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Top 10 Literary Graphic Novels

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Comic book writers have been widely and regularly dismissed as practicing a lower art than long-form novelists. A look at any of the “best novels of all time” lists, especially the greatest offender, Modern Library’s “100 Best Novels,” shows a complete disregard for graphic novels. However, to say that in 2014 graphic novels go unappreciated would be a faithless claim, as movie adaptations of some of our favorite books have brought well-deserved attention to the medium.

A few of the greatest graphic novelists who’ve made our list have earned attention from reputable places. The New York Times recently ran a glowing review of Ware’s novel Building Stories, and Alan Moore’s Watchmen is roundly considered one of the best books of the century by book critics. Still, those who review and appreciate graphic novels for major publications are a small minority. Ask anyone around your office who Chris Ware is, and you’ll get a round of blank stares.

To help bring a little recognition to some of our favorite authors, we’ve put together this list of the top ten literary graphic novels. Browse our favorites below, and then head over to read the first issue of our on-going free digital comic, Biowars.

10. A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories


Will Eisner’s short story cycle that popularized the term “graphic novel” comes in at 10th. This novel follows a poor Jewish family living in a tenement in New York City. Eisner penned two sequels, but the original remains the most enduring. Contract takes a leap toward the literary in its close attention to narrative construction. A quartet of four interwoven stories, the brilliant and subtle ways stories overlap have influenced the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Colson Whitehead.

9. Ghost World


A darkly comic graphic novel that captured an entirely new audience, Ghost World was released in 1997 to commercial and critical success. The novel follows the exploits of Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Doppelmeyer, two very trendy, very hipster (before the word even existed) teenage girls, as they wander their town and faux-philosophize about popular culture and the people they meet. After a much-later film version brought additional attention to the book, critics were surprised to find how accurately Clowes not only captured the American 90s, but an entirely untapped and important voice of a generation.

8. The Dark Knight Returns


Often labeled as the greatest Batman comic of all time, The Dark Knight Returns sees Bruce Wayne, at 55, return from retirement to fight Two-Face, The Joker, and even The Russians. Featuring crossover appearances from Green Arrow and Superman, The Dark Knight Returns is a strange, off-beat tale for the Caped Crusader. Penned by Frank Miller in his golden years, the book focuses on Batman’s age, including the inevitability of his death, and features one of the most grisly scenes ever seen in a Batman comic in a final confrontation with the Joker.

7. My Dirty Dumb Eyes


Not so much a graphic novel as a collection of odd vignettes, Lisa Hanawalt’s My Dumb Dirty Eyes explores the psyche of a twenty-something Brooklynite. Her art style should be immediately recognizable by anyone who’s seen Netflix’s new series, Bojack Horseman, for which she served as production designer. The most surprising thing about this raunchy, hilarious, and often uncomfortable book is the number of times the reader is assaulted by their own private thoughts on the page—not that they’d ever admit it.

6. David Boring


Another Clowes classic, David Boring encapsulates the life of nebbish, love struck, and unlucky narrator David Boring as he set out across a series of misadventures including a near-death shooting and the possible apocalypse. Time Magazine chose David Boring as one of the ten best graphic novels ever written, and we couldn’t agree more. Anyone who’s ever felt unrequited love will find solace in this book. David Boring is incisive, eloquently written, and a deep portrait of misguided youth set against the backdrop of the human condition.

5. From Hell


One of the most expansive graphic novels ever made, Alan Moore’s From Hell chronicles the killings and motives of Jack the Ripper. The plot—so sprawling it’s impossible to summarize—takes the backstage to Moore’s philosophical musings about life, death, and metaphysics. Forums have been filled with readers’ interpretations of the meanings behind events, panels, and dialogues, and an entire book was written as a companion piece to help break down the themes. Don’t mistake this for inaccessibility, though—the novel is both entertaining and suspenseful, but to get the full experience, it’s best read slowly and deeply.

4. Building Stories


Chris Ware’s newest graphic novel isn’t so much a book as a collection of books. It’s packaged in a large, rectangular box filled to the brim with newspapers, traditional graphic novels, comic strips, and fold-out books all telling the continuous story of the occupants of a single brownstone. To call this book ambitious is selling it short. The combined effect of every narrative creates an odd, cohesive emotion something close to nostalgia. Each piece is meant to be read in whatever order you wish, meaning, with so many combinations, every reader’s experience is something unique. In an interview with The New York Times, Ware said that this is supposed to make the reader feel as though they’re lost in thought, or memory. Building Stories certainly achieves this, and that’s just one of many reasons we’ve chosen it at number 4.

3. God’s Man


The term “graphic novel” was coined in 1964, meaning that Lynd Ward’s wordless woodcut narrative predates the medium by thirty-five years. Released in 1929, God’s Man follows a nameless artist who signs away his soul for a paintbrush, which brings fame to all his works. This is a dark, terrifying novel in 139 engraved woodblocks. The atmosphere is enhanced by the deeply cut and fissured lines and the haunting absence of a single line of dialog or explanation. Don’t worry about following along—Ward is an incredible artist who can tell an entire story and convey fluid emotion in a single image. Its reputation speaks for itself: both Art Spiegelman and Will Eisner credit God’s Man with inspiring them to create their first graphic novels.

2. Watchmen


The second of Moore’s books to make our list, Watchmen is considered by prominent critics and fans alike to be the greatest graphic novel of all time. Manipulating a group of original superheroes, Moore plays with past, present, and future to paint a condemning portrait of 1980s America, but the book isn’t so much about a particular time as it is about the human condition. That may sound lofty, but so are Moore’s aspirations. In the introduction to the hardcover rerelease, Moore comments that while writing the series, he was finally able to purge himself of his nostalgia for superheroes, instead finding an interest in real human beings. That couldn’t ring more true, as Watchmen’s cast of brutally realistic characters experience emotions and shortcomings so true to the human experience as to function as a spectrum for existence.

1. Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth


Taking our coveted number one spot is Chris Ware’s second appearance on this list and our vote for the greatest graphic novel of all time—Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on EarthCentering on Jimmy Corrigan, a shy, middle-aged man meeting his father for the first time, the narrative splits into fictional universes, a parallel story of Jimmy’s grandfather, and takes a look at Jimmy’s own childhood. It’s difficult to explain exactly what it is that makes this novel so special beyond its intense emotional payloads.Ware crafts a narrative that will make you weep as quickly as it will make you laugh, which, if the description sounds cliché, a look through the book’s Amazon reviews will turn up hundreds of similar phrases from readers struggling to explain its unique emotional resonance.

This is a book beloved by critics and readers alike, and will stay with you months, even years, after your first read. You’ll cringe at Jimmy’s unwanted advances and unrequited loves, at the strained dialogue between father and son, and laugh aloud as Ware elevates Jimmy to something beyond a sad and lonely character in brief, comic moments, to a figure who best represents the human need for compassion.

Needless to say, if you haven’t read this masterpiece, pick it up today. It’s a life-changing experience, and our vote for the greatest graphic novel of all time.

Love comics as much as we do? Take a look at our free digital comic, Biowars, before our first graphic novel hits shelves next year.


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