Great graphic novels for reading adults

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Article in Graphic Novel category.

As an unabashed reader of comics as well as graphic novels, I am frequently approached by adults with the question, “What exactly is a graphic novel?” They are intrigued by media coverage of this expanding genre. I like to point to the following as truly exceptional graphic novels (of those available at JMRL) that might appeal to those who want to experience a graphic novel but aren’t interested in reading about superheroes.

The narrative arcs, character development, or descriptive settings in these books relate to what many readers are used to in novels, but integrated with pacing, tone, and emotions that are conveyed visually. The mature themes of these books make them suited for adults and older teens; many can also be read by younger teens with guidance. --Mdickens 13:57, 7 December 2009 (EST)(user stamp)

For a full list including our newest graphic novels, please see the Graphic Novels subject heading.

Fiction/Literary Adaptation

  • Beowulf, adapted and illustrated by Gareth Hinds – Fantastic artwork, as violent as the original story. Hinds has also rendered Shakespeare plays into the graphic medium: The Merchant of Venice and King Lear.
  • Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli – The title character is arrogant and pedantic, but is haunted by a lost twin and his own success. Pay attention to the use of color and style to demarcate personalities and moods. Fans of modern art history will enjoy allusions and theory; the main character is an academic architect. Other readers will enjoy a somewhat tragic love story, an exploration of identity, and colorful supporting characters.
  • Castle Waiting, by Linda Medley – Small details, humor, fairy tales retold. This starts out like Sleeping Beauty (and couple other fairy tales, too) but very quickly the prince arrives, the princess is awoken, the castle awakes, and the princess leaves with the prince on his horse (happily ever after)…and the folk of the castle are left, without a princess…waiting. It becomes a refuge for various characters, including unwed mothers, gypsies and bearded nuns – and this book is a refuge for all their stories, intertwined with gentle bawdy humor. If you like The Princess Bride or Terry Pratchett – well-told fantasy with loads of humor and not a little heart – this one is for you.
  • Daytripper, by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba – Matching a heartfelt examination of how our lives can end - and begin - at various moments, through various decision with full-color, finely wrought artwork, this Brazilian graphic novel is a treasure. Other themes include fathers and sons, writers, dreams.
  • Flight ed. by Kazu Kibuishi- A collection of short fantasy stories by international authors.
  • Mouse Guard, by David Petersen – This musketeer-style tale of intrigue and swordsmanship is writ large upon the landscape – even though the characters are mice. The appeal of this title is its outstanding artwork.
  • Gemma Bovery, by Posy Simmonds – The parallel, in more than name, to Flaubert’s tragic heroine will not be lost on sharp readers. British Gemma and her husband move to a small village in Normandy. Gemma, true to her nature, cannot remain happy; her downfall is observed by the neighbor-narrator, a literate French baker who is a little too involved for his own good. Sweeping artwork depicts the swirling drama; satirical depictions of supporting characters lend the story some humorous bite.
  • Skim, by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki – A strong, creative Korean American teenager describes her first crush, the nature of female friendship, and being an outsider. Strong art helps build this from mere teenage drama to a story that makes you alternately cringe and cheer for the adolescent main character.


The blending of visual and verbal art in this genre lends itself well to subjective nonfiction like memoir and family history.

  • One Hundred Demons, by Lynda Barry – Partially autobiographical, this book is a visualization of the demons a woman faced in her life growing up.
  • Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel – A young woman explores how her own coming of age – including her coming out - was informed by the secrets her father kept. The tale of her father’s life – and its end – is told with tenderness and irony, and is not to be missed for anyone interested in sexuality and how it affects familial relationships.
  • Pyongyang, by Guy Delisle – Delisle is a French animator who was hired to work as a cartoon supervisor in North Korea. The two months he spent in that country – with all its quirks and political shadows – are depicted in this fascinating, first-hand look at a notoriously cloistered country.
  • The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, by Ann Marie Fleming – an illustrated examination into the history of the author’s family and her journey to discover it; specifically of her great-grandfather, a Chinese magician/vaudeville performer who married a Polish woman; his family act was world-famous in the 1920s but is now all but forgotten.
  • Alan’s War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope – Emmanuel Guibert, French artist, illustrates the memories of Alan Cope, an American GI in WWII. Ink wash and art based on period photographs heighten the mood and confer authenticity.
  • Kampung Boy, by Lat. A boy grows up in rural Malayasia. This book contains expressionistic and humorous tales from his childhood – touching on universals of boyhood as well as specific details of life in the kampung, his small village. Follow it up with Town Boy, in which Lat goes away to school in the big town.
  • Stitches, by David Small - A dark story from an accomplished picture-book illustrator tells a story of his childhood – full of emotional abuse from an unloving mother and an uncaring father and medical neglect. Ink wash and expressive lines lend to the recollective mood; angles and close-ups reveal his point of view from 6 years, 11 years, and 14 years old. Even through the horrific emotions, his images are beautiful.
  • Blankets, by Craig Thompson – An emotional, expressionistic classic of the graphic memoir genre. This is the artist as a young man - awkward adolescence, first love, young adulthood, family relations. Thompson is a master of visual pacing, and his particular pairings and patterns of words and images resonate well.
  • Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale – by Belle Yang. This Chinese-American woman relates the story of her forebears' lives in China and also her own story in this expressive and personal tale.
  • American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang – The Monkey King, a character in Chinese legend; Jin Wang , the only Chinese-American at his school; and Chin-Kee, a visitor whose personification of every negative stereotype aggravates his cousin Danny’s efforts to fit in – each character and his story portrays a different facet of the Chinese-American experience. The simple line drawings, bright colors, and humor make this a fun read, belying the profound issues at stake. Yang continued to explore social issues with his unique humor and style in The Eternal Smile.


Frequently cited as must-reads of the genre

  • Persepolis: the Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi – an Iranian girl comes of age. The simplified drawings belie the intricacies of politics and familial relationships; told with humor and set against a broader perspective of her country and its political turmoil. Follow this up with Persepolis 2: the Story of a Return, in which Marjane grows into a young woman. These books were made into the animated movie Persepolis.
  • Maus I and Maus II, by Art Spiegelman – The one that started it all, in many people’s opinions – the first literary (non-comics) graphic novel to garner widespread attention and acclaim. Maus is the exploration of a man’s relationship to his father, a Holocaust survivor, and the father’s experiences during the war. The characters of Jews are depicted as mice, Nazis as cats, Poles as pigs, etc., but the emotions and situations are all too human. More recently, Spiegelman again tackled horrific events (and his personal connection to them) with In the Shadow of No Towers, an examination of the events of September 11th, 2001 in New York.
  • Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned, by Judd Winick – this has an almost nostalgic appeal at this point, for days long gone – the days when reality TV was still fairly new, or the days when it was likely you didn’t know someone who was HIV positive. The emotions still ring true, however: dealing with a friend with an illness; overcoming fear to gain understanding, and the medical facts of living with HIV.

Crossover works

These originated as serial comics but are frequently appreciated by non-comics readers (often made popular by movie adaptations):

  • Alan Moore’s work, including Watchmen and V for Vendetta
  • Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, beginning with Preludes and Nocturnes – the master storyteller of fantasy tells the unfolding stories of the Endless (seven entities that embody the eternal elements of the human condition: Despair, Destiny, Death, Delirium, Desire, Destruction, and, especially, Dream) and their influence on our world.
  • The Walking Dead, by Robert Kirkman – Series in which a small town cop wakes up from a coma to find that the world has been taken over by zombies. Now a popular television show by the same name on AMC.
  • If you like "Sandman" (see above), move on to the spin-off series, Fables, by John Willingham – A hilarious series about fairy tale characters who have been expelled from their homelands and have set up a new underground community in New York City. Features Snow White, now divorced from Prince Charming, Bigby (Big. B., get it?) Wolf as main characters, but includes many others. Great for those who like grown-up spin-offs or parodies on classic fairy tales.

Wordless stories

Despite the seeming simplicity of these stories, they still resonate deeply with adults.

  • The Storm in the Barn, by Matt Phelan – a boy in the Dustbowl with a sick sister. The color palette sets the mood as the town prays for rain.
  • The Arrival, by Shaun Tan – relates the immigrant experience. Beautiful artwork portrays a man trying to translate customs in a new world – the reader is left to translate along with him – many things seem familiar and many other totally alien.