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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 Drawn and Quartley

36

‘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

35

‘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

34

‘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

33

‘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

32

‘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

31

‘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

30

‘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.

preacher

Courtesy DC Entertainment

29

‘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

28

‘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

27

‘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

26

‘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

25

‘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

24

‘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

23

‘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."