Iconic Graphic Novels That Belong On Your Bookshelf

Above: A few of our favourite must-read graphic novels
Above: A few of our favourite must-read graphic novels

The extent of comic books used to be the Archie comics, and various superhero series’. But, in the last few decades, the medium has evolved into a complex genre all its own, that includes full length novels. How could you not love a story that gives you the visual, right there on the page? Countless graphic novels have been adapted into blockbuster movie franchises, and TV shows. Some have even spawned award-winning spinoffs. The graphic novel business is huge, so if you are a little intimidated with the sheer number of options, here are 10 of the most groundbreaking, iconic graphic novels to get you started.

Watchmen by Alan Moore

Published in the late 80’s, Watchmen is still considered one of the best graphic novels of all time. The main characters, a group of former vigilante superheroes, now live in a world where being a freelance, costumed, crime fighter has been outlawed. Nuclear war is imminent, and someone has just murdered a government-sponsored superhero. The story blends world issues, and the struggles of individual characters together as heroes who used to be celebrated but are now ridiculed, come out of retirement to save the world.

The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s critically-acclaimed Sandman series follows Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams. The series is made up of a bunch of short stories that chronicle Morpheus and the rest of his “family”, The Endless. In the beginning, Morpheus has been held captive for 70 years, and after escaping and taking his revenge, he has the difficult task of rebuilding his kingdom. The series is heavy on mythology, and supernatural themes, making it a dark alternative to the typical superhero storyline. Start with Preludes and Nocturnes, and go from there.

Maus by Art Spiegelman

The perfect graphic novel for the history lover, Maus is a Pulitzer Prize-winning story of Spiegelman’s father’s experience of World War II and the Holocaust. The story is told using postmodern techniques, casting the Jews as mice, the Germans as cats, and the Americans as basset hounds. The story is part memoir, part historical fiction, part autobiography and has been praised as being one of the best uses of the comic medium, ever written. Its depiction of concentration camps and the struggle of life after the war is not to be missed.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Maybe you have heard of the “Bechdel Test”, which asks whether a work of fiction features two female characters having a conversation about something other than a man. The idea was introduced in Alison Bechdel’s comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, and needless to say her full length graphic memoir, Fun Home, passes the test. Published in 2006, the autobiographical “tragicomic” explores Bechdel’s childhood, her relationship with her Dad, and her realization that not only is she gay, but her Dad probably is too. Fun Home won the 2007 Eisner Award for Best-Reality work, and was called one of the best books of the years by numerous sources, including amazon.com, and New York magazine. 

The Walking Dead series by Robert Kirkman

If you are into the zombie craze, then The Walking Dead comic series is definitely the one for you. The art work is every bit as gory as when you watch it on the screen, if not more so. Character development does not come in second to the violence, either. AMC’s adaptation of the series is one of the most popular shows on TV, right now, but the graphic novel version is even better. The series won the 2010 Eisner Award for Best Continuing Series, and it’s still going strong.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

Batman is the essential vigilante hero for comic book lovers. The bleak atmosphere and dark themes in this story arc are what inform Christian Bale’s most recent on-film portrayal of Batman. 55-year-old Bruce Wayne has decided to put his retirement on hold to help Gotham City with their worsening crime situation, but without Robin by his side, he is weaker. He faces Two-Face and the Joker, and even goes head-to-head with Superman. If you only read one Batman graphic novel, make it this one.

Astonishing X-Men series by Joss Whedon (issues #1-24)

There are a lot of X-Men story arcs, making it almost impossible to keep everything straight. But if you are looking for an epic series that includes ancient prophecies, alien planets, conspiracies, and Earth-threatening super weapons, then this is the one for you. Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is nothing if not wildly imaginative, and you will never know what is coming. The arc for the first 6 issues involves a “mutant cure” which was also used as the basis for the film X3: The Last Stand.

Locke & Key series by Joe Hill

If horror is your thing, then look no further than this series written by Stephen King’s son, Joe Hill. After their father is murdered, the Locke children move to a new house with their mother. The house (located in the town of Lovecraft) is full of supernatural entities, and demonic possession is a strong theme throughout the series. The series has won numerous awards, and TV and film adaptions are in the works.

From Hell by Alan Moore

We will never know who the real Jack the Ripper was, but Alan Moore offers one possibility with his crime graphic novel, From Hell. The premise of the book comes from the theory that the Jack the Ripper murders were part of a conspiracy to conceal the birth of an illegitimate royal baby, fathered by Prince Albert, Duke of Clarence. The theory has been disproven many times over, but it is an interesting jumping off point for a fictional story about one of the world’s most mysterious and infamous serial killers. From Hell won several Eisner Awards and was adapted into a film, starring Johnny Depp.

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

If you like a political twist in your reading material, V for Vendetta has that in spades. Set in a dystopian future version of the UK, the story takes place after a nuclear war has left a lot of the world destroyed. The main character, V, an anarchist revolutionary takes it upon himself to bring down the government and convince the people to rule themselves. His theatrical and violent demonstration is meant to overthrow fascism in favour of a self-governing world. If you have seen the film adaptation, do yourself a favour and read the book. Alan Moore refused to endorse the adaptation, and felt like the main themes of his book were not realized in the film.

Courtney Hardwick

Courtney Hardwick is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared on AmongMen.com, 29secrets.com, therichest.com, and ELLECanada.com.  When she isn’t writing about relationships, and the best TV shows and books you should really already know about, she is working on her novel. She hopes to have it published by 2025. You can follow her on Twitter @Courtooo.

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