You don’t need to tell comic book and graphic novel fans that there’s a whole lot more than superheroes out there. However, if you’re just starting to dabble, might we make a few recommendations…?
Put Mad Max in some plaid, make him feel a little Wolverine circa X-Men: Origins, add some creepy Wes Anderson stop-motion animals, and you’ll get Sweet Tooth, the post-apocalyptic story of human-animal hybrids in rural Nebraska. You may be familiar with Jeff Lemire’s other work on Animal Man and Green Lantern, or his acclaimed graphic novel Essex County, but for me, Sweet Tooth really is something special. Running from 2009 to 2013, this forty-issue arc centres around Gus, a young boy with antlers living with his strictly religious father in a world infected by some sort of plague. After his father dies, he ventures out of his comfort zone and into the new world, meeting Jepperd, a gruff and troubled Frank Castle-inspired character, along the way. Lemire revealed in an interview with the AV Club that he always wanted to write something post-apocalyptic, compared to his usual comics based in reality and, to me, this is one of the greatest comics of that genre that I’ve read. It’s touching, haunting, and far more human than most series I’ve gotten my hands on in recent years.
I Kill Giants
If you’re looking for a short and sweet standalone graphic novel that will cause an intense emotional reaction in you, pick up I Kill Giants. Collecting a very limited seven-issue run, this volume is the story of Barbara, a strange girl who fights giant monsters in her own fantasy land to escape from the realities of her own world. As with many similar stories, there’s something too heavy for a child to accept going on in reality and ‘killing giants’ is her way of dealing with it. This is a nice one to pick up if you’re into shows that drop nostalgia bombs like Stranger Things, Dungeons And Dragons, and monster-fighting manga like Attack On Titan, although admittedly this is a lot less violent and a lot more touchy-feely, in the best possible way. There’s even a film on the way directed by Danish director Anders Walter, starring Madison Wolfe (True Detective), Zoe Saldana, Imogen Poots, and Noel Clarke.
The New Ghost
In this incredibly short-form graphic novel from Nobrow Press, we meet a man working in an observatory who spots a ghost through his telescope. Across 24 stunning pages we learn about love and loss, as well as the stars in the sky. What really stands out for me in this one is Robert Frank Hunter’s beautiful art style, using shades of blue and pink to echo the night sky. There’s not much more I can say about this other than to really recommend getting your hands on a copy, either for yourself or for a artistically-inclined loved one. You can see more of Robert’s art on his website.
Adventures Of A Japanese Business Man
This silent yet hilarious hardcover graphic novel from Spanish cartoonist José Dominto does exactly what it says on the tin. We follow the adventures of a nameless Japanese business man who finds himself caught up in a crazy adventure, travelling the world, even into the depths of hell. This graphic novel is punchy and colourful, showcasing how cartoon art can be simple yet brilliant. A very quick read but well worth getting your hands on for yourself or an arty friend.
I was very slow on the uptake finding out that there were Terry Pratchett graphic novels residing on this planet, but here we have it: Guards! Guards! in full illustrated glory. This Pratchett adaptation is based on Stephen Briggs’ script for the stage play and illustrated by Graham Higgins, who also worked on the graphic novel for Mort and 2000 AD. I think this is the perfect book to pick up if you’re just getting into Pratchett, or want to introduce someone to the atmosphere of Discworld without the dedication of an albeit small book. For those not in the know, Guards! Guards! focuses on the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork, probably one of the worst places to live, and the attempt of the Unique and Supreme Lodge of the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night to summon a dragon. Of the limited Pratchett I’ve read (I know, boo hiss), this was probably one of my favourites. It’s witty (like all Pratchett books), incredibly clever, and sets up the city of Ankh-Morpork perfectly for the rest of the Discworld series.
Vignettes Of Ystov
A collection of stories based in the fictional town of Ystov, William Goldsmith’s graphic novel uses a different shade of watercolour to weave each tale, with characters from one finding their way in another. The stories aren’t always joyful, but the art is always stunning, and shows the interlocking nature of life in a small town. Everyone knows everything about everyone else, or at least, they think they do. There’s a definite Soviet, industrial, and slightly dingy feeling to the entire book, but the charm lives in its occupants and the complicated struggles of daily life.
I Killed Adolf Hitler
This is, by far, one of the greatest graphic novels I’ve ever read. As far as I’m aware, it’s now out of print, but can be bought digitally through the publisher’s website. I Killed Adolf Hitler is set in a future where contract killers are sent through time to remove those ‘irritating’ people from your life, like your boss, your rude neighbour, or your ex-spouse. One such contract is to kill, you guessed it, Adolf Hitler. Our protagonist travels back in time, only to find himself stranded in the past as Hitler escapes back into the future. The rest of the graphic novel follows the assassin living his life in the past, waiting to hit the time Hitler travelled to, and finally taking him down. It’s a bizarre story as it’s incredibly sentimental and touching at times, dealing with relationships and ageing, as well as the death of loved ones. Jason’s drawings are simple but full of expression, even when there are no words.
One of the shortest graphic novels on this list, John Martz’s Destination X is also tiny and silent, but creates a whole world of characters with their own problems and a wicked sense of humour. Inspired by pulp sci-fi, Star Trek, ghost stories, and The Twilight Zone, a young astronaut struggles to find love, obsessing over the women around him, and setting his sights only on one goal. There’s not much else I can say without giving away the entirety of this miniature story; it’s truly sweet but sad.
This One Summer
This One Summer is a ‘coming of age’ graphic novel written and illustrated by cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, detailing the trials of friendship that occur between two girls, Rose and Windy, as they enter the formative years of their life. The one summer in question is the complicated one where they first start to notice boys, as well as the struggles that face the adults in their lives, completely removing them from the regularity of their usual summers together. Instead of swimming in the sea and buying sweets, they gaze at the boys working in the corner shop and Rose listens to her parents argue about her mother’s fertility problems. I’m a huge fan of ‘coming of age’ stories as they always seem to leave the reader with a renewed sense of hope, a memory of how we dealt with life when it was simpler.
The Enigma Of Amigara Fault
This is the one to read if you enjoy giving yourself spine-chilling nightmares, but may be quite difficult to get your hands on. Originally featured as a bonus story in the horror manga series Gyo, this short story is one that would often circulate message boards and Reddit forums when the theme of ‘things that made you unable to sleep’ came up. The story focuses on hikers on the Amigara Mountain, discovering a mysterious fault that appeared after an earthquake. The fault itself appears completely unnatural and looks as if it appear from the inside of the mountain outwards, rather than the other way round. It’s a bit like Stonehenge: how could something so substantial possibly have been created without technology? Everything starts getting a bit weird when people try and enter the fault…really, really weird. I would recommend you read this one with the lights on. I’m not sure what else I could possibly compare this story to, literary, cinematically or otherwise, other than old-school body horror. If that tickles your interests, find yourself a copy of this manga as soon as possible.
Another short book from the folks at Nobrow Press, the Berlin-based Mikkel Sommer uses beautiful art and very few words to tell the story of soldiers returning from the war in Afghanistan and struggling with substance abuse. The lines between their nightmares and reality become blurred in this tiny volume, with a lot of storytelling and character-building happening on so few pages. You can see more of Mikkel’s art on his website.
If you’ve ever studied comics and graphic novels academically, or you’ve ever been interested in their form as a whole, you’ve probably heard of Scott McCloud. His Understanding Comics series about the medium, its uses, and its styles is renowned and referenced in many a piece of writing about how comics ‘work’. The Sculptor, released in 2015, is McCloud’s foray into fiction, standing strong at nearly 500 pages of beautiful blue and grey art. His protagonist, the young artist David, isn’t hopeful about his life after a stream of bad fortune until he meets Death, who makes him a tempting offer. David can gain the power to sculpt anything he wants, but he will die after 200 days. This is, at the heart of it, a story about love, as he meets an actress called Meg, and must deal with his feelings for her amongst using his new gift, with the knowledge he doesn’t have much longer on the planet, as well as Meg’s struggle with depression. I’ve had the great honour of meeting Mr McCloud and took the chance to tell him how much pain and misery this graphic novel caused me. He seemed quite pleased to hear that, and so I pass this pain and misery on to you. It’s well worth it.
Ending on a slightly cheerier-note, this is a graphic novel series started in 2009 by Bryan Talbot (Alice In Sunderland) about an anthropomorphic detective badger in France. Think Wind In The Willows meets 1920s film noir, a combination you never knew you needed. There are four volumes so far: Grandville, Grandville Mon Amour, Grandville Bete Noire, Grandville Noel, and the fifth, Grandville: Force Majeure, will be published later this year. Detective Inspector LeBrock, the aforementioned badger, travels to Grandville (a steampunk Paris) to solve Holmesian mysteries. From political conspiracies to serial killings, this is all set in an alternate present day where Britain lost the Napoleonic Wars and the entire Royal Family were executed. Guillotined, no less. Britain is purely comprised of French-speaking rural communities, but independent after a long period of anarchy. Humans do exist amongst the largely-animal population, but as second-class citizens, unintelligent and forbidden to travel. It’s a really compelling setting for any story, but the detective mystery element brings it all together. To me, this is perfect fodder for a Wes Anderson-style stop-motion film series. It’s funny, eerie, and altogether very surreal.