Top Ten Graphic Novels for the Literary Inclined

by Salvatore Pane

A few weeks ago I workshopped a story involving superheroes. It wasn’t genre, and the piece took place after every hero and villain on earth lost their powers. So really, there wasn’t even much discussion of superheroics. Instead, the piece leaned closer towards doemstic realism except every once in awhile someone would say something like, “Is this about the Eternity Gems? Have you found the Eternity Gems?” with little to no explanation. Mostly, I used the bygone era of super-powered adventuring as a metaphor for feeling like your best years are behind you.

The workshop went really well, but what was particularly interesting to me was my classmates’ assumptions about comic books. It seems that most people still think comics are aimed at children and riddled with the genre trappings of not the Silver Age, but even earlier, before Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and Will Eisner altered the face of sequential storytelling forever. It was with this mindset that I recently read Dan Phillips’ how-to on IGN about getting comic virgins into the medium. It’s a great article but purposely doesn’t have a list of books to recommend because Phillips believes (and rightfully so) that you should tailor your recommendations to that particular person. For example, if somebody liked the X-Men movies and asks what to pick up, don’t hand over The Saga of Swamp Thing by Alan Moore where Swap Thing goes back in time and fights the nothingness before creation.

What I’ve decided to do is come up with a list of required reading for the literary inclined, people who love prose but would never dream of stepping foot in a comic shop. Everything I’ve listed is in graphic novel format, meaning you can skip the comic store altogether and head to the more familiar Borders or Barnes and Noble. There’s a lot I’ve missed here (it was particularly difficult cutting Kingdom Come, Y: The Last Man, Civil War, All-Star Superman, The Sinestro Corps War, The Dark Knight Returns and We3 from the list, and everybody must know about Maus by now) and I’m not going to mention Jonathan Lethem’s graphic novel since I wrote about it a few entries ago.  But if you consider yourself someone who reads almost exclusively literary fiction, this is the list for you. Try and at least give one of these a shot, and let me know what you think. If you think comic books are all about four-colors and BAM/POW signs, then you’re in for a big surprise.

10. Superman: Red Son

Written by Mark Millar with Art by Dave Johnson

Pretty much everybody knows the origin of the original superhero, Superman. Krypton explodes and a scientist sends his only son in a rocket to Earth. He’s raised by farmers in Kansas and becomes the hero we all know who stands up for “Truth, Justice and the American Way”. Red Son is a re-imagining where Kal-El lands in Russia at the beginning of the Cold War. He becomes a Communist and helps usher in an era where the entire Earth (minus America led by President Lex Luthor) falls to Russian control. Millar’s take on Czar Superman is smart and bombastic, and this book has a concrete beginning, middle and end (all you need is this one 12 dollar graphic novel). This one comes highly recommended as an interesting political book with enough cameos to keep fanboys happy (did I mention Anti-Communist Batman?).

9. Astonishing X-Men vol. 1 Gifted

Written by Joss Whedon with Art by John Cassady

Joss Whedon is most famous for the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but he’s also a well-lauded comic scribe. Astonishing X-Men is his greatest work to date and perfect for anyone who enjoyed the films. The book is set in continuity but isn’t enslaved by it. Pretty much anyone with even a tangential understanding of the Children of the Atom can enjoy this book. With amazing art provided by superstar artist, John Cassady, Astonishing is the perfect example of a traditional superhero book that transcends comic stigmas and feels much more like a sci-fi drama ala Lost or Battlerstar Galactica.

8. Ultimate Spider-Man vol. 1

Written by Brian Michael Bendis with Art by Mark Bagley

When Marvel wanted to relaunch Spider-Man to coincide with the 2002 film, they called up Brian Michael Bendis, a noted indie creator, to the big leagues. Ultimate Spider-Man is the definitive Spidey book of the last two decades, and this is the ground floor. The book starts with the origin: nerdy high school student Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider. The difference here is that even after 130 issues, Peter is still fifteen and the book is still amazing. He deals with contemporary problems, and Bendis has populated the book with a wonderful and expansive cast. When the Spider-Man film reboot hits in two years, you can be sure that it springs out of this book.

7. Ultimates vol. 1 Super-Human

Written by Mark Millar with Art by Bryan Hitch

Some people will criticize me for going with two Mark Millar picks and no Grant Morrison books, but I don’t care. Ultimates is easily the best superhero team book of the aughts. Much like Ultimate-Spider-Man, Ultimates takes place in a new reader-friendly universe with no previous continuity. This is the first story of the Avengers: Captain America, Iron Man and Thor. And Millar imbues it with his typical wit and penchant for the political. This book is smart and plays with the War on Terror in interesting ways. If you’re curious to see how Captain America is deployed during the Iraq War then this is the book for you.

6. Scott Pilgrim vol. 1: Scott Pilgrim’s Happy Little Life

Written and Drawn by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Imagine a world with poor Canadians who start shitty bands. Imagine a world where Canadian hipsters engage in Dragonball Z-esque battles while dissecting two decade old Nintendo games. This is Scott Pilgrim. One part indie rock, one part Nintendo, one part fighting, Scott Pilgrim is the most awesome manga remix of the last fifteen years. O’Malley delivers believable characters that we truly care about even as he inserts them into hilarious and ridiculous situations. If superheroes aren’t your thing, and you’re willing to give faux-manga a try, definitely pick up Scott Pilgrim before the Michael Cera movie hits this summer.

5. Ghost World

Written and Drawn by Daniel Clowes

If you love Catcher in the Rye, then you’ll enjoy Ghost World. This lean graphic novel tells the story of two hipster girls during the summer after high school. It’s a very typical coming of age piece that could easily stand side-by-side with the best offerings of the genre from literary fiction. This is definitely a gateway drug for readers completely unaware that indie/literary comics actually exist. Its aims are not tied up with plot like many of the other selections on this list but with character.

4. The Walking Dead vol. 1 Days Gone By

Written by Robert Kirman with Art by Tony Moore

Drawn in black and white, The Walking Dead is truly one of the most terrifying books you will ever read. Writer Robert Kirkman doesn’t employ a lot of cheap jumpy shocks, but instead chooses to horrify readers with the actions of his living characters. The premise of the book is as simple as it genius: it’s the zombie movie that doesn’t end. What happens to these characters three weeks after the first zombies show up? How about two years? The best part is the theme Kirkman hits again and again: it’s not the zombies who are the walking dead, but the living, humans pushed to frightening extremes they never dreamed possible.

3. The Complete Persepolis

Written and Drawn by Marjane Satrapi

Do you like memoirs? Ok. Then go get The Complete Persepolis today. It follows Marjane Satrapi, a liberal girl who comes of age in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. It’s poignant and terribly contemporary. And for my money, this is the best book on the subject I’ve read, light years ahead of Reading Lolita in Tehran. If you like coming or age tales or are even remotely interested in the history of Iran, this is an absolute must buy.

2. Watchmen

Written by Alan Moore with Art by Dave Gibbons

This one appears on every list of this kind and for good reason: Watchmen is the deconstruction of the superhero and comic book format. This is Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman seen through a postmodern lens. This is Cold War allegory of the highest order. This is everything superhero comics should aspire to. Incredibly intelligent and deceptively well-drawn, Watchmen is the rare book that is universally considered the best of its kind. If you’ve seen the mediocre movie and weren’t convinced, you owe it to yourself to give the ultimate graphic novel a try.

1. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth

Written and Drawn by Chris Ware

Most people know Chris Ware. He’s a big McSweeney‘s dude and the closest thing the comic industry has to a Dave Eggers. This masterpiece of a graphic novel came out shortly after Heartbreaking Work, and the two writers are often compared. Jimmy Corrigan is about so much it’s hard to describe. It’s utterly postmodern and involves a fair at the turn of the century and a man who encounters his dying father after a lifelong absence. The book is painful. The book is dark. And at times, the book is uplifting. I put this graphic novel at the number one spot because even though I don’t consider it as strong as Watchmen, Jimmy Corrigan is the closest in terms of structure, tone and character to a literary novel. If you like Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran-Foer, Keith Gessen or Ricky Moody then you will be shocked at how dense, how intelligent, how damn literary Jimmy Corrigan actually is.

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