Here at MW, we’ve discussed in numerous posts the value of reading in and out of your genre. One area that often gets overlooked is graphic novels. Graphic novels have matured a lot over the last few decades, moving way beyond superheroes (not that there’s anything wrong with superheroes) towards providing every bit of the full reading experience that we get from novels. And even the superhero tales have matured significantly, offering deep and deeply flawed characters. The best are gems of storytelling, character development, and an audacity of ideas. Here are some recommendations:
- The Sandman by Neil Gaiman — Okay, I figured I start with an easy one for fantasy lovers. You already know the author. Originally a monthly comic, The Sandman has been compiled into a multi-volume series well worth your time. You get all of Gaiman’s storytelling and imagination as he follows the twisted family of Dream personified.
- Buddha by Osamu Tezuka — Considered the godfather of manga, Tezuka’s eight-volume tour de force is a re-telling of the life of the Buddha from his early youth up to his enlightenment (and a bit beyond). The story blends detailed drawings with cartoonish silliness, the author’s imagination with religious belief, and the mystical with the profound. A highly entertaining and fascinating read that can show a writer just how to blend seemingly opposite styles.
- MAUS by Art Spiegelman — Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, this two-volume powerhouse looks at the Holocaust through the eyes of Art’s father as he tells of his experiences. Just as genre uses magic and aliens to distance readers from a sensitive topic in order to see it clearer, Spiegelman anthropomorphizes the Jews into mice and the Germans into cats to put some distance between the reader and the images of horror. It’s still hard to stomach the atrocity but you’ll never be so moved by talking animals.
- Sin City by Frank Miller — Another multi-volume compilation of a monthly comic, this is the material that was used for the film of the same name. More in-depth than the film, the book follows numerous story lines that tend to intersect in violent ways. It is a mixture of noir, pulp fiction, and “underground” comics, dealing with the nastier, more violent side of life. You want hard-boiled, sparse, powerful writing? Look no further. But be warned — this is by far the most R-rated of the bunch. Not for the highly-sensitive or easily-offended.
- The Dylan Dog Case Files by Tiziano Sclavi — This one is genre but so what? Dylan is your basic PI who slays zombies, vampires, and other baddies. A bestseller in Italy, the people at Dark Horse comics snatched it up, translated it, and released it in the US last year. Besides being entertaining, it’s of great value to a writer to see how another culture presents a story. I’m a big fan of foreign films and foreign authors because the stories always has a different focus, a different sensibility of what’s important, than I have. It’s fresh to me and has had a great influence on improving my own writing. Dylan Dog serves this purpose well. His actions and thoughts, coupled with what Italians find funny, acceptable, scary, etc — it all adds up to entertainment and education.
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi — This two-parter garnered a slew of attention when it came out, especially after an animated film version was released. It is Marjane’s autobiography following the changes in her life growing up in Iran before and after the shift toward a fundamentalist theocracy. Both historical piece and coming-of-age story, the work is powerful and well-told.
- Blankets by Craig Thompson — This is a love story and a coming-of-age story. There’s a religious element to it which is handled so well that it doesn’t become didactic and ruin the story. In fact, I fell in love with this tale because it is courageously honest about being a teenage boy, about the discoveries of love and heartbreak, and about the difficulties of friendship. The most non-genre, straight-forward graphic novel I’ve ever read.
- Anything by Alan Moore — Picking any one tale by Alan Moore is impossible. Watchmen is an incredible look at superhero myths and real world problems told through alternate realities and story-within-story. V for Vendetta is a great reminder of how a government should be made to fear its people, not the other way around. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is steampunk mixed with fantasy in which a superhero team is formed of great literary characters. The list could go on and on. Alan Moore brings a true writer’s talent to the pictorial method of story telling like no other. Note: these three titles along with several others have been made into films with varying degrees of success. But like film adaptations of novels, these graphic novels far exceed the film versions.
If you’ve never read a comic book, manga, or graphic novel before, don’t be intimidated. Don’t assume it’s kid-stuff. And don’t worry what others will think if they catch you with a “comic” in your hands. The best of these can be a valuable asset to your never-ending growth and education as a writer.
No doubt, many of you dear readers will have other favorites to add to this list. Please do. I need some suggestions for my next graphic novel purchase!