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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. By Joe Gross

Courtesy Fantagraphics

20

‘Black Hole,’ Charles Burns

Adolescence can be a tough time but rarely as off-the-chart strange as in underground comix vet (and occasional album-art illustrator) Charles Burns' best book. The story of an STD that turns teens into grotesque mutants, Burns' heavy, liquid, high-contrast images have rarely been better served.

Courtesy Drawn and Quartley

19

‘Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea,’ Guy Delisle

This French-Canadian cartoonist has written and drawn a number of comic travelogues; his book on his stay in Pyongyang stands out. The middleman between a French animation company and a Korean animation studio, Delisle chronicles the surreal nature of this hidden city filled with NGO workers, diplomats and a total absence of, say, dissidents and disabled people.

Courtesy Drawn and Quartley

18

‘King Cat,’ John Porcellino

Since 1989, former punk rocker John Porcellino has produced mini-comics (essentially comics as zines, often photocopied) in a deceptively simple style. These are usually reflections on nature, bits of dreams or daily life and increasingly Zen-like over the years — the art is seemingly childlike yet is, in fact, precise and composed. Each new issue (the last one was #74, an extraordinary number for a mini-comic) is cause for celebration. In the DIY tradition, you look at his stuff and think "I can do this." But probably not as humbly and or as well.

Courtesy Will Eisner Estate

17

‘A Contract With God,’ Will Eisner

The book that more or less introduced the term graphic novel, Eisner's story cycle follows a host of Jewish characters trying to negotiate life in a Bronx tenement. The writer-artist was already something of a legend for his work on the era-defining strip The Spirit in the Forties and Fifties, all but inventing much of adventure comics visual grammar. But Eisner considered this collected quartet of tales his masterwork, a sepia-toned literary fiction in the tradition of Bernard Malamud and I.J. Singer.

Courtesy Aardvark-Vanheim

16

‘Cerebus,’ Dave Sim

You think you write ambitious, philiosophical graphic novels? Dave Sim would beg to differ. From
1977 to 2004, over 6,000 pages spread over 300 issues, writer-artist Sim — along with his mono-monikered, occasional collaborator Gerhard, who drew the eye-poppingly elaborate backgrounds — created the Remembrance of Things Past of North American comics. It's a sprawling saga that went from a Conan parody about a barbarian aardvark to a mediation on both governmental and sexual politics, monotheism, the end of Oscar Wilde and, later, Sim's increasingly distasteful philosophy regarding gender and monotheism. The result could be unfocused, pretentious and an extremely tough read at times, yet there remains absolutely nothing like it.

Courtesy Fantagraphics

15

‘Uncle Scrooge,’ Carl Barks

Comics fans love to debate who belongs on American comics' Mt. Rushmore, but you could do a lot worse than, say, Jack Kirby, George Herriman, Charles Schulz, Will Eisner — and Carl Barks, the master of all things duck (indeed, before his work was properly credited, he was known colloquially as "the good duck artist"). HIs Donald Duck stories are a comedic blast, but his Uncle Scrooge stories are veritable silly symphonies of complicated plotting and intercontinental adventure. Need a master class in how to tell a great comics story? Read any Barks' Scrooge stories from 1950 until his retirement in 1966. It's all there.

Courtesy Dark Horse

14

‘Achewood,’ Chris Onstad

The strongest American comic to launch in the 21st century, Achewood started as a tale of talking stuffed animals and evolved, via Chris Ostad's singularly bizarre sense of humor and rich characterizations, into a webcomic so engaging it has yet to be really topped. You can kind of drop the needle anywhere, but the collection called "The Great Outdoor Fight" ("Three days, three acres and 3,000 men") is a great place to start.

Courtesy Moulinsart

13

‘The Adventures of Tintin,’ Hergé

The Belgian cartoonist Hergé didn't just invent this classic boy reporter, his faithful dog Snowy and a cast of supporting players that would make Preston Sturges jealous, he invented a whole school of cartooning: the ligne claire (clear line) style, an ultra-clean, optically flat style useful for depicting globe-hopping, well-plotted adventures that went from Africa and Asia to America to outer space. Please pardon, if you can, the somewhat horrifying racial stereotypes common to their era in the volumes from the late Twenties to the Fifties.

Courtesy Drawn and Quartley

12

‘Hicksville,’ Dylan Horrocks

A sentimental favorite, Hicksville is part investigative mystery, part meditation on the history and scope of the medium itself and part Borgesian wish fulfillment for comics nerds. It may sound like narrative experimenalism for its own sake, but there is something in Horrocks' work that evokes a deeply intimate response. Very few books on this list end with the reader more utterly in love with the artform after it's done, ready to scrawl out comics and release them into the wind.

Courtesy Top Shelf Comix

11

‘Alec: The Years Have Pants,’ Eddie Campbell

An absolute doorstopper, this thick-as-a-brick collection is a strong contender for the best long-term autobiographical comic ever, with 600-plus pages that trace the author's life from post-punk Scotland to marriage, children and everyday life in his wife's native Australia. Campbell's style is impressionistic and quotidian, a shockingly hard combination to pull off.

Courtesy Pantheon and Schocken

10

‘Persepolis,’ Marjane Satrapi

Marji was roughly 10 years old when the Iran-Iraqi war hit with the force of Allah's voice, upending a society already radically changed with the ouster of the Shah and the Islamic Revolition. An excellent coming-of-age tale set in a place most Westerners know precious little about, Persepolis chronicles the author and her fairly liberal family over the course of roughly 14 years — from the horrors of the war and the riots to the strictures of orthodox Islam to the (comparative) freedom of boarding school and, eventually, the liberal West.

Courtesy Fantagraphics

9

‘Ghost World,’ Daniel Clowes

Perhaps the only comic ever to be translated in a good live-action movie, this tale of two budding hipsters (or are they just youngsters who hate everything?) who confront the complications of growing up and growing apart remains a Clinton-era classic. Encapsulating teen alienation about as well as anything in the medium, Enid and Rebecca are female Peter Parkers without any powers, drifting through life as they spot Satanists at the diner, get obsessed with creepy older men and figure out that life is what happens when you're busy complaining. You're goddamn right it's the Catcher in the Rye of comics.

Courtesy Pantheon and Schocken

8

‘Epileptic,’ David B.

A deeply moving story of a boy whose parents' struggle with his brother's epilepsy in 1970s France — a place, much like the United States, full of New Agey healers and macrobiotic hucksters. While David's brother does battle with his own mental health, the author slips deeper into a fantasy world filled with mythology; the story is then increasingly taken over by these grandiose, liquid images, the harsh realities of adulthood receding into the background. Pierre-François "David B." Beauchard was one of the founders of L'Association, a groundbreaking publisher of Franco-Belgian art comics, and Epileptic might be its masterpiece.

Courtesy DC Entertainment

7

‘The Invisibles,’ Grant Morrison and Various

In which Mr. Morrison attempts to write a comic about everything that could possibly interest him. Ostensibly a story about an organization of adventurers fighting an incursion of purely evil, other-dimensional beings, the writer managed to fold in [deep breath] gnosticism, Michael Moorcock, time travel, Terence McKenna's novelty theory, sex magick, psychedelia, conspiracy culture, comics-as-pop, a lot of punching, the Moonchild, time-as-a-flat-circle and oh-so-much more. A massive, 1,500-page work with some truly moving moments jammed between all the references,  The Invisibles proved wildly influential and established Morrison as a comics rock star. You can see bits and pieces of it everywhere from the work of comics writers such as Jonathan Hickman and Gerard Way (yes, the My Chemical Romance guy) to The Matrix and True Detective — the spell went everywhere.

Courtesy Top Shelf Comix

6

‘From Hell,’ Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

Yes, Watchmen is the first and last word on superhero revisionism (even if mainstream comics learned all the wrong lessons from it), V for Vendetta is one of the great riffs on Thatcherism and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is the 19th century pulp-reference version of a Pynchon novel. But Moore, one of the great fiction minds of his generation, never accomplished anything as dense or as satisfying as this — his massive, footnoted take on Jack the Ripper and the bloody birth of the 20th century. Both creators are at the top of their game: Campbell's grubby lines are the perfect evocation of the horror of everyday Victorian life in the underclasses, while Moore's allegorical plotting — looping in the Royal family, Masonic occult ritual, the Elephant Man and the nature of London itself — makes for a hypnotic read and perpetual re-read.

Courtesy Robert Crumb

5

‘The Complete Robert Crumb,’ Robert Crumb

Are the sexual and racial politics sketchy of the man behind Fritz the Cat and that notorious Mr. Natural strip involving a headless woman dodgy as hell? No question about it. But, for 50 years, any cartoonist dealing with autobiography, the intricacies of their id or satire of almost any kind has HAD to contend with Crumb's extraordinary, ground-breaking work. Hell, other cartoonists even ape the guys affectations (78s obsessiveness, thrift store suits). To ignore him completely is only to invite accidentally ripping him off; he's the Bob Dylan of the comics underground, and his work is embedded in the medium's DNA now.

Courtesy Alison Bechdel

4

‘Fun Home,’ Alison Bechdel

In this stunningly intimate book, noted lesbian cartoonist Bechdel (who also wrote the seminal comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For") pens a complex, compassionate, moving graphic novel about her father's closeted gay life, his possible suicide and the reverberations in her family. Her follow-up, 2012's "Are You My Mother: A Comic Drama" is nearly as excellent, and she's also invented (or at least named) the "Bechdel Test" for entertainment: Does a work features 1.) at least two women who 2.) who talk to each other 3.) about something other than a man? You'd be surprised how few movies, TV shows, books etc. do not pass the test. Actually, no, you wouldn't be.

Courtesy Knopf

3

‘Maus,’ Art Spiegelman

Art Spiegleman had been serializing the extraordinary story of his father's time in Auschwitz in his art-comix magazine Raw since 1980, with mice standing in for Jews and cats for Nazis. After some revisions, Pantheon published the game-chaing first half in 1986, popularizing the term "graphic novel" in the process. (A sequel, a partial reflection on the success of the first half, arrived in 1991.) The language barely existed to honor such a creation, yet that didn't stop Spiegelman's anthropomorphic story of wartime atrocities from winning a special Pulitzer in 1992. It's the single best comic of a year that also produced Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, which is saying something.

Courtesy Knopf

2

‘Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Boy on Earth,’ Chris Ware

The graphic novel that really started the "No, seriously, maybe this stuff is worthy of, say, an American Book Award and the Guardian First Book Award." Along with Dan Clowes, Ware practically owned the Nineties when it came to alt-comics largely thanks to this story, first serialized in the Chicago paper New City. The writer-artist turned his hyper-detailed, delicately designed style into the story of a very lonely middle-aged man who meets his father for the first time, intercutting the familial repetition-of-tragedy-through-generations of the family and stretching the narrative back to the Civil War and the 1893 Chicago Exposition — settings that beautifully complement Ware's ragtimey design style. It's easily the emotional equal of anything by Dave Eggers (a devout fan) or Zadie Smith.

Courtesy Fantagraphics

1

‘Love and Rockets,’ Los Bros Hernandez

Imagine the Clash or R.E.M. or Run-DMC not only never broke up, but, for 30 years, never once released a less-than-excellent record. Imagine their command of their craft just became more pronounced year after year, earning the unshakable admiration of their fans and peers. Imagine they made the best record of their career, 30 years on, this decade. This is essentially what Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez have done with Love and Rockets, the greatest American comic book series of all time. Hell, between Jaime's "Locas" storyline on aging punks (probably the best piece of fiction about punk ever created) and Gilbert's "Luba," a semi-magical-realist epic about several generations of a Central American family, they are two of the most important contemporary Latino writers of their generation. Not to mention that Jaime's recently collected storyline, "The Love Bunglers," is a stone-cold masterpiece. Their entire body of work is as essential as anything by, well, the Clash or R.E.M. or Run-DMC.

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