9 graphic novels for beginners
An English professor offers advice on what you should read to break into the genre.
The graphic novel is experiencing a renaissance. Sales soared to $1.47 billion last year — a 76% increase from 2020 — and are on track to break even more records.
Rebecca Gorman O’Neill, MFA, professor of English at Metropolitan State University of Denver, who’s teaching a graphic-novel course this fall, said the class has been popular with students since it was first offered in 2008. But she’s never seen this level of diversity in story types and author backgrounds.
“The field is kind of exploding,” she said. “When you think about comic books and graphic novels, you think about superheroes and books like ‘Watchmen’ and ‘V for Vendetta,’ which are amazingly complex narratives. But we’re seeing a post-superhero world of graphic novels that don’t fit into clean and sharp categories.”
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She says there are several reasons behind the genre’s growing popularity. First, more middle and high school teachers are assigning graphic novels in the classroom. Young people are incredibly visual learners, she said, but also the generation that grew up on comics sees the value of graphic narratives and is now teaching them.
Additionally, the popularity of mega-blockbusters such as the “Avengers” franchise has helped open the door for more experimentation in the genre.
“Even movies like ‘Infinity War’ and ‘Endgame’ have grown with the audience’s level of sophistication when it comes to consuming visual narratives,” O’Neill said. “(Producers have realized they) don’t have to keep it straight and simple; (they) can embed symbol and allegory and do a lot more than just superheroes beating up supervillains.”
More and more presses are publishing graphic novels by writers of color and writers with diverse gender identities and sexual orientations as well, she said, resulting in a rise in the number of graphic memoirs and historical narratives.
Finally, O’Neill recognized international cultural influences that have played an important role. She said manga, a style of Japanese comics and graphic novels, has impacted American visual storytelling, as has the social-media platform TikTok. These influences have created more visual literacy and comfort in engaging with the genre.
As for recommendations, she said that depends on personal taste. She offers subgenres to help you decide the best point of entry for your disposition.
If you’re interested in memoir…
For texts to introduce you to the power and relevance of visual storytelling, she recommends “They Called Us Enemy” by George Takei and “Persepolis: Story of a Childhood” by Marjane Satrapi. Takei’s novel is a firsthand account of the author’s imprisonment in Japanese internment camps in the U.S. during World War II. “Persepolis” tells the story of Satrapi growing up during the Islamic Revolution.
If you’re into superheroes…
O’Neill recommends starting with clear, forthright, not-too-tangled storylines that showcase the superhero genre, such as “Kingdom Come” by Mark Waid and “Marvels” by Kurt Busiek. She also recommends anything by author Brian Michael Bendis, but “Powers: Vol. 1, Who Killed Retro Girl?” is a good place to start, she said, if you don’t want to dig too far down into the superhero rabbit hole.
If you dabble in YA…
These stories’ simplicity in language, tone and style appeals to younger audiences, but they still express and say so much, O’Neill said. Her recommendations include “American Born Chinese” by Shaun Luen Yang and “Ms. Marvel” by G. Willow Wilson.
Save the Date
Mira Jacob, author of “Good Talk,” will come to campus Nov. 2 at 11 a.m. at the Tivoli Turnhalle for a reading and discussion as part of MSU Denver’s common reading program, 1 Book/1 Project/2 Transform.
If you fancy non-superhero fantasy…
All the fairy-tale characters live in present-day New York City in Bill Willingham’s “Fables: Legends in Exile, Vol. 1.” In “Locke & Key” by Joe Hill, a family returns to its ancestral home to find magical keys governed by a malicious presence.
Find these books on loan through the Auraria Library or its regional loan program. O’Neill also recommends subscriptions such as Comixcology, which provides unlimited access to many books for a monthly fee.