Recommended graphic novels

I think I've recommended graphic novels before but it's been a long time, so I thought I'd do it again.

Here are eight great graphic novels, in no particular order:

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1. Watchmen - Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

This was a big game-changer of a graphic novel from Alan Moore, the writer of V for Vendetta, when it first came out. It is a story about flawed, real super-heroes. They are dissected, in fact almost vivisected and in the process, they are made both complex and realistic; becoming flawed human vigilantes or cold, distant superheroes that turn out to be entirely alien to the people they try to help. Very much an adult book and a venerable classic of the genre.



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2. Pyongyang - Guy Delisle

This is an example of 'graphic novel as travelogue'. The author, Guy Delisle, spent time in North Korea while working from a French-Canadian animation company. While he was there, he drew this graphic novel diary of his experiences. It paints an entertaining, startling and quite disturbing picture of the North Korean totalitarian state. Since then, Delisle has written/drawn about Shenzhen (in China), Jerusalem and Burma. All those stories are accessible, funny, perceptive, warm and revealing.

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3. Maus - Art Spiegelmann

Maus may be the most important graphic novel ever written, in terms of its legacy, its impact, its influence on other writers and its ability to make a horrific subject accessible and readable without every diminishing the tragedy of what happened. Maus, originally in two parts, is about the Jewish Holocaust, based on the author's father's memories of surviving those years. Spiegelmann made an inspired decision when drawing the story to make the characters anthropomorphic, to give them human bodies but animal heads. The germans are cats, the poles are pigs and the jews are mice (as far as I can remember). Its a must-read book (a term that's often over-used when reviewing works but is absolutely true in this case).

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4. Safe Area Gorazde - Joe Sacco.

Joe Sacco, like Guy Delisle, has used the graphic novel genre as a tool for investigative journalism, to tell readers about what happened to the author when he or she was in that place, a visual diary that gives immediacy and focus to a time and place in our recent history. Sacco talks about the Bosnian War and the siege of Sarajevo in this book, along with its horrors, tragedies, courage and, sometimes, high farce. It is a powerful story, eloquently told in Sacco's pared-down narration and clear, accessible artwork.

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5. Blacksad - Juanjo Guarnido (artist)

Blacksad is in more traditional territory for a graphic novel. It's a series of hard-boiled. fifties. detective-style stories very much in the mould of Raymond Chandler. The twist in this case is that the characters are anthropomorphic, i.e. human bodies and animal heads, just like Maus or Rupert Bear.

What elevates Blacksad above many run-of-the-mill graphic-novel murder stories is the sheer brilliance of the artwork. Guarnido was trained in fine art and has worked as a key animator for Disney in Europe. All the stories' frames are painted in watercolour. For beauty, dynamism, skill and atmosphere, they are without peer. 

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6. The Red Tree - Shaun Tan

Does Shaun Tan do graphic novels? It's hard to say. They're not 200 pages long but they are visual stories, or sequential art. For me, the Red Tree is my favourite. It's a simple story that would appeal to children and adults and it is utterly beguiling. Each page is a large, single picture that creates a single emotion through an image. As the story progresses, the reader becomes lost in the tale, with its minimal but crucial text, until the tale ends with a low-key, resonant, beautiful finish. I get emotional just thinking about it. Highly recommended.

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7. Amulet - Kazu Kibuishi

This is a graphic novel for youngsters (I would say 8 to 12 age group). High quality drawings, an engaging, dramatic story and there are five books to collect. The story tells of a family who move to a house in the country belonging to a deceased relative. The kids realise that there was much more to the relative than they expected. The daughter finds an amulet and is transported into a different land where dark forces are after the precious item now bound to her.

Amulet looks lovely, is lots of fun to read and is a great alternative for a parent wanting their child to enjoy graphic novels without, for example, having to deal with the somewhat dated style of Asterix (which I still have a soft spot for, but often deems wordy and tedious when I read it nowadays).

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8. Persepolis - Marjan Satrapi

A visually striking, engaging, thoughtful and dramatic story about a young woman's life in Iran and her time in Europe. As in Sacco's work, the graphic novel format is again used to visually show a part of the world and a time in history that we don't hear much about in the west and about which we often have distorted and downright false views. Excellent.