INTRODUCTION

First things first. Graphic novels are comic books. As critic Douglas Wolk quipped ‘the difference is the binding’. Any distinction that can be drawn is that a graphic novel is either a purposefully written stand-alone story, with a beginning, middle and end, or a collection of comic book issues published together to create one. And yet the general impression persists that graphic novels are something else entirely.

Revered purveyor of the comic form, Alan Moore believes the term to be solely a marketing ploy, and he may well be right. Ever since Will Eisner’s 1978 collection of short stories A Contract with God epitomised what a graphic novel can be – resonant, deeply emotional and thematically complex – the term, although not coined by Eisner, has risen in prominence as many comic houses and standard-form publishers clambered over themselves to promote the latest ‘comic book for adults’.

The whole concept of graphic novels being a mature version of comics is na¿ve and frankly insulting to all the many endlessly talented comic book writers who are perfectly content with being labelled as such. Still, if people need a dubious neologism to sate their inner snob, then so-be-it, especially if it increases the public’s awareness of some of the most inventive, creative and enthralling stories you’re ever likely to read.

There’s a reason Alan Moore’s visionary masterpiece ‘Watchmen’ is in Time Magazine’s 100 greatest novels of the last century, nestled amongst Gatsby and 1984 or why Art Spiegelman’s stylised anthropomorphic depiction of the Holocaust ‘Maus’ won a Pulitzer Prize. Graphic novels, comic books, whatever you want to call them, are undoubtedly worthy pieces of literature and many of them are quite conceivably far more deserving of your time than many supposed classics.

The graphic novels featured below barely scratch the surface of what the medium has to offer but the depth, the richness and the visual panache of them all ably represent the enthralling explosion of art that the humble comic book has to offer.

WATCHMEN

What’s it about?

A lot of things. It’s as dense as a comic can be, in plot, characters and its iconic predominantly purple/yellow, dizzily detailed visuals. With such depth it’s hard to summarise in a few lines, but essentially the reader is immersed in an alternate history 1980s, where superheroes are real (although the accidentally atomically enhanced, and US government weapon, Dr Manhattan is the only one with true superpowers) and an act has been passed to outlaw these masked vigilantes.

Our anti-hero is the morally and visually black-and-white Rorschach who finds an old ally The Comedian murdered in his apartment which leads us into what’s essentially a whodunit, albeit one with any number of carefully plotted, expertly interlaced strands.

Why should I read it?

As well as having some truly memorable comic characters; Rorschach is a brutal, mentally unstable thug, but the reader can’t help but admire the stringent adherence he observes to his rigid moral code and the way Moore details Manhattan’s disaffection with a world he is no longer at one with due to his ability to see past, future and subatomic matter all at once is expertly realised. It deals with Cold War anxiety, the deconstruction of the superhero concept, morality, impotence, the ephemerality of time, celebrity and fifth-dimensional cephalopods. Read it. Now.

SIN CITY

What’s it about?

Violence. Brutal, busty, bruising, brash and beautiful violence. If pugilism, masochism and misogyny is your bag, these are the graphic novels for you. Creator Frank Miller isn’t known for his subtlety, after all this is the man behind the homoerotic re-envisioning of the battle of Thermopylae in 300 and the upcoming ‘Holy Terror, Batman!’ in which Batman, in Miller’s own words ‘kicks Al-Qaeda’s ass’.

The stories of Basin City tend to revolve around flawed and mentally and/or physically scarred men who are after vengeance, often revolving around a buxom babe and/or corrupt government officials, and achieve said vengeance through killing a fuck load of people. The stark black, white and streaked red neo-noir visuals immerse the reader completely in Miller’s grim and gripping world of vice and little virtue.

Why should I read it?

Everyone loves a bit of uber-violence, and as you may have gathered already Sin City delivers in spades. However despite the visually simplistic style Miller frequently raises questions about the nature of good and evil, justice, and redemption and Sin City takes the concepts of the noir genre to their logical, bloody conclusions. And there’s boobs. Lots and lots of boobs.

GHOST WORLD

What’s it about?

On the complete diametric opposite of the spectrum to the Sin Cities of the graphic novel world, the beige middle-American town inhabited by Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Doppelmeyer fuels the two recent high school grads’ penchant for criticising modern life, culture and all the people they encounter.

The pair spend the entirety of the novel wondering around endless shopping malls and urban sprawl trading witticisms and cynicisms and contemplating their prospective futures. Enid is impulsive, bitter, distrusting of everyone she meets and frequently prone to the morbid, but she’s full of the usual self-doubts and identity issues that plague us all.

Why should I read it?

Enid and Rebecca are the kind of girls that perhaps don’t exist in real life, but the way they eschew the clichéd and predictable tropes of teenage girls in modern American literature, and often with beautifully observed black comedy by creator Daniel Clowes, gives them a humanity all of their own.

Despite the obvious difference in gender Clowes has said Ghost World is semi-autobiographical (his name is an anagram of Enid Coleslaw word puzzle fans) and as a comedic retrospective of the hinterland between child and adulthood, it’s winningly effective.

PERSEPOLIS

What’s it about?

An autobiographical account of a girl’s childhood in Iran before and after the Islamic revolution of the 1970s and her subsequent teenage years, Marjane Satrapi’s novel is a marvel not only due to its striking, witty storytelling but also in its attempts at addressing the misconceptions many Westerners have of Iran.

It follows a ten year old Marjia, a young headstrong girl with dreams of being a prophet, and prone to bouts of boastful gloating that she has a relative who’s been a political prisoner longer than her friends’ (her favourite uncle Anoosh, whose climactic execution is heartbreakingly depicted). We follow her as she is moved away to Austria to keep her away from the political troubles, her maturation and her eventual return to an Iran seemingly completely changed from when last she lived there.

Why should I read it?

As well as being a compelling Bildunsgroman it is also an angry polemic about the injustices she experienced in Iran as well as the trials she has faced with the stigma of being Iranian in world that little understands the complexity of the identity that results in.

The deceptively simplistic illustrations, depicted in a stark black and white, offset some of the playfulness of her childhood character whilst also reinforcing the often oppressive nature of Islamic Iran and the bold, important statements she is making. As The Oxonian Review’s Kristin Anderson put it ‘if Satrapi’s aim is to humanise her homeland, this amiable, sardonic and very candid memoir couldn’t do a better job.’

AMERICAN SPLENDOR

What’s it about?

Although strictly more an intermittently released comic book series than a graphic novel, there have been many collections of the autobiographical short stories of Harvey Pekar and many specially written stand-alone novels, and for this reason, and the fact that they’re brilliant, they ably represent another unique interpretation of what the medium can offer.

Focusing on the typically mundane ins and outs of Pekar’s Ohio life – idiosyncratic interactions with work colleagues in the Cleveland Veterans Administration Hosptial, car troubles, money worries, health concerns and general anxieties – these thoroughly normal occurrences are somehow kept unceasingly amusing and presented in a wearily witty fashion that has garnered Pekar much critical acclaim in the thirty years he’s been producing the comic.

Why should I read it?

On the face of it, it’s just an average man, being generally quite bored by the monotony of work discussing American culture and life itself with similarly bored co-workers and contemplating the unending tribulations existence presents. But there’s an undeniable warmth to it all and the fact that over its history it has been illustrated by a succession of Pekar’s friends and admired contemporaries only accentuates the fact that his unique outlook on the many facets of life are an undeniably winning source for oddly enthralling everyday tales.