“Graphic novel” is a moniker that’s often used to distinguish between artistic novels and traditional comics. But it’s really meant to apply to works created as a single narrative, exploring complicated themes. Here are 5 that have helped to define the genre.
5) The Dark Knight Returns
Originally published as a DC mini-series, Frank Miller’s take on Batman reintroduced readers to the psychologically dark Batman of the 1930s when most still associated the character with the 1960s TV series. Featuring a tortured character who returns to fight crime 10 years after his retirement, The Dark Knight Returns was notable for introducing more adult-oriented comic storytelling to the mainstream and sparking the more realistic era of superhero stories.
4) David Boring
Daniel Clowes is perhaps best known for Ghost World and David Boring is similar in many ways, depicting the stark realism of ordinary life through the eyes of an indifferent anti-hero. Primarily it’s about the romance of Boring and Wanda and Boring’s learning about his father, and what might be the end of the world. It’s a dark tale of an ordinary man in a larger than life story and is difficult to encapsulate; it’s unique and deliciously funny.
3) A Contract with God
Consisting of four short stories detailing life in the Bronx in the 1930s, A Contract with God is a mix of autobiography and existential narrative. Eisner’s work was the first genuine attempt to tell truly human stories through images and words; the narratives are interwoven only through their common setting, immigrant culture and themes of life, death and faith. A work with all the complexity of literary fiction, it’s often regarded as a standard-bearer in the genre.
2) Maus: A Survivor’s Tale
A Pulitzer Prize winner, Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale is a memoir that presents the Holocaust in comic form. It recounts the story of his father’s hardships and survival through the Holocaust, but has a sad satirical edge that shows the true effects of war. By depicting the characters in animal forms – Jews as mice, Germans as cats, etc. – and showing the effect on the survivors in later years, Spiegelman presents an uncompromising look at our history. Maus transcends genre and is filling an important role in keeping the Holocaust alive as fewer survivors remain each year.
Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
Watchmen is the graphic novel that, with The Dark Knight Returns, Maus and Moore’s other great work, V for Vendetta, changed the perception of comics forever, giving rise to “serious” graphic novels. Watchmen can only be described as the deconstruction of the superhero; set in a world where superhero’s are real and face everyday ethical and personal dilemmas, it examines the idea of power and control in society. Its realism and humanity is unparalleled, with all but one of the superheroes having no recognizable superpowers. Watchmen was the only graphic novel to be included in Time Magazine’s All-Time 100 Novels list.