Maus, Art Spiegelman
For many of us, Maus — a biography of the author’s father, Vladek Spiegelman, who lived through the Holocaust as a Polish Jew –was the first real graphic novel we came into contact with. His harrowing story is made both more accessible and more frightening by Spiegelman’s illustrations, which figure the Jews as mice and the Germans as Cats, a way of illuminating the absurdity of cut and dry racial distinctions. The book is deeply touching, deeply scary, and a must-read.
Watchmen , Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
We couldn’t do a list of disturbingly brilliant novels — graphic or no — without Watchmen. Moore imagines a barely pre-apocalyptic New York, where superheroes once existed but have fallen out of favor with the public and are now shunned, in hiding or working in secret as vigilantes. When someone starts killing off their kin, the remaining heroes team up to root out the murderer. The novel, full of human pain and existential crises, is dark and sad, but if nothing else, reminds us of the value of our humanity.
Bodyworld , Dash Shaw
In BodyWorld‘s dystopic future, a prim and planned suburban town seems perfect — except, of course, for the raging drug problem among its citizens. Drug researcher Paulie Panther finds a plant in the woods that, when smoked, causes users to slip into each other’s bodies and minds. But trust us, however weird that sounds to you, BodyWorld is weirder. Shaw’s pared-down style, white characters walking through a colored world, supports his crazy storytelling style, and we only hope we keep seeing more from him. Bonus: You can read most of BodyWorld for yourself at Shaw’s website.
Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware
Unlike several of the other great graphic novels on this list, the strangeness in Jimmy Corrigan has less to do with the storyline and more with Chris Ware’s singular illustrations. Many pages feature complex charts, frames can go on for pages without words, and there are a million little details embedded throughout that will keep you fascinated for multiple reads.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic , Alison Bechdel
Though we think we’re within our rights to include it in this collection, Fun Home is truly a graphic memoir. Bechdel recounts her experiences growing up in a tooled (and re-tooled) Victorian in rural Pennsylvania with a cold and obsessive-compulsive father. The non-linear, self-referential work circles back to retell anecdotes with newly learned information as Bechdel explores her father’s closeted homosexuality and, in turn, her own sexual identity. Her storytelling is refreshingly matter-of-fact, yet her story is one of the most affecting memoirs we’ve ever read.
Monsters , Ken Dahl
Now, here’s a book that lends itself wholly to the form. Monsters is a semi-autobiographical story of Dahl’s experience after contracting herpes and letting it infect not only his body but his psyche. Half novel, half bizarro health class film strip, Dahl’s decidedly uncomfortable illustrations and brutally honest storytelling make this the best comic you’ll ever read about herpes. Or, maybe, anything.
Persepolis , Marjane Satrapi
Like Maus and Watchmen, Persepolis is another classic we just couldn’t bear to leave out. In her graphic memoir, Satrapi leads the reader through her childhood and young adulthood in Iran during and after the Islamic revolution. Stark, heavy black and white illustrations feel like the thickening of blood, strength, and gravity all at once as you venture through her adolescence in the shadow of war. As a girl, she is rebellious and ebullient, and though she grows more serious as time wears on, the best part of this book is Satrapi’s depiction of herself, a girl you grow to love.
Asterios Polyp , David Mazzucchelli
This modernist opus is in every way an exercise in dualities. For example, Mazzucchelli’s brilliance is in the deftness in which he exploits style as content, manipulating his beautiful blue, pink, and purple illustrations to show what they mean — like how the staunchly unemotional Asterios, who sniffs that “anything that is not functional is merely decorative,” boasts a 2-D head when talking to his fully formed (and emotionally complex) ex-wife. Then there are the flashbacks narrated by Asterios’s stillborn twin brother Ignazio, an Orphic descent, and many a Greek allegory.
Ghost World , Daniel Clowes
This novel is a cult classic for a reason (and no, the reason is not Scarlett Johansson): its frank depiction of teenage life, especially in boring, suburban towns, and the awkwardness of growing up garnered an instant following, along with its cynical, hilarious protagonists. It is intensely strange, and yet somehow universal in its strangeness — because who doesn’t think their teen years were completely weird? We know ours were.
Black Hole , Charles Burns
In Black Hole, a group of middle class teenagers in the suburbs of Seattle contract what is known as “the Bug” or “the teen plague,” a bizarre STD that causes them to develop strange physical mutations (a tail, horns, skin that begins to molt), some so severe that the teens must retreat from society. Even past the STD-as-metaphor conceit, the tale is horrifying, yet is rendered in illustration so beautiful that sometimes you forget what exactly it is that you’re looking at.