The Five Graphic Novels that Made Me
I love a good graphic novel – who doesn’t right?
They are like comics but longer and more serious! They can also be incredible layered and interesting visual tales that are instantly accessible to all. I’ve been reading them for many years and here are my 5 favorites.
Maus by Art Spiegelman
Perhaps the Mona Lisa or Sistine Chapel of the graphic novel, Maus elevated the art form to levels it had previously been unaccustomed to. It has gained significant critical praise, won a Pulitzer prize (the first Graphic novel to do so), and now studied in academic circles and schools.
Maus is so striking because tackles such serious subject matter. It depicts the tale of a holocaust survivor who is being interviewed by his son about his experiences during the war. The author himself features as the interviewing character and the survivor is actually his own father who lived through the horror of Aushwitz. It is part memoir, part biography and part fiction. Adding to this heady mix is the fact the story is depicted with animals in place of humans – Jewish people are shown as mice; Germans are cats; non-Jewish Poles are pigs.
Maus is quite the unforgettable experience. Aside from all of the above, the story is beautifully drawn in a minimalist, black and white style with unconventional layouts and pacing. The beautiful artwork and striking animal characters give the novel a fantastical and subversive feel – as the horrific Holocaust tales are brutally depicted with child like drawings and pictures. You find yourself having to constantly remind yourself that the horror on the page actually happened and these kind little mice where actually the suffering Poles. It is heady and serious stuff no question, but Maus is a shocking, beautiful and tragic insight into one of the darkest chapters of human history and a must read for just about anyone.
Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
Watchmen is another critically acclaimed and established graphic novel, another masterpiece and standard bearer for the craft. It tells the tale of a group of retired and out of work superhero’s who have struggled to find their place in a fraught alternate mid 80s world. Legislation having outlawed superhero esk activity. Using the Vietnam war as a backdrop, the USA have gained a significant advantage against the Soviet Union due to the existence of Dr. Manhattan – a blue demi-god with infinite powers (who is the only being with any discernible superpowers despite the cast of costumed heroes). Due to this victory, and this living god, the world is fraught and tense and exists on the edge of nuclear war. We follow a band of these retired costumed heroes as they attempt to solve the murder of one of their former team members. Weaved into this tale are real world events and people that contribute real weight and context to the tale – Richard Nixon features and there is also an incredible passage wherein Dr. Manhattan single-handedly wins the Vietnam war for the Americans.
Essentially the smart mans superhero story – it is far from your standard superhero entertainment and it is imbued with imagery, symbolism and numerous themes. Penned by the legendary Alan Moore and illustrated beautifully by Dave Gibbons, Watchmen examines the role of the superhero in a credible, established real world setting where there prescience isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Marvels Civil War by Mark Millar & Steve McNiven
Another superhero recommendation! How very cliché and trendy. Were living very much in the age of the superhero given the copious, multi-million dollar grossing films populating the cinemas every summer (and for many summers to come given the announced releases). Also Civil War itself will be getting an adaptation of sorts in 2016, given the announcement of Captain America 3 – Civil War, but some of us were there before it was cool goddammit!
For me Civil War elevates itself above the copious superhero graphic novels because of its underlying conflict and political undertones. It revolves around a Superhero registration act that is put forward after a botched superhero rescue attempt results in the deaths of numerous innocent bystanders. This act will require all superheroes to reveal their identities and result in their heavy monitoring and control thereafter. Mr Stark (Iron Man) is pro, Mr Rodgers (Captain America) is con. Thus pretty much the entire Marvel roster of heroes divides behind these two pillars, and a huge civil war follows. Its obviously cool for us geeks to see this play out on page as numerous legendary heroes get to pit their superpowers against one another, and the addition layers offer depth that most of the superhero graphic novels seem to lack.
Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley
The Scott Pilgrim series may be the most unashamedly fun thing I’ve ever read? There is no serious or profound point, there are no grand overarching themes, there is no real life allegory to be drawn or experiences to be learner – its just crazy fun.
Scott pilgrim is a 20 something bass playing, Canadian slacker who is desperate to win the heart of the sexy and cool Romona Flowers. He somehow does this but to continue their romance, Scott has to defeat her seven evil exes. What follows, over the coarse of the 7 separate novels (one for each ex), is a manga inspired, retro computer game infused, comedic battle for Romona’s heart. Its all at once ludicrous, hilarious and bustling with A.D.D energy.
The showdowns involve huge swords and outlandish weapons in fights that conclude with Scott’s enemies literally exploding into coins, Mario style, as he inflicts the final blows. One such highlight involves a huge sound wave battle between Scott’s terrible band and a couple of Asian DJ’s at a battle of the bands event. These sound waves morph into huge monsters that duke it out above the assembles audience in a crazy battle to the death! Its all as mad as it sounds, and a work of stunning imagination and creativity. I devoured the entire Scott Pilgrim series in one sitting and it is a thrilling, energy infused, hilarious read, that is also beautifully and simple rendered by Bryan Lee O’Malley.
A few years later Edgar Wright adapted the series into a big budget motion picture that retained the kinetic energy, and also remains one of my favourite films of recent years.
Y! The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra
Another multiple edition series, Y, spans a series of 10 separate novels and follows Yorick, the only surviving male from a mysterious event that caused the entire planets male population to all instantly drop dead at the same time! Yorick is a kooky and eccentric magician / escapologist / layabout who has a pet monkey and barely a serious bone in his body. This man is suddenly the last hope for mankind after the apocalyptic extinction. What follows is an epic journey as Yorick and his trusty simian pal, are escorted to a secure facility by a government agent for study and protection. They cross a land that has been plunged into chaos as infrastructures collapse and society crumbles, the population now seemingly due for extinction. Inherently the whole thing has gender and gender based roles right at its core – the remaining female masses struggling to adjust to the sudden and catastrophic changes. Strict feminist groups rejoice and rise up to claim the planet as there own, whilst many others mourn the loss of Y chromosomes and their spouses. Yorick of course, also becomes the subject of great attention and controversy whenever he is discovered along the course of the eventful journey. Some see him as the last great hope for mankind, a source to re-populate the earth (lucky man!), whereas other more extreme groups are hell bent on killing him and extinguishing men all together.
Y! the last man is an incredibly layered and thoughtful apocalyptic tale that has many intricate and entertaining layers to get lost in. It offers a lot more than your standard end of the world scenario.