graphic novels

The Best Graphic Novels and Memoirs, According to Experts

Photo-Illustration: retailers

Graphic novels push the boundaries of storytelling by using imagery to bring fantastical worlds to life. They can make historical moments accessible and display human emotions that easily get lost in translation in prose. That’s to say it’s not all superheroes and monsters: There’s a whole wide world of literary graphic novels and memoirs to explore. We spoke to 14 experts —including book critics and librarians as well as artists and graphic novelists themselves — to find the best stuff out there. Below, a curated yet wide-ranging list of books that runs the gamut from necessary historical nonfiction to an intimate family portrait. Following the tradition of our Reading Lists, each of the 11 books below were recommended by two or more experts.

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Fun Home by Alison Bechdel was the only book recommended by four experts: Teresa Wong, Kate Dehler, Kristen Radtke, and Anya Davidson. The memoir is an intimate family history of when Bechdel comes out as a lesbian and discovers that her father was also gay. Weeks after the revelation, her father dies, leaving Bechdel to grieve and come to terms with these newfound truths. Radtke, who’s a writer and illustrator herself, and whose book Seek You is featured on this list, credits Bechdel as an influence on her own work. “I probably wouldn’t have become a comic artist myself if it wasn’t for Alison Bechdel. I feel like a lot of comic artists can say that,” she says, adding that it was a “breakthrough book” to get more mainstream readers “to read books of comics and treat them as literature.” Wong, author of the graphic memoir Dear Scarlet: The Story of My Postpartum Depression, also calls it “hugely influential” because Bechdel digs into her family secrets through “remarkable imagery and layout work” that has stuck with her. “Reading such an emotional, complex story isn’t always as fun as Bechdel’s made it,” Dehler, who’s an artist, says of the self-proclaimed family tragicomic. “The novel is truly hilarious.” Dehler adds that reading the book “feels really intimate — it’s laid out like I’m peeking into a family album. It isn’t overproduced, either, which gives it a raw, honest quality.”

Marjane Satrapi’s book Persepolis, which has since been made into an animated movie, was recommended by three experts. The book follows Satrapi’s life in Tehran from age 6 to 14, a time during the Islamic Revolution and later the Iran–Iraq War. Varud Gupta, author of the graphic novel Chhotu: A Tale of Love and Partition, says Satrapi captures this moment in time “so effortlessly, bringing alive the history and culture of the period through both humor and sadness to weave a captivating part memoir, part political narrative.” Wong calls it “the biggest influence on my own work, because until then I hadn’t realized that you could use comics and in that way to tell a really highly personal story, to tell a true story. And to tell it so beautifully, too.” All three of the experts say Satrapi’s artwork is done in a way that feels deeply relatable to readers. “The cozy illustrations feel like I’m in somebody’s home being told this story,” says Jordan Sondler, author of the graphic book Feel It Out, adding that the intimacy makes this difficult topic “more easily digestible,” while Gupta says Persepolis “uses the graphic novel medium to the full potential.” The book brings a foreign time and place to life through “very simple details allowing the reader to really understand the range of emotions and feelings of the characters.”

Visual artist Janie Korn, illustrator Liana Finck, and freelance comics journalist Anya Davidson all recommend Daniel Clownes’s graphic novel Ghost World. Korn, who discovered the book in her late teens says she “​​felt as if I was in conversation with my oddball peers” and praised the work’s “subtle, snappy wit and easy realism.” Ghost World follows Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Dopplemeyer as they “float through that awkward limbo that bridges childhood and adulthood,” Korn explains. She appreciates how “cutting and sarcastic” the characters are as they “narrate the existence of suburban adolescence, snarking at the quirks and ironies and collecting eccentric misfits on the way.” Korn adds, “Underpinning it all, effortlessly, is angst and melancholy — and, like, what could be funnier than that?”

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Photo: Publisher

Seek You by Kristen Radtke explores loneliness in America through the lens of historical and cultural topics. “Most people think of fiction when they think of graphic books. However, nonfiction stories can be told through pictures, too, allowing for a true story to come even more alive for the reader,” says book reviewer Jordan Snowden. Harry Harlow’s psychological study of monkeys, the invention of the laugh track, and the rise of Instagram are just a few of the historical moments covered in the book. “It’s just so wide-ranging and interesting. It kind of feels like the most wonderful textbook on psychology that you’ve ever read except it’s a comic and it’s about loneliness. It’s just remarkable,” says Malaka Gharib, author of the graphic memoir I Was Their American Dream. The “groundbreaking” book “changes the game in what we expect, supplying information and scientific information to the public using this format.”

Both Beth Hetland, a comics professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Leigh Hurwitz, the outreach librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library, mention BTTM FDRS by Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore. The novel takes place in the fictional working-class neighborhood of “Bottomyards” on Chicago’s South Side. “As artists, fashion designers, and DJs gentrify the neighborhood, there is a gooey, horrifying presence engulfing one crumbling factory turned cheap apartment complex,” Hurwitz explains, calling the book an “Afro-futurist horror-comedy” that deals with “gentrification, urban blight, housing, and race.” She adds, “You will want to stay in this book forever.”

Roz Chast’s graphic memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant was recommended by both Wong and Finck. The book tackles the somber subject of her parents aging in an “extremely funny” way, according to Wong, who adds that the book is also “sad and heartbreaking.” While Chast is known for injecting dark humor into all of her work, this particular memoir stands out to Wong. “I really am in awe of how she can balance the dark with the light and be entertaining as well as meaningful and impactful.”

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Grass is one of the more recent graphic memoirs that I’ve read that really touched me,” says Wong. She explains that it’s “not an easy read”: It tells the story of a Korean woman taken hostage during World War II to be a comfort woman for Japanese soldiers. “It is a very dark time in history, but it’s an important one to learn about,” Wong says. Radtke echoes these points, too, calling it a “devastating” book that “everyone should read.” Done in the style of traditional Chinese and East Asian ink-wash painting, the artwork in Grass is “very evocative” and “matches the story well,” according to Wong.

For a lighter, “deeply hilarious” read, Radtke and Korn love Walter Scott’s Wendy: Master of Art series. “I absolutely adored being an interloper at the University of Hell, Canada, alongside Wendy as she pursues her MFA,” says Korn, who enjoyed delving into the “chaotic, hilariously art-world antics.” Both she and Radtke recommend this for artists specifically, since “anyone who’s ever been to art school, or wanted to be an artist or, like, failed in an artistic endeavor will see themselves in their pages,” Radtke explains. Adding to the situational humor, “the lines in the book are funny,” says Radtke who thinks the “classically comic” style further communicates Scott’s jokes. “The characters pulsate and sweat and look visually like the caricatures that they are,” Korn explains. “For example, the most accomplished student in the program, who is almost otherworldly, is drawn as a literal alien. When the students gather at a bar and get increasingly drunk, their faces begin to turn into scribbles and slide off their skulls.”

From Hell was recommended by Finck and Hetland, who says, “This book is a master class in writing.” The crime-fiction graphic novel paints a picture of who the serial killer Jack the Ripper was and what his motivations were. “The way that Alan Moore weaves together a wide range of source material in his narrative is nothing short of wizardry,” says Hetland. As for the artwork, she explains that Campbell’s drawings “encapsulate some of the frenetic chaos of the media frenzy and fear at the time” and effectively capture the “foggy London atmosphere” through “immediate, swift” illustrations.

Radtke and Davidson both recommend Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. The fictional graphic diary is told from the perspective of a 10-year-old who’s trying to solve the murder of her upstairs neighbor. Radtke notes that all of Ferris’s illustrations are drawn with ballpoint pen on lined paper, setting it apart from most other graphic novels. “Emil is able to have such control of her pen in a way that I just don’t see,” Radtke explains. “The images feel extremely three-dimensional even when she’s just using pen, and it speaks so well to the young narrator. It feels very alive and youthful.” Radtke says this book has mass appeal since it draws in fans of more traditional comics and literary readers. “It really straddles that line in such an interesting way,” she says.

Davidson and Hetland recommended The Hard Tomorrow by Eleanor Davis. The graphic novel follows a couple as they try to conceive and build a home, all while political strife builds in the world they live in, too. “It’s a book that came out prior to the events of 2016 and is a story crafted from Davis’s fears of where the country was headed,” Hetland explains, adding that it “feels deeply personal in how it talks about the choices we make for the future.” Davis’s artwork portrays “deep-seated feelings that can be hard to name or pinpoint,” Hetland says. “Describing how someone feels or their internal thoughts just isn’t as poignant as bearing witness.”

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