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Comics and Graphic Novels – Literature or Kids’ Stuff?

Neil Gaiman's Sandman is one of the most highly acclaimed graphic novels Neil Gaiman's Sandman is one of the most highly acclaimed graphic novels


In the past several years, the publishing industry has been in decline. Fewer people are reading books, magazines, and newspapers. However, even when then economic downturn was at its worst, there was one area of the publishing industry that continued to grow – comic books and graphic novels. And it’s not just Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man anymore. Graphic novels are taken increasingly seriously by readers, the media, and academics. So for those interested in the medium but not so into superheroes, what’s out there that’s worth reading? Here's a Top 10 list (of sorts) that, for better or worse, is free of capes and tights.


One of the most highly respected pieces of graphica ever produced is Maus, Art Spiegelman’s 1989 biography of his father. The Pulitzer Prize-winning work recounts the journey of a Polish Jew and holocaust survivor in Nazi Germany, but entirely without human characters. Instead, Spiegelman’s world is populated with anthropomorphic mice. But the tale is not cartoony – it’s an appropriately grim and serious work. A fine literary achievement, and a great place to start for readers looking to explore the serious side of the medium.


Another personal story, the Persepolis books are memoir pieces by Iranian author/artist, Marjane Satrapi, originally written in French and later adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film. It’s another tale of displacement, as the protagonist comes of age in Iran following the Islamic Revolution. With many of her freedoms gone, and her family and friends in danger, her parents send her off to school in France, where she must cope with the challenges of a new culture, separation from her family, and the normal alienation and confusion of growing up anywhere. It's an amazing work, and another great entry point for those familiar only with the big pecs and spandex types most closely identified with comic books.

The Walking Dead

Robert Kirkman’s ongoing series received a jolt of recognition thanks to its smash hit TV counterpart, but this zombie classic is much more than a compelling tale of horror. Rooted in sharply drawn, realistic characters, The Walking Dead functions as an exploration of human nature, probing the darkest corners of humanity’s existential crises and inner demons. It doesn’t get any more addictive than this, but be warned, it doesn’t get any darker either.


Running from 1991 until 2004, this 55-issue series was originally a self-published labor of love from creator Jeff Smith. It has lately been collected in a nine volume, full color series from children’s publisher, Scholastic. I prefer the black and white version, which is available in a 1,332-page single edition, capturing the epic adventure of the Bone brothers as they fight to defend “The Valley” from a villain known as the Lord of the Locusts. This one is great for kids, but is so smart and compelling, that adult fans of fantasy can devour it heartily. Packed with unforgettable characters and socially conscious allegory, Bone is an essential part of any discussion about the greatest comics of all time.


Norman Mailer famously described Neil Gaiman’s 75-issue Sandman series as a “comic book for intellectuals.” This is one of the titles that really kickstarted the movement to take graphic novels seriously. Of course, Gaiman has gone on to produce award-winning novels as well, but his rise to prominence can be credited to Sandman. These are stories about a being who rules of the world of dreams, which is populated with countless strange beings as well as real, down-to-earth human beings with human problems. Gaiman’s series had amazing scope and depth, making it absolutely one of the most revered works ever produced in the graphic medium.

Fun Home

Graphic novels have recently become ripe ground for the publishing of amazing memoirs. In the case of Fun Home, Alison Bechdel tells the heart-wrenching story of her childhood growing up with an obsessive, closeted father who was part-time director of a small town funeral home. Bechdel’s meticulous observances of herself and her family from young childhood through her college years is astounding, as is the difficult and intimate story of her coming of age.


Another sprawling memoir, this time told by Craig Thompson as he comes of age in the pages of Blankets. Thompson captures a familiar sense of helplessness and confusion in both childhood and adolescence through his own experiences grappling with his religion and falling in love for the first time. There’s nothing high-concept here, but that’s the point. The intricacies and heartache of life at its plainest and most honest populate this indispensible work.


Bill Willingham created this far out adult tale for DC Vertigo, one of the foremost purveyors of comics as art. The idea here is that characters from beloved fairy tales and fables have escaped a siege in their world, the “Homelands,” and must now create a new life in the human world while continuing to oppose the “Adversary” waging war in their world. It’s sometimes violent and profane, but is invariably darn fine adventure storytelling, fueled once again by flawed, realistic characters. The series’ 100 issues to date first hit shelves in 2002, so there’s plenty of reading to do here for readers hoping to sink their teeth into something.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Alan Moore may be comics’ best-loved rogue. An eccentric individualist and revolutionary creator, Moore almost single-handedly redefined the super hero comic with works like Watchmen, Batman: The Killing Joke, and his run on DC’s Swamp Thing. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is an adventure story whose cast is comprised of protagonists from works of classic fiction like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; and King Solomon’s Mines. There are three volumes of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, each a strange and novel work from one of comics’ greatest creators.

Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography

Graphic novels have sometimes served as both entertainment and education. Such is the case with Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography, by Chester Brown, which chronicles the life of the Canadian Métis rebel. The story is told in a neutral way unique to most accounts of Riel’s life and legacy, which tend to betray a clear opinion of one of history’s most debated historical figures.


 Further Reading:


This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the work of European comics creator Jason. It’s hard to pick just one of the much-acclaimed author/artist’s works, but the recent Werewolves of Montpelier is a quirky, strange tale with great insight that magically cuts to what is most heartaching about the everyday. And all set against a strange tale of werewolves, burglars, and romance in modern day France. Although not as celebrated as Jason’s The Left Bank Gang or You Can’t Get There From Here, Werewolves of Montpelier is nevertheless a truly wonderful, one-of-a-kind work.

Daniel Clowes

Clowes is best known for his incredible and understated graphic novel, Ghost World, which was beautifully adapted into a film starring Scarlett Johanssen and Steve Buscemi. Clowes has a special knack for uncovering the existential loneliness of misfits and outcasts in a way that allows readers to identify themselves in the protagonists. His tale of suburban malaise, Ice Haven, is a compelling and subtle work rife with humor and quirk. Well worth a read.

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Alan Moore talks about his much loved League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Last modified on Wednesday, 10 July 2013 19:50

Happy is a regular contributor to RosebudMag.com and has written for various other publications, including Black Belt, Inside Hockey, and FoxSports.com. He transitioned to life as a writer following a decade-long career as a touring musician. He lives with his son in Vancouver, British Columbia

Website: www.rosebudmag.com/hkreter

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