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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 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."

Courtesy Penguin Books

22

‘Twisted Sisters,’ Various

Not to be confused with the 1970s underground comic of the same name, this 1991 anthology (subtitled "A Collection of Bad Girl Art") featured such female cartooning powerhouses as Diane Noomin, MK Brown, Carol Lay, Mary Fleener and Dori Seda, with the latter's strip about living with a disgusting dog being a brilliantly revolting highlight. A ground-breaking collection.

Courtesy Random House

21

‘Akira,’ Katshuiro Otomo

Now THIS is high concept: teen gangs, one crew of which look like clowns; exceptionally creepy psychic children; a biker who turns into a techno-organic flesh monster; and the government that spawned the whole lot, all battling it out on the streets of post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo. No wonder Otomo's manga and the 1988 movie it inspired have become cyberpunk touchstones up there with Blade Runner and Neuromancer. Terrifying fun fact: The Olympics will be held in Tokyo in 2020, just like Akira predicted. So if you're watching the decathlon and hear a guy screaming "KANEDAAAA!," run the other way.

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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