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Graphic Novel Appreciation Day

watchmen graphic novelI don’t think this is a real holiday, but today, on World’s Strongest Librarian at least, it is graphic novel appreciation day. I decided to write this post because I have never been a big fan of graphic novels. I’ve begged and pleaded for people to give me suggestions on what I should read, and now I’m back with a few that I have actually loved. And then, when the post is over, I’ll beg and plead some more for additional recommendations.

What is a graphic novel?

Lots of adults I know sneer and say they’re just comics. Lots of adults I know sneer and say they’re not really novels. I have spent the last year kicking all of these people in the shins and now they don’t say much at all.

Here’s my definition: a graphic novel is a book in which the narrative is expressed through sequential art. This can apply to comic books like the old X Men issues, or to massive works like Blankets or Black Hole.

Why I have had trouble appreciating them

Honestly, it’s primarily because I read for story. I did not feel like I had the tools to appreciate the art, or to talk about it. And the art is, in my opinion, at least as important as the dialogue in graphic novels. I asked my friend, an aspiring graphic novelist, to give me a great example of the genre that he loved. He pointed me to Hellboy. I thought the story was kind of fun and told him so. He asked me what I thought of the art. I asked him if he wanted to go get something to eat. He asked me what I thought of the art. Finally I admitted that I had just kind of skipped over it all on my way to the next bubble of dialogue.

He gave me a lengthy speech about the use of red and black in the panels, but I got sleepy and started rooting around in the couch for candy.

But I’m trying, and I can prove it. I can prove it because I have a list of the many graphic novels I have now read. I haven not really enjoyed most of them, but the ones I have loved, I have loved as much as any book I’ve read. I still can’t get into anime, not matter what I try. We’ll see.


The Sandman by Neil Gaiman

sandman gaimanTruly indescribable. Sandman came out over 75 issues, but I had no idea because I read it in ten collections. The series follows a character named Dream through a series of events that I still don’t really know how to talk about. It’s beyond weird and beyond awesome.

Also, the English major in me loves how much of literature this series draws from.You could play a staggering game of “spot the reference” in the right crowd.

Give Sandman a try. You’ll know quickly whether you want to continue.

Black Hole by Charles Burns

I have found that I enjoy the art in black and white graphic novels the most, even though Black Hole is the only black and white one I’ve read where the story grabbed me as well. And what a story! Set in Seattle in the early 70s, there is a freaky STD going around called the “bug.” If you get it, you might notice odd things happening to your body. Mutations. Lesions. Hair in places that you don’t want it. Sometimes lots of it.

The kids that experience the worst mutations wind up living as exiles in the woods. The most fascinating part of this book to me was the idea that love-crazy kids don’t become less love-crazy simply because of some stupid “bug” that’s infecting everyone. Big questions about intimacy and the dynamics of belonging are all over this book. And it’s really, really creepy.

Maus I and II by Art Spiegelman

A look at the Holocaust, with mice as the Jews and Cats as the Nazis. Also a beautiful, hearbreaking story about a father’s disintegrating relationship with his son. People seem to get a lot of different impressions of Maus. I personally think it’s one of the best books about the Holocaust that I have ever read.

Fables by Bill Willingham

What if every fairy tale character you had ever heard of was living in a hidden community in New York? Well, not all of them. Any of the characters who can’t ever pass as human live in a kind of commune called “The Farm.” Every character has undergone a drastic transformation from those we grew up with.

Goldilocks is crazy. The Toy Soldiers are thugs. Pinocchio is furious that he got turned into a real boy before he got to go through puberty and is now 300 years old and can’t ever get busy. The Big Bad Wolf isn’t actually that bad and had some pretty harrowing experiences in World War II. And on and on and on.

I think the art in Fables is great, but the story is a lot of fun. While I was reading the stories I was constantly surprised at the creativity and the unexpected directions Willingham went in.

If I was trying to show someone why graphic novels can be fun and/or worthwhile, my personal pick would probably be Fables.


I have liked many other graphic novels, hated plenty, and have been opinion-less about many others. but these four I absolutely loved.

So then, what have I missed? Gimmie some more recommendations (please). Why can’t I find any anime I like? What books deserve to be on this list?


PS: I’m a big fan of HP Lovecraft, and I was actually sent a copy of a graphic novel based on his work. Here is my review of Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom.

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  • Ryan Glass January 19, 2011, 1:10 pm

    Josh, great to see this post. I got into comics again a few years ago and had the same sort of quest to try to figure out what was good to read. I’m sure you’ve gotten dozens of recommendations for The Watchmen, but it really is that good. For a less serious read, I’d say to get anything written by Brian Michael Bendis.

  • Rhamantus January 19, 2011, 1:52 pm

    I don’t read many graphic novels, either, for much the same reason. Oddly, though, I do read a lot of webcomics which, if put into book form, would probably qualify. Maybe it’s easier to digest a page a day. 🙂
    At any rate, when you say anime, I assume you mean manga: anime is the cartoon version (the Japanese word anime is derived from the English word “animation”), while manga is the comic. 🙂 That being said, I have only read one manga all the way through, called Death Note, and I can’t say whether it’d be your cup of tea, but I found it interesting.

  • Dave Mallett January 19, 2011, 2:04 pm

    Im very picky about graphic novels myself. The few that I really like are: Transmetropolitan, (futuristic gonzo journalism at its finest) Tank Girl (the stories are always based around things like Homer’s Odyssey). Thats pretty much it. Im not keen on the superhero jobbies myself.
    Ive been reading your rather entertaining blog for about 3 years mate, thought Id finally post a reply 🙂
    btw – you could sling a post up on the best books read in 2010, would be a nice cross-section of quality from you & your readers.

  • Abby January 19, 2011, 7:09 pm

    I second the Death Note recommendation, for sure.

  • Michelle January 19, 2011, 8:42 pm

    I have the same problem you do with just reading the words & not looking at/really soaking in the artwork. Getting better at it though!

    I’m a BIG geek, so I like the Fray graphic novel & the Buffy season 8 comics.

    And this makes me a heretical big geek, but I didn’t actually enjoy V for Vendetta that much – it was just such a…haul, I guess. I didn’t think the characters were visually distinctive from each other, so I was always getting them confused, and it gave me a whopping headache. That was the last time I tried to read it, several years ago, so maybe I should give it another go.

    I liked Sandman at the beginning, but I felt like it kind of went down in quality towards the end. I didn’t end up reading most of the last volume of the Absolute Sandman book, just because I lost interest.

    If you haven’t read Bayou, check it out. It’s a really cool sort of southern-fairly modern fairy tale type thing, & it’s amazing! It’s online as well as in serial books. Freakangels is another cool sci-fi online comic series.

    • Josh Hanagarne January 19, 2011, 9:18 pm

      Michelle, I’ve never heard of Bayou before, thank you.

  • Ferran January 20, 2011, 12:46 am

    First time here, great post. I haven’t heard of Fables nor Black Hole before, I’ll definitely check them out. I’ve just finished the first book of Sandman and it was awesome -that whole thing with the missing Dreamstone was deliriant!- and can’t wait to read the next one.

    I do a free online graphic novel that I’ll get printed this year, you can read it at http://www.kimecan.com if you like, and also would like to recommend you La Caste des Méta-Barons by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Juan Gimenez, amazing GN… I think it was released at some point in the US as “The Saga of the Metabarons”; and Blacksad By Diaz Canales & Guarnido, it has some of the most beautifully crafted illustrations I’ve ever seen in graphic novels and the story is not bad at all. Those are two of my favorites.

    I’ve heard too many good things about Death Note already – guess I’ll have to give it a try ^_^

  • John Sifferman January 20, 2011, 7:28 am

    I’ve read just one graphic novel that came with the deluxe edition DVD for V for Vendetta (based on the graphic novel). At the time, I said “the movie was better.”

  • Heather January 20, 2011, 12:59 pm

    I digs me some Sandman. Gaiman is just plain BRILLIANT! Theres’ a graphic novel about Edgar Allan Poe, too, but I can’t remember who does it. Jason something-with-an-A. . . I’ll try and find it tonight and e-mail it to you. Good stuff! 🙂

  • Bradd January 20, 2011, 3:08 pm

    I’m surprised there hasn’t been any love yet for The Walking Dead. True, it’s a bit bandwagon-y with the current zombie craze, but it has a great story and is no slouch in the art department either. I guess it could be considered more a serial than a self-contained novel, since it’s still ongoing.

    I also found a great online graphic novel (again, serial?) called Sin Titulo. It has a really compelling story that hasn’t ended yet.
    Link: http://www.sintitulocomic.com/2007/06/17/page-01/

    • Josh Hanagarne January 20, 2011, 3:10 pm

      Bradd, I see it all the time at the library, but only while it’s on its way to someone else! i”m going to request it and I’ll get a report out to you.

  • Jack Stanton January 20, 2011, 11:54 pm

    I am not a huge fan of graphic novels, but I like Andrew Vachss’ novels. So I picked up a copy of Predator – Race War which Vachss wrote the story for, and I really enjoyed it. Another good set of graphic novels is Top Cow’s Sara Pezzini WitchBlade Series. Both have off-beat story lines, but they are quick and enjoyable reads.

  • Pedro C. January 21, 2011, 11:35 am

    I’m happy to come across this post, it’s always good to see a literary minded individual who appreciates graphic novels. Also, I subscribe to your list, they’re all brilliant books… sandman and fables are among my all-time favorites.

    If you’ll let me recommend something newer and less-known, consider reading “I Kill Giants” by Joe Kelly. A really moving and poignant book, that happens to be told through words and pictures:


    • Josh Hanagarne January 21, 2011, 2:14 pm

      Recommend anything and everything. And if you’re ever interested in doing a review here, you’re always welcome.

  • Big Will January 21, 2011, 2:10 pm

    This is my favorite post of yours so far. What’s next, a post aboout ice hockey? Pizza? You keep me coming back for more, big man. Bravo.

    Other notables:
    Anything by Alan Moore [well maybe you can skip Swamp Thing] but “The Killing Joke’ is a short, nasty read that messed me up [i read it when i was 10 years old] and sold Tim Burton on filming a Batman movie.

    Acme Novelty Library

    Garth Ennis’ “Punsiher” collection. Which is just beyond gruesome. Dude i mean nasty. Brother i mean filthy horrible criminals gettin’ justice from Frank Castle. Rarely has a writer come along and had a vision more approprtiate than what Ennis had for The Punisher, save for the aforementioned take on The Joker by Alan Moore and my next recommendation. . .

    Not a graphic novel, but The Joe Pitt casebooks series is worth a read, appeals to nearly every comic fan i know, and now the author, Charlie Huston, is writing “Wolverine”. Yup, he is that bad ass.

    I have only read the first Joe Pitt book, but all four remaining stories are in my queueueueueueue.


    • Josh Hanagarne January 21, 2011, 2:14 pm

      Hmm…I do like Pizza.

      I enjoyed The Killing Joke while I was reading an Alan Moore unit in school. Loved Acme Novelty Library, which totally slipped my mind as I wrote this post. I don’t think I’ve read any recent Wolverine.

  • Ryan March 13, 2011, 9:08 am

    Hey Josh, a fun read. I’ve been into storytelling for a while, and decided to go at a graphic novel of my own – this page illustrates how you can almost overlook them, but then find yourself so absorbed!

    Keep up the great work over here. I put a link up on my blog.


  • Anonn May 22, 2011, 9:54 pm

    you poor people..
    I really recomend reading MANGA novels. Ecspicailly the Womens ones which are raunchy. HAVE FUN LADIES 😉

  • daren May 22, 2011, 9:57 pm

    i hate graphic novels
    they are a disgrace to society
    anyone who has the dignity to call them books should be ashamed

  • Lilly May 22, 2011, 10:11 pm

    I’ve never heard of Graphic Novels Appreciation day before? Is there a conference I can attend? xxoo lurve yos