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50 essential graphic novels

 50 recommended graphic novels

While the term 'graphic novel' only entered common usage as recently as the late 1970s, novel-length works in either pictures-only forms or pictures in combination with text have existed since the 19th century.

As defined today, a graphic novel is a book-length story told in comic strip format where the art is of equal or greater importance than text, and published as a single volume. Fiction, non-fiction, biography and memoir can all be considered graphic novels if published in book form and presented through the use of sequential image panels. Some purists limit the definition to include only never-serialized, stand-alone stories, while others allow room for compilation editions of previously published comic book series. All agree, however, that like comic books in general, the graphic novel has grown up, with titles written for both adults and children that deal with far more complex subject matter then stereotypical superheroes or idealized, fantasy childhoods. There are still plenty of those but you'll also find graphic novels about growing old, dealing with serious illness, and childhood abuse, with a healthy does of violence, sex, drugs, and rock & roll thrown in for good measure.

Considered by some to be the first modern graphic novel, A Contract with God by comics legend Will Eisner, first published in 1978, was actually just the first to use the term 'graphic novel' as a marketing tactic - it appeared on the cover of the trade paperback edition. Eisner's book was actually preceded by It Rhymes with Lust by Drake Waller, a full-length, noir-inspired 'picture novel' from 1950. A more direct Contract precursor appeared nine years later, in 1959, with Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book, a collection of four graphic short stories from the creator of Mad Magazine.

After Eisner's success, both comic book and mainstream publishers began to take long-form comics more seriously, releasing an increasing number of titles every year, of continuously higher quality, culminating with Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus in 1986, which threw open the door for every wonderful thing that has come since.

Even with critical and commercial success, in both the periods leading up to and since Maus, some writers/artists have bristled at the use of the term 'graphic novel'. Most grew up reading comic books and started their careers wanting to write comic books, so they have no qualms about calling what they create exactly that - comic books. Others have tried to create their own terminology by adding subtitles to their work, such as Seth's 'A Picture Novella', Daniel Clowes' 'A Comic-strip Novel', and Alison Bechdel's 'A Family Tragicomic'.

No matter what you call it, the genre isn't easily pigeon-holed into clear-cut categories, making compiling a list of 50 must-read graphic novels a daunting task. This is just the tip of the iceberg - in no particular order.

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50 must-read graphic novels

By Art Spiegelman
First graphic novel to win a Pulitzer, Maus is part biography, part history, and part fable.
By Art Spiegelman
More from Spiegelman - a very personal, very political story and its aftermath.
By Rebecca Hall
The story of women-led slave revolts and uncovers the truth about these women warriors who, until now, have been left out of the historical record.
By Raina Telgemeier
A funny story of middle school drama for the younger the YA spectrum.
By Alissa Torres
An intimate story of one woman's loss - and the that loss - on 9/11/2001.
By Gilbert Hernandez
From the co-creator of the Love and Rockets series comes of growing up in the 1960's.
By Rutu Modan
An elderly Jewish woman returns to Warsaw for the first WWII to reclaim family property.
By Rutu Modan
A young cabbie's search for his missing father presents an portrait of modern Israel.
By Alison Bechdel
Both humorous and literary, this 'Family Tragicomic' explores growing up closeted gay father.
By Alison Bechdel
This highly personal follow-up to Fun Home explores Bechdel's relationship mother.
By Gene Luen Yang
This 2006 National Book Award finalist tells three parallel growing up Chinese-American.
By Vera Brosgol
Award-winning Young Adult novel about – among other things - of befriending ghosts.
By Peter Kuper
This quasi-autobiography of the author's fictitious alter-ego is hilariously heartbreaking.
By Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill
Fictional characters from well-known Victorian-era novels join fight for the British Empire.
By Dave McKean
Without words, this novel graphically explores the adult themes of and voyeurism.
By Derf Backderf
A surprisingly moving story of the early life of one 20th century's most infamous serial killers.
By Joyce Farmer
This award-winning novel chronicles a long-married couple as they navigate years.
By Glyn Dillon
A psychologically complex exploration of a young woman's struggle with
By Seth
A story of obsessive nostalgia and how it can blind the present.
By Chris Ware
A lonely and emotionally-impaired "everyman", is provided, at age 36, the opportunity to meet his father for the first time.
By Chris Ware
Pushing boundaries of form and content, this is also a installation.
By Ulli Lust
Winner of several awards about two penniless, punked-out teen girls Europe.
By Will Eisner
This innovative work, published in 1978, is considered by many the first graphic novel.
By Jon McNaugh
This quiet, contemplative story of everyday life has been described ‘comics equivalent of poetry’.
By Luke Pearson
The end of a relationship as told through the beautiful moments that surround it.
By Tom Gauld
The biblical story of David and Goliath retold from Goliath's wryly funny perspective.
By Posy Simmonds
This biting satire of the British middle-class is loosely based Far from the Madding Crowd.
By Shaun Tan
A wordless novel that explores the alienation and disorientation of experience.
By Alan Moore and David Lloyd
A mysterious man in a white porcelain mask strikes back against the oppressive overlords on behalf of the voiceless.
By Bryan Talbot
A psychedelic exploration of the historical influences behind the works Carroll.
By Bryan Talbot
A survivor of sexual abuse, Helen Potter, retraces the route Potter - Beatrix.
By Nicole J. Georges
This graphic memoir has been described as part coming-of-age part coming-out story.
By Max Allen Collins
This classic noir story of gangland Chicago in the made into a film starring Tom Hanks.
By Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Winner of a Hugo, the highly-acclaimed Watchmen superheroes.
By Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean
The first collaboration between these two is exploration of the unreliability of memory.
By Craig Thompson
A story of sibling rivalry, childhood abuse, and first love, evangelical religion.
By Charles Burns
Teens in 1970s Seattle are hit with a plague in of an STD that causes grotesque mutations.
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By Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely
Three pets try to find their way, described as The Incredible Journey meets Tony Stark.
By David B.
A brutally honest autobiography about growing up with an epileptic
By GB Tran
The son of Vietnamese immigrants, who fled to the US, family's story.
By Marjane Satrapi
The story of a girl's childhood and coming-of-age, told against of Iran's revolution.
By Daniel Clowes
Authentic story of disaffected youth and teen angst that has to Catcher in the Rye.
By Guy Delisle
A unique peek into the mystery of daily life in highlighting both humor and horror.
By Chester Brown
Biography of a controversial figure from Canadian history.
By David Mazzucchelli
The story of a dislikeable architect that pushes the boundaries and form.
By Brian Selznick
First novel awarded the Caldecott Medal, for the most distinguished for children.
By Hugo Pratt
Originally published in 1967, in Italian, this is the first swashbuckling adventure series.
By Raymond Briggs
A lovingly told story of the author's parent's lives together, backdrop of 20th century history.
By Will McPhail
A poignant and witty graphic novel by a leading New Yorker cartoonist, following a millennial's journey from performing his life to truly connecting with people.
By Kiku Hughes
A teenager is pulled back in time to witness her grandmother's experiences in World War II-era Japanese internment camps.

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