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Graphic Novels – The Essential Primer

Posted on 10th July 2020 by Robyn Bowler

Compiled by our expert booksellers, our starter guide to the best graphic novels has everything newcomers to the genre need to get started.

When Chris Ware won the Guardian First Book Award in 2001 with Jimmy Corrigan, it was the first time a graphic novel had won a major UK book award. Then in 2018, Britain's leading literary award, the Booker Prize, opened its doors to the many worlds of the graphic novel with its inclusion of Sabrina by Nick Drnaso on their longlist. This year, Flake by Matthew Dooley scooped the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic (as in, funny) fiction.

With the reputation of the graphic novel increasing in prestige each year, we present a selection of essential works that best demonstrate what the form is capable of. From emotionally devastating reportage to epic coming-of-age and thrilling visual experimentation, these books all come with the highest recommendation.

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Chris Ware’s semi-autobiographical novel concerns an absent father and the son he abandoned. The time it takes you to read this masterpiece is roughly the same time Ware spent talking to his father, after a 30-year gap. Tragically, a heart attack would soon take him away again.
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£9.99
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One of a handful of graphic novels that elevate the form into an intensely personal artistic statement, Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi’s astonishing visual memoir of growing up in Iran. Intertwining the intimate with the political and compelling drama with warm, knowing humour, Persepolis is a continual revelation.
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£16.99
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An undisputed masterpiece of the graphic novel form, representing Jews as mice and Nazis as cats, Spiegelman’s profoundly moving work traces his father’s harrowing experiences of Auschwitz and the challenges of adjusting to peacetime life after an all-consuming ordeal.
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For insight into life under another regime, turn to the graphic reportage of Guy Delisle. His simple artwork brilliantly conveys the realities of life within the secretive state of North Korea. If you’re bitten by the bug, then you’ll want to follow him on further travels to Shenzhen, Burma and Jerusalem.
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It has never been more important to understand the immigrant’s story and Shaun Tan’s wordless novel places the reader right at the heart of it. Beautiful illustrations make this a pleasure on every page, as well as an important read.
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£21.00
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Rendering a post-apocalyptic Tokyo as a neon-lit, cyberpunk dystopia, Otomo unleashes biker gangs, government spooks and paranormal teenagers in a pulp starburst of artistic frenzy.
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Dubbed a ‘family Tragicomic’, Alison Bechdel isn’t kidding when she delivers a look at her relationship with her father growing up, her own sexuality, her father’s closeted homosexuality, the collapse of his marriage and his death. It's of course both funny and deeply moving, and once it’s broken your heart you’ll need to read it’s follow-up, Are You My Mother? to see the other side of the story.
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£16.99
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Sacco’s emotionally shattering account of a Muslim community under siege during the Bosnian war demonstrates just how powerful graphic novel reportage can be. Skilfully built up from testimony and eyewitness accounts, Safe Area Gorazde is a stark, haunting document from a devastating twentieth century conflict.
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A devastating example of what the graphic novel form is capable of, Sabrina is a very 21st century story of internet violence, fake news and conspiracy theories. Drawn in a deliberately plain style that chillingly normalises the brutality and trauma its characters undergo, Drnaso’s Booker Prize-longlisted work stands as a towering achievement in the genre.
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The graphic bible of the 90s slacker generation, Clowes’s arch, hip Ghost World follows the misadventures of two teenage friends on the cusp of adult responsibility. Drily witty, visually bold and piercingly acute on the travails of adolescence, Ghost World is a much loved staple of the graphic novel canon.
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£18.99
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Another coming of age tale from a unique family background, this time one formed by the Christian faith in America’s Midwest. Craig Thompson’s masterpiece has an epic sweep, but thrives on the personal detail. As quiet as a snow-covered landscape with much buried beneath.
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£11.99
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Discussion around mental health and depression is opening up, thankfully. But it requires people willing to lead the charge and talk honestly about it. One of those people was Allie Brosh, who started with a blog called Hyperbole and a Half, this is its printed result. It’s searingly honest, laugh-out-loud funny and its crude drawings cut to the heart of the matter.
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£24.99
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One of the most breathtaking of all graphic novels, Moore and Campbell’s forensic examination of the Ripper murders is as much about Victorian society itself as the vicious slayings in Whitechapel. Expounding its theories with psychological acuity and chilling credibility, From Hell terrifies, astounds and moves in equal measure.
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A heady, gloriously gothic concoction of myth, fairytale and folklore, Gaiman’s seminal series starts here as Dream attempts to evade capture and search for his lost objects of power. Twinkling with dark, malevolent beauty and hallucinogenic atmosphere, Preludes and Nocturnes introduces the evocative world of The Sandman.
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Una
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A very British graphic novel, set in Yorkshire during the 1970s where the violence of the Yorkshire Ripper cast a long shadow. Looking at what it means to be a woman growing up in a culture of male violence with no consequences, this is a book that feels even more powerful now during a period where that culture is being challenged.
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Affectionate, hilarious and filled with dazzling puns, Flake tells of rival ice-cream men in a small coastal resort in Northern England. While principally comic, Dooley’s very funny debut pays visual homage to Chris Ware’s melancholy, but with a huge burst of sunshine and optimism thrown in. Flake is a delightful, laugh-out-loud graphic novel that puts Dooley into the top ranks of comic fiction.

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As hypnotically beautiful as it is horrifying (and, believe it or not, autobiographical), Black Hole transcends its genre by deftly exploring a specific American cultural moment in flux and the kids who are caught in it - back when it wasn't exactly cool to be a hippie any more, but Bowie was still just a little too weird. To say nothing of sprouting horns and moulting your skin.
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A feminist update to the story of Scheherazade and 1001 Nights, Isabel Greenberg’s fairytale is a delight. It’s a novel about storytelling itself, but also of love and female friendship that cannot help but enchant the reader.
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A spectacular graphic mash-up of biography, cultural history and psychogeography, Talbot’s expansive masterpiece ties the life story of Lewis Carroll in to an immersive journey through Sunderland’s past. Absorbing, informative and illustrated with astounding draughtsmanship, Alice in Sunderland is an unparalleled work of graphic art.
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£17.99
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A pioneering comic book series set in both the fictional South American environs of Palomar and the vibrant alternative scene of LA, Love and Rockets is a raucous, ribald and sensuous soap opera in graphic novel form. Introducing the iconic ‘locas’ Maggie and Hopey, Maggie the Mechanic kickstarts the Hernandez brothers’ panoramic epic in fine style.
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£12.99
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Kate Beaton’s hilarious collection is a riotous mash of history, literary references and a one of a kind sense of humour, Hark A Vagrant! will have you laughing from cover to cover. Perceptive, sharp and wonderfully irreverent, Hark! A Vagrant is as informative as it is hilarious, and a comic collection to treasure.
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£19.99
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Arguably the greatest graphic novel of all time, Watchmen redefined the notion of the superhero, transforming them from crusading ciphers to complex, flawed individuals with a raft of personal demons. Covering everything from nuclear war to the iniquities of the press, Moore and Gibbons’ masterpiece stretched the boundaries of what a graphic novel could achieve.
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Comments

John Wharrie

I’m surprised to see Maus and Barefoot Gen omitted from the list. Both books, and there sequels, dealt with profund issues and had a lasting effect on me. View more

John Wharrie
20th August 2018
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