I’ve only been reading graphic novels for a couple of years. Before, it was partly that I didn’t ‘get’ them as I thought it was all superhero-type comics, but also that it’s hard to know where to start.
Like any type of book, what you’ll like is all down to your own tastes and interests, but I’ve listed a few fiction and non-fiction graphic novels below that I think make great starting points. If you read something you like, check out other books by the author or artist, or pop into your local bookshop or comic shop for some other recommendations (or leave a comment below with which ones you’ve enjoyed, and I’ll come up with a couple of suggestions). Also, unless you know what you want, I think it’s better to buy graphic novels in a physical shop so you can browse and have a quick flick through and see if you like the artwork. If you hate it, you’re unlikely to enjoy reading it that much!
Just a quick note on terminology first…mostly, you don’t need to worry about this stuff unless you get a very picky comic book seller or are on forums. But you might come across these:
- Single issue is basically what you think of when you think of comic books – a slim single story, usually part of a larger series
- Trade paperback is a volume of 5/6 single issues. These are often called graphic novels and will usually be in the graphic novel section of bookshops (I’m including a couple below that are technically trade paperbacks)
- Graphic novel is a novel in graphic form (kinda what it says on the tin!). This means it’s usually a single, self-contained, longer story. Technically, non-fiction is a ‘graphic memoir’ or ‘graphic non-fiction’, but usually they just get called graphic novels too.
I started with non-fiction, and it’s a good place to start if you, like I shamefully used to, think graphic novels aren’t ‘proper’ books and can’t have the same depth and power of novels. Oh the shame.
Maus by Art Spiegelman
Maus is the story of Spiegelman’s dad’s experience during the holacaust in world war II, his relationship with his dad in the present, and how the success of the first part of Maus affected him. It’s about unbelievable survival, but also how suffering begets suffering. All the characters are drawn as animals (Jews are mice, Nazis are cats, etc) which adds a strange kind of distance that makes the whole thing more horrific because you know it’s truth. It’s an amazing book that deservedly won the Pulitzer. This is where I started, and I haven’t looked back since.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Fun Home is about Bechdel’s father, and her relationship with him. In that sense, it has something in common with Maus, but it’s a very different book. Her father is distant and frequently angry, and a closeted gay man having relationships with his male students. Bechdel also discovers she’s gay, and tries to work out who she is in relationship to her father, as well as whether he killed himself or it was an accident. It’s non-linear, and often returns to previous conversations or frames when she has new information, but it never feels repetitive. She weaves in references to literature, a love she shared with her father, and it’s drawn in grey-scale with a blue-grey wash.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (French in translation)
Translator: Anjali Singh. Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s child-/teenage-/young adult-hood in Tehran, Iran during the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, revolution, and war with Iraq. There’s humour, horror, politics and a lack of sentimentality. Satrapi isn’t always likeable in this, and I really like that – it makes it feel like an honest portrayal. The art is simplistic black and white, and the way she draws herself evolves as she ages.
There are so many I could list, so I’ve tried to list some with different styles of art and content, so you should find something here that takes your fancy.
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
This is wordless, so might technically be a picture book (though I found it in the graphic novel section). It’s about the immigrant experience; a man leaves his family to try and get work in a foreign city, as something bad is happening in his hometown. The artwork is absolutely beautiful. I did a full review here, where you can check out some pictures of the art. It’s basically poetry without words. You don’t need to be able to articulate it, you can just feel the meaning. I find myself recommending this one all the time.
Sex Criminals Vol. 1 by Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky
This is brilliant. It’s funny, filthy and weird. Suzie and Jon both stop time when they orgasm, so they decide to rob a bank to save the library where Suzie works. I absolutely love this – you can check out my full review here to see a few pictures of the artwork.
Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
I’m not really into superhero stuff (especially the all-American, clean-cut type), but this made me want to check out some dark superhero comics. It’s about the people behind the masks, and whether the kind of person who’d put on a costume and fight crime is the sort of person you’d want doing that. It’s also about whether doing something for a good reason, and for a good outcome, is ok if what you’re doing is pretty horrible and definitely not ok. It’s a classic for a reason, dark, and complex. Worth checking out even if, like me, you don’t think superheroes are for you.
The Gigantic Beard that was Evil by Stephen Collins
This is a Roald Dahl-esque fairy tale about a man living in an extremely neat and ordered island called Here. One day, his face begins to burn, and a gigantic, ever-growing beard erupts from his chin. As it’s a fairy tale, it can be read as weird story of a beard taking over an ordered island, or on any number of levels, such as the fear of other (what is There and not Here), the fear of what cannot be controlled, or how chaos will always find a way. The artwork is gorgeous too – my full review has some pictures of the art.
I hope you find something in that lot that interests you, especially if you’ve never picked up a graphic novel before. If you’d like any other recommendations, just leave me a comment and I’ll do my best!