It’s been a good year for graphic novels.
According to a recent report by Publishers Weekly, sales of adult graphic novels rose almost 30 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019.
And, in the last week of January 2021, sales more than doubled when juxtaposed with the same period last year, increasing by a whopping 110 per cent.
Maybe the seismic events of 2020 had something to do with the medium’s rise in popularity – or maybe it didn’t, who knows. But what’s certain is that people are more eager than ever to leap into the panelled world of graphic novels.
And what a wide and wonderful world it is, encompassing provocative horror and memoirs that shine a new light on a specific pocket of history to works that dismantle the concept of a superhero.
If you’ve been skirting around the graphic novel aisles of your favourite bookstore but are unsure where to begin, here’s our pick of 10 graphic novels to try first.
‘Uzumaki’ by Junji Ito
This spine-chilling page turner comes from the mind of Japanese mangaka Junji Ito.
The three-volume work, which was released between 1998 and 1999, tells the story of a town suffering from a supernatural curse, causing its citizens to fear and obsess over all things spiral-shaped. Ito’s genius is clear in the way he takes a simple shape and unpacks it in all kinds of eerie and thought-provoking ways. The work has been described as one of the most terrifying graphic novels around and has been compared to the works of US horror mastermind HP Lovecraft.
‘Maus’ by Art Spiegelman
Few graphic novels have been as influential as Maus, so we would be remiss not to include it high up on this list.
The work, serialised between 1980 and 1991, depicts US cartoonist Art Spiegelman interviewing his father about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. The work represents the Jewish community as mice, Germans as cats and Polish citizens as pigs. Maus has been famously difficult to categorise with critics classifying it as fiction, biography, memoir and autobiography all at the same time.
The work is the only graphic novel to nab the coveted Pulitzer Prize, which it won in 1992.
‘Lighter Than My Shadow’ by Katie Green
Written and illustrated by Katie Green, Lighter Than My Shadow is a touching account of life with an eating disorder.
With its hand-drawn illustrations, sombre colour palette and measured storytelling, the 2013 work delves into Green’s struggle with anorexia, showing how the English author recovered from the disorder.
‘The Incal’ by Alejandro Jodorowsky
From French-Chilean surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky comes an epic space opera fusing science fiction, mysticism, political suspense and satire.
Originally illustrated by French artist Jean Giraud, The Incal graphic novel series, which debuted in 1983, is set in the dystopian capital of a small planet within a human galactic empire at war with an alien race. It follows a private detective, John DiFool, who comes into contact with the Luminous Incal, a mysterious power-granting object sought after by a number of warring factions.
If you're a fan of the films by the The Holy Mountain director, this title is for you.
‘Persepolis’ by Marjane Satrapi
This autobiographical series by Iranian-French graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi portrays her childhood experiences during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, as well as her early adult years in Austria, where she goes to start a new life.
Persepolis was listed in Time magazine's Best Comics of 2003 and was praised by one of its literary critics as "sometimes funny and sometimes sad but always sincere and revealing".
‘The Sandman’ by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman’s take on the mythical character in north European folklore is as spooky as it is life-affirming.
The series revolves around the capture and subsequent imprisonment of the Sandman – an anthropomorphic personification of dreams. After 70 years, he manages to escape during the present time and, after taking his vengeance on his captors, sets about to rebuild his empire.
Like with most of his other work, Gaiman brings the mythology of the Lord of Dreams closer to everyday human life.
‘Through the Woods’ by Emily Carroll
This is not your Disney fairy tale.
Through The Woods by Canadian author Emily Carroll is a delightfully terrifying anthology featuring five fairytales with beautiful illustrations and nail-biting storylines.
A not-to-be-missed title for any horror fan.
‘They Called Us Enemy’
Based on the childhood experiences of George Takei, They Called Us Enemy depicts the period when the Star Trek actor was imprisoned in a US internment camp at the height of the Second World War.
Takei and his family were among the 100,000 Japanese Americans who were relocated and incarcerated by the US government shortly after Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour.
The graphic novel depicts Takei’s experiences at the camp in a riveting story that confronts legalised racism.
One of the most acclaimed graphic novels of all time, Watchmen upends the superhero narrative, deconstructing and even ridiculing the concept of the benevolent hero.
The series, created by legendary comic book writer Alan Moore, is set in an alternate timeline in which superheroes emerged in the 1960s and helped the US win the war in Vietnam. The 1986 work shows a world on the brink of a third World War as tensions between the US and the Soviet Union are at an all-time high.
The work marks a turning point in the graphic novel and in a 2016 retrospective by the BBC, it was described as “the moment comic books grew up".
‘Miles Morales: Straight out of Brooklyn’ by Saladin Ahmed
A more traditional take on the superhero genre, this 2019 graphic novel by Arab-American writer Saladin Ahmed has Miles Morales swinging back to the limelight as Spider-Man.
The story starts with Morales doing his best to juggle his school and social life with his role as a crime-fighting vigilante. Soon, supervillain Rhino and his lackeys start sacking Morales’s beloved Brooklyn. It initially seems like just another day for Spidey but things soon take a dark turn.