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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 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.