The term “Graphic Novel” is considered to be an all-inclusive one. This means that a graphic novel could be a standalone story that is either a hardcover or a trade paperback, or it could be a series of individual comic books featuring a single story arc that’s published as a single volume. And it might also be a journalistic or some hard edged social commentary or something else entirely.
Sequential storytelling, which is the basic element that makes up a graphic novel, has indeed come a long way. No longer is it solely considered to be all about humor or made exclusively for children. The themes, the subjects that is depicted within and tackled by graphic novels have evolved.
Compiling a list of the greatest graphic novels ever made has become a little more challenging because of the sheer proliferation of great examples of this particular type of art. This doesn’t mean however that making up such a list – whether long or short – is not going to be a fun exercise.
The following attempt at such a list should therefore be treated as an exercise in fun, showcasing some of the very best examples of graphic novels over the years. This short list would also highlight the creators involved as well as the significance of the specific pieces of work.
Watchmen by Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons
To begin a list of the greatest graphic novels of all time with anything other than Watchmen can almost be considered as something approaching blasphemy by some. Yes, it has indeed come to that point, and which only highlights how important this work by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons has become ever since it first came out in the 80’s.
DC Comics actually published Watchmen as a limited series back in 1986 through 1987 and then put it out in a collected edition in 1987. No less an authority than Time magazine even gave Watchmen the lofty status of being not just the greatest graphic novel ever, but being one of the 100 best books of all time. It was a work that was truly revolutionary in ways that few other graphic novels have been able to even match. Many see it as the beginning of the respect that graphic novels now enjoy and it serves as a reminder to everyone of what the comic book and graphic novel mediums are capable of.
The story itself is set in an alternate reality where freelance super heroes are treated as outlaws and where the heroes are either working for the government or have already retired. A group of such heroes investigate the murder of a fallen comrade, which eventually leads to the discovery of a plot that has the potential to wipe out all of mankind. Watchmen was a deep and insightful examination of the genre to which it belonged, and at the same time showcases its greatest potential.
Maus by Art Spiegelman
Maus is a work that demonstrated the true potential of the graphic novel and actually realized it, just like Watchmen. However, it achieved its iconic status in a way that was quite different from the seminal work by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Maus was a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman, an American cartoonist who completed the project in 1991. The impact that this particular piece of work made is demonstrated by the fact that in 1992 it became the very first graphic novel to ever win a Pulitzer Prize.
In Maus, Spiegelman tells the story of his father, who was a survivor of the Holocaust. He depicted different races of humans as animals, with Jews drawn as mice, Germans drawn as cats, and Poles (the non-Jewish ones) drawn as pigs. It is as much a story of Spiegelman’s father as well as a vivid description of the relationship between father and son, which was shown to be far from ideal. The work was innovative for a number of reasons, such as its structure, pacing, and the way the panels and pages were laid out. It was able to achieve this despite the fact that Spiegelman utilized a minimalist art style instead of a flashy and flamboyant one.
Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli
Everyone pretty much knows who Batman is and the basic story of how he came to be Gotham City’s dark knight detective and premiere protector. But the details of how it all happened – from the night that Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered to the moment that he decided to become the Batman – needed the kind of retelling that would remind fans of just how awesome the character really is. Enter Frank Miller, who is probably the best at redefining a superhero and retelling his origin story, making it edgier and so much better. That was exactly what happened when Miller teamed up once more with artist David Mazzucchelli for Batman: Year One. It was more than simply a retelling of Batman’s origin; Year One was also the story of James Gordon’s journey from a cop of the GCPD, to his promotion as captain by the end of the story.
The defining aspect of this graphic novel was the way that Miller delved deeply into the characters of both Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon, what their motivations were as well their purpose. Die-hard bat fans and especially those who are looking to get into the fascinating world of the Dark Knight for the first time, should certainly start with Batman: Year One.
Daredevil: Born Again by Frank Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli
Daredevil: Born Again is the definitive Daredevil story, which was also by the superstar creative team of Frank Miller and David Mazzuccelli. It was at Marvel’s struggling title Daredevil that Miller began to really make his mark, first as the series’ artist and then as its writer as well. Born Again, though, came during his second stint in writing the series. It was actually a story arc that ran from Daredevil #227-233, which was the last time that Miller would write the series although he would again write the character again in the limited series Man Without Fear years later.
Born Again told the story of how Karen Page, former secretary of the law offices of Nelson and Murdock, and Matt Murdock’s former girlfriend, sold Daredevil’s secret identity for a drug fix. The information eventually came into the possession of the Kingpin of crime, DD’s arch-nemesis, who then proceeded to systematically destroy every aspect of Matt Murdock/Daredevil’s life. The story of how the hero was able to reclaim his life and be “born again” definitely merits a place among the greatest graphic novels ever.
Sandman (Volume 1 – Preludes and Nocturnes) by Neil Gaiman
Sandman rightfully belongs in any list of the greatest graphic novels ever made. The story revolves around Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams. Critically acclaimed, The Sandman is considered by many to be one of the greatest graphic novels to have ever been written. Neil Gaiman took on the challenge of re-writing DC’s 1974-1976 Sandman series and leaving his own mark. The story is about a man who captured the King of Dreams. You will be happy to know that there are more Sandman stories to read after Preludes and Nocturnes.
These are some of the titles that are considered to be the greatest when it comes to graphic novels. If you still think that graphic novels are not really books, you should read one of these titles so you can see how wrong you are.