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Graphic novels combine the literary complexity of the written word with the visual engagement of artwork, which, put together, creates a form of fiction that can sometimes be far richer, deeper, and more compelling than either art or the written word alone.
Whether you’re a fan of comic books or not, there’s no denying that graphic novels offer a colorful, engaging, and fascinating storytelling experience.
For my part, I’ve been a die-hard comic book fan for decades now (long before I ever wrote the first of my 40+ novels), and there have been quite a few graphic novels that truly stood out to me as game-changing and riveting.
Below, I’ve put together a list of what I consider the “best” graphic novels of all time to give any graphic novel newbie some great places to start.
In a world where superheroes like Captain America and Superman were the norm, Watchmen did something very different: it made superheroes amoral, anti-heroic, and even downright villainous.
The world of Watchmen is filled with costumed vigilantes largely operating freelance, save for a handful of government-regulated heroes. But when one of those heroes is killed, the main characters must come out of retirement to solve the murder.
The outcome is far grimmer and darker than they—or readers—could ever expect. It’s a true look at the human beneath the superhuman. One writer described it as “The moment comic books grew up”, and it’s a true masterpiece of “Silver Age of Comics” artwork.
Alan Moore is a name you will see on literally every best graphic novel list, and with good reason: he tells a truly thrilling and riveting story through both art and written story.
The Killing Joke is very likely the best Batman story ever written (I will defend this statement from all challengers), giving the Joker an origin story that is far less madman-supervillain and far more tragic.
In the graphic novel, the Joker was an ordinary man driven insane by a hurricane of terrible circumstances, so the reader can actually follow him on—and relate to him through—his descent into madness.
It also firmly establishes the Joker as the antithesis of Batman, two people with as many similarities as contrasts. Thanks to the beautiful art and riveting storytelling, it’s a graphic novel you can read over and over.
The Sandman is one of the finest works by Neil Gaiman, and thanks to the spectacular artwork by the various artists who collaborated on its production, one of the most visually unique and fascinating graphic novels ever created.
In the story, the titular character is the god of dreams (and nightmares), one of seven “Endless” gods created to anthropomorphise metaphysical concepts such as destiny, despair, desire, and death.
The first volume is arguably the best (of the 10), collecting Sandman issues #01 to #08, the first of the Sandman stories written by Neil Gaiman.
Alan Moore’s handiwork once again makes our list with V for Vendetta, a truly unique take on the “masked anti-hero” genre.
Set in a near-dystopian alternative history version, it follows V, an anarchist and revolutionary who operates behind the disguise of a Guy Fawkes mask as he campaigns in the shadows to destroy the fascist government that has risen to power in the United Kingdom.
The graphic novel takes full advantage of the signature Guy Fawkes mask to present a character who hides his face yet displays his beliefs openly as he brings the young protagonist Evey Hammond into his world and trains her to help him.
Not only is the comic book spectacular, but it led to the production of an equally epic movie by the same title, with Hugo Weaving playing the unforgettable character.
Maus is called “A Survivor’s Tale” because that’s exactly what it is: a tale of survival recounted to the author and artist, Art Spiegelman, by his father, a Polish-Jew who lived through the Holocast.
The grim, dark subject matter is made more “palatable” by using mice as the titular Jewish characters, using pigs and cats to represent the Polish and German characters.
Such themes as memory, guilt, and, of course, the racism that drove the Holocaust are evident on every page, and though the art is often simple and almost childlike, the material is all the richer and more engaging for the juxtaposition.
So well-crafted is the artwork and story that Maus is used as subject material in social studies, language arts, and psychology courses around the world to this day.
Before there was the movie 300 with Gerard Butler as the badass King Leonidas, Frank Miller’s 300 graphic novel shocked the world with its graphic and vivid artwork, action-packed storytelling, and the ultimate doom of every one of the Spartans on its pages.
In 300, a small force of hand-picked, highly skilled Spartan warriors fight to hold the “Hot Gates” of Thermopylae, where sheer, impassable cliffs prevented them from being overwhelmed by the more than 1 million Persians led against them by King Xerxes.
Inspired heavily by the 1962 film The Spartans, 300 is a truly spellbinding tale of heroics and courage in the face of impossible odds.
Some people may argue that Berserk is a manga, and not a graphic novel. However, there are graphic novels that collect multiple issues of the manga into one, and it’s such a darned good read that I’m going to go ahead and include it on this list.
Berserk follows Guts, a “warrior born from a hanged corpse”, raised by an abusive father, and trained to become a mercenary. After killing his father in self-defense, Guts becomes a wandering sword-for-hire and earns a reputation so fierce that he draws the attention of Griffith, leader of the Band of the Hawk mercenary group. What starts off as a fascinating tale of military action quickly turns to the darker and more supernatural.
As with so many manga, the story gets wilder and more unpredictable the farther you read, but you’re likely to find yourself burning through the 41 volumes to see what happens next.
All-Star Superman starts off with a fascinating premise (“what if Superman was dying?”) and goes on to tell what is arguably the greatest Superman story ever written.
It’s presented as a “Twelve Heroic Labors of Superman” (mirroring Hercules’ labors from mythology) as he strives to make the world a better, more peaceful place before he is gone and no longer able to present it.
Though not part of the greater DC universe, the “bottle story” is a wonderful and simple look at the man beneath the cape and spandex, and the characteristics that truly make Superman a hero far more than any flight, super-speed, laser eyes, or super-strength ever could.
Fantasy readers like me will fall in love with Monstress, created in beautiful collaboration between writer Marjorie Liu and artist Sana Takeda.
Set in a world evocative of Asia in the 20th century, Monstress follows Maika Highwolf, a young girl who shares a powerful psychic link with an Arcanic, a member of a magical race of creatures being hunted by humans who seek to consume them to gain their power.
The story is one of marvels and magic galore, but at its core, it’s about inner strength and willpower. After all, Maika is eternally struggling to remain in control of Zinn, a “demon” who emerges from her severed left arm and takes over her body and mind.
In addition to its gripping themes (including race and the power of female friendships), it’s a gorgeously illustrated and colorful book where every page introduces you to something unique.
Saga is a love story in the vein of Romeo and Juliet, only told from the perspective of two warring alien races rather than warring houses.
The titular characters, Alana and Marko, are on the run from both of their races, fighting to care for their infant daughter, Hazel, in a world torn and destroyed by interracial galactic war.
Inspired by space operas like Flash Gordon and Star Wars, Saga is a story about parenthood, love, and the high cost of war—not only on those fighting, but civilians caught in the crossfire.
It has been compared to Game of Thrones in terms of its epic scope and grandeur, and with good reason! It’s as grand and sprawling a tale as even the greatest fantasy sagas, yet remains true to its nature and tells the story of two young people in love fighting to protect their family.
Schlock Mercenary began as a webcomic, but most of those comics have now been combined into and released as graphic novels (hence its inclusion on this list).
In it, Tagon’s Toughs, a group of mercenaries led by Captain Kaff Tagon, take on countless missions across the galaxy—from simple “milk run” cargo escorts to defeating universe-destroying threats.
What starts out as a silly action-packed romp across the universe quickly transforms into something truly fascinating: a science-fiction adventure filled with hard science, including advanced physics, engineering, and astrological concepts.
It’s one of the funniest graphic novel series ever written, making it instantly engaging and an enjoyable read that never gets old from the first to last page.
Y: The Last Man follows Yorick Brown, the last man alive after a virus destroyed every other male human on the planet. Together, he and his male capuchin monkey Ampersand roam a post-apocalyptic world dominated entirely by women on a search for answers or some hope for the future.
Helped along his way by the enigmatic Agent 355, he must travel around the globe in an effort to keep humanity from going extinct.
It’s an incredibly addictive story that will keep you turning page after page to find out what happens next to Yorick, and to see for yourself whether he’s the luckiest or unluckiest man alive to find himself in such extraordinary circumstances.
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