Although when most people think of graphic novels, they tend to immediately lean towards the super-hero genre and made worse so by the fact that many bookstores stock solely this genre. But this leaves out so many independant stories in which there truly is something to suit everyone’s taste. Granted a few have managed to receive enough. critical acclaim (some of which featured on this list) to be stocked in most bookstores, there are still those which hide in the shelves of independent retailers (which make up the rest of this list).
The graphic novel format of books has come on leaps and bounds over the years largely due to the acclaim that many superhero novels have brought such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. However non super-hero books have also helped pave the way for writers, young and old to connect with a whole new audience.
Covering the grounds of teenage coming-of-age tales, noir detective novels, fantasy, historical and even silent novels. This list will feature something to grab your interest and develop your interest in non-superhero graphic novels.
Blankets tells the tale of a teenager trying to navigate his way through first love whilst being under the pressure of religious life and upbringing being forced upon him and the problems that come with it. Written by Craig Thompson and released in 2003. Blankets is an autobiographical story in which Craig used to tell his parents that he had abandoned his faith and giving people a better insight into the pressures that children and teenagers deal with.
Due to the extremely personal nature of the story, in which Thompson illustrates some of both the darkest and happiest days of his upbringing, there will be an area of the story in which an audience can relate which makes this all that much more of an important read. The artwork that accompanies the narrative walks a very interesting path, balancing between Thompson’s experiences and his imagination, in which comes some of the most intricate pieces of comic book art. These illustrations are often either based on religious ideologies or detailed patterns that take up most of a page.
Blankets received a total of 8 awards over 2004 and 2005 including Harvey, Eisner and Ignatz awards.
9. Lost at Sea
Lost at Sea was the debut graphic novel from Bryan Lee O’Malley, the author and illustrator of Scott Pilgrim fame. The story follows Raleigh, an 18 year old girl who feels out of place with her friends and her home. On returning home after meeting up with a boy she met online, she by chance found herself in a car, driving from California back to her home in Canada with three fellow students from her school.
As they help piece together her problems finding her place in life, she discovers more about herself than she ever anticipated. With an extremely cartoonish style in terms of illustration, it provides an extremely pleasing and easy read. Despite the plot going into the surreal, it remains a very relatable story to those who struggle to fit in and are familiar with the difficulties of long distance relationships.
Clearly the work of O’Malley through the detailed yet clearly cartoon inspired artwork which blends reality with imagination so carefully and which often exist together in the same panel.
8. The Arrival
The Arrival was written by Shaun Tan in 2006. Straying from conventional forms of graphic novels, The Arrival is a silent novel in the sense that the entire narrative of the story does not feature any language at all.
Telling the tale of a man leaving his family in order to fashion a new life for himself in a foreign country until he can bring his family over to live with him. Thus the imagery is all the reader has to find their way through the narrative of the story, in the same way that it is for the protagonist in the story. As he begins his new life, he encounters many other people who emigrated into the country they tell him their story which involve tales of war and struggle.
The art in the book ties in with the story by taking the form of illustrations that have the appearance of vintage sepia photographs. This gives the book a frame for a time period during the great boom of immigration to the United States in the late 1700s to mid 1800s.
Persepolis is a two volume (or four depending on your language) French autobiographical tale of Marjane Satrapi released in 2000. Telling her story of growing up in war torn Iran during the 1980s as her parents send her to Austria to live, her return four years later and her life adjusting back to the Iranian culture.
Detailing the struggles of being a young woman living with no parents in a foreign country such as loneliness, being homesick and homelessness. It also tackles the subject of the difficulties in being a woman under an oppressive regime and having all rights stripped away in addition to mental health issues.
Persepolis is one of only two books on this list to gain enough critical acclaim in order to be made into a feature length film. Animated in the same illustrative style that Marjane carried throughout her books.
6. Anya’s Ghost
Anya’s Ghost was written by Vera Brosgol and published in 2011. Following the story of Anya Borzakovskaya, a teenager trying to fit in at school. Dealing with the prejudice she receives due to her ethnicity and the social issues that all modern teenagers suffer from. However to make things better, after being stuck in a well overnight, Anya meets the ghost of Emily Reilly. As a young girl Emily fell down the same well and was never found but finds a friend in Anya and proceeds to follow her around.
Helping Anya gain more confidence, do better at school and start talking to the boy she likes, Emily starts to appear to Anya as not all she claimed to be. Giving Anya no space of her own she has to break away and try to uncover the truth about her new friend.
The illustration of the book is very similar to the work of Bryan Lee O’Malley due to its very cartoonish tone however the subject matter is much darker and tackles much more prominent issues in the world today. Especially the world that so many teenagers are living in. Anya’s Ghost picked up an Eisner Award and Harvey Award in 2012.
5. The New Deadwardians
The New Deadwardians is an eight-issue comic book released by Vertigo in 2012. Written by Dan Abnett and illustrated by I.N.J. Culbard, the story follows a zombie outbreak in the early 20th century in which the upper classes have turned towards a cure that whilst keeps the “restless” at bay but turns them into a form of vampire. With only one detective left in the murder office the task is left to him to uncover the truth about a murder of another member of “the young”.
The New Deadwardians takes the classic and ever popular zombie genre whilst not making it a central theme of the story, whilst tackling subjects of women’s rights and primarily class difference. With an obvious hostility between the upper class “young” and working class “brights”.
All eight issues of the series were compiled into a trade paperback graphic novel in February this year and has been incredibly well received for its innovative take on the genre. Though it may not be the most thought provoking novel in this list, it earns its spot for it’s enjoyability and unique style.
Maus was released in 1991 and is a two volume biography of Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish survivor of the holocaust. The narrative follows the artist of the book Art Speigelman as he talks to his father to learn about his story. Covering both the story of Vladek’s life during World War II, Nazi occupied Poland and Auschwitz and Art’s relationship with his father as he sits down with Vladek to learn his story.
An extremely moving tale that took Art 13 years to complete. He took the stance to make it an anthropomorphic novel in order to give the reader a clearer understanding of what life was like during his father’s time. For instance all the jews are portrayed as mice, the Polish as pigs, Nazi’s as cats and American’s as Dogs. As this gave the classic cat and mouse chase a much deeper meaning and when walking around Poland, Vladek is seen wearing a pig mask with string on the back so he could walk around without being abused for his religion.
Maus was one of the first graphic novels to receive academic attention and be seen as more important than a book for children like most comics at the time. Maus is often seen as the book that opened the gates to graphic novels for a more audience and the holocaust as a genre due to it being seen as subject matter no one could tackle justly.
3. Scott Pilgrim Series
The series that gave way to make a cult classic film in late 2010 and the second story from Bryan Lee O’Malley. Despite the popularity of the film, the original source of the story is still unknown to a lot of people. Following the story of a 23 year old slacker who tries to navigate this way through fighting his new girlfriend’s seven evil exes whilst tip toeing around his most recent ex, the girl that broke his heart and keeping his band afloat. All whilst proving himself worthy enough to be with Ramona.
Heavily inspired by video game culture, O’Malley gives us an insight to a world where people can level up, gain extra lives and are all seemingly aware that they are in a graphic novel through the use of frequently breaking the fourth wall. With a charming tone and equally infectious humour, this six series novel goes much deeper than its film adaptation into the struggles of young love.
Dealing with jealousy, ever shifting emotions and friends growing apart. The story accurately follows someone trying head over heels to keep everything in order which despite it’s extremely cartoonish tone, the essential theme that throughout the story is extremely relatable and will have at least one volume of the series in which the audience can identify with in their own way.
2. Asterios Polyp
Asterios Polyp follows the story of a former architecture professor who after watching his house burn down on his fiftieth birthday, catches the next bus out to wherever his money will take him. He ends up working at an auto-repair shop in exchange for room and board. During his time there he meets new people with radically different ideas from his own which makes him look back and reflect on his failed marriage and crumbling life.
Written by David Mazzucchelli in 2009, Asterios Polyp was the winner of the Los Angeles Book Prize in 2009 in their newly created Graphic Novel category in addition to three Eisner Awards and a further three Harvey awards.
One of the most striking features of this novel is the art, which so smoothly transcends through styles depending on the tone of the narrative at that moment. One of the most clear and obvious being when Asterios and his wife are arguing, due to his background in architecture is drawn very technically with constriction lines but Hana with her background in Art is drawn with a much more traditionally illustrative style. Asterios Polyp also largely abandons the traditional panelled form of graphic novels and instead making use of the available negative space on the page.
Blacksad is a French/Spanish anthropomorphic detective series published in 2000 and written by Juan Díaz Canales and drawn by Juanjo Guarnido. The story of the books follows John Blacksad, a Private Investigator not afraid of getting his hands dirty in order to get to the bottom of a case. Covering historical topics in this alternate universe including the red scare and religious extremists such as the Ku Klux Klan and even having cameos from Adolf Hitler and Allen Ginsberg among other notable people of the time period.
The art throughout this novel pays an extremely large amount of attention to even the most intricate areas of detail with a classic american noir setting. However even more detail goes into the emotions within the characters faces which are conveyed incredibly well despite the non-human characteristics.
Blacksad won an Angoulême Prize for Artwork in addition to its three Eisner Awards nominations and has been translated into twenty-one languages from it’s original in French and Spanish.