Henry’s [Comic] Book Club: My Personal Rec List of Graphic Novels

Look, if Oprah can have a Book Club, I figure I can have a Comic Book Club.

One of my wife’s friends has recently been smitten by Scott McCloud’s Zot!. As someone who read through the recent collection of Zot! in almost a single sitting (albeit in a hospital bed), I was highly sympathetic with her plight. I offered to draw up a list of recommendations for some other graphic novels she might enjoy, using Zot! as the starting point for calibrating her tastes. Having put in enough time to develop such a list, I figured it was worth passing along to my readers here. So, keep in mind that this was never intended as an all purpose set of comic recs. My bet, however, is that even many of you who have been known to pick up a comic from time to time will find some works here you didn’t already know that you will find worth reading. This list consists of Anglo-American graphic novels which for one reason or another have emerged as personal favorites. Eurocomics and Manga would require whole separate listings, another project for another day.

If you like stories of everyday life, then the following might be your cup of tea:

Blankets – Craig Thompson – charming autobiographical comic of first love among conservative Christians, conveyed with idiosyncratic and expressive visual style. Warm, affectionate, charming.

FunHouse – Alison Bechdel, Another autobiographical comic – this one dealing with the shifting relationship between an eccentric father (a closeted gay man) and his daughter (who is in the process of coming out as a dyke). Full of personal quirks and literary allusions.

Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi – published in two volumes -autobiographical comic focused on the experiences of an Iranian woman from childhood in Tehran through time spent in Europe and America, a child’s eye view on the events that have shaped Iranian politics over the past three decades.

Bottomless Belly Button – Dash Shaw – Shaw was last year’s big discovery – a semi-autobiographical account of a family reunion in what may be one of the world’s most dysfunctional families, reminds me of a Wes Anderson movie (like The Royal Tanenbaums)

It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken – Seth – personal narrative about a man who becomes obsessed with a cartoonist who published in popular magazines in the 50s and 60s and his efforts to track him down – done in a retro style.

Alice in Sunderland – Bryan Talbot – nonfictional comic albeit very idiosyncratic and more than a little obsessive – one man’s attempt to trace the local history of Sunderland (a British city) and its relationship to Alice in Wonderland. Of the comics in this category, it is the most out there formally. If you like it, you should also check out Talbot’s Tale of One Bad Rat, which is about a runaway and his relationship to the fairy tales of Beatrix Potter.

Chiggers — Hope Larsen — nostalgic, bitter-sweet story of two young women who become summer camp friends.

If you like superheroes with a more mature twist, then check out the following (I am assuming that you either know your way around DC/Marvel or have decided this is not to your taste):

Concrete – Paul Chadwick – A political speech writer finds his brain transplanted into a massive concrete hulk and tries to figure out what he’s going to do with his life. One part love story, one part superhero fantasy, one part political drama.

The Works of Alan Moore – the key ones are Watchmen (the basis for the recent film), League of Extraordinary Gentleman (literary figures like the Invisible Man and Dr. Jeckel function as 19th century superheroes), V for Vendetta (Anarchist tries to bring down a totalitarian regime), Top Ten (Hill Street Blues in a superhero universe).

Astro City – Kurt Busiek – A veteran superhero author, best friends with Scott McCloud, explores the stories that can’t be told through traditional superhero comics – themes about work, love, labor. Busiek also did Marvels which is about a photographer living in a world dominated by Marvel Superheroes.

Demo – Brian Woods – a much more alternative character-driven take on the superhero — with the genre functioning more as a metaphor than as a story structure. Woods tends to do more realist comics often with a dark or depressing undertow.

Ex Machina – Brian K. Vaughn – a superhero ends up stopping 9/11 and gets elected mayor of New York City – much more West Wing than Superman.

Ultra – Luna Brothers – how the gossip mags would deal with a world where superheroes are the primary celebrities. The Luna Brothers have a cringe-worthy tendency towards Cheese-cake but underneath the glossy exteriors are complex characters and a barbed perspective on contemporary life.

Alias – Brian Bendis – a private eye story set in the world of Marvel Superheroes with a troubled female protagonist – owes as much to Sarah Paretsky as to Spider-Man. If you like Bendis, there’s lots of good stuff out there, but this is a good introduction. You can enjoy it if you don’t know Marvel universe, but it helps if you do.

Noble Causes — Jay Faerber — a soap opera about the conflicts, loves, scandals, and triumphs of the country’s leading superhero family — in this case, the model is probably the Kennedy family.

MadMan — Mike Allred — the superhero genre as a “fish out of water” comedy full of snarky injoke references to contemporary popular culture.

If you like science fiction, fantasy or Horror, then here’s where to start:

Transmetropolitan – Warren Ellis – Hunter S. Thompson in a cyberpunk universe – dark, raunchy, acerbic. If you do like Ellis, also check out Global Frequency (about a volunteer army in the future which confronts all forms of science run amok.)

The Middleman – Javier Grillo-Marxuach – The Avengers (the British tv show) meets Men in Black – campy, zany. Basis of a good but largely neglected television series.

The Sandman – Neil Gaiman – an exploration of the power of stories and myth – the protagonist is the god of dreams and his family of immortals, though we get to know some richly drawn human characters along the way.

Fables – Bill Willingham – Characters from classic fairy tales and rhymes live a very real and mature life on the edges of human civilization

Y the Last Man – Brian K. Vaughn – Some traumatic event has destroyed the male population of the planet, one male survivor is trying to figure out why he survived and make his way to Australia to reunite with his girl friend, while struggling with various political factions he encounters along the way.

Black Hole – Charles Burns – a macabre story, very much a tribute to 1950s horror comics, about teens dealing with a sexually transmitted disease which causes them to mutate.

The Walking Dead – Robert Kirkman – only if you have a pretty high tolerance for gore – a story about humans surviving in a world increasingly dominated by Zombies, much more about the social and emotional consequences of global trauma than about monsters per se.

Age of Bronze – Eric Shanower – historically accurate, detailed account of the Trojan War. Shanower has also done a lovingly detailed series of original Oz books which are worth reading if you like L. Frank Baum.

White Out – Greg Rucka – a female officer working in Antarctica deals with murder and sabotage, taunt story for people who like mysteries set in odd places.

Sandman Mystery Theater – Matt Wagner – Not to be confused with The Sandman, series about a pulp detective (in the same mode as The Shadow) solving crimes in 1930s New York. If you enjoy sword and sorcery, check out Wagner’s Mage series.

Bayou — This is the most recent book to make it on my list — just finished reading it a few days ago and my head is still spinning. Bayou takes us into the dark, haunting world of a young black girl growing up in the segregated south who goes on an adventure in search of a missing white girl. It manages to combine southern folklore with a blistering depiction of race in America — it’s a comic where images of lynching and Brier Rabbit may appear side by side.

These don’t fit comfortably in any category I can think of but they’d be high up on my list:

Maus – Art Spigelman – The story of how Spigelman’s parents endure and survive the holocaust as represented through Mice, Cats, and Pigs.

Jimmy Corrigan – Chris Ware – formally dazzling, bleak and lonely story about a grown man who doesn’t know where to go next and how he lost his way.

Love and Rockets – The Hernandez Brothers – you will either love it or hate it and odds are you will know which before you are more than a few pages into it – Really two separate sets of stories, one set south of the border in a small Mexican village, the other set amongst hipsters living in contemporary Los Angeles.

Alias the Cat – Kim Deitch – Deitch shares most of my own obsessions with early 20th century popular culture – this story moves from contemporary eBey and collector’s culture to silent serials, early comics, and side show freaks. Again, you will either love it or hate it. If you love it, there’s much more where this comes from.

Ghost World – Daniel Clowes – charming coming of age story about two snarky hipster adolescent girls – made into a good movie.

Strangers in Paradise – Terry Moore – This one took a wrong turn about half way through, but the first few graphic novels are funny and engaging in their depiction of the ups and downs in the friendship between two outspoken women.

Amelia Rules — Jimmy Gownley — Wonderful comic about a middle school girl and her colorful group of friends, very playful in its use of the vocabulary of cartooning — especially strongly recommended as a point of entry for younger readers into graphic storytelling.

I’d love to get some new recommendations from readers. What books do you think others should be reading?


  1. Hi Henry,

    I would also recommend the classic British strips:

    Judge Dredd: available now as a series of chronological graphic novels. The first one (covering the late 70s) is slow and you can see they are trying out ideas, but once it hits its stride (vol 2), there really is no looking back.

    Slaine: another classic 2000AD strip. The graphic novels ‘The Horned God’ and ‘Book of Invasions’ (3 books) have some amazing artwork and storytelling.

    DMZ: a great strip by Brian Wood

    The Walking Dead: a really great Zombie tale, focusing more on the human dimension of trying to cope with the situation (a bit like the classic British series ‘Survivors’)

    Charley’s War: Pat Mills reflection on the futility of war. I read this as a kid in the early 80s and it’s really stood up well to time (although Pat Mill’s introductions to each volume get a bit boring after a while).

    The Preacher: probably my favourite US graphic novel series ever – although the language might not be to everyone’s taste.

  2. Michael Underwood says:

    I’d recommend DMZ (also by Brian Wood). The setting is a near-future (from the time-frame of 2006) where a new civil war has erupted over anti-war fatigue and other factors. The civil war is really just the excuse to turn Manhattan into a disaster area. Manhattan is the de-militarized zone, abandoned by both sides. The series initially follows a journalist dropped unwittingly into Manhattan and abandoned. He then starts reporting on life in the DMZ, the people and the hidden stories. The entire series is a way of using a speculative setting to bring war home to America, to show us as the ones affected by war instead of it being a distant thing that happens to other people.

    In the psuedo-superheroes world is Promethea, a somewhat lesser-known Alan Moore series. It’s one half Captain Marvel (DC’s) and one half Sandman. Sophie Barnes is a college student who stumbles into the world of the supernal and becomes the latest Promethea — incarnation of the goddess of creativity. The series is deeply inter-textual and the later story arcs include a tour through the Qabbalistic Sephiroth.

  3. Great list. However, the name of the Alison Bechdel book is “Fun Home”, not “FunHouse”.

    As for recommendations, I think you’d like “The Arrival”, by Shaun Tan — a beautifully illustrated and wordless depiction of the immigrant experience through a fantasy lens.

    “The Rabbi’s Cat”, by Joann Sfar, might also be up your alley. It’s a historical and somewhat fantastical depiction of the Jewish experience in early-20th century Algeria. With a talking cat.

    Most of Sfar’s other work is great, too, but a lot hasn’t been translated into English yet.

  4. Just realized I missed your comment about this being an “Anglo-American” list. Sorry if my recommendations are beside the point!

  5. I highly recommend Bookhunter, by Jason Shiga. It’s a hard-boiled detective novel set in a library. The Library Police use their forensic skill, advanced weaponry, and athletics to track down book thieves and censors.

    The next graphic novel I’m planning to read is Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli. It’s a fictional everyday life novel, about an architect who has never built a building

  6. I found McCloud’s how-to books, “Making Comics” and “Understanding Comics” insanely informative, likewise Eisner’s “Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative”. “The Contract With God Trilogy” turns the medium inside out, and I can’t quite get enough of Brian K. Vaughn’s originals.

    Perhaps you’d consider making a similar list for films, particularly silents?

  7. Lots of good stuff already here. I really enjoyed Jonathan Hickman’s The Nightly News, Transhuman, and I’ve just ordered the trade for Pax Romana. Hickman’s got a very distinctive visual style, and Nightly News and Transhuman are near-future style stories.

    He’s working at Marvel now mostly, but I’m still hearing good things about his work there, esp on Secret Warriors.

    Oh, and I’d add Powers by Bendis and Oeming to the alt-superhero list. Definitely more mature than most DC/Marvel stuff, and maybe a better introduction to the Bendis style than Alias, even, since it’s his own universe.


  8. The Flight series is great for more mature readers who would be happy being kids for a little while.

    The books are collections of richly illustrated short stories from different artists and writers. Many of them hark from animation or webcomic disciplines, so most of the stories have a certain inexorable tempo. Most of the stories are also one-shots, with a few episodic pieces across multiple volumes.

    They are both expensive and some stories contain rather edgy material, but the group issued also made the “Flight Explorer” for younger audiences.

  9. I love that you’ve included BAYOU on this list! Are you reading it on the web, too? It is brilliant, innovative, and beautiful. – Claudia

  10. Its a good list and if I start following down the list, it will keep me busy for a long while 😉

    The best graphic novel I have read so far is Fables … amazing graphics but it has gone down in its stroyline since the Fables crossover.

  11. http://www.deadline.com/hollywood/toldja-warner-bros-creates-dc-entertainment/

    The founding of DC Entertainment fully recognizes our desire to provide both the DC properties and fans the type of content that is only possible through a concerted cross-company, multi-platform effort,” said Nelson. “DC Entertainment will help us to formally take the great working relationships between DC Comics and various Warner Bros. businesses to the next level in order to maximize every opportunity to bring DC’s unrivalled collection of titles and characters to life.”

    — Paul Levitz

    Does this mean…war?

  12. Persepolis is not an Anglo American comic. Moreover, Marjane doesn’t spend time in America and she is a child just in the first part of the story/autobiography.

  13. Gabriel Szoke says:

    I’d have added Alan Moore’s Promethea to this list, as well as 100 Bullets and Hellboy.

  14. Gabriel Szoke says:

    For that matter, Sin City, The Dark Knight Returns, Ronin and the two Martha Washington series. Seems Frank MIller was ignored her. Considering how much he’s contributed to the medium, that’s surprising.

  15. You must read the French authors Dupuy and Berberian (http://www.drawnandquarterly.com/shopCatalogLong.php?st=art&art=a3fe8b3dc4aa8f) and the French Canadian Guy Delisle (http://www.drawnandquarterly.com/shopCatalogLong.php?st=art&art=a41e32dcb62910). Their sense of aesthetics, storytelling and humour are the most endearing and human that I have ever come across. And I’m not sure if Manga counts, but another master storyteller is Osamu Tezuka (MW, Ode to Kritihito.

  16. You must read the French authors Dupuy and Berberian (http://www.drawnandquarterly.com/shopCatalogLong.php?st=art&art=a3fe8b3dc4aa8f) and the French Canadian Guy Delisle (http://www.drawnandquarterly.com/shopCatalogLong.php?st=art&art=a41e32dcb62910). Their sense of aesthetics, storytelling and humour are the most endearing and human that I have ever come across. And I’m not sure if Manga counts, but another master storyteller is Osamu Tezuka (MW, Ode to Kirihito.

  17. I think David Mazzucchelli’s “Asterios Polyp” is one of the most remarkable graphic novels I’ve read. It really employs its medium to help tell the story, using color, drawing style, lettering style, balloon style, and more to convey aspects of the plot and characters.

    And I’ll put in another vote for Osamu Tezuka. I’m just finishing his eight-part “Buddha,” which manages to be both spiritual and highly entertaining. Imagine Hesse’s “Siddhartha” as an action movie.

  18. Great list. Mine is hosted here http://www.ulike.net/flyintiger/library/bd

    and incorporates Eurocomics as well. I would add Daniel Clowes’ Eightball to the list and certainly something by R. Crumb.

    You can browse through ulike’s extensive comics libraries, for US or European comics at http://www.ulike.net