Graphic novels go back at least 150 years ago. Some claim the first published comic was The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck by Swedish cartoonist Rodolphe Töpffer in 1841. Several comic compilations were published as such without necessarily recurring to superhero characters. It wasn’t until the seventies when the concept became popular through Will Esiner’s A Contract With God and Marvel’s subsequent launch of a line of graphic novels. It wasn’t long before DC Comics also followed suit.
This may have led to the assumption of graphic novels being exclusively about superhuman stories. This idea was turned on its head with the release of Watchmen, which made the medium as vital as cinema or literature. The visual elements and disregard for structure are elements of this distinct form of narrative.
It’s not odd that these works are often adapted into film, since they provide a visual outlet that aids the filmmaker in keeping with the original aesthetic and congruence.
Yet it seems fitting to distinguish works that were highly recognized for their story quality, illustrations, and public impact.
Maus – Art Spiegelman
Originally a serial comic that was released in installments in the course of 11 years, it presents conversations between the author and his father on his experience as a Polish Jew Holocaust survivor. The story begins in 1978 in a dialogue between father and son which then goes back to the memories of war and concentration camps. It was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer and is classified as an autobiography made up of several genres spanning from comedy to drama. The visual element personified Jews as mice while the Germans and other soldiers are pigs and cats. It attempts a diary-like experience while keeping an obvious contrast with the darkest moments.
V For Vendetta – Alan Moore & David Lloyd
Written by the legendary Alan Moore, this story was first published between 1988 and 1989. It takes place in a dystopian and post-apocalyptic United Kingdom during the nineties following a nuclear war that has destroyed most of the planet. The protagonist, V, is an anarchist revolutionary who seeks to murder those who imprisoned him, as well as to destroy the government and end the fascist state controlling the country. Alan Moore’s storytelling is solid, while David Lloyd’s illustrations establish a dark tale that never stops being clever and bold.
The Love Bunglers – Jaime Hernandez
Jaime Hernandez is considered as one of the best current artists, and his work The Love Bunglers shines for its epic structure. Maggie is a young woman who has lost her brother, her job, her friends, and even her culture. The novel follows the character’s emotions, as well as how loss, violence, love, and peace can go from complex emotions to lessons that help us grow.
High Soft Lisp – Gilbert Hernandez
Gilbert, Mario, and the aforementioned Jamie Hernandez, worked together on a series called Love and Rockets. Each artist published independent stories focused on human tales full of fantasy. Each of the brothers encountered a moment of revelation through the exercise. Gilbert’s occurred with High Soft Lisp, where he breaks down his own thoughts as a fantastical writer and shows the horrors hiding beneath them. The story is complex, as it uses magical elements and captures a chilling complication that stands out from the other novels in the collection.
Daytripper – Gabriel Bà & Fabio Moon
Gabriel Bà is known for his talent as an artist who has dedicated life to the graphic novel genre. In this wondrous story the protagonist is an obituary writer who dies in each chapter at a different moment in his life. The message the authors wish to pass on is that, regardless of which day we’re in, each moment holds the potential to change our life, including our death.
Black Hole – Charles Burns
STDs had never seen as strange as when this book came out. Published in 12 installments released between 1995 and 2005, it’s set in the suburbs of Seattle in the seventies. Everything seems to be normal until a couple of teenagers are infected with a disease known as “the bug” that causes several body mutations. Charles Burns created a great metaphor for changes and complications endured by adolescents.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl – Phoebe Gloeckner
It has already been adapted into film and is likely the most experimental graphic novel out there. This sort of autobiography alternates between comic form and prose to move the narrative in the best way. In 1976 a young woman called Minnie looses her virginity to her mother’s boyfriend. From that moment on, she starts keeping a diary were she shared her point of view and general commentary on life.
The Umbrella Academy– Gerard Way & Gabriel Bà
Nobody expected the front man of My Chemical Romance to be interested in the graphic novel genre. Yet Way was an art student prior to being in the band. Both graphic novels released under The Umbrella Academy have placed him as one of the top writers in this category. The books present a group of heroes whose best days are long gone and have been rescued by a scientist who wants to use their powers to save the world.
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth – Chris Ware
No, he’s not Stewie Griffin. Jimmy Corrigan is a 36 year-old lonely awkward man who lacks a social life due to his controlling mother. Unbeknownst to his mother, Jimmy meets with his father, who has been absent for most of his life, only to discover he’s as inconsiderate as he’s racist. The art integrates classic elements from comic books with diagrams, flashbacks, and nonverbal dialogue. These details have made this title earn its place as an outstanding work of art.
From Hell – Eddie Campbell & Alan Moore
Alan Moore makes his second appearance on the list (despite not using such an obvious choice as Watchmen). This time it’s From Hell which was published in 10 installments from 1989 to 1996. Set in the Victorian Era, it’s absolutely terrifying and dark as it adds elements from Jack “The Ripper”. Moore was inspired by a theory claiming the murders to be part of a conspiracy to hide the birth of an illegitimate royal blooded baby. Aside from the mystery factor, the novel is hooded in an atmosphere of terror.
Graphic novels and film share their ability to become experimental outlets for their authors to express ideas in creative and unique ways. They don’t require superheroes to tell compelling stories, but instead provide readers with a brilliant way to combine beautiful art with great narrative.
Translated by María Suárez Ruiz