Reader recommendations for best graphic novels

After the talk of the growth and acceptance of graphic novels as literature, I stopped into the local, independently owned bookstore around the corner from where I work. The selection was sparse and heavily geared toward DC and Marvel super hero novels. Not that I have anything against spandex laden men and women (capes optional), but I wanted to know what were the best graphic novels NOT based on super heroes. I posted by question on Twitter and in rapid order, the recommendations came pouring in. I’ve sorted the suggestions by number of recommendations offered. Here is the list:

Votes Title
5 Maus
4 Scott Pilgrim
3 Black Hole
3 Box Office Poison
3 Tamara Drewe
2 Age of Bronze
2 Army of Darkness
2 Beanworld
2 Blankets
2 Bone
2 Girl Genius
2 Local
2 Road to Perdition
2 Salon
2 Strangers in Paradise
2 The Alcoholic
2 True Story Swear to God
1 A Drifting Life
1 American Borne Chinese
1 Atomic Robo
1 Chiggers
1 City of Glass
1 Clockwork Girl
1 Contract With God
1 Daisy Kutter
1 Dare Detectives
1 Disappearance Diary
1 Dream Sequence
1 Epileptic
1 Exit Wounds
1 Fables
1 Finder
1 Flight
1 Flight Explorer
1 Franklin Richards
1 Fun Home
1 Ice Haven
1 Jars of Fools
1 Jellaby
1 Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth
1 King David
1 Louis Riel
1 Monster
1 Mr. Blank
1 Ooku (comes out in August)
1 Out of the picture
1 Pedro and me
1 Pluto
1 Rapunzel’s Revenge
1 Skim
1 Solanin
1 Stuck Rubber Baby
1 Talisman
1 The Last Man
1 The Last Train
1 The Name of the Game
1 The One-Trick Rip Off
1 The Stone Keeper
1 Three Shadows
1 Ticking
1 Torso
1 Why I Hate Saturn
1 Wonder Woman
1 Y the Last Man
1 You Can’t Get There from Here
1 Zot

Do you agree? Want to add others? Do so in the comments

49 thoughts on “Reader recommendations for best graphic novels

  1. Wow. Just the shear number of different titles really tells you something, along with the rapid response you got. This coupled with the number of films that have come out over past several years that are based on graphic novels.

  2. Off the top of my head, I’d add Persepolis, Palestine, and The Rabbi’s Cat. Great list, though; pretty comprehensive. (Although doesn’t Wonder Woman count as a super hero?)

    It is, unfortunately, very difficult to find good non-super hero/non-manga graphic novels in the bookstores. Some stores have better selections than others, but it usually seems to be hit-or-miss.

    Actually some of the best graphic novels I’ve found have been in public library collections.

  3. It was also suggested that I visit my local comic book shop instead of a book store. The selection should be greater.

    Indeed. That is a good surface-scratching you’ve got there, but that’s all it is. And if you start including manga titles… well… my daughter would tell you that “Fruits Basket” should be at the top of a very long list (of things that 13-year-old girls love, and that you might not.)

  4. “…That is a good surface-scratching youâ??ve got there, but thatâ??s all it is…”

    Of course… when I said “comprehensive” I suppose what I meant was, “including most of the titles I would have thought to include, some I wouldn’t, plus several I hadn’t heard of”. But the topic as a whole does re-raise a question I’ve often wondered about: where does one go to find out what’s out there in graphic fiction?

  5. Where does one go to find out whatâ??s out there in graphic fiction?

    I, too, would like to know the answer to this. My comics shop has a decent selection (including about half the titles listed in Alan’s original list, plus hundreds that are not) but I know it’s not comprehensive, nor even statistically significant as a sample.

  6. Strictly speaking, “V” is not a superhero, so I would add “V for Vendetta”. It is pretty close to that genre, though, so I can understand its exclusion.

  7. Have to plug Australian artist Shaun Tan’s “The Arrival” (2006 Arthur A. Levine Books): exquisite drawings and very powerful story from an immigrant’s perspective – our local Literacy Council is now adopting it into ESL programs.
    Another recent favorite for me was Joshua Cotter’s “Skyscrapers of the Midwest” (2008 Adhouse Books). Plus I’d add to the list works by Joe Sacco and James Sturm, well worth checking out.
    I finally found a manga title that’s been fun to read; “One Piece” by Ellchiro Oda.
    Over the years I also have come to depend on the reviews in the Comics Journal to stay on top of new releases and current events, plus great interviews with creators – excellent resource.

  8. Where does Neal Gaiman’s Sandman fall on the superhero scale? Maybe by merit of author alone the books are snooty enough to make this list? Although, the inherent ties with that low-brow superhero genre are undeniable.

    If Y makes the list, Sandman should make the list. If Sandman makes the list we get to start talking about what defines a superhero book.

  9. There are a couple of titles that you might want to clarify. You have “The Last Train” and “The Stone Keeper” on the list. “The Last Train” is actually the subtitle of Daisy Kutter (which is already on the list) and “The Stonekeeper” is the more frequently referred to as “Amulet” which is the book series which it belongs to.

    As for the question of where to go to find graphic novels… I find out about the graphic novels that I read by reading my favorite artists’ blogs and learning what they like to read or by clicking on the links on their sidebars. I’ve also found that a great way to discover new authors is to buy anthologies. While anthologies aren’t the same as graphic novels they contain stories by many artists and you can bet that nearly every one of them either has their own graphic novel (or comic series or webcomic) or is developing one. Another way to find graphic novels to read is by reading webcomics. There are a lot of long-form webcomics that are essentially graphic novels on the web. A fair amount of these end up being published eventually.

  10. With no consistent methodology, this is a mess, but there are some important titles in there.

    Here’s the word that makes me question some of the things on the list, as well as the following suggestions: Best.


    Quite good, not so much; sorry, Matthew.

    Some suggested additions that I think are missing (and there’d be a bunch more if I spent the time on it):

    Tantrum by Jules Feiffer, his ONLY graphic novel
    The Arrival by Shaun Tan
    You Are Here & I Die At Midnight by Kyle Baker
    Alice In Sunderland by Bryan Talbot
    V For Vendetta by Alan Moore & David Lloyd
    Ronin, Sin City, & 330 by Frank Miller
    He Done Her Wrong by Milt Gross
    God’s Man by Lynd Ward

    All of them are masterful.


    PS. Without a methodology, everything here just becomes a “favorites” list, not a “best” list, though Maus & Persepolis would likely be on a methodically developed “best” list; they both had broad cultural impacts that continue to today.

  11. “No superheroes” was the rule I followed.

    But I did forget to include League of Extraordinary Gentlemen #1 & 2…which aren’t superheroes; they’re more like adventure heroes, which is different.

    And I wouldn’t put “Sandman” on the superhero scale, either, or Moore’s run on “Swamp Thing.”


  12. Is that author’s work any less important because it tackles a particular genre? Moore did his best work with superheros.

    And why doesn’t Sandman count as a superhero? He interacts with DC universe superheros, it’s just his powers are mystical and his clothing is loose. The basic idea is the same as any mainstream comic book. What superhero isn’t an adventure hero?

  13. Sandman may have originally stemmed from the Golden Age Sandman character, but the series/stories AREN’T in the superhero/heroic fantasy genre sandbox.

    Now to my big question, having briefly flipped through the Gaiman-written books, WHERE are there any superheroes in Sandman?

    And no, an author’s work isn’t, in my opinion, less important because it tackles a particular genre, in this case superheroes.

    If I were creating criteria, I’d include all genres and let material stand on its own…and also recognize that to be a “best” of anything, a book would probably have to undercut or expand on the genre in order to have something more to say than the themes that tend to be consistent within genre sandboxes.

    To clarify, a superhero book that explores the themes of “with great power comes great responsibility” or “good shall triumph over evil” probably don’t get into the “best” category because these wouldn’t have anything new to say that hadn’t been said before and before and before.

    But that’s just MY criteria.

    Let’s explore yours now.


  14. The criteria to not include super heroes is strictly mine. I’m sure there are a many novels that include super powers that are exceptional, it just so happened that when I asked the question, I was reacting to the bookstore’s selection of being almost entirely super-hero based and knowing that the graphic novel market was soooo much more than that, I wanted to get everyone’s sense of what were the best non-super-hero novels.

    I’ll throw out another tweet asking for best super-hero recommendations and do another post.

  15. Ah, forgot to address this: what superhero isn’t an adventure hero?

    The question’s inside out. It should be “what adventure hero isn’t a superhero?”

    John Carter of Mars.
    Every other Edgar Rice Burroughs character.
    Every Robert E. Howard character that isn’t in a horror story or western.
    Doc Savage.
    The Shadow. (Sorry, not a superhero…even though he’s been adapted into comics.)
    Alan Quartermain IS…Nemo and the Invisible Man are from science fiction…and the rest of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Mina Murray & Hyde) are from horror.

    None of these are superheroes.

    And I’m not suggesting all the characters above fit neatly into a nice little box, they don’t; adventure hero is a very broad term, where superhero is a very specific term…which is why the question was inside out.


  16. Lee, you won’t have to thumb far. As I recall Sandman visits Arkham Asylum in his first volume. I believe he does some stuff with Dr. Fate in the Dollhouse.

    As for the adventure hero thing I’m not understanding your definition of superhero. Are you meaning it to involve only characters in tights? Or is there a time period they have to fall into? Maybe Gotham By Gaslight Batman wasn’t a superhero since the story was set a decade ago?

    Really I get what you’re saying, but it’s counter-productive to count a different generations characters against our own. That was the whole point of the League of Extraordinary Gentleman. That was the Victorian Age superhero group. Notice the wall of portraits of past heros? What is Robin Hood but a medieval Batman?

    Even with the tally of traditional, mainstream graphic novels, there’s no way you’re going to get a top 5 list without Maus… and that’s actually the only thing I see up there that isn’t just posturing. As far as I’m concerned the greatest graphic novels have heros in them, just as it’s been throughout all time. The best stories have heros.

  17. As a further segue, let’s take a couple paragraphs from the Wikepedia entry:

    “Although superhero fiction is considered a form of fantasy/adventure, it crosses into many genres. Many superhero franchises resemble crime fiction (Batman, Punisher), others horror fiction (Spawn, Spectre) and others more standard science fiction (Green Lantern, X-Men). Many of the earliest superheroes, such as The Sandman and The Clock, were rooted in the pulp fiction of their predecessors.

    “Within their own fictional universes, public perception of superheroes varies greatly. Some, like Superman and the Fantastic Four, are adored and seen as important civic leaders. Others, like Batman and Spider-Man, meet with public skepticism or outright hostility. A few, such as the X-Men and the characters of Watchmen, defend a populace that misunderstands and despises them.”

    There’s much that unites the superhero genre, even as there are elements that cross from it.

    Sometimes, not unlike Film Noir, you know it when you see it.

    I’m pretty sure most people don’t think Tarzan of the Apes is a superhero.

    Some might say that about The Shadow, even though most might call him a pulp adventure hero.

    Some labels stick well; others don’t.

    Swamp Thing began as a spin on a super-hero book with a horror underpinning, but Alan Moore extended it much more into the realm of horror and fantasy.

    Sure, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen does the “team” spin on a group of people, and that team aspect has an appeal to the superhero readers, but it’s more sf-horror adventure with an espionage spin…and yep, you might say some of this is true about Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD.

    Since I’m NOT the one who took superheroes out of the “best” GN mix–I’m just a guy following the rules set down, and interpreted them as I saw them–I think delineating what is more superhero than not is important, certainly when discussing genres at all.

    Every hero can’t be a superhero, unless you want to expand that definition beyond all meaning.

    Robin Hood just isn’t a superhero, but I can see people doing a superhero spin on him.

    Anyway, Sandman existing in a superhero universe doesn’t make it a superhero story, and Gaiman clearly wasn’t tapping into the components of the superhero genre.

    If you want to make any hero a superhero, though, you’re entitled.

    But when you start trying to explain how Sam Spade is a superhero because he’s got Smart powers and wears a trench coat, don’t be surprised if people start looking at you oddly.

    Okay, back to real life…


  18. What are you talking about? The Wikipedia citation was blatantly contrary to the points Lee tried to follow it up with.

    Here’s what Wikipedia says, “Many superhero franchises resemble crime fiction (Batman, Punisher), others horror fiction (Spawn, Spectre) and others more standard science fiction (Green Lantern, X-Men). Many of the earliest superheroes, such as The Sandman and The Clock, were rooted in the pulp fiction of their predecessors.”

    And here’s what Lee says, “Swamp Thing began as a spin on a super-hero book with a horror underpinning, but Alan Moore extended it much more into the realm of horror and fantasy.”

    Wikipedia, “Many superhero franchises resemble…horror fiction”

    Lee, “Swamp Thing… extended… much more into the realm of horror and fantasy.”

    How can something go beyond resemblance and break intothe actual genre? The Swamp Thing follows the exact same formula as any other hero. Horror/Fantasy heros follow the exact same formula as comics heros as well. That’s the whole point. Of course comics resemble other forms of fiction, but their stories are no less impactful because the main characters where tight clothes or have powers based in science rather than mysticism, i.e. Batman visiting Arkham vs. Sandman visiting Arkham. Sandman gets into the exact same adventures as Dr. Fate, Dr. Strange, or Ghost Rider, you’re just more accepting of Sandman because Neal Gaiman wrote it.

    “Sure, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen does the â??teamâ? spin on a group of people, and that team aspect has an appeal to the superhero readers, but itâ??s more sf-horror adventure with an espionage spinâ?¦and yep, you might say some of this is true about Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD.”

    What does that even mean? It’s more sci-fi/horror with espionage? Do you really need me to list mainstream superhero books with sci-fi/horror spy plots? The only reason you’re discounting the League is because they’re set in a different era, which is obviously Alan Moore’s intent. The whole point of the book is to make people think differently about how the superhero world is perceived. The League doesn’t resemble the Avengers, they are the freaking Avengers. You want to put this book on the list but you don’t even get it? If you do get it then you know why Watchmen is a vastly superior graphic novel and should be higher on the list than League…

    “But when you start trying to explain how Sam Spade is a superhero because heâ??s got Smart powers and wears a trench coat, donâ??t be surprised if people start looking at you oddly.”

    If someone creates an origin story and an epic adventure starring Sam Spade I might. I think people here would look at me oddly,I get that, I really do, and I’m beginning to think I wasted a lot of time talking comics here.

    There are a couple other points in there I’ll get to if you really need me to, but I think it should be obvious enough that our era’s heros deserve the same respect as any other generation’s. Like I said before, Hercules is an Avenger. I’m sorry I didn’t explain what that meant yesterday, I just thought the post I was responding to was so convoluted I wouldn’t need to. Super though, wow. That’s a pun alright.

  19. I think folks have probably read enough from both of us on this tangential subject to figure out where we’re coming from.

    Going back to my earliest topic, I’d love to hear some methodology for what might constitute “best.”

    I’m working on something similar to firm up the components of “best” for a comics-related project (which is why I laser-pointed to this topic), so your thoughts will be helpful.

    Right now, I’m considering:

    Influence on form
    Influence on culture
    Quality of writing
    Quality of art
    Popularity, which may be the most controversial consideration.


  20. As it stands, the list DOES reflect that.

    Actually I left one component out of my criteria list: timelessness.

    Shouldn’t the “best” graphic novel be able to withstand the test of time?

    Absolutely. Citizen Kane is still brilliant.

    I reread Watchmen before the film came out, and found it as compelling today as when I first read its miniseries run.

    I’m revisiting Moore’s Swamp Thing for the same reason, to see if the material holds up.

    Maus certainly holds up.

    Tantrum is as fresh today as when it was published.

    But I think there’s a lot of stuff on the list that’s too recent to reasonable assess; that’s just MY view, and I’m not saying your own opinions aren’t valid.

    Without a methodology, EVERY view is valid…which is part of the problem, long term, for comics: no criteria for greatness (yet)…except perhaps the Pulitzer Prize (Maus) and sales. And I really don’t want sales to be our qualitative measurement.

    But again, that’s just me.


  21. And I love graphic novels. But I feel like the list has more to do with being an indie artist/writer than quality.

    That part right there… THAT’s where the distinction between graphic novels and superhero graphic novels seems to lie. Not because of being an indie artist/writer, but because of NOT being a franchise.

    Most superheroes, at least in the Marvel or DC character sense, are more like franchises than characters. Tony the Tiger, Ronald McDonald, and Spider-Man don’t get character arcs. They can’t be good protagonists because they don’t change enough during the story.

    Quick semantic digression: Main characters give us our viewpoints. Heroes drive the action of the story. Protagonists get developed, and have a story arc. Many novels have all three, Main Character, Hero, and Protagonist, as the same person.

    So — franchised superheroes can fulfill the first two, but rarely the third unless you’re telling an Origin story. Why don’t they get arcs? Because they’re a franchise. Superman can’t really CHANGE. Neither can Batman, or Spiderman.

    And any time they do change, after a few years the Marvel or DC universe “reboots” and those changes are undone. It’s very dissatisfying, but it keeps the franchise alive, and keeps the money rolling in.

    Naturally, when you’re looking for a great graphic novel, you’re often looking for an interesting protagonist. That very often means leaving franchises off the list.

    This is why “Watchmen” was so great. We stepped into a world that looked like it was made out of franchised superheroes, but they got character arcs, and some of them died. You know, and STAYED dead.

  22. Wow, take the energy and effort that’s gone into this argument about spandex and you could come close to ending world hunger.

  23. I vote for “Pride of Baghdad”. It was one of the most moving graphic novels I read and it’s based on a real event!

  24. I’m glad someone mentioned Persepolis. We are lucky enough to have it and its sequel in our public library, and I just blew through both volumes over the weekend. I hope there are some English teachers out there that are brave enough to add it to a summer reading list.

    I’m glad to see this list…I plan to seek out some of these and start reading!

  25. “Kings in Disguise” gets my vote (never mind that my Comics Journal piece from “The 100 Greatest Comics of All Time” got blurbed on the reprint cover).

  26. Well, although you did not include any superheroes, Watchmen is one of the greatest and most celebrated. V was not a superhero. He was a terrorist. He did not have any powers, as well as neither did most of the characters in Watchmen excluding Manhattan of course. V was done following the rules of the totalitarian government. So he rebelled. He did not fly up into the air or shoot beams like superheroes. He used his intelligence, and a bit of explosives to overcome totalitarianism.

  27. This widespread bashing of the superhero genre is entirely base, intellectually. I believe somebody said it before, this should be a favorites and not best list, because no one defined best. This is all just a solicited list. It is disappointing that people are so quick in dismissing ‘superheroes’ from ideas of literature or form, because a story cannot be measured for it’s genre, but by the qualities they generate AS as story. Scott McCloud said it best, don’t mistake the message for the messenger. There have been countless works in graphic literature created in the ‘superhero’ context, or further, in the world of genre comics. Just because a book isn’t in the vein of Fun House, Age of Bronze, or Persepolis, does not mean it doesn’t have artistic merit, and to suggest such is priggish snobbery. Judge on content not cover. And whoever said that ‘everything’ has already been said on one theme or another is the sort of critic that cannot create–the lack of imagination is reprehensible.

  28. @ Jordan,
    I found this an interesting thread, but I have to tell ya, your post is a bit heavy towards those who do dismiss the superhero thing. Frankly, it’s not always snobbery; give some room for simple preference here.

    Consider the golden age of Hollywood musicals – some folks (like Seth MacFarlane) LOVE the style, flair and cheekyness of a classic musical. Fine. Others, like me, find the concept of people busting out into song while standing the street holding an otherwise normal conversation phenomenally ridiculous, improbable and in the extreme and ludicrous in execution. Just can’t get the old mind past the absurdity of it.

    I think a lot of folks feel the same way about superhero comics. I know I do. It’s not that I feel superior or dismissive of them, it’s just that while I can read ‘Maus’ and truly appreciate the allegory the artist is weaving, I can’t accept the concept of a grown man running around in bright red or blue lycra tights battling crime with glowing eyes or laser belches or whatever. The silly foundation of the concept of a ‘superhero’ seems to cancel out whatever literary heft it might have had. Sorry, but a lot of folks just can’t get past the premise.

    Don’t know why but I can even accept a talking penguin, a drug addicited cat and a 40 year old frat rat that never takes off his RayBans as great art/writing, but The Amazing Super Dude thing leaves me flat.

    So, sorry, but it’s really just preference, not snotty elitism, so don’t beat me up for it!

    What I said is true of a lot of folks, not just me, so as you say, don’t mistake the message for the messenger.

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