Superhero movies have turned comic book heroes into pop culture icons, but comics and graphic novels are about so much more than high-flying fisticuffs and heroes in tights.
In the interest of convincing you that there’s an amazing illustrated narrative out there for every type of reader, we’ve assembled a collection of some of our favorite graphic novels, any of them a great starting point for anyone looking to explore a whole new section of the bookstore (though even if you’re an experienced reader, chances are decent there’s a brilliant book you’ve yet to read here too).
Here’s the full list, and here are 10 standouts; consider this your comic book collection starter pack.
Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes, by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, and Mike Dringenberg
The setup: An occultist attempting to capture the physical embodiment of Death to bargain for eternal life traps her younger brother Dream instead. After his 70-year imprisonment and eventual escape, Dream, also known as Morpheus, goes on a quest for his lost objects of power to reclaim his reign. From there, one of the greatest series in the history of the graphic novel genre begins…
Why we love it: We feel safe in saying that without Sandman, Neil Gaiman wouldn’t be Neil Gaiman. In fact, there’s a strong case to be made that this reboot of a theretofore unheralded DC comics character is Gaiman’s magnum opus, bringing to bear all of his predilections (reinterpreted mythology, sprawling casts of colorful characters, style to spare) in one gorgeous package. The series remains iconic for a reason.
My Favorite Thing is Monsters, by Emil Ferris
The setup: The fictional graphic diary of 10-year-old Karen Reyes, filled with B-movie horror and pulp monster magazines iconography. Karen Reyes tries to solve the murder of her enigmatic upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg, a holocaust survivor, while the interconnected stories of those around her unfold. When Karen’s investigation takes us back to Anka’s life in Nazi Germany, the reader discovers how the personal, the political, the past, and the present converge.
Why we love it: Ferris debut became an Eisner-winning sensation pretty much out of nowhere, and it’s easy to see why: it’s odd mix of gritty art (presented entirely on lined notebook paper, it’s purportedly the work of the 10-year-old narrator), propulsive storytelling, and pur pulpy passion is irresistible.
The Walking Dead, Vol. 1: Days Gone By, by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore
The setup: The world we knew is gone. The world of commerce and frivolous necessity has been replaced by a world of survival and responsibility. An epidemic of apocalyptic proportions has swept the globe, causing the dead to rise and feed on the living. In a matter of months society has crumbled: no government, no grocery stores, no mail delivery, no cable TV. In a world ruled by the dead, the survivors are forced to finally start living.
Why we love it: The television adaptation turned Robert Kirkman’s long-running survival story into a sensation, but the comics offer,let’s just say it, the better version of the story—and, perhaps, the definitive zombie narrative for the 21st century. We’ve met the monsters, and they are us.
March, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
The setup: Congressman John Lewis is an American icon and key figure of the civil rights movement, and March is a vivid first-hand account of his lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation. Rooted in Lewis’ personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement.
Why we love it: Anyone who thinks of comics as merely kids’ stuff would do well to pick up Lewis’s emotionally charged, revelatory graphic novel-as-memoir, which solidifies a lifetime of powerful stories in searing visuals that speak just as loudly as the congressman’s own powerful words.
Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
The setup: Set in an alternate matriarchal 1900’s Asia, in a richly imagined world of art deco-inflected steam punk, Monstress tells the story of a teenage girl who is struggling to survive the trauma of war, and who shares a mysterious psychic link with a monster of tremendous power, a connection that will transform them both and make them the target of both human and otherworldly powers.
Why we love it: Like something out of Jim Henson’s nightmares, Marjorie Liu and Sana Tekada’s dark fable of female empowerment is a darkly beautiful, bloody coming-of-age tale with an unforgettable protagonist, a diverse cast of heroes and villains, gorgeously rendered monsters, and talking cats.
Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, Vol. 1, by Bryan Lee O’Malley
The setup: Scott Pilgrim’s life is totally sweet. He’s 23 years old, he’s in a rock band, he’s “between jobs,” and he’s dating a cute high school girl. Nothing could possibly go wrong, unless a seriously mind-blowing, dangerously fashionable, rollerblading delivery girl named Ramona Flowers starts cruising through his dreams and sailing by him at parties. Will Scott’s awesome life get turned upside-down? Will he have to face Ramona’s seven evil ex-boyfriends in battle?
Why we love it: Packed with lovable anti-heroes, sardonic humor, and a plethora of pop culture references, Bryan Lee O’Malley’s breakout series has become something of a bible for the self-aware hipster, and the manga-inspired art is too cute to resist.
Saga, Vol. 1, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
The setup: When two soldiers from opposite sides of a never-ending galactic war fall in love, they risk everything to bring a fragile new life into a dangerous old universe. Saga is the sweeping tale of one young family fighting to find their place in the worlds.
Why we love it: Saga accomplishes the remarkable feat of marrying a sprawling space epic, soap opera storytelling, and intimate family drama, and making it look easy. Reading it, we’ve laughed, and cried, and gasped audibly more times than we care to admit.
Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal, by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona
The setup: Kamala Khan is an ordinary girl from Jersey City—until she is suddenly empowered with extraordinary gifts. But who truly is the all-new Ms. Marvel? Teenager? Muslim? Inhuman? Find out as she takes the Marvel Universe by storm! As Kamala discovers the dangers of her newfound powers, she unlocks a secret behind them as well. Is Kamala ready to wield these immense new gifts? Or will the weight of the legacy before her be too much to handle? Kamala has no idea either. But she’s comin’ for you, New York!
Why we love it: Not since Peter Parker has there been a scrappy teen superhero so winning. Kamala Kahn is the hero we need right now: feisty, fearless, flawed, and filled with love for her working class city.
American Born Chinese, by Gene Leun Yang
The setup: Jin Wang is the only Asian American boy in his new school; Danny is a young man deeply embarrassed by his visiting Chinese cousin; a Monkey King is desperate to be treated like a god. Three very different characters, one simple goal: to fit in.
Why we love it: This coming-of-age story employs a clever structure (three separate stories of clashing cultures and the search for acceptance) to make a powerful point about the things that divide us and the truths that are universal.
I Hate Fairyland, Vol. 1: Madly Ever After, by Skottie Young
The setup: Gert, a forty-year-old woman stuck in a six-yea-old’s body, has been trapped in the magical world of Fairyland for nearly thirty years. Join her and her giant battle-axe on a delightfully blood soaked journey to see who will survive the girl who hates fairyland.
Why we love it: Like a Lisa Frank notebook torn from the Upside-Down, I Hate Fairyland allows Skottie Young’s id to run amok in the truest sense of the word. It’s a candy-colored, blood-soaked romp that gleefully smashes through the wall between childhood innocence and extremely bad taste.