If you’re after the best graphic novels of all time, look no further. We’ve brought together our eight favorite graphic novels, from a host of different decades, countries, and settings for you to cast your eyes over.
While some are quite firmly fictional – there’s no giant alien squid in New York that we know of – others blend together the graphic novel and memoir to form whole new genres of autobiographical writing. The result is eight exceptional examples of illustrated storytelling that should enrich the life of any bookworm, comic geek, or bored human looking to read something different.
We’ve come a long way from the form’s early days, when comic book panels were seen as lowbrow, or even childish. Today, the best graphic novels can be New York Times bestsellers, end up as hit Netflix shows (opens in new tab), win Pulitzer Prizes, and seem as worthwhile of academic study as the collected works of Shakespeare. And if you’re not interested in highbrow validation, they’re simply good reads as they are.
So whether you’re interested in reading about ageing superheroes (opens in new tab), the Iranian revolution, American teenagers, or an unruly beard, we’ll have the book for you. Here are the best graphic novels of all time, starting with one we expect you’ll have heard of in some form.
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While the Watchmen graphic novel has since enjoyed a decent amount of television celebrity – what with the HBO Watchmen TV show that came out in 2019, as well as the original Zak Snyder movie adaptation – nothing quite beats the source material.
Watchmen was originally created as a comic series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and has endured as one of the greatest pieces of literature of all time. It may be a superhero story, but it’s one that uses the lens of masked vigilantes to ask serious and pressing questions about the role of government, US foreign policy, and who has the right to wield power. Its memorable mix of heroes, from the gadget-heavy Night Owl to the fascistic Rorschach, will be sure to stick in your mind long after reading.
This moving graphic novel may deal with smaller subject matter than some in this list, in that it doesn’t concern massive political upheavals or nuclear warfare. But as a tender coming-of-age story and autobiographical memoir, Craig Thompson’s Blankets looks at the coming together and pulling apart of his first romance, and the life shifts that lead to him rejecting elements of his Christian upbringing. Named as Time Magazine’s Best Comic in 2003, it’s a quiet story that’s still well worth sitting with.
Marjane Satrapi’s illustrated memoir is an insightful, personal, and often bleak look at growing up in Iran in a time of great political upheaval – namely, the Islamic Revolution. Offering a nuanced portrayal of Iranian families, and how wider political shifts can affect or entrap domestic life, as well as the culture shock of leaving and returning to her home country, Persepolis is uniquely placed as both a historical record of 1980s Iran and an exploration of differing cultural attitudes between the Middle East and Central Europe.
While Persepolis technically consists of two volumes – The Story of a Childhood, and The Story of a Return – you can still find them bundled together into a single book, as in this link below:
4. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
This graphic memoir of Alison Bechdel’s childhood in Pennsylvania as a daughter to a funeral home director is both morbidly amusing and deeply moving. As an exploration of Bechdel’s own sexuality, and her family’s experience with grief and suicide, Fun Home treads a thin line between the simple visual style of a comic book and the depth of its subject matter.
Fun Home was even adapted into a musical in 2013, and has been nominated for numerous literary awards, as well as being the subject of an academic conference in France.
Art Spiegelman’s landmark graphic novel, Maus, was initially published in a serialized form in the 1980s, and tackles the heady subject of the Holocaust, through interviews between Spiegelman and his Jewish father.
Told entirely in black-and-white sketches, it deals with the grief, guilt, and horror of their shared history, as well as the strained paternal relationship between Spiegelman and his father.
The only graphic novel to ever win a Pulitzer Prize, its depiction of persecution – narrated through anthropomorphised characters, with Jews, Germans and Poles depicted as mice, cats and pigs respectively – is still one of the most impactful pieces of comic literature ever made.
6. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil
While the title may be flippant, this wry graphic novel is well worth your attention. Taking place in a firmly tidy and visually controlled community, things go awry when the clean-shaven protagonist starts growing unruly facial hair, and how this unexpected element of chaos quickly begins to take over his mundane routines.
What’s so charming about The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is how the symmetry and clean lines of its earlier pages become progressively disrupted and undermined by the fast-growing beard and its impact on the world around it – and it proves much more thoughtful a parable than a first glance at its cover may suggest.
7. Ghost World
Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World was first serialized in the early 90s and tackles the quiet unhappiness of small-town life and teenage angst felt by two girls, Enid and Rebecca, as they graduate high school and start looking ahead to the next stage in life, with the complicated love triangles and strained relationships that entails.
The graphic novel is notable for largely sticking to a limited black-and-blue color palette, which gets progressively lighter and results in a black-and-light green palette in the closing chapters. You can check out the 2001 film adaptation, which stars Steve Buscemi and Scarlett Johansson, on BFI Player (or via Amazon Prime Video) too.
8. From Hell
Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell got a pretty terrible movie adaptation back in the early 00s, but that doesn’t mean the comic isn’t worth reading. From Hell is still one of the best works of fiction based on the Jack the Ripper killings, with a conspiracy theory-level story that turns the murders into a harbinger of the dark century to come. Gruesome at points, obviously, but certainly one to recommend to the stronger-stomached among you.