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In recent decades, graphic novels have become recognized as genuine literary endeavors—which is remarkable considering their humble origins. Starting as strips for early-1900s dailies, comics became books, inventing the superhero genre in the bargain. Sophisticates considered them trash, but by midcentury, developments combined to liberate comics from their inferior status. Kids who’d grown up on comics kept reading them as adults, and by the 1960s, publishers had introduced superheroes with personal conflicts while the counterculture birthed underground “comix.” The medium was further transformed by the arrival of comic book shops that transformed vintage titles into serious collectibles. Finally, postmodernism’s erasure of the line between high culture and low paved the way for graphic novels. Like all conventional literature, they offer wide opportunities for narrative expression, but as our recommendations for best graphic novels attest, they all share the conviction that a combination of images and text can do more for storytelling than words alone. (Price and availability current at time of publication.)
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1. Art Spiegelman, Maus
Art Spiegelman literally wrote the book on the graphic novel genre with Maus, his retelling of the Holocaust as a hellish Tom & Jerry cartoon in which Nazi perpetrators of mass murder are depicted as cats while their Jewish victims are portrayed as mice. The book begins in Rego Park, Queens, where Spiegelman is seen interviewing his father, a concentration camp survivor whose memories become the basis of a story spanning World War II’s onset to the liberation of Spiegelman’s parents from Auschwitz. But Maus also recounts the author’s difficult relationship with both his father and his mother, who committed suicide when Spiegelman was 20. Initially published in 1972 as a strip, Maus was expanded and serialized between 1980 and 1991 and appeared as a two-volume compilation in 1986 (Maus I) and 1991 (Maus II); in 1992 it became the first—and to date the only—graphic novel to receive a Pulitzer Prize.
Purchase: The Complete Maus $26.62 (new) on Amazon
2. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet (Book 1)
It may seem odd for a National Book Award recipient and MacArthur Foundation grant winner to pen a Black Panther comic book, but that’s exactly what Ta-Nehisi Coates did in 2016 when he published the first in a series of graphic novels featuring the Marvel superhero, whose alter ego, T’Challa, is king of the fictional, Afrofuturistic country of Wakanda. Coates is better known for his writings on the struggles over race in America, but considering that he’s a self-professed comics nerd who grew up reading the original Black Panther, his tackling the character isn’t so strange after all. Aided by illustrator Brian Stelfreeze, Coates takes a more complicated view of his protagonist than previous treatments, with T’Challa being forced to reckon with the consequences of his reign as a revolutionary uprising racks Wakanda. Though action packed, Coates’s tale is also a philosophical rumination on who gets to rule: the one or the many.
Purchase: Black Panther $11.29 (new) on Amazon
3. Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis
Marjane Satrapi’s coming-of-age tale begins just before Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1978, when the autocratic (if otherwise modern-leaning) Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown by a theocracy that disproportionally constrained women with religious restrictions on everyday life. Satrapi notes her confusion when, at age 10, she’s forced to wear a veil—a requirement she later flouts as a teenager along with prohibitions against Western music and drinking alcohol. As she runs afoul of the authorities, her parents, former supporters of the revolution, send her to the safety of a boarding school in Vienna. Satrapi recounts her subsequent sojourn in Europe (which included a stint of homelessness) and her eventual return home, where she marries, gets divorced and earns a master’s degree before permanently leaving for France. In the end, Persepolis, which takes its name from the capital of ancient Persia, is about a struggle between conflicting allegiances: to oneself and to one’s culture.
Purchase: Persepolis $16.39 (new) on Amazon
4. George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott, They Called Us Enemy
George Takei will be forever known as Sulu on the original Star Trek TV series, and probably just as well recognized by fans of the Howard Stern Show, where Takei, a frequent guest, would respond to the radio shock jock’s provocations with his trademark “Ohhh myyy.” But he’s also a longtime progressive and LGBQT activist with a Twitter following of 3.2 million, as well as a leading voice in demanding recognition for the forced relocation of 120,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps after the Pearl Harbor attack. These included a five-year-old Takei, who was sent with his family to Camp Rohwer, Arkansas, a barbed wire–enclosed purgatory in the middle of a swamp. Takei’s narrative jumps between past and present as it portrays the author as a child oblivious to his circumstances yet still aware of his parents’ anguish. Takei’s is a poignant tale of life under officially sanctioned racism—an experience all too common, unfortunately, in the story of the United States.
Purchase: They Called Us Enemy $13.75 (new) on Amazon
5. Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
A longtime New Yorker cartoonist and connoisseur of the little things in life that drive a person crazy, Roz Chast is known for a dark sense humor wrapped around a core of despair. Rendered in squiggly lines vibrating with anxiety, her characters endure an apocalypse of banality that comes home to roost in this memoir detailing the decline and death of Chast’s parents. Her father quietly suffers the demands of his domineering wife, who at one point reacts with barely suppressed rage at Chast’s proffer of a cheese Danish to Dad: It turns out that he’d skipped lunch, while his wife hadn’t—too unconscionable an act in her mind to warrant pastry; naturally, his attempt to placate her with the promise of saving her half fails utterly. Chast clearly revels in the absurdity of familial microaggressions, but also treats them with a compassion befitting the preordained ending of her tale.
Purchase: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? $14.39 (new) on Amazon
6. Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth
Few cartoonists have as distinctive a style as Chris Ware, whose combination of Euclidian simplicity and cinematic flair employs crowded layouts to periodically freeze a story or wordlessly propel it over successive panels to keep the narrative at a low boil. Here he offers a tale of paternal abandonment based on his own childhood: When he was young, his father left, disappearing for 30 years until suddenly resurfacing with a couple of phone calls and a single meeting for dinner. (Ware would never see him again.) For Jimmy Corrigan, a schlubby office drone in Chicago, a similar trauma is spread over generations: Jimmy’s father abandoned him, just as Jimmy’s great-grandfather deserted his grandfather at the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Ware interweaves that moment with present-day Jimmy’s predicament using overlapping timelines, dream sequences, and prodigiously detailed cut-and-fold paper toys to painfully recount the sins of fathers being visited—and revisited—upon their sons.
Purchase: Jimmy Corrigan $19.79 (new) on Amazon
7. Richard McGuire, Here
What can contain a story spanning billions of years from the remote past to the distant future? Richard McGuire’s answer is an ordinary home in New Jersey. In Here, this unassuming locale becomes a juncture in time and space, a point that stays fixed as eons flows by. We learn that the house was built in 1907 and eventually torn down in 2030, and the bulk of Here unspools during this period. Residents come and go with the decades, which intrude on each other through panels that open like windows within other panels. The scenes and snippets of conversation are mostly mundane, though we also see moments from across the millennia—a Mohawk warrior tramping through the woods, say, or a dinosaur growling in the Jurassic landscape. Here isn’t so much a conventional narrative as it is an acknowledgment that no matter what, Earth continues with or without us.
Purchase: Here $23.11 (new) on Amazon