All graphic novels are basically novels that were never written. Perhaps the authors were too tired or not too eager to go to the lengths of writing a novel and so these are the stories that were almost never told. But thankfully, the comic book-caped heroes flew to the rescue and so the last 50 years of alternate comic books have given us some works of such a rare compassion and human understanding that we are forced to look beyond the colorful capes of its heroes and acknowledge them as “real” works of literature and not just fancy pastime for pre teen schoolboys.
Published under alternate titles like Vertigo and Dark Horse by publishing majors such as DC Comics and Marvel, most of them are suddenly finding a new life in the form of major Hollywood movies. To be read without prejudice against the seemingly innocent artwork, here is a list of some of the absolute must-reads for those new to the weird and wonderful world of graphic novels.
- Mausby Art Spiegelman: An iconic work by a second generation Jew immigrant, Maus is a poignant retelling of the Holocaust. The author took his real life struggle of trying to understand his father — a bitter Holocaust survivor, and portrayed it brilliantly in a comic book where an ageing Vladeck Spiegelman is narrating his life story to his son Art. The author tells the story of a complex and difficult man brilliantly and etches the father-son relation with brutal honesty. He chooses to cast the various races in his tale as animals: the Jews as mice (hence the name), the Germans as cats, the Americans as dogs, the French as frogs and the Polish as pigs to highlight the absurdity of race divisions. The simple black-and-white artwork hides in its folds a great human story and for its sheer emotion can rival any other work of literature. Regarded as a rare work of fiction as well as a piece of history, Maus is a tale that breaks all barriers.
- Watchmen by Alan Moore: The big daddy of the graphic novel genre, Moore gave his superhero stories a unique human twist and bought them down from the skies and closer to our hearts. Watchmen is a tale of our dark times, told by some of the darkest characters in storytelling , and like fine wine, it lingers on in your mind long after the last page has been read. Honored by the Time magazine as the only graphic novel in its list of 100 Greatest Novels, Moore’s work and his unique superheroes, especially the ink-faced Rorschach, are sure to find a place of pride in your bookcase. Final words: leave the masala-Hollywood movie alone and go buy your copy of perhaps the grittiest graphic novel ever written.
- Sandmanby Neil Gaiman: A delightful cocktail of history, literature and mythology, Sandman is a well read man’s dream come true. With a list of characters that range from the Norse God Loki to Shakespeare, and a canvas that extends from a mythical Baghdad to the horrific realms of hell, Gaiman’s work is one that is sure to delight the most discerning of readers. It is a story that is magical, real, sad and delightful at the same time and needs some serious bibliography to be fully appreciated. With some spin-offs of the series — especially the ones about Death (yes, she is a character!) and Lucifer — doing well, Sandman has attained a cult status that is hard to achieve in the fiercely combative world of literature.
- The Dark Knight by Frank Miller: Frank Miller is clearly the most “filmable” of authors with successful movies like Sin City, 300 & Daredevil based on his iconic graphic novels. Yet, it is his classic retelling of the story of the Gotham Knight which is still regarded as his best work. His reinvention of Batman (which also inspired Christopher Nolan’s movies) in his Dark Knight series is an amazing example of how a story about caped crusaders could be made as powerful and real as any other work of art. Frank Miller’s Batman is old, grey haired, tired and even a little puffy around the edges but is still the tallest of heroes. Whether or not you like the original Batman stories, this one is a must read for its sheer power and the dazzling display of what a simple comic book can become.
- V for Vendetta by Alan Moore: For the rebel in all of us. For every closet anarchist who wanted to change the way the world functions. And for every lunatic who believes that the actions of one can change the destiny of millions. The unnamed protagonist in Alan Moore’s epic story hides all of our secret faces behind his mask of Guy Fawkes and gives wings to our most rebellious of thoughts. The graphic novel can boast of perhaps the best storytelling arch in its genre, putting many a novel to shame and has won many accolades for its eccentric author. Read it for its sheer audacity and storytelling genius, books like V don’t come around very often.
- Fables by Bill Willingham: Bill Willingham’s work may seem very light when compared to the other, more broody books in this list but it is surely one of the most fun. Remember all the characters in the fairy tales you read as child — Snow White, Big Bad Wolf, Pinocchio, Mowgli and the likes? Well, put them in New York, give them a generous shot of strong whisky, add a dollop of twisted human psyche, throw in some memorable action sequences, stick on a ’18+ only’ sticker on the cover and wash it all down with some great art work and you get the heady concoction that is Fables. Read it and relish the favorite characters of your childhood relive their roles in a decidedly more adult world. Growing up was never so much fun!