great memoirist with a highly distinct style.
The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman
Spiegelman’s most famous work was in the news recently because it was banned in a Tennessee school district, but it deserves attention regardless of its banned status. Spiegelman presents a realistic, unvarnished look at survival and trauma by telling his father Vladek’s story. Vladek grew up in a Jewish family in Poland and was sent to Auschwitz with Art’s mother.
In the Shadow of No Towers by Art Spiegelman
Art Spiegelman pushes the form of a graphic novel though these large-scale panels documenting his mental struggles after the events of September 11, 2001. He saw the “glowing bones” of the towers before they fell, and dealt with major anxiety after the event. He also critiques the nationalist fervor of the Bush administration after the attacks. This is a great book to read after Maus because you can get a better sense of Spiegelman’s more stylized, cartoon-y comics that show up throughout the rest of his work.
March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
A towering figure in American political history, John Lewis started his political life as an activist alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in the Civil Rights movement. Starting from Lewis’s youth in Alabama, we see how he got involved in the movement and participated in some of the most important events in American history.
My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Kabi Nagata, translated by Jocelyne Allen
Kabi Nagata’s manga memoir is one of the best about dealing with your sexuality, mental health, and stresses of adulthood. Once you figure out aspects of who you are, the process of coming to terms with yourself and the many changes you go through is always difficult. The relatability of Nagata’s writing about her experience is truly fascinating.
The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Marjane Satrapi was a child in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. It’s one thing to read about these events in history books, and entirely another to contextualize them through the eyes of a child. Marjane shows how she and her friends have desires and problems similar to all children during the political turmoil. Persepolis was featured on the ALA’s list of Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2014 because it was described as “politically, racially, and socially offensive.” You should definitely read it to see what all the fuss was about.
Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi
Marjane gives us a window into the sex lives of Iranian women with this excellent parlor room conversation in comic form. Her grandmother, mother, aunt, and their friends provide lively stories about their lives as women and opinions on sex and relationships. The book itself is a stunning rebuke to the idea that older women simply have less full lives than modern women: sex and various illicit activities are not a contemporary phenomenon, and these women tell the whole, unvarnished truth.
Something New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride by Lucy Knisley
Lucy Knisley is another consistent comics memoirist, but this might by my personal favorite. She tells the story of her relationship with her husband, and how they got engaged and chose to plan their wedding themselves. She struggles with the many moving pieces of planning a wedding, and her identity as a bisexual woman getting married to a man. Her expressive cartoony style is always engaging to read.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner
Phoebe Gloeckner began her artistic career as a medical textbook illustrator, and you can tell in some of the immensely detailed illustrations throughout this book. Minnie Goetz is a 15-year-old in San Francisco obsessed with comics, and also “in a relationship with” (in reality: being abused by) her mother’s boyfriend. The clash between wanting to be an adult and still feeling like a child is explored beautifully.
Graphic Novels for Everyone
In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud discusses how comics panels allow the artist to play with time. Panels can play out like a slow storyboard depicting real time, swap rapidly between scenes, or do essentially anything the artist wants them to in their world. Those exciting possibilities with comics is what makes the form so consistently exciting and innovative.
This list is dedicated to the literary genius Dan Frank, the editorial director of Pantheon Books, a noted publisher of graphic novels, from 1996 to 2020. He passed away a couple of years ago. During his time at Pantheon, tons of amazing graphic novels were published, including a number of books on this list. He was a close friend of my dad’s and taught me (and the world) so much about the beauty of comics storytelling with the books he ushered to publication.
Comics readers are spoiled for choice these days. You can dive into more of the best comics of all time, the best comics of 2022, and comics to read online for free.
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