8 Graphic Novels You Need On Your Bookshelves Right Now
Whether you’re a reader approaching the graphic novel with a tentative eye, (I know I did the first time, having been assigned Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home for a college course in memoir writing, without a clue as to what I was holding in my hands) or you’ve been a fan of the genre since your Little Archies got a major literary upgrade, the fact is there are just some graphic novels you have to read — not only to diversify your bookshelves a bit, and throw a little curve-ball into your reading life, but also because they are just that good. And although the genre hasn’t always been taken seriously by readers and reviews of mainstream literature, the graphic novel is definitely starting to get its due diligence — and a good thing too, because once you dive into some must-read graphic novels, you quickly realize there’s more to these works of art than meets the eye.
With illustrations just as vibrant as the writing that accompanies them, the graphic novels on this list tackle everything from feminism and gender violence to civil rights and political upheaval. They’re written by writers and illustrators from all over the world, and all different backgrounds — and the stories they tell can hold their own alongside literature’s greatest “traditional” classics.
Here are 8 graphic novels you need on your bookshelves immediately. And I am seriously not kidding about the “immediately” part.
1. Becoming Unbecoming by Una
A must-read for feminists and fans of the graphic novel alike, Una’s Becoming Unbecoming takes readers to Yorkshire, England during the 1970s and '80s, and into the life of one emerging feminist as she experiences a childhood fraught with sexual and gender violence and begins to develop her own voice against the shame and silencing that victims of sexual violence are often subjected to. Set against the backdrop of the “Yorkshire Ripper” murders, the violence in Una’s personal life reflects that of the violence going on in the larger world around her — and she is so poignantly aware of the inherent wrongness of it all. Moving, heartbreaking, and empowering, Becoming Unbecoming acts like a call to action for any woman who is tired of being denied the opportunity to put a voice to her own experiences. Plus, Una’s artwork is simply lovely.
2. March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
March is a graphic trilogy written by congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis, and co-written by Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell — and all three books in this graphic memoir series need to be on your bookshelves immediately, even if you aren’t normally a reader of the graphic novel form. The March trilogy tells the story of Lewis’s upbringing in rural Alabama, his life-changing meeting with Martin Luther King Jr., and his subsequent life dedicated to nonviolent protest, civil rights, activism, and justice. Detailing some of the most pivotal moments in the Civil Rights Movement, as experienced by someone who witnessed them firsthand, March is an essential read, both in the genre of activist literature and as a graphic memoir.
3. The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Graphic novelist and memoirist Marjane Satrapi grew up in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution and the war with Iraq, in a family who participated in the pre-Revolution communist and socialist movements in Iran. Through a series of black-and-white comic strips, The Complete Persepolis tells the story of Satrapi’s childhood and coming-of-age years — the challenges she and her family faced during this period of social and political upheaval, censorship, and violence; the conflicts between the private self and the public self in modern-day Iran; the experience of moving away from home, returning home, and finally exiling herself from her homeland for good; and the universal experiences of growing from girlhood into womanhood.
4. Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
A collection of five stories that take readers into the eerie, creepy, unsettling, chilling woods with a cast of characters who will be as changed by their journey into the darkness as you the reader will be through reading about it. The writing is spare and sharp, and the artwork is exceptional — as beautiful as it is intriguing and terrifying. Even if you don’t like traditional horror stories, Emily Carroll’s graphic novel of mysticism, mystery, and morbidity, Through the Woods, is an exception you and your bookshelves will just have to make.
5. Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
If you haven’t read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, I definitely recommend it. But as you’ll quickly learn, one Bechdel title isn’t nearly enough. Are You My Mother? tells the story of Bechdel’s mother — unhappily married to a closeted gay man and unable to realize her full artistic potential, Bechdel’s mother began emotionally distancing herself from her family when the graphic novelist was just a young girl. In this irreverent and hilarious graphic memoir, Bechdel begins the search for answers about her relationship with her mother, and explores how her mother’s unrealized artistic life informed Bechdel’s own success.
6. Blankets by Craig Thompson
The writing in this graphic novel/memoir is just as beautiful as the artwork itself. Blankets tells the story of a coming-of-age romance between writer Craig Thompson and a young woman named Raina — fraught with emotion, equal parts disturbing and touching, sometimes playful and other times dreamy, and beautifully illustrated in black-and-white artwork. Alongside the narrative of Thompson and Raina is the story of two brothers, simultaneously rivals and allies, whose Wisconsin childhood is informed by the religious fervor of their family and community.
7. Calling Dr. Laura by Nicole J. Georges
Nicole J. Georges grew up thinking that her father was dead — but when Georges was 23-years-old a psychic told her that her father was actually alive… and her family admitted the secret they’d been keeping from Georges her whole life. But the question (along with a whole lot of others) was: why? Thrown into a whirlwind of confusion and emotion, the graphic memoirist turned to radio talk-show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger for advice. In Calling Dr. Laura Georges navigates the questions that plagued her in the wake of her family’s secrets, betrayals, and ultimate reveal — and takes readers through the formation of her own identity in the wake of realizing she might not be the person she grew up thinking she was.
8. The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984 by Riad Sattouf
Riad Sattouf grew up somewhere between rural France, Gaddafi's Libya, and Assad's Syria — and with such diverse and conflicting influences, he didn’t quit fit in anywhere. Learning to navigate a life in constant motion, his family’s poverty, parents who couldn’t seem more different from one another, the political turmoil of his various homelands, and even the Sattouf family’s own house once being taken over by squatters, this graphic novelist had to find a way to navigate all of life’s twists and turns — and storytelling through drawing became that outlet. The Arab of the Future is evidence of that journey — a memoir told through cartoon that gives readers insight into what it means to grow up in the Middle East, and what it means to move around the world as a Middle Easterner, in today’s complicated political climate.