These seven novels and memoirs are some of the best—and the perfect starting point for getting into the genre.
The comic is one of the most versatile forms of art around. It can be text-heavy or image-heavy, colored or black and white, minimalist or extraordinarily detailed. And since the 1980s, comics have become all the more complex. Book-length works—typically called graphic novels if they are fiction, or graphic memoirs if they are nonfiction—have become more mainstream, in part because they tackle what readers see as more and more serious themes in settings very different from those in the earliest, say, Batman comics. Here are seven graphic novels and memoirs that are sure to change how you think of comics forever.
Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
It didn’t become a bestselling play—and Alison Bechdel, whose “Bechdel test” asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man, didn’t become practically a household name—for nothing. Subtitled "A Family Tragicomic," this is not light fare, but masterfully spotlights Bechdel's relationship with her father while growing up queer in rural Pennsylvania.
To buy: $11, amazon.com.
Flood, by Eric Drooker
An almost wordless work, Flood portrays New York’s Lower East Side in the late 1980s with what it calls “a novel in pictures.” It has the scope of a novel, too, with its themes of lost love and artistic isolation and its noirish portrayal of the pursuit of creativity at any cost. A beautiful book unlike any other you’re likely to read.
To buy: $15, amazon.com.
March, Books 1-3, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
Congressman John Lewis is an American hero, full stop. A civil rights leader who worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to organize the 1963 March on Washington, Lewis survived the infamous Bloody Sunday on the Selma to Montgomery marches and has served in the United States Congress since 1987. He also co-wrote, along with Andrew Aydin, this graphic memoir of his time as an activist, which comics superstar Nate Powell (You Don’t Say, Any Empire, The Silence of Our Friends) illustrated to devastating effect. Every American should own this box set—comics fan or not.
To buy: $28 for a boxed set, amazon.com.
This One Summer, by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
The multi-talented Canadian cousin duo of Mariko and Jillian Tamaki came out with this collaboration four years ago, and since, it has become a staple for middle-grade and YA bookshelves. Many readers may already be familiar with Jillian's graphic work, as she creates comics for both the New York Times and the New Yorker. Her style here is similar, with fine line work in shades of purple and blue illustrating Mariko’s emotional coming of age tale following two pre-teen friends, Rose and Windy, over the course of a summer in a beach town on Lake Ontario.
To buy: $13, amazon.com.
Blankets, by Craig Thompson
A spare, black-and-white graphic novel that is both a coming of age story and a first love story, Blankets takes place entirely in a beautifully rendered snow-blown Wisconsin. While Thompson bills it as a graphic novel, it’s definitely autobiographical, following his younger self’s courtship of Raina, a fellow Evangelical Christian who he met at church camp. While it’s very, very sad and very, very beautiful, it has just enough hope to make it all meaningful.
To buy: $21, amazon.com.
Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi
This autobiographical graphic novel, which depicts the author's childhood during and following the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, took the comics world by storm upon its publication in 2000. It stayed in public consciousness, too, and came to the big screen seven years later as an animated feature film, which was written and directed by Satrapi with French comics artist and filmmaker Vincent Paronnaud. The minimalistic art style is just stark enough to show the ravages of war through the eyes of a child—and the love for country and hope for a new life that remain even in our darkest hours.
To buy: $15, amazon.com.
Boxers & Saints, by Gene Luen Yang
OK, this is cheating a little—Boxers and Saints are technically two separate volumes by the incomparable Yang, who has written for Superman in addition to examining Asian-American identity gorgeously in perhaps his best-known graphic novel, American Born Chinese. But these two companion pieces are likely his finest work. Boxers follows a young Chinese boy who sees visions of ancient Chinese gods and leads the Boxer Rebellion against invading Western countries at the turn of the 20th century; the other tells the story of a young Chinese girl, converted to Catholicism, who sees visions of Joan of Arc and charges herself with defending Beijing (anglicized as Peking in the book) as a "maiden warrior." Heartbreaking and sweeping while aimed at an audience of all-ages, the two books exhibit the breadth and depth of the comics format.
To buy: $22, amazon.com.