Graphic Novels: Why They Matter and Why You Should Stop Ignoring Them

Perhaps you've noticed the rise of the graphic novel (a comic book that tells a complete story) in popularity in the past few years. Perhaps you have wondered (like my wife, who is a lover of Literature with a capital L), what's the big deal with graphic novels? 

I (Jeremy) can say from personal experience that some of the most moving stories I have ever encountered are graphic novels. But more than that, the graphic novel is one of the most important and relevant forms of contemporary art.

“So comic books are art?”

Yes. But in case my opinion doesn’t hold much weight with you, I’m not the only one who feels that graphic novels are a form of both visual art and literature. In the last decade, graphic novels have become widely accepted as an artistic medium. Cartoonist’s works are being shown in galleries, highlighted in the New Yorker, and made into Hollywood blockbusters. Even some librarians are advocating for the literary merit of graphic novels.

Here are the two reasons I think they are so important:

1) Audience matters.

In a culture where “self-expression” is the museum artist’s one and only purpose statement, comic book artists are forced to create with an audience in mind and so that their graphic novel can sell to just about anyone and everyone (welcome to the current publishing market!). Mass appeal and accessibility is important. A cartoonist has to think about how YOU think, what YOU will care about, and how YOU will relate to his or her book. They have to think about someone other than themselves.

This contrasts starkly to contemporary painting, where a work can be completely unintelligible to the average Joe and still sell for 500K to the one collector who appreciates it. It doesn’t matter that the majority of the world looks at a painting and says “my two-year-old could do that” because the art world’s elite call a painting valuable.

But does anybody care about the painting “your two-year-old could do”? Does it move you to tears? On numerous occasions, I have been deeply moved by a graphic novel. What’s the difference? I think the element of story plays a key role in a graphic novel’s emotive power.

2) Story matters.

Many people have asked how Pixar has maintained it’s decade-long domination of the box-office. Pixar’s answer is that “everything is about the story.” Every detail, color, and character, and every part of the art serves the story. People are hungry for stories with depth, emotional resonance, and characters they can relate to.

Graphic novels, like any novel, tells a complete story. To be successful, they must have a protagonist with whom you can relate, and art that is accessible and expressive. The illustrations have to be well crafted, otherwise they will fail to convey the story with impact. The best graphic novels tell as much through the art as the words, and some of the best might not have any words at all (though they always tell a story, words or no words).

And finally, Jeremy’s recommended reading list:

So now that I’ve whet your appetite for the graphic novel, you’re wondering, where do I begin? Below is a list of some of my favorite graphic novels. Out of the stacks that I’ve read, these are the stories, characters, and art that has stuck with me.

I’ve split the list up into categories based on accessibility and ease of reading, as well as by more mature content and themes. I hope this helps you on your journey to fall in love with the graphic novel!

Graphic Novels For Everyone:
FLINK – Doug TenNapel

A fun, short and moving story about fathers, sons and sasquatches; this book is a great introduction if you’re new to graphic novels.

BONE – Jeff Smith

Lord of the Rings meets Peanuts; this is an epic story that is alternately hilarious and thrilling.

Graphic Novels For Older Teens and Adults:

THE SURROGATES – Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele

A gripping sci-fi adventure and insightful commentary on culture, community and religion.

THE ESSEX COUNTY TRILOGY – Jeff LeMire

An even-paced, loosely drawn, contemplative story that takes you deep into the heart of a family.

BLANKETS – Craig Thompson

Thicker than most regular novels, beautifully drawn, and poignantly told, this is a coming-of-age and loss-of-faith story. This book is truly literary, look for symbolism

JIMMY CORRIGAN – Chris Ware

Melancholy and painfully self-aware, this masterwork is told in a tight, clean, almost info-graphic style. This is a sweeping (autobiographical?) story of one man’s struggle with his father’s legacy.

A CONTRACT WITH GOD – Will Eisner

If John Steinbeck could have drawn he might have created these portraits of humanity in New York City: stories of racial tensions, ruined fortunes, family ties and little joys. Eisner was a pioneer in the genre of graphic novels. Today, the industry awards are in his name.

(NOTE: Graphic novels, like any book, may deal with adult topics and may often contain objectionable material. If you’re under 16, check with your folks before reading these books. Feel free to email me if you have further questions about a book I’m recommending.)

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