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Alvaro Montoro

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My ABC of Graphic Novels

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This article will be a nice break from the technical writing I usually do to focus on something I like: reading comic books and graphic novels. I won't claim to be a graphic novels expert because I am not. However, I enjoy reading them all the time (and some of them re-reading them several times) and appreciating the art.

This list is mainly built with one-shots or short series because that's what I prefer to read. Also, waiting for weeks or months for a story to complete is a pain, so most are already finished stories (or story arches). However, there are some exceptions to both of those claims.

Finally, why make it an ABC instead of a simple listicle? Well, that's so I can add some fun on my side. It is easy to list titles without any logic or connection. But, limiting them to just a few based on a subjective criterion? Now that is a challenge. And one tougher than what I thought it would be, so I ended up having some "honorable mentions" for some of the letters.

Let's see them, one letter at a time.

A is for "Akira"

In the distant future (the year 2019) of Akira, the rebuilt city of Neo-Tokyo is still recovering from World War III, and the government is fighting the local gangs and terrorists that plague the city while experimenting with children and their psychic powers. This manga is a classic and a must-read for whoever enjoys the genre (although it can be confusing sometimes, to say the least.)

cover image for Akira 1

Initially, I had Epileptic in letter A (for its original title L'Ascension du Haut Mal). But I was running low on names for the letter E, and I already had a few for A, so I did a little switcheroo. Another good choice would have been Asterix (not any of the books in particular, but probably something from the beginning.)

B is for "Blueberry"

The letter B was a tough one too. It was undoubtedly going to be a European battle between Blueberry and Blacksad. I have to admit Blacksad is one of my favorites, but I grew up reading Blueberry (and enjoyed it even more later as an adult). That nostalgia tilted the balance towards the rough western stories of Lieutenant Blueberry.

cover image for Blueberry 5

Apart from Blacksad, other must-read graphic novels that start with the letter B are Bone (a mixture of fantasy, comedy, mystery, and adventures) and Blankets (an autobiographical view of the author's youth). But those titles always make it into the "best graphic novels" lists, and I wanted to highlight different things.

C is for "(A) Contract with God"

Considered by many as the first graphic novel (even when it's more of a collection of interconnected short stories), A Contract with God is a beautifully crafted masterpiece. It breaks with the traditional boxed comics of the time and makes the stories even more enjoyable with the fluid design of the scenes.

Some notable mentions for letter C are Calvin and Hobbes (a comic strip instead of a graphic novel, but it's so amazing that I don't care). Also, Chew is a story about a dystopian reality in which eating chicken is considered a crime, and the FDA is an essential branch of the government.

D is for "Daytripper"

Each chapter of this graphic novel shows a significant day in the main character's life (a newspaper obituary writer). They all end in the same way: his death and the obituary that he would have written for himself. From childhood to adulthood, Daytripper explores death and embraces it naturally.

cover image for daytripper

Another comic book starting with the letter D worth reading is Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend by Winsor McCay (who has another title on this list: Little Nemo.) A collection of dreams (and nightmares) caused by eating melted cheese for dinner.

E is for "Epileptic"

An autobiographical story about the author's relationship with his family, especially with his brother, who had epilepsy since childhood. At a time when society stigmatized epilepsy due to ignorance and misconceptions about the illness.

cover image for epileptic in French

Personal and harsh, Epileptic follows the parents' search for remedies, desperately seeking a cure for their child's health, often falling into the hands of quacks who promise miraculous solutions and false hope. And how that impacts the family and the author.

F is for "Fist of the North Star"

Along with Dragon Ball, this is one of the first major mangas that I remember. The story happens in a post-apocalyptic world in which our hero, trained in a powerful martial art, will protect the innocent and defenseless (sometimes in gory ways). Considering it has sold over 100 million copies, Fist of the North Star is one of the biggest best-selling mangas or graphic novels of all time.

Another "classic" for the letter F would be From Hell. The story is set in Victorian England and explores the myth of Jack the Ripper... it's the first title authored by Alan Moore that pops up on this list, but it definitely won't be the last one.

G is for "Giant Days"

Three completely different girls meet on the first day of college, and they instantly become inseparable friends: a goth girl prone to chaos, a nerdy (and often confused) student, and a politically-active med student with a mysterious past (and even more mysterious connections.)

cover image for Giant Days 1

Giant Days follows the day-to-day life of this group of students and their friends in some stories that will resonate among people who have been in college or sharing apartments with other students.

H is for "House of M"

Three simple words change superhero history in House of M (don't worry, no spoilers). It starts with a destroyed city and a "battle of the minds" between Charles Xavier and the Scarlett Witch. The superheroes must unite to make a tough decision, but the whole world turns upside down in front of their eyes.

cover image for House of M

House of M is a must-read book if you enjoy superhero comics. It is a great way to reset some character stories and set the stage for other story arcs that will come later (something like what Secret Invasion does, but I don't find that one as entertaining.)

I is for "Identity Crisis"

Another superhero mash-up. This time it's DC, and they are investigating the murder of a hero's wife. But how could that happen if the house is fully secure and there are no traces or evidence of the crime? Who is to blame? Who has more to win with this crime?

Identity Crisis digs into the psyche of the superheroes in their fears and weaknesses. And in how, sometimes, even the people that are supposed to know best are the ones doing the worst... but is it for a good reason?

J is for "Jimmy Corrigan"

Jimmy Corrigan (The Smartest Kid on Earth) is a weird graphic novel. The style is different, the story is different, and the flow is different (and at times difficult to follow). But it is that difference that makes it something catchy. Something that keeps the reader hooked and reading until the very end.

cover image for Jimmy Corrigan

The art in this graphic novel can often look like blueprints or build instructions for furniture, and the main character is extremely socially awkward (being soft)... maybe those are the things that made it weird to me? Still, I couldn't put the book down.

K is for "Kingdom Come"

The style of Kingdom Come is mesmerizing. It is different from other superhero comic books, and without belittling other titles, it looks like "actual art." The story happens in a future in which the "classic" superheroes have retired, and their children and grandchildren have taken over... with terrible results for everyone.

cover image for Kingdom Come

Two more titles that deserved being on the letter L are The Killing Joke and Kick-Ass. This last one looks like a modern version of Don Quixote, with a teenager that decides to become a superhero after reading a few too many graphic novels and superhero stories.

L is for "Little Nemo"

A title from over 100 years ago? Why not? Little Nemo in Slumberland is a collection of Sunday comics that tell the story of a boy that visits Slumberland every night. But, before he can reach his destination and meet the princess, he is suddenly awakened (in the comic's last panel) and has to continue the following night.

Another L-letter graphic novel that I have enjoyed is (The) League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (mainly the first book, the following ones become a bit weird). And more recently, I found Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me to be an intriguing read.

M is for "Maus"

I tend to (re-)read Maus once a year. It is my favorite graphic novel and, now even more, after its recent appearance in the news, a must-read for anyone that likes the genre and wants to read a first-hand author's World War II (the plot is around the life of the author's father.)

cover image for Maus

Another socially conscious historical graphic novel worth noting is March. An autobiographical walk through the Civil Rights movement by the late Senator John Lewis. From the 1940s in Alabama to the 2000s in Washington DC.

N is for "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind"

Only a few nations remain after an apocalyptic event that has left the planet immersed in a toxic environment. One of them is the Valley of the Wind, and Nausicaa is its kind and adventurous princess. She will soon get involved in an ultimate quest to save the world from another war that could destroy it—this time for good.

cover image for Nausicaa of the valley of the wind

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is a classic manga (and anime). An ode to ecology and peace in a world that is getting more a more poisoned with greed (and actual poison). The story will hit 40 years soon, and it is as relevant as ever to this day.

O is for "Old Man Logan"

Old Man Logan happens in a reality where supervillains removed (almost) all the superheroes from the face of the earth. Wolverine works on a farm with his family, struggling to survive and pay rent. So when a blind Hawkeye reaches out with a business proposition, old man Logan cannot refuse.

This reunion will result in a turbulent journey across America that will bring many unexpected appearances and the truth behind the disappearance of earth's mightiest heroes.

P is for "Persepolis"

Persepolis is a personal recount of the author's life before, during, and after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. It has two parts: the first happens during childhood, the start of the revolution, and culminates in Austria. The second part is about her return to Iran and adjusting to life in a country that has changed completely.

cover image for Persepolis 1

Other exciting titles starting with the letter P are the manga Pluto (a series based on Astroboy) and a couple of newcomers: Pulp (a pulp magazine writer facing his past) and The Prince and the Dressmaker (Prince Sebastian turns into Lady Crystallia with the help of his dressmaker).

Q is for "Quino"

If I say the names Felipe, Manolito, Guille, Libertad... and the first thing that come to mind is Mafalda and Quino, you are my type of person. I grew up reading his comic strips, and they are one of my all-time favorites.

cover image for Quino: Esto no es todo

Quino's style and humor (one that makes you chuckle and think simultaneously) are easily identifiable. Although it is more cartoonish or comic-strip-centric, he deserves a spot on this list for any of his work's compilations.

R is for "Red Son"

What would happen if Superman had arrived with 12 hours difference? What if, instead of landing in rural America, his rocket crashed in the Soviet Union, and he grew with an opposite political mindset? Would he become a hero or a villain? Superman: Red Son tries to answer those questions.

This story also shows versions of the other main characters and how they evolved differently based on a Communist Superman. If you enjoy this book and like humor, you could try reading Superman: True Brit, which is a "goofy version" of this: what would happen if Superman arrived in Great Britain instead of America (and John Cleese is one of the authors!)

S is for "Saga"

Saga is a mixture of war, love, adventure, magic, bounty hunters, sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll (or telenovela-acting.) In this still ongoing series, two enemies become unlikely lovers and form a bond beyond hatred, families, or persecution in a universe filled with a war between their worlds.

cover image for Saga volume 2

The letter S was the most complicated one in this article. There are so many great graphic novels starting with the letter S: Sandman, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Starlight, SlaughterHouse-Five, Severed, Something is killing the children and many more! The last two are horror stories that you won't be able to put down.

T is for "Tintin"

The intrepid reporter Tintin travels the world (and outside the world), jumping from one adventure to the next one. Although readers can check the books independently, the stories follow a timeline, and some secondary characters will pop up now and then to give continuity.

cover image for Tintin and the Blue Lotus

Tintin has been the center of some controversy over the years. Mainly due to stereotypes and outdated behaviors (Tintin in the Congo, The Blue Lotus, or The Red Sea Sharks are good examples), the stories struggle a bit over time. Still, they are a great adventure series in general.

U is for "Usagi Yojimbo"

Miyamoto Usagi is an anthropomorphic rabbit that goes from town to town as a ronin (a samurai without a master), offering his services as a bodyguard (Yojimbo) and getting into different adventures. The stories tend to be short and unrelated, although many have some continuity and a common arch-nemesis: Lord Hijiki.

Fun fact: Usagi Yojimbo has appeared as a supporting character in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics and videos (and they appeared in some of Usagi Yojimbo's comics.)

V is for "V for Vendetta"

After watching the movie a few times, I read this graphic novel and was blown away by it. I was expecting something like the movie, but the graphic novel is much more than what's shown in the film.

cover image for V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta deeply explores the characters' psychology and expands their backstories, giving them a dimension and impact that the movie missed (especially the main characters!) A must-read.

W is for "Watchmen"

I will say nothing about Watchmen that more knowledgeable people haven't said before. It is one of the most influential graphic novels ever and a different look into heroes' (and superheroes') daily lives and problems. And how a new generation of them will have to face a mysterious threat. 

cover image for Wathcmen

Two contenders for the W title were The Walking Dead (a long series collected in four compendiums) and Wanted, a gripping graphic novel that only shares the title with its movie adaptation (never judge a book by its movie version.)

X is "X/1999"

The manga X starts with a post-apocalyptical scenario (what is with mangas and futuristic destruction of the world?) then goes back to tell the story from the beginning, when Kamui Shiro arrives in Tokyo and finds himself in the middle of a battle that will decide the fate of the world. But will he bring salvation or destruction?

Another good title for the letter X would be X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, a surprisingly well-thought story that combines superheroes, religion, morality, and redemption. Involving the X-Men, of course :)

Y is for "Y: The Last Man"

Y: The Last Man is yet another post-apocalyptical story (and this time, it is not a manga, so I just may like these stories.) Every man on earth dies suddenly, and women dominate the world. But there is still a living man: Yorick, the son of a US congresswoman who will live the adventure of a lifetime while trying to reach his girlfriend in Australia. Yorick will be accompanied in his travels by his loyal(-ish) monkey Ampersand, a geneticist researcher, and a mysterious agent from a secret society part of the US government.

cover image for Y: The Last Man, volume 1

A remarkable series of comics starting with the letter Y would be Yoko Tsuno, which follows the adventures of Yoko Tsuno, an electrical engineer, and her friends in many thrilling —and sometimes sci-fi— stories.

Z is for "(A) Zoo in Winter"

The one-shot manga (A) Zoo in Winter is a romantic story, not only in the sense of a love story (which it is in part) but as an idealistic vision of life, relationships, and culture in Japan.

cover image for A zoo in winter

In this story, a man works in the textile industry but decides to give up that career to follow his dreams of becoming a manga writer/designer. However, he will soon have to face different unexpected tasks during his journey.

And that's it! The article has many common titles with other "Best Graphic Novels of All Time" listicles, but that's expected (if you are good, you are good). I still tried to keep it a bit diverse and include titles that I enjoyed and generally didn't make it to those lists.

Many titles didn't make the cut (even when they deserved being in the "honorable mentions"). It was more for lack of space than for lack of quality. What other graphic novels or comic books would you have added?

Note: I don't get any commission for the comic books and graphic novels links. They are mostly for Bookpeople, an independent bookstore in Austin, TX (you may be able to find cheaper options online). In some cases, the link is to Amazon, as I couldn't find the book on BookPeople.

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