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Drawn Out: The 50 Best Non-Superhero Graphic Novels

Disaffected hipsters, cyberpunk dystopias, cranky ducks and boy geniuses: here are the greatest comic-story collections that don’t feature caped crusaders

Summer has become the de facto season of the superhero movies, and while some of us still love a good guy-in-a-cape-fights-for-truth-justice-etc. comic book, some counterprogramming is in order. Here are 50 outstanding comics — graphic novels of literary fiction, journalism, sci-fi, fantasy, the works — that do not contain superheroes whatsoever.

How Spider-Man Conquered the World

Note: No daily or weekly newspaper strips were included here, so apologies to outstanding works like Peanuts, Doonesbury, Calvin and Hobbes, Dick Tracy, Life in Hell, anything by Saul Steinberg, and Krazy Kat (still the Beatles of newspaper comics). Also, fanpersons, we’re aware that chances are your favorite title is not on here; you’ll undoubtledly hate the ranking order; and you’ll find some selections idiosyncratic at best and outrageous at worst. But since those of us who love comics also love nothing more than complaining about comics, you’re welcome.

Courtesy The Mirage Group


‘Puma Blues,’ Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli

It started as an environmental, post- disaster sci-fi book featuring mutated, flying manta rays as a surprisingly creepy allegory about chaotic pollution — and ended as an almost plot-less prose poem with
Zulli's gorgeous animal drawings. "Puma Blues" is John J. Audubon listening to Crass and dreaming about the Book of Revelations. One of the weirdest comics of a deeply weird era.

Courtesy Image Comics


‘Multiple Warheads,’ Brandon Graham

Very few books scream "this is pure comics!" as loudly as Brandon Graham's weird sci-fi book, one that
sometimes looks like it belongs sprayed on a wall and often looks like it jumped off a hyper kid's notebook. A mix of microscopic detail, a wiseass sense of humor and a post-manga vibe,
"Multiple Warheads" is pure next-gen pulp — as colorful, clever and cracked as anything a modern comic artist has concocted.

Courtesy Drawn and Quartley


‘Berlin,’ Jason Lutes

Irregularly published since 1996, Berlin is Lutes' long-in-production, multi-volume story of Weimar Berlin from 1928 to the dawn of the Nazi era. It was originally slated for 24 issues; by issue 18, its slow march toward some sort of conclusion felt damn near interminable. Then you pick up one of the two collections published to date — and suddenly, this interweaving tale of politics and problems seems worth the wait.

Courtesy Drawn and Quartley


‘Safe Area Gorazde,’ Joe Sacco

Joe Sacco is one of the medium's premier journalists; that he has focused on war-torn regions makes his work feel that much more vital and impressive. His books on the Middle East (Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza) are excellent, but this monumental 2000 book about the Bosnian War — mixing Sacco's time in mid-90s Bosnia with interviews of those living in (or rather, stuck in) the Gorazde — is a great place to start.


Courtesy Drawn and Quartley


‘Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths,’ Shigeru Mizuki

In 1973, Japanese cartoonist Shigeru Mizuki published this account of his time in the Japanese army during World War II, a conflict that cost Mizuki many war buddies and his left arm. In Onward, war is exactly as vet advertise: crushing boredom interspersed with sheer terror. Death haunts these men at every moment.

Courtesy DC Entertainment


‘100 Bullets,’ Brian Azarello and Eduardo Risso

A high concept crime comic about revenge — a mysterious man gives you a gun, 100 untraceable bullets and proof about the people who wronged you — gave way to a sprawling thriller about a vast criminal conspiracy reaching back centuries. Azarello's storytelling is good, but Risso's art is flat-out astounding, particularly his work with shadow and chiaroscuro. He's the perfect artist for Azarello's fallen world.

Courtesy Fantagraphics


‘You’ll Never Know,’ C. Tyler

Using a lovely mix of ink and a carefully controlled watercolor palette, this wonderful trilogy by Carol Tyler explores how her father's experiences in World War II shaped her family and informed a complicated time in her life. Tyler is a top flight memoirist, and You'll Never Know pulses with a maturity not often found in the medium.

Courtesy Fantagraphics


‘Usagi Yojimbo,’ Stan Sakai

Basically spinning out of the idea that rabbit ears look cool tied in a samurai topknot, Sakai based his rabbit ronin on the legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, mixed with plenty of Kurosawa and cheaper samurai fare. Thirty years later, Sakai is up to volume 27 (!) of Usagi's collected adventures, making for one of the longest running independent comics around. Never less than thoughtful and entertaining, Usagi Yojimbo is one of the most consistent comics around. That's no small feat, but Sakai is a total pro and a consummate craftsman.

Courtesy Drawn and Quartley


‘Hark! A Vagrant,’ Kate Beaton

Dear God, is this woman funny. Beaton, a Canadian cartoonist, started channelling her interests in history and pre-20th century literature into a web comic in 2007, wherein you can find Anne of Green Gable mashed up with the story of Anne of Cleves, Napoleon ranting about being actually 5'8" and 15th Century Peasant Romance Comics. Beaton's comic timing is like free jazz, in that you never know quite how the jokes will land; every one leaves you thinking "How the hell did she do that?"

Courtesy Lightspeed Press


‘Finder,’ Carla Speed McNeil

Not every sci-fi epic requires copious endnotes, but not every sci-fi epic is like this masterpiece of world-building, which McNeil called "aboriginal science-fiction" — a mix of tribal culture, domed cities, class warfare, and genetic splicing virtual reality. Fabuous adventure fiction for those who find Game of Thrones a little too straightforward.

Naoki Urasawa


‘Pluto,’ Naoki Urasawa

Essentially a grim-and-gritty cover (reboot? update?) of manga god Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy, this stellar revamp recasts a vintage Astro storyline as a techno-noir, full of killer robots, Philip K. Dick-ish runs about the nature of humanity and an allegory about the War in Iraq. It doesn't quite do to Tezuka what Hendrix's All Along the Watchtower did to Dylan's song, but it's close.

Courtesy Image Comics


‘Sex Criminals,’ Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

Who knew that Image Comics, once home of insanely popular and monumentally stupid tights-n-fights books in the Nineties, would become the premier publisher of forward-thinking genre comics? Consider this, the best debut of 2013, Exhibit A — in which two folks in their 20s discover they can stop time every time they have sex. As you might imagine, robbery and buttplay ensues.

Courtesy Image Comics


‘Saga,’ Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Best known as the author of the Vertigo series Y the Last Man, Vaughan decamped for Hollywood for a spell, working on Lost and Under the Dome. Then he made a monumental return to comics with this
science-fantasy story that's as much about unconventional parents as it is a space opera about warring races, magic and closeted gay robots. Vaughan swears it will always stay a comic; may it run for 1,000 issues.

Courtesy David Lapham


‘Stray Bullets,’ David Lapham

Appearing in that post-Pulp Fiction moment in 1995 right when comics fans were primed for it, Stray Bullets — self-published by Lapham and his wife — was the perfect black and white, decade-spanning noir saga for the moment. The artist went on to write all sorts of comics (including the beyond-bizarre Young Liars) and revived Bullets in March of this year.

Courtesy Drawn and Quartley


‘Paying for It,’ Chester Brown

There aren't many cartoonists as brave — or frankly, as strange — as this Canadian artist, once known for his pure near-randomness (Yummy Fur) and detailing his nation's history (Louis Riel). Paying for It is about Brown's experiences with soliciting prostitutes; as you might imagine, the 2011 book proved mighty controversial, with many calling Brown's end-noted advocacy for the oldest profession artistically distracting and ethically problematic. Nevertheless, it was one of the year's best books and is definitely worth a read.

Courtesy IDW Publishing


‘Journey,’ William Messner-Loebs

If the world were a better place, comics fans the world over would know this amazing 1980s series — about a 19th-century Michigan frontiersman named Wolverine MacAlistaire — as the equivalent of Jack London's outdoor tales, illustrated with the comic bounce of Will Eisner's Spirit strips. Yes, of course there is bear fighting! Why would you even ask?

Courtesy Knopf


‘Unterzakhan,’ Leela Corman

Corman — who runs the cartooning school the Sequential Artists Workshop in Gainesville, Florida with husband and fellow cartoonist Tom Hart — examines life for women in 1910s New York. Corman's supple, liquid line lends a surrealism to a realist tale of two sisters who struggle to find their place in a rapidly expanding world.

Courtesy Fantagraphics


‘Dal Tokyo,’ Gary Panter

Pretty much anything the most punk cartoonist ever could be included on a list of graphic artist greatness, from his album covers (Frank Zappa, The Plugz, Jaco Pastorius) to his sets for Pee-Wee's Playhouse. Dal Tokyo collects his legendary-to-comics-nerds strip set in a Martian colony populated by Texans and the Japanese. Because, come on, who wouldn't want to see that?

Courtesy Dark Horse


‘Mister X,’ Dean Motter and Various

The world of comics is filled with many bald white men, young and old: Charlie
Brown, Charles Xavier, Jimmy Corrigan. Of all these hair-impaired males, Mister X is one of the greats:  the speed-addicted, sleepless, sunglasses wearing architect of the insanity-inducing Radiant City. A high-contrast blend of Art Deco design, noir accents and flying cars, Dean Motter's sci-fi opus remains a high point of retro-futurist comic coolness.

Courtesy North Atlantic Books


‘Diary of a Teenage Girl,’ Phoebe Gloeckner

Intensity, thy name is Gloeckner. This 2002 novel, about a young woman's often-traumatic coming of age in 1970s San Francisco, is a complicated combination of standard written-through passages, comic strips and illustrations; it's about as far you can go into the realm of the novel without entirely relying on prose. Is it autobiography? Is it fiction? Either way, it is a tough, necessary read.

Courtesy of Humanoids


‘The Incal,’ Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius

It's one of the great comics team-ups: the creator of such vintage midnight movies as The Holy Mountain and El Topo, and the visionary French cartoonist best known for his work in Heavy Metal. Their plans to make Dune thwarted (as chronicled in the totally excellent documentary Jodorowsky's Dune), the two dumped a lot of the gorgeous designs and batshit ideas into this classic bong-hit sci-fi epic about heroes, cults and a magic crystal.


Courtesy DC Entertainment


‘Preacher,’ Garth Ennis

There might be no better writer of dialogue in English-speaking comics than Irish writer Garth Ennis, who has penned fantastic runs on The Punisher and Hellblazer, mocked superheroes in The Boys and
Hitman, and built a reputation as a purveyor of well-crafted ultra-violence. With this tale of a Texas preacher named Jesse Custer who can command anyone to do his bidding (thanks to an angel/demon creature), he's created one of the all-time great blends of horror, thriller and Western elements. Naturally, AMC is developing a TV series based on a pilot by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; mercifiully, there are no plans for the former Green Hornet to star as well.

Courtesy Drawn and Quartley


‘What It Is,’ Lynda Barry

In her totally excellent strip Ernie Pook's Comeek, Barry — a longtime pal of Matt Groening — was able to freely access pure youth-id, her work a scribbly torrent of, as the kids say, all of the feels. In this 2008 combination memoir/essays/blank-book journal, Barry encourages readers to crash into their own brains via working collage, color and cartoons. She's the cool art teacher we all wish we had.

Courtesy Drawn and Quartley


‘Curses,’ Kevin Huzenga

Huzenga is one of the past decade's rising stars in literary cartooning, and this collection of short pieces will demonstrate why he's been earmarked as Someone to Watch. Each of the stories features Huzenga stand-in Glenn Ganges, a sensitive, spiritual fellow calmly interrogating existential questions (childlessness, suburbia); imagine Charlie Brown grew up and became the introspective dad next door, and you're halfway there.

Courtesy Avatar Press


‘FreakAngels,’ Warren Ellis

Ellis' explosive riff adventure fiction Planetary or his sci-fi Hunter Thompson tribute Transmetropolitan could have been here. But this dystopic webcomic — doled out for free in six-page bits from 2008 to 2011 before being collected in book form —blends the creepy, post-apocalyptic pyschic kids of "Akira" with John Wyndham's veddy British sci-fi, and the overall effect is classic Ellis: disturbing, demented and thoughtful in equal measure.

Courtesy Drawn and Quartley


‘It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken’ Seth

A master class in low-key pacing, Canadian cartoonist Seth (the nom de comic of artist Gregory Gallent) writes and draws about looking for the work of a mysterious cartoonist named Kalo who may have once made it into The New Yorker. Due to the live-or-Memorex of the storytelling and the wave of autobiographical comics coming out in the early Nineties, everyone assumed this impressive work was a memoir. Seth later revealed it was fictional.

Courtesy Perseus Books


‘Our Cancer Year,’ Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner and Frank Stack

In his eye-opening 1980s comic book series American Splendor, Cleveland-based file clerk Harvey Pekar established himself as the man most likely to write a comic about nothing; he and a rotating cast of illustrators made autobiographical comics about how mudane, everyday life can creep into the existential just by hanging around to experience it. In this 1994 book, he and wife Joyce Brabner chronicle his bout with lymphoma. Pekar would beat the disease, though the cancer would return twice more; Pekar was about to undergo his third round of treatment when he accidentally overdosed on medication and passed away in 2010.

Marlowe & Company


‘The Cowboy Wally Show,’ Kyle Baker

You know, Baker has done more critically acclaimed work (Why I Hate Saturn), more serious, haunting work (Nat Turner) and a wonderful gag strips (The Bakers). But you'll never forget the first time you read this 1988  graphic novel, published when Baker was all of 23. A mockumentary in pen and ink somehow both deadpan and madcap, Wally traces the life and times of a gozno talk show host. Serious fans can quote this thing like The Simpsons: "Hey, did we steal a car last night?" "I'll check."