While the term ‘graphic novel’ only entered common usage as recently as the late 1970’s, novel-length works in either pictures-only forms or pictures in combination with text have existed since the 19th century. Baby boomers who haven’t picked up a comic book since childhood will most likely associate the term with the Classics Illustrated series, which does not quite fit the modern definition.
As defined today, a graphic novel is a book-length story told in comic strip format where the art is of equal or greater importance than text, and published as a single volume. Fiction, non-fiction, biography and memoir can all be considered graphic novels if published in book form and presented through the use of sequential image panels. Some purists limit the definition to include only never-serialized, stand-alone stories, while others allow room for compliation editions of previously published comic book series. All agree, however, that like comic books in general, the graphic novel has grown up, with titles written for both adults and children that deal with far more complex subject matter then stereotypical superheroes or idealized, fantasy childhoods. There are still plenty of those but you’ll also find graphic novels about growing old, dealing with serious illness, and childhood abuse, with a healthy does of violence, sex, drugs, and rock & roll thrown in for good measure.
Considered by some to be the first modern graphic novel, A Contract with God by comics legend Will Eisner, first published in 1978, was actually just the first to use the term ‘graphic novel’ as a marketing tactic – it appeared on the cover of the trade paperback edition. Eisner’s book was actually preceded by It Rhymes with Lust by Drake Waller, a full-length, noir-inspired “picture novel” from 1950. A more direct Contract precursor appeared nine years later, in 1959, with Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book, a collection of four graphic short stories from the creator of Mad Magazine.
After Eisner’s success, both comic book and mainstream publishers began to take long-form comics more seriously, releasing an increasing number of titles every year, of continuously higher quality, culminating with Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus in 1986, which threw open the door for every wonderful thing that has come since.
Even with critical and commercial success, in both the periods leading up to and since Maus, some writers/artists have bristled at the use of the term ‘graphic novel’. Most grew up reading comic books and started their careers wanting to write comic books, so they have no qualms about calling what they create exactly that – comic books. Others have tried to create their own terminology by adding subtitles to their work, such as Seth’s ‘A Picture Novella’, Daniel Clowes’ ‘A Comic-strip Novel’, and Alison Bechdel’s ‘A Family Tragicomic’.
No matter what you call it, the genre isn’t easily pigeon-holed into clear-cut categories, making compiling a list of 50 must-read graphic novels a daunting task. This is just the tip of the iceberg – in no particular order.
Stitches by David Small
A harrowing memoir, finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.
Unterzakhn by Leela Corman
A novel about immigrant sisters growing up in Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century.
Drinking at the Movies by Julia Wertz
An obscenely funny memoir about navigating life as a twenty-something alone in New York.
The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman
First graphic novel to win a Pulitzer, Maus is part memoir, part biography, part history, and part fable.
In the Shadow of no Towers by Art Spiegelman
More from Spiegelman - a very personal, very political story of 9/11 and its aftermath.
by Raina Telgemeier
A funny story of middle school drama for the younger end of the YA spectrum.
by Alissa Torres
An intimate story of one woman's loss - and the aftermath of that loss - on 9/11/2001.
by Gilbert Hernandez
From the co-creator of the Love and Rockets series comes this tale of growing up in the 1960's.
by Rutu Modan
An elderly Jewish woman returns to Warsaw for the first time since WWII to reclaim family property.
by Rutu Modan
A young cabbie's search for his missing father presents an insider's complex portrait of modern Israel.
by Alison Bechdel
Both humorous and literary, this 'Family Tragicomic' explores growing up with a closeted gay father.
Are You My Mother?
by Alison Bechdel
This highly personal follow-up to Fun Home explores Bechdel's relationship with her mother.
American Born Chinese
by Gene Luen Yang
This 2006 National Book Award finalist tells three parallel tales of growing up Chinese-American.
by Vera Brosgol
Award-winning Young Adult novel about – among other things - the pitfalls of befriending ghosts.
Stop Forgetting to Remember: The Autobiography of Walter Kurtz
by Peter Kuper
This quasi-autobiography of the author's fictitious alter-ego is hilariously heartbreaking.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill
Fictional characters from well-known Victorian-era novels join forces to fight for the British Empire.
by Dave McKean
Without words, this novel graphically explores the adult themes of sexual fantasy and voyeurism.
My Friend Dahmer
by Derf Backderf
A surprisingly moving story of the early life of one of the 20th century's most infamous serial killers.
by Joyce Farmer
This award-winning novel chronicles a long-married couple as they navigate their declining years.
The Nao of Brown
by Glyn Dillon
A psychologically complex exploration of a young woman's struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken
A story of obsessive nostalgia and how it can blind us to the present.
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth
by Chris Ware
The story describes an emotionally stunted man with delusions of grandeur.
by Chris Ware
Pushing boundaries of form and content, this is also a multi-media art installation.
Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life
by Ulli Lust
Winner of several awards about two penniless, punked-out teen girls hitchhiking across Europe.
by Will Eisner
This innovative work, published in 1978, is considered by many to be the first graphic novel.
by Jon McNaugh
This quiet, contemplative story of everyday life has been described as the ‘comics equivalent of poetry’.
Everything We Miss
by Luke Pearson
The end of a relationship as told through the beautiful but overlooked moments that surround it.
by Tom Gauld
The biblical story of David and Goliath retold from Goliath's sad and wryly funny perspective.
by Posy Simmonds
This biting satire of the British middle-class is loosely based on Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd.
by Shaun Tan
A wordless novel that explores the alienation and disorientation of the immigrant experience.
V for Vendetta
by Alan Moore and David Lloyd
Set in a dystopian future, where a masked revolutionary works to destroy a totalitarian regime.
Alice in Sunderland
by Bryan Talbot
A psychedelic exploration of the historical influences behind the works of Lewis Carroll.
The Tale of One Bad Rat
by Bryan Talbot
A survivor of sexual abuse, Helen Potter, retraces the route of another Potter - Beatrix.
Calling Dr. Laura: A Graphic Memoir
by Nicole J. Georges
This graphic memoir has been described as part coming-of-age tale and part coming-out story.
Road to Perdition
by Max Allen Collins
This classic noir story of gangland Chicago in the 1930s was made into a film starring Tom Hanks.
by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Winner of a Hugo, the highly-acclaimed Watchmen follows less-than-perfect superheroes.
by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean
The first collaboration between these two is a disturbing exploration of the unreliability of memory.
by Craig Thompson
A story of sibling rivalry, childhood abuse, and first love, complicated by evangelical religion.
by Charles Burns
Teens in 1970s Seattle are hit with a plague in the form of an STD that causes grotesque mutations.
by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
Three pets try to find their way home – described as ‘The Incredible Journey meets Tony Stark’.
by David B.
A brutally honest autobiography about growing up with an epileptic sibling.
Vietnamerica: A Family's Journey by GB Tran
Vietnamerica: A Family's Journey
by GB Tran
The son of Vietnamese immigrants, who fled to the US, tells his family's story.
The Complete Persepolis
by Marjane Satrapi
The story of a girl's childhood and coming-of-age, told against the backdrop of Iran's revolution.
by Daniel Clowes
Authentic story of disaffected youth and teen angst that has been compared to Catcher in the Rye.
Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea
by Guy Delisle
A unique peek into the mystery of daily life in North Korea, highlighting both humor and horror.
Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography
by Chester Brown
Biography of a controversial figure from Canadian history.
by David Mazzucchelli
The story of a dislikeable architect that pushes the boundaries of style and form.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret
by Brian Selznick
First novel awarded the Caldecott Medal, for the most distinguished picture book for children.
Corto Maltese: The Ballad of the Salt Sea
by Hugo Pratt
Originally published in 1967, in Italian, this is the first in a swashbuckling adventure series.
Ethel & Ernest: A True Story
by Raymond Briggs
A lovingly told story of the author's parents' lives together, against the backdrop of 20th century history.