Here I present a list of six people responsible for some of the most essential graphic novels. I will list them in alphabetical order with a little discussion of their style, themes, most important work and what they’re doing recently. It’s a list of six, because I didn’t want to cut anyone and make it five.
Beautiful clean artwork with a lot of darkness, horror and disfigurement – that’s the one sentence that probably sums up Charles Burns’ visual style in his graphic novels. His major work Black Hole is about a disease that causes grotesque mutations in a group of teenagers in the 1970’s. This fall Burns completed his (unofficially dubbed) Nitnit Trilogy (X’ed Out, The Hive, Sugar Skull). The trilogy is very trippy, filled with nightmarish imagery once again, but very different in important ways. The beautiful dripping black and white of Black Hole has been replaced by very clean lines and color. As the Nitnit title implies: Burns is very much drawing on a nightmarish Tintin for the trilogy.
Daniel Clowes was probably the biggest cartoonist to come out of the 1990’s. His most famous work is undoubtedly Ghost World about two disaffected teenage girls transitioning into adulthood. It’s very nineties in terms of the disaffected ennuie of it all, but it’s still a very powerful graphic novel. Clowes has a visual style that is completely his own. Most his characters both visually and emotionally feel like characters perpetually uncomfortable in shoes half a size too small for them. He hasn’t released a proper graphic novel since 2011, but was pretty recently in the news when Shia LaBeouf ripped off one of his stories for a short film.
Alan Moore both totally and sort of doesn’t belong on this list. You can’t really have a discussion of graphic novels without mentioning him, but at the same time he’s the only person on this list who’s solely a writer and not a cartoonist. Yet, he’s written more than a few of the essential graphic novels: Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Hell, Batman: The Killing Joke, Superman: Whatever happened to the man of tomorrow. These are all incredibly famous and mostly for good reason. I do find myself often respecting his work more than actually enjoying it. They’re always filled with interesting ideas, but Moore uses 100 words where 10 will do. That’s probably the result of focusing on the writing at behest of the art, but to me he doesn’t fully utilize the art form. His love of verbosity is probably best exemplified by his forthcoming second prose novel Jerusalem reportedly being over a million words (War and Peace is 560,000 words long). I don’t mind lengthy writings, but clearly the man doesn’t feel economy has any room in writing.
Her autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis is probably the most acclaimed graphic novel of the oughts. Persepolis is drawn in a very stripped down black and white. It presents a very historical story in a very personal way. It made its way onto many best-of lists and surely converted many people to the graphic novel. Most recently she directed The Voices a comedy-crime-horror-thriller starring Ryan Reynolds which seems interesting.
Maybe not the true granddaddy of the genre, but certainly the most vocal advocate for graphic novels yet. He broke from underground comics into the literary scene with Maus. The book tells the story of Spiegelman’s father telling his story of World War II. The Jews are depicted as mice to the nazi’s cats. It was really the first graphic novel to get mainstream attention. Maus is the most essential of essential graphic novels. Spiegelman probably has the crudest style out of any artist on this list, but his choices are always effective. He hasn’t done anything since Maus that has approached that height. He published another graphic novel after September 11th 2001 titled In the shadow of no towers that is huge (in physical size, not length) and very emotionally raw as one might expect.
I know I credited Persepolis as the most acclaimed graphic novel of the oughts, but really Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth is just as much a contender for that throne. Its gloomy tone and somewhat coldly geometric visual style make it harder to get into, but richer when the ride is through. Chris Ware is, for me, one of the most vibrant storytellers working today in any medium. His most recent ‘graphic novel’ is Building Stories. I put the term in quotes, because it’s actually a box with a bunch of books, posters, newspapers, pamphlets and things inside that tell disjointed stories that build up beautifully no matter the order in which they are read. Those two works are some of the best and most interesting uses of text and imagery. Both equally important and working together to create an inseperable whole.
Okay, so if you’re new to graphic novels this should be a nice list to get you started. If you just want to pretend to have read graphic novels, this is also a pretty good start for that! By the way, I would’ve totally included Alison Bechdel, but you really should be reading that one by yourself right now to join Bored to Death book club this week! Go do that!
Written by Roy den Boer