Comic books or graphic novels; it doesn’t matter what you call them. They’ve come a long way since the early 20th century when they were primarily a medium for children. Clean-cut, vanilla superhero comics have given way to dark stories with ethically and morally ambiguous protagonists more in tune with a real human being. A medium that was once accurately derided as shallow – both in a visual sense and in a literary sense – has blossomed into maturity and become one of the most beloved art forms of our culture.
Even if you don’t partake in graphic novels – and shame on you, because you should – there’s no denying that they’ve given birth to legitimate cultural icons that have spawned countless blockbuster movies and television shows. Batman, Superman, Iron Man, Spider-Man; even if you’ve never picked up a comic book in your life you know exactly who these characters are, and probably know a great deal about their fictional history and personalities. It’s also important to emphasize that graphic novels have a great deal more to offer than just superhero stories for kids and young adults– even if the history of the medium is irrevocably intertwined with them.
Adult-themed stories like the dark and sometimes politically charged stories of Alan Moore, the violent but hilarious worlds created by Garth Ennis, and the gritty noir works of Frank Miller have all made irreplaceable contributions to the medium as a whole. In fact, it can be argued that in the past few decades, graphic novels have evolved and matured in a way that many other artistic mediums haven’t. It’s important to recognize and celebrate those achievements and those milestones, so today we’ll be examining what I believe to be 10 of the most influential graphic novels that have ever been published.
An important note; this list included both graphic novels in their traditional form (a complication of works bound together to form one story), and standalone comic book issues which spawned some of the most influential storylines and characters in history.
Another important note; obviously this is extremely subjective, so if a favorite of yours is left out, all apologies. It also isn’t a list of the best graphic novels, but rather the most influential. That being said, let’s begin.
10 The Walking Dead
Although longtime fans of graphic novels may be outraged by the inclusion of such a recent work – the first issue was published in 2003 and it’s still ongoing – the ramifications of The Walking Dead’s success can already be felt. Robert Kirkman’s opus on humanity in a post-apocalyptic world terrorized by zombies has solidified itself firmly in the consciousness of mainstream pop culture thanks to the unparalleled success of the television adaptation. Graphic novels that don’t involve superheroes are now, more than ever, being examined as possible source material for new television shows and movies. After decades of trying, Garth Ennis’ infamous Preacher series will finally be given a television adaptation on The Walking Dead’s home network of AMC – all thanks to the success of Rick Grimes and the gang. Graphic novel fans should expect many of their favorite works to be given television or film adaptations, and they can thank Robert Kirkman.
9 Iron Man: Demon in a Bottle
In the 70s, comic books were – for the most part – very light on the thought provoking and controversial storylines. The heroes were depicted with a rigid sense of morality and very few, if any, serious character flaws. ‘Demon in a Bottle’ was one of the first story arcs to change that perception. Published in 1979, the 9-issue story arc starred Marvel’s Iron Man – aka billionaire scientist Tony Stark – as he struggled with alcoholism. The storyline injected a sense of realism and human drama into a series that had previously had flat storylines with one-dimensional characters. It was one of the first storylines in comic books that showed other writers they didn’t have to create characters in an ethical vacuum, and it blew open the doors for other similarly dark storylines.
8 Detective Comics #27
Detective Comics is the original and flagship publication of DC comics, which is where the company got its name. First published in 1937, it revolved around stories of mystery and intrigue, hence the title. The first 26 issues featured various characters, but the company hit the jackpot with the introduction of one particular character in issue #27 – Batman. Batman instantly took over the series and became the permanent protagonist, a mantle he still holds today. Detective Comics kick started the success of DC comics and is still in publication in 2014. It’s currently 916 issues deep into its run.
7 Action Comics #1
The most expensive comic book of all time is also one of the most influential. First published in 1938, original editions of Action Comics #1 have been sold for upwards of $2 million. What would justify that exorbitant of a price tag for a nearly 80-year-old comic book? One look at the cover should clear that right up. Action Comics #1 marked the first appearance of Superman, the character now nearly synonymous with the image of the superhero. Action Comics was created by DC, who was looking for another series to add to their repertoire after the success of Detective Comics. They succeeded in another big way, creating their two flagship characters that would carry the company into the 21st century within 2 years of each other.
If some snob ever tries to take the literary high road with you when you’re professing your love for graphic novels, silence them with a copy of Neil Gaiman’s phenomenal work, The Sandman. Neil Gaiman created a rich, spiritual world of dark fantasy that revolved around protagonist Dream (sometimes known as Morpheus), the god of dreams and one of the 7 Endless, who all personify aspects of their namesakes. The actual plot is far too complex to accurately portray in such a short entry; it’s something you need to experience for yourself. What you should know is that The Sandman pushed the boundaries of artistry in graphic novels, elevating the entire medium as a result and granting an intellectual legitimacy to the genre. It began publication in 1989 and ran until 1996, ending at issue #75.
Maus is a landmark graphic novel for several reasons. First and foremost, it was the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize, the award for excellence in literature. That alone makes Maus a milestone for the graphic novel genre. Published from 1980 - 1991, Maus is author Art Spiegelman’s visual re-telling of his father’s experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. Spiegelman used animals to depict the ethnic groups in this real-life tale; Jewish characters were mice, Germans were cats, and polish non-Jews were pigs. Spiegelman’s genius was approaching the difficult and emotionally charged subject matter in an entirely new light using the graphic novel medium. Maus is a unique piece of art unto itself; fiction but non-fiction, visually childish but thematically dark. Nothing like it had ever been written before, and nothing quite like it has been written since.
The history of graphic novels in the United States wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of manga. Manga is an umbrella term for a comics created by Japanese writers in a particularly Japanese style. Published from 1982 to 1990, the original comic and animated film adaptation pioneered Japanese manga and anime in the western world, introducing the now familiar style to countless readers. Akira’s exceptional story – which revolved around the themes of power, social alienation, and political corruption – has given it staying power in the minds of fans everywhere, and it’s still considered to be one of the gold standards of manga nearly 30 years after it entered publication.
3 Amazing Spider-Man #96
The early days of the comic industry were rife with public criticism that was concerned with the effects comics would have on their young readers. In response, comic publishers banded together to created the Comics Code Authority, an organization that would self-regulate and self-censor the content of comic books. From 1954 onward, any comic published by the major distributors would have to adhere to the rules set forward by the CCA on what was allowed to be published and what wasn’t. Any mention of drugs was explicitly forbidden, which Stan Lee took exception to in 1971. He wanted to create a story arc that demonstrated the dangers of drug use, but was forbidden by the comics code. Instead of self-censoring his work, he simply decided that for 3 issues his Amazing Spider-Man series would disregard the rules in favor of the greater good of the message. It was a controversial choice that drew positive and negative reactions, but history has regarded his decision as courageous and trailblazing.
Alan Moore’s signature work, Watchmen, took all the conventional themes of superhero comics and presented them in a fresh and mature light when it was published in 1986-1987. Watchmen took place in a world where – with one exception – superheroes were just regular men and women who donned a mask and fought evil without powers. The social and political issues raised by the presence of costumed crusaders are examined in detail, bringing a realism and depth previously unheard of to the superhero genre. Most importantly, the phenomenal story was written with wonderfully crafted, believable characters and a plot that keeps the reader on their toes. Watchmen is one for the ages.
1 Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
1986 was a huge year for comics. Both Watchmen and the The Dark Knight Returns began publication, beginning what was retroactively dubbed the modern age of comics, which continues to this day. Characters became psychologically complex and had emotional depth compared to their relatively flat past incarnations. While Watchmen chose to explore this new realm with a fresh world, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns took one of the iconic characters in comics and gave them a rebirth of sorts. The Dark Knight Returns starred a retired Bruce Wayne who dons the Batman mantle once more to save Gotham city. All aspects of the graphic novel took the traditional batman tropes and matured them, from the artwork to the dialogue. It presented a very familiar character in an entirely new light, and it showed a new generation of comic writers everywhere that they could use the traditional cast of beloved characters in a modern way.