A quick glance at my Goodreads read list shows that I am a big fan of graphic novels. When done well, they are a wonderful method of telling stories that can engage readers in an entirely different manner than a regular book. However, a lot of people associate graphic novels with silly superhero comics. While there are plenty of good Batman comics I could recommend to undermine that stereotype, I decided I’d write a list of some of the best non-superhero comics out there instead for those looking for something different. (Once again, thanks to the Broke and the Bookish for hosting!)
1. The Sandman (Series) – Neil Gaiman
The Sandman is probably the definitive graphic novel series that appears on every recommendation list, and for good reason! Gaiman’s series is an epic ten volume set filled with ancient myths, pop culture references, strong writing, and a plethora of amazing art styles. The story centers on the lives of the Endless, a group of beings that are the personifications of ideas such as Dreams, Desire, Destruction, and Death. If you want to get a sense of just how amazing graphic novels can be, The Sandman should be at the top of your to-read list!
2. The Last Unicorn (Standalone) – Peter S. Beagle, Renae de Liz/Ray Dillon (Illustrators)
The Last Unicorn was my absolute favourite movie as a child, and I probably watched it several hundred times (much to my mother’s dismay). When I spotted issue one of the comic in stores. I just about died of joy. Now I own the series in singles and in trade (and I am trying really hard to convince myself not to buy the gorgeous deluxe version). The Last Unicorn is a very beautiful, but melancholy fairy tale. It is the story of a unicorn trying to find the rest of her kind, but she discovers that they have all been forgotten by the world. One person still remembers that unicorns exist, but he is a bitter and callous man who seeks to control them all. With the help of the two companions that she meets on her travels, the last unicorn finds her brethren and sets them free. However, to do so, she must become the only unicorn to ever experience regret and mortality. Her story is achingly bittersweet, and it appeals to readers of any age.
As a graphic novel, The Last Unicorn is a work of art. The illustrations in this volume are gorgeous, and the pages are filled with beautiful colours and details. The artists capture the atmosphere of the story effectively, and they pay well-executed homage to the art of the movie. The adaption of the text is faithful, and yet the book as a whole feels as if it adds something new and unexplored to the story overall. It is a fabulous edition for fans of the story, but also for those who like fantasy and want to branch out into the graphic novel world.
3. The Unwritten (Series) – Mike Carey (Author) and Peter Gross (Illustrator)
The Unwritten is a story about the power of stories. Tom Taylor is famous because his father published a series of books that were about a protagonist with the same name as his son. However, these were no ordinary books. Tom’s father carefully constructed these novels as tools to harness the powers of readers, and to achieve a mysterious purpose that pulls Tom into an adventure that he can’t understand, and is not sure that he will survive. The Unwritten is a very creative story that explores tropes and classical narrative constructions, and it’s hard not to rush through the entire series in one sitting. Fortunately, it’s also a series with a lot of reread potential since you will get something new out of it every time you read it again!
4. A Flight of Angels (Standalone) – Holly Black/Louise Hawes/Todd Mitchell/Alisa Kwitney/Bill Willingham (Authors) and Rebecca Guay (Illustrator)
An angel falls from the sky, and the various creatures and mythical beings of the forest where this happens tell each other stories to try and explain where this mysterious being came from. A classical framework story, A Flight of Angels is the work of many authors, and one absolutely amazing artist. It’s fantastical, sometimes sad, and always beautiful.
5. Y: The Last Man (Series) – Brian K. Vaughan (Author), Pia Guerra/Jose Marzan Jr (Illustrators)
As a feminist, there are times when I think that Y: The Last Man is the greatest graphic novel series ever written, and there are times when I want to set it on fire. It’s controversial, thought-provoking, and also just a very engaging and emotional story. At the start of volume one, Yorick Brown discovers that he and his companion monkey are the last remaining men on Earth. The series follows his attempts to find his fiancé (who is stuck somewhere on the other side of the world), while the world comes to grip with the fact that everything with a Y-chromosome has died overnight. Unfortunately for Yorick, his existence doesn’t stay a complete secret, and he gets drawn into a series of conspiracies by women who are trying to restructure this new world in an image they find palatable. Y is a great series for new readers to jump into since it’s complete, and the art and story are consistently good throughout the volumes.
6. Sailor Twain (or the Mermaid in the Hudson) (Standalone) – Mark Siegel
I expected to hate Sailor Twain when I picked it up in the bookstore. It takes place in a time period where steam boats are still being used (and I’m really not a fan of historical stories), and I initially despised the art. However, as I started flipping through I found myself increasingly drawn into the story until I realised that there was no way that I was putting it down unless I finished! Sailor Twain is a haunting tale of men obsessed with and controlled by supernatural forces. It develops slowly, drawing the reader into its eerie atmosphere until it finishes with a menacing climax that leaves one feeling chilled. The art that looks so comic and plain at the start is actually very expressive and suitable for the story being told, and it has a very unique look.
7. Fables (Series) – Bill Willingham (Author)
Fables can be a bit of a daunting series to get into, but it’s definitely worth the effort! Currently consisting of 18 trades and 15 different spin-off books, it’s a great series for readers who like long and complicated stories. The books follow the lives of Fables, the living incarnations of fairy tale characters, after they have fled from their homeland because of the takeover of a great adversary. They live among humans discretely, and have grown and changed quite substantially from the stories that are so commonly told about them. Fables is a story that involves love, magic, war, and tragedy, and is certainly closer to the original versions of the fairy tales than the watered-down Disney-style stories that we get today.
8. Beasts of Burden: Animal Rights (Standalone) – Evan Dorkin (Author) and Jill Thompson (Illustrator)
Beasts of Burden was one of my Halloween recommendations, but it’s a strong read no matter what the season! The characters in these stories are household pets who just so happen to be involved in a battle against dark forces. This is a story that could easily lapse into silliness, but despite the cuteness of the protagonists, the narratives are scary and effecting. Furthermore, the artwork is beautiful, and even though Thompson draws adorable characters, she’s also quite the master at ensuring that the dark and foreboding atmosphere of these stories is well conveyed.
9. The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For (Standalone) – Alison Bechdel
The Essential Dykes to Watch Out for is a collection of the best strips from Bechdel’s very popular and famous long-running comic strip series about a queer community. The comics are funny, touching, and often extremely poignant explorations of the lives of individuals fighting against marginalisation while also just trying to be people. This is an example of one of the more traditional styles of graphic novel, and I’d recommend it for all readers, whether they are queer-identified or not.
10. Locke and Key (Series) – Joe Hill (Artist) and Gabriel Rodríguez (Illustrator)
Locke and Key was another one of my horror book recommendations in a previous Top Ten Tuesday, but it’s also a great example of a graphic novel series in general. Written by Joe Hill, a master of horror, the story deals with the lives of the Locke family after their father was brutally murdered. The kids and their mother move back to their father’s family estate, and the youngest soon discovers that magical keys are hidden throughout the house. These keys allow the kids to do many things, from changing their gender to looking instead their own minds, but there’s a dark spirit that’s also quite interested in these tools as well. Suddenly, their father’s murder can no longer be explained as an unexplained, random incident, and the kids are fighting to survive. This is a creepy and sometimes terrifying series that is also extraordinarily creative. Stand aside, Stephen King, your son is here to take your place!
11. Blacksad (Standalone) – Juan Díaz Canales, Juanjo Guarnido
I featured Blacksad in one of my RRRs and gave it five stars because it is a great example of how great art and good writing can transform a concept that may seem silly and implausible into something incredible. The book is a noir detective story in a world filled with anthropomorphic animals. While this description may make one think that this isn’t the most serious of books, Blacksad is a very arresting tale filled with violent and decidedly adult themes. While the characters may look like cats, birds, otters, and other sometimes cute and fluffy creatures, the crimes that occur are very realistic and gruesome, and Blacksad himself deserves a place among the best noir protagonists.