Ranking the best book-length comics ever created is a lot like picking out the greatest grains of sand on the beach: you’re bound to overlook some gems. But that's the glory of graphic novels as a form, isn't it? From North America to Europe to Japan, from superheroes to autobiography to pure poetry, from horror to comedy to drama, this medium is as varied and vital as anything else on Earth. And since it's largely free from the commercial demands of billion-dollar mega-industries like film, TV, music, or video games, comics offer a creative freedom that's all but unparalleled. It's easy to fill your bookshelf with mind-expanding, paradigm-shifting work and still barely scratch the surface of what's out there.
Below you'll find our attempt to delineate the tip of the art form's iceberg -- 33 of the most exciting, adventurous, gorgeous, movingly written anthologies, limited series, and stand-alone stories ever drawn. Get ready for work that will challenge and enrich you for years to come.
33. The Voyeurs by Gabrielle Bell
"I know you must all have a lot of questions and comments but if you'll please save them until I've finished, I will try to explain this situation as best I can." With these words, cartoonist Gabrielle Bell's two-dimensional avatar -- customarily the star of autobiographical stories about her itinerant, poverty-prone life as an artist -- launches into a tall tale about her mother's life on the radical fringes of '70s society and her own (nonexistent) adaptation of would-be Warhol assassin Valerie Solanas' SCUM Manifesto, a(n imaginary) project so eagerly anticipated that Michelle Obama talks about it at commencement addresses. In other words, Bell's not "explaining this situation" clearly at all. But in The Voyeurs, a collection of her short comics, she explains her life "as best she can" -- in an anxious blend of mostly fact and occasional fantasy that reflects her self-analyzing thought process. Her chunky, jittery black lines give her and her acquaintances a sense of weight that carries over into the gravity of their emotions.
32. Ant Colony by Michael DeForge
Michael DeForge, among the most talented and respected cartoonists of his generation, published one of the millennial cohort's first genuinely great comics in Ant Colony. While the book's very loosely anthropomorphized insect characters tie it to a tradition nearly as old as the art form itself, the funny-animal comic, DeForge updates the genre with his inimitably bizarre and baroque character designs (the ants all have visible internal organs; spiders are snarling dog heads with daddy-longlegs feet sticking out of them; the ant queen is a mountainous labyrinth of sex) and his talent for Cronenbergian body horror. As the title colony is torn apart by external and internal threats, DeForge explores how both biology and society lock us into routines from which it's nearly impossible to escape.
31. Teratoid Heights by Mat Brinkman
Not since the heyday of Robert Crumb's Zap Comix group -- or perhaps the classic Marvel Comics bullpen -- has there been a group of cartoonists as influential as Providence, Rhode Island's Fort Thunder, a collective of art-school students and dropouts who, around the turn of the 21st century, wed their interests in noise rock, Dungeons & Dragons, and comics to revolutionize the field. Cartoonist and musician Brian Chippendale emerged as the Fort's most famous alumnus thanks to his hall-of-fame drumming for the band Lightning Bolt, and his manic, postapocalyptic graphic-novel musings on community like Ninja and Puke Force are not to be missed. But his collaborator Mat Brinkman's tiny but tremendous Teratoid Heights is perhaps the purest distillation of how they brought the thunder. These wordless, black-and-white short stories follow a variety of creepy creatures as they make their way through carefully delineated dungeon-like environments, living and dying, losing and triumphing along the way. (In the most memorable, the protagonist deposes a king only to shit on his throne -- top that, George R.R. Martin!) Brinkman's pages prove that comics can be as adept and thrilling at depicting travel through a physical environment as film or video games.
30. After Nothing Comes by Aidan Koch
Comics-as-poetry has had its proponents for quite some time, particularly since the the dawn of the '00s. The explosive shattering of time and space in Kevin Huizenga's Gloriana, the use of compulsive mark-making to signify grief in Anders Nilsen's The End and Josh Cotter's Driven by Lemons, abstraction as the ultimate form of political cartooning in Warren Craghead's ongoing projects on global conflict -- all these come to mind. But the sheer minimalist restraint and stunning draftsmanship of polymath artist Aidan Koch's comics, many of which are contained in this collection, mark her as the medium's poet laureate. Watching her work evolve through these pages, you can see her ever-growing command of realistic rendering wedded to her increasing confidence in using no more visual information than necessary to convey her messages of memory, beauty, the presence of physical objects in our psychological landscape, and the often stymied desire to connect.
29. A Drunken Dream and Other Stories by Moto Hagio
Few collections of the work of comics' masters make the case for their creators' greatness as instantaneously and inarguably as this anthology of short stories from the godmother of shōjo (girls) manga. Hagio's intricate and ornate line work is nothing short of astonishing, a visual wonder in the vein of a Moebius masterpiece. But it's the power of her fable-like storytelling -- most famously in the tale of a girl with the painstakingly drawn face of a lizard -- that gets its hooks in you and won't let go. From her mind and pen, a genre that has thrilled millions was born.
28. The Book of Genesis Illustrated by Robert Crumb
Like Hagio, Crumb is one of sequential art's all-time greatest craftspeople and artistic innovators, shepherding the underground comics movement of the '60s into existence through the sheer force of his peerless hatching, unbound id, and (just as important and way too frequently overlooked) drive to self-criticize. While collections featuring his great creations Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, Flakey Foont, and Devil Girl, not to mention his collaborations with comics' great everyman writer Harvey Pekar, abound, this lion-in-winter adaptation of no less a work than the first book of the goddamn Bible is the best place to witness Crumb's genius. Largely stripped of the sociopolitical context that has made his comics so controversial over the years, Genesis’ portraits of ancient men and women struggling to survive shows that his primary interest lies in chronicling the physical and mental experience of being human.
27. Baby Bjornstrand by Renée French
A veteran of the alternative-comics boom of the '90s, French developed a pointillist pencil-art approach that gives her art the atmosphere of a half-remembered dream or a deleted scene from Eraserhead. In Baby Bjornstrand, the comic answer to Waiting for Godot, her blend of absurdist humor and nightmarish existentialist angst achieves the peak primal power as a gaggle of adorable little troublemakers in hoods attempt to make sense of the title character: a birdlike sea monster who suddenly appears in their midst. Imagine a black-comedy stage play about the ape-men trying to make sense of the obelisk in 2001 and you've got an inkling of Baby Bjornstrand's humorous, haunting vibe.
26. The Furry Trap by Josh Simmons
The comic world has never produced a more brutal talent than Josh Simmons. The scatology, the sexuality, and the sheer nihilistic cruelty of his short horror comics make Hostel, Martyrs, and the rest of the early-'00s torture-porn boom look like The Nightmare Before Christmas, but there’s a lonely desperation to his ironically cartoony character designs that makes it clear this is coming from a place of genuine pain, not shock for shock’s sake. This mind-melting collection features some of his best, most unsparing work, most famously the how-did-he-not-get-sued-for-this Batman parody "Mark of the Bat" and the grotesque sex-horror story "Cockbone." In literal terms, Simmons’ demons are razor-toothed or baby-faced, but the emotional demons of despair and futility are far harder to shake.
25. My New York Diary by Julie Doucet
One of the many Canadian masters of the form who emerged from the creative ferment of the '90s, cartoonist Julie Doucet's masterpiece is this autobiographical chronicle of her move to the pre-gentrification, pre-Disneyfication Big Apple. The sex, the drugs, the squalor, the filth, the fury: Doucet captures it all with an art style far more rock 'n' roll than that of her countrymen Chester Brown, Joe Matt, and Seth. Her ability to combine a detailed sense of place and a healthy dose of self-effacement with the raw power of her expressionistic artwork has cast a long shadow that more timid autobio cartoonists have been afraid to explore.
24. Meat Cake Bible by Dame Darcy
You don't so much read Meat Cake Bible, a comprehensive collection of the one-woman anthology series Dame Darcy has put out through seminal alt-comix publisher Fantagraphics since the grunge era, as stand in the shallows and let it hit you like a wave. Inspired both by her feminist mother and a fortuitous teenage viewing of Beetlejuice, Darcy studiously devised an occult-nautical-mermaid-Victoriana aesthetic that anticipated not only Tim Burton's latter-day work, steampunk, and gothic TV like Penny Dreadful, but also served as a companion to and echo of the emergent riot-grrl movement. Her sweeping line is a sea shanty in visual form, and her rogues’ gallery of characters (including Strega Pez, a woman who speaks by dispensing Pez-like tablets from a hole in her throat) speaks to a wide variety of desires and fears. Put it all together and it's as fully formed and impressive an experience as any in comics.
23. The Armed Garden and Other Stories by David B.
The pathos, scope, and autobiographical urgency of influential French cartoonist David B.'s chronicle of life with his ailing brother, Epileptic, makes for an obvious choice on lists like this (not to mention Persepolis, the memoir of life under Iran's strict sociopolitical guidelines, by B.'s peer Marjane Satrapi). But both as an example of the artist's command of spiritual imagery via his rapturous black-and-white brushwork and a depiction of the horrors wrought by religious fanaticism, The Armed Garden is the pinnacle of his work. Seamlessly blending the actual history of Christian and Muslim schismatics and cults with the legends and myths they told about themselves, this collection of three powerful fact/fiction/fantasy comics is required reading for anyone who wishes to understand the messianic drives behind irrational political movements, from ISIS to MAGA.
22. Asthma by John Hankiewicz
Before his tragically early death from cancer rocked the alternative-comics scene several years ago, cartoonist and editor Dylan Williams' Sparkplug Books was responsible for giving an early outlet to some of the most uncompromising cartoonists in North America, Chris Wright and Julia Gfrörer among them. John Hankiewicz's Asthma was the gone-too-soon publisher's most fully formed work -- a haunting avant-garde exploration of bodies, objects, and the spaces they inhabit that utilized repetition and rhythm as skillfully as any musician ever could, living up to the promise of post-punk bassist/cartoonist Richard McGuire's seminal short story "Here" in Françoise Mouly & Art Spiegelman's RAW anthology two decades earlier. Hankiewicz is a gifted draftsperson, so the artwork is impressive in its own right. But it's his sense of pacing and layout that makes reading this collection such a transformative experience. Your conception of comics will change with every turn of the page.
21. Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
Yes, Fun Home earned the awards, the sales, the plaudits, the (excellent!) Broadway musical adaptation, and the slot on lists like these for years to come. It even deserved it. But Are You My Mother?, in which Dykes to Watch Out For cartoonist Alison Bechdel does for her relationship with her still-living, distant mother what she did with her late, closeted father in the book's predecessor, is a Godfather Part II scenario. For stately clear-lined cartooning, for hyper-literary writing, for sheer ferocious interiority, Are You My Mother? is the rare sequel that's superior to the original. To read it is to feel exposed to the blast furnace of Bechdel's intelligence and talent, the full heat of which is applied to her attempt to understand how her family made her the woman and artist she is today.
20. Sailor Moon by Naoko Takeuchi
One of the most influential superhero comics ever made, and unique among that number in being directed squarely and unashamedly at a readership of girls, Naoko Takeuchi's multi-volume Sailor Moon saga belongs with Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and the X-Men in any conversation about the medium's exploration of power and responsibility. Cartoonist Naoko Takeuchi's genius is equal parts literary and visual. In the form of the various Sailor Guardians -- with the core five of vivacious Sailor Venus, powerful but lovelorn Sailor Jupiter, no-nonsense Sailor Mars, bookish and brilliant Sailor Mercury, and emotional yet self-sacrificing Sailor Moon herself -- she nailed a slew of templates for how girls exist in a patriarchal world; it's the kids comics equivalent of The Golden Girls or Sex and the City. But the imagery of her "magical girl" comic may well possess even more power. When middle-school student Usagi Tsukino and her friends transform into their superheroic alter egos, those transformations are half-psychedelic, half-Cirque du Soleil reveries that stop the action dead in its tracks, the better to appreciate the impact of what the girls are going through. Peter Parker, eat your heart out.
19. Louis Riel by Chester Brown
Before he made Louis Riel, the Canadian cartoonist had never made anything remotely like Louis Riel. He established himself as a talent to watch with Ed the Happy Clown, a surrealist satire of the Reagan era featuring the Great Communicator himself as a talking penis, then wrote and drew a series of autobiographical efforts chronicling his youthful sexual and romantic peccadilloes (the best of which, I Never Liked You, is a devastating story of young love and rejection). Louis Riel, a biography of Canada's most prominent indigenous political leader and revolutionary, was revelatory, and not just because of the respectful way in which it depicted Riel's alleged revelations from God himself. Brown's restrained, matter-of-fact character designs and pacing were perfect for the story of a man who seemed to be swept along by events as much as provoking them himself, yet it was equally adept at depicting him as a man of destiny who would bow to nothing and no one. The sequence in which he feels forced to execute a white prisoner who simply will not stop spewing racist invective -- memorably depicted only as a series of angry "XXXX XXXXXX XXXXX!"s -- is one of the greatest in the history of the art form.
18. Garden by Yuichi Yokoyama
What would you get if you combined the most pulse-pounding, propulsive action sequences superhero comics have ever produced with the brainiac esoteric compositions of an Aphex Twin or Oneohtrix Point Never? You'd get something like Garden, the magnum opus of Japanese cartoonist Yuichi Yokoyama. In its pages, a group of nameless characters costumed like obscure bosses in a knockoff Mega Man video game travel through a massive man-made outdoor complex, emotionlessly commenting on all the amazing and completely ordinary objects and events they observe. The result is a reading experience in which you truly feel as though you are there, exploring these strange, geometrically rigorous environments right along with these flat-affect adventurers. If you could somehow transubstantiate Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Express or side two of David Bowie's Low into comics form, this is what you'd get -- a thrill that's both intellectual and visceral.
17. Artichoke Tales by Megan Kelso
The feminist fantasy of Ursula K. Le Guin and the antiwar allegory of George R.R. Martin receive their sequential-art answer in this overlooked masterpiece by Megan Kelso. The titular "artichokes" are people, for all intents and purposes, the only difference being that their hair looks like the pointed leaves of the vegetable. From this simple visual conceit, Kelso creates an act of world-building to rival any in the medium's history. Artichoke Tales is the story of a kingdom divided between its agricultural south and industrial north, a queen who fails her people despite an entire system dedicated to her success, and a house-divided family saga in which sex, love, and attraction play as important a role as war, politics, and gender roles. It's all drawn with a line as clear and clean as any this side of the European greats Hergé and Joost Swarte. This book will explode like a bomb in the mind of anyone lucky enough to read it.
16. Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco
Today, comics journalism is a burgeoning field, with cartoonists serving as reporters on the front lines of social protest and political crisis. For this alone we owe a vote of thanks to Joe Sacco, whose empathetic but unsparing works Palestine and Safe Area Goražde provided meticulously drawn eyewitness accounts of struggle and survival in the occupied territories and the Balkans, respectively. But it's Sacco's return to Palestine, Footnotes in Gaza, that's his true tour de force. An attempt to access the truth of a massacre in a Palestinian village during its initial seizure by Israeli forces, Footnotes is essentially three books at once: a furious skewering of the Egyptian and Israeli powers-that-be that allowed the atrocity to take place; a Rashomon-style examination of the memories of the incident's survivors; and a cri de coeur from a reporter who can only record and never alter the horrific events that are the subject of his work.
15. A Child's Life and Other Stories by Phoebe Gloeckner
In many ways, this early career-spanning collection of the comics and illustrations of cartoonist Phoebe Gloeckner is a dry run for the masterpiece to follow. (More on that later.) But A Child’s Life is a worthy entrant to the comics canon in its own right, as underground-comix protégé-turned-trained medical illustrator Gloeckner uses her stand-in character, Minnie Goetze, to depict her history of childhood neglect, adolescent abuse, and adult drifting with unsparing clarity. Gloeckner has one of the most refined and inviting lines in comics, but she's constantly switching up styles in these pages -- an artistic evolution that has culminated in her current, ongoing project investigating the murders of women and girls in Juarez, Mexico, using dolls and dioramas. The twin highlights here -- "Minnie's 3rd Love," a history of her emotionally abusive teen girlfriend, and her illustrations for J.G. Ballard's landmark experimental novel The Atrocity Exhibition (shout-out to Danny Brown) -- are for-the-ages works.
14. Special Exits by Joyce Farmer
Never, ever pay any attention to anyone who tells you that comics are a young person's game; the mere existence of Joyce Farmer's Special Exits should put paid to that notion for good and all. An underground-comix progenitor who co-founded the feminist anthology Tits & Clits and participated in the equally influential Wimmen's Comix way back in the '70s, Farmer toiled on this autobiographical tale of her elderly parents' final years for over a decade before publishing it in 2010 at the age of fucking 72. It was one of the best comics of that or any other year -- a no-holds-barred look at aging and dying from a cartoonist who applied a lifetime of chops to the project. Farmer famously threw away 35 pages of finished work because they didn't live up to her exacting standards, and the result is a book that portrays the love of a daughter for her mother and father as movingly as anything in any medium.
13. Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay by Ben Katchor
In one format or another -- alternative-weekly newspaper strips, graphic-novel collections from a variety of publishers -- Ben Katchor has told the stories of Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer for decades. Like a beloved character actor from an early season of Law & Order, this mustachioed, fedora-wearing explorer of the streets, shops, and offices of New York City takes page-long snapshots of a vanishing city in the form of businesses that are just this side of plausible; it’s magical realism that's so realistic you almost forget it's magic. Cheap Novelties, recently reissued by titanic alt-comix publisher Drawn and Quarterly, is the first of Katchor's collections, and it establishes Knipl's routine to a nicety. The off-kilter angles that really make you feel like you're navigating forgotten Midtown office buildings and Downtown storefronts; the harried, suit-wearing, middle-aged ethnic-European men who carry a half-century of neglected urban life with them -- Katchor has created some of the greatest art ever made about New York City and its accretion of culture. As one memorable strip puts it, "Mr. Knipl accidentally stuck his head into the past."
12. Ice Haven by Daniel Clowes
The massively influential teenage wasteland of Ghost World, the Lynchian sex and surrealism of David Boring and Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, the vicious superhero satire of The Death-Ray, even the Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque savagery of Mr. Wonderful and Wilson, Daniel Clowes has established himself as a titan of the form in a variety of tones and styles, linked by his often-imitated, never-duplicated figure work and design. He draws like sarcasm feels. But there's always been a bleeding heart behind his sardonic surface, and nowhere does that heart bleed harder than in Ice Haven, his own personal Our Town. A single story -- about a kidnapped boy and the various townspeople affected by his disappearance, including the kidnapper him- or herself -- told as a series of individual funny pages-style strips, Ice Haven is Clowes at his most empathetic and most unsparing. He gets into the hearts of an aspiring young writer, the middle-aged man who's jealous of her talent, and the little kids who struggle to comprehend their classmate's vanishing with equal aplomb, in vignettes that are alternately funny, phantasmagorical, frightening, and painfully relatable.
11. Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus by Jack Kirby
They call Jack Kirby the King of Comics, and for good reason. As a precocious young artist, he co-created Captain America with writer-artist Joe Simon; his star-spangled superhero socked Hitler on the jaw a few years before Kirby himself helped liberate a satellite concentration camp during the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe in World War II. After returning to the States, Kirby would pioneer both romance and monster comics in the '50s before work for which he is best remembered: the early-'60s co-creation of the Marvel Universe with his frenemy Stan Lee and fellow artist Steve Ditko. The dynamism of his artwork was miles away from the staid, square-jawed superheroics of Superman, Batman et al., and as the co-writer (and often primary writer) of Fantastic Four and other Marvel mainstays, Kirby gave birth to characters and concepts that essentially preserved the comics industry in North America after the censorious ’50s.
Kirby's true masterwork came when, fed up with Lee's spotlight-hogging and his own lack of creative control, he decamped to rival publisher DC and was given carte blanche to create his own line of superheroes. In genuinely prophetic fashion, the four titles that resulted -- New Gods, Mister Miracle, The Forever People, and Jimmy Olsen -- told one massive interlocking story about a war between rival deities, the evil half of which were led by a granite-faced embodiment of evil called Darkseid, whose son was secretly raised by the forces of good. (Sound familiar, Star Wars fans?) It's not simply the scope of Kirby's ambition nor the cataclysmic psychedelia of his artwork (drawn completely drug-free) that makes the Fourth World Saga, collected in four omnibus editions by DC, so compelling. No, it's this World War II veteran's Vietnam-era conviction that the true source of "Anti-Life" is violence itself, no matter how righteous the cause. Sadly, the epic was cut short by the publisher before Kirby could reach its proper conclusion. Several great superhero works would eventually follow (Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All Star Superman, Mike Mignola and John Arcudi and Guy Davis' Hellboy/B.P.R.D. saga), but they all labor in the humanistic, explosively creative shadow of the King.
10. Gast by Carol Swain
A work of such profound empathy that it almost feels like a hole in the world, Gast is a gentle yet ultimately unforgiving look at the ways in which the world can break down those who cannot quite bring themselves to fit in. It follows an 11-year-old girl named Helen on a trip to the Welsh countryside, during which she discovers she can talk with the wild and domesticated animals that populate its rolling landscape -- all of whom speak to her of the death of a "rare bird" who lived near by. This turns out to be a farmer named Emrys, whose gender dysphoria (he wore women's clothing and ostentatiously dyed his hair, but kept to himself out of fear of reprisal and continued to identify as male) and failing fortunes led him to suicide. Gast functions like a murder mystery with no real killer and no real victim; the investigation itself is the point, as Helen learns about this sad and secretly much-loved person's life, and about life and death themselves in the process. Swain’s soft charcoal artwork, the unusual and descriptive angles of her drawings, and her willingness to take things slowly make for an utterly unique reading experience.
9. Daddy's Girl by Debbie Drechsler
Harrowing even by the unforgiving standards of the autobio genre, cartoonist Debbie Drechsler's all-too-thinly veiled memoir of her horrific sexual abuse at the hands of her father is perhaps the most difficult read in the history of comics. The cover image, of the title character surreptitiously sneaking cookies from an owl-shaped cookie jar in the middle of the night, is transformed so grotesquely by the story inside that it’s enough to make you drop the book in sheer anguish and agony. But fuck all the clichés about women’s memoirs simply spurting their pain onto the page: Drechsler is a fantastically accomplished artist, whose curvilinear compositions, use of heavily dotted and spotted blacks, wide-eyed and thick-haired character designs, and absolutely livid writing add up to a carefully composed expressionist masterpiece on par with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. On the "about the author" page at the back of the book, Drechsler says, "I haven't made any comics in several years. I think I must have told all the stories I wanted to tell." Indeed, she hasn't returned to cartooning since. What you're reading here is an artist laying it all out, leaving nothing in reserve.
8. Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days by Al Columbia
Like the videotape from The Ring, the Box from Hellraiser, or the children’s storybook from The Babadook, Pim & Francie is an art-object that seems so thick and teeming with evil that it corrupts the world around it. Much of this is down to the… unusual work habits of cartoonist Al Columbia, a mercurial perfectionist who infamously destroyed an anticipated collaboration with comics legend Alan Moore. Many of the illustrations and comics contained in Pim & Francie, concerning the old-timey cartoon-character boy-girl couple of the title, are unfinished, partially erased, torn, crumpled, even burned thanks to Columbia's tyrannical internal critic. Reassembled with all their damage intact, they add up to a horror comic that almost feels hot to the touch, as if the clown-faced killers and black-flame demons who harry our hero and heroine could sizzle their way through the pages and into our world at any moment. This is comics equivalent of The Shining, The Exorcist, or Mulholland Drive. May its readers cower.
7. The Love Bunglers by Jaime Hernandez
As one half of the legendary Los Bros Hernandez, "Xaime" emerged from the Los Angeles punk scene and its attendant Latino culture to transform the comics landscape alongside his brother Gilbert in their series Love and Rockets, which they've co-created in one form or another for over 30 years. The Love Bunglers is Jaime's most recent collection, and the culmination of three decades of storytelling centered on the same group of characters: the "Locas," a loose-knit group of punks and their friends and family who've aged in real time along with their creator. This particular volume sees main character Maggie Chascarillo, now a middle-aged woman, reunite with her long-ago love Ray after the latter is attacked by a man who's secretly… well, I won't spoil it for you. The point is that this comic chronicles the long-term effects of abuse, the fluctuating bonds of friendship and family, and the way our lives sometimes circle around one another for ages before finally arriving like no other work of contemporary fiction could possibly do; you'd have to imagine Mad Men or Orange Is the New Black lasting for a full generation to achieve this level of cumulative power. It's all brought home by Jaime's classically gorgeous artwork, which combines the graphic intensity of rock-gig posters with a sense of space and time's manipulability that French New Wave filmmakers could only dream of achieving.
6. High Soft Lisp by Gilbert Hernandez
Jaime's late-period masterpiece makes its impact additively -- it's the total of the interpersonal relationships, and artistic interests, that sustained his "Locas" storyline through the years. His brother Gilbert's peak achievement, High Soft Lisp, takes a very different tack: it succeeds by dismantling its creator’s fixations and obsessions, revealing the ugliness beneath. Beginning in the fictional, magic-realist Central American village of Palomar before migrating to the States, Gilbert "Beto" Hernandez's ongoing saga has centered on the sad-eyed, hammer-wielding Luba and, eventually, her half-sisters, all of whom are genetically predisposed to almost preposterous curvaceousness. Obviously, a young Gilbert simply enjoyed drawing buxom women. But in the person of Fritz, the lisping therapist-turned-B-movie star whose misadventures drive this volume drawn from Beto's Love and Rockets contributions, that enjoyment is autopsied with no joy and no remorse. For all of Fritz’s intelligence, talent, and magnetism, she's relentlessly sexualized, objectified, and victimized by almost everyone who purports to care about her -- implicitly including Gilbert himself. Few artists have ever reckoned with their own unspoken motives this unsparingly, or with this level of empathy for the kinds of people society has enabled them to harm.
5. Maus by Art Spiegelman
It's no exaggeration to say that without this book, you wouldn't be reading this list. Yes, comics had shown signs of intelligent life as an art form prior to the 1986 publication of underground cartoonist-turned-Reagan-era anthologist Art Spiegelman's memoir of life with his Holocaust-survivor parents cum biography of his father's experience under the Nazis' exterminationist regime. But it took Spiegelman's drive to take on the defining event of the 20th century -- and arguably all of human history -- to coalesce those early markers into a bona fide movement.
This has led to the misguided perception that Maus won simply by showing up. Don't buy it. Spiegelman's scratchy, overloaded artwork all but fumes with fury at the dehumanizing injustice done to his family and their fellow Jews, ladening page after page with an overwhelming amount of black-and-white brutality. The central conceit -- the Jews are drawn to look like mice, the Germans like cats -- may have grabbed attention by tying the subject matter to cartooning's long history of anthropomorphized animals, from Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat on down. But in the end that's just a fig leaf that enables Spiegelman to go farther and hit harder than a more straightforward depiction of events could dare to pull off -- like moving the camera away from the slaughter but still broadcasting the screams of both the living and the dying.
4. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware
It's all but impossible to overstate the impact cartoonist Chris Ware had on comics. His flagship series The ACME Novelty Library shifted size, shape, and format with each new issue, eventually releasing a specialized display rack simply to help beleaguered stores keep all of them successfully shelved. From the covers to the indicia to fake ads and editors' notes, Ware treated the "comic book" not as a mere vessel for the comics inside, but as an art object in and of itself. This grand experiment gave birth to Jimmy Corrigan, which in its collected edition was the most acclaimed graphic novel since Maus some 15 years earlier. The story splits its time between the title character, a prematurely aged 30-something sadsack reuniting with his deadbeat dad for the first time in years, and flashbacks to the youth of his grandfather, neglected and eventually abandoned by his own father during the 19th century. Anyone who's ever called Ware cold is completely full of shit: The mechanical precision of his artwork and the almost fractal complexity of his panel layouts may make it look otherwise, but this is the most heartfelt look at family the art form has ever produced.
3. Black Hole by Charles Burns
With his luminous black inks (only modern-day psychedelic master Jim Woodring comes close) and impeccable eye for throwback fashions and hairstyles, Charles Burns emerged as one of the '90s' most recognizable cartoonists. A decade in the making, Black Hole combined all his talents and interests into a story of such nostalgic, horrific, and erotic power it was almost impossible to see coming from the genre pastiches that preceded it. Set in the Pacific Northwest during the weed-scented, Zeppelin-soundtracked 1970s, it's the story of a group of teenagers suffering from a bizarre sexually transmitted disease that mutates them in unpredictable, frequently grotesque ways. The kids grow vestigial tails or second mouths, their skin sheds and their faces warp, and as time passes they fall deeper and deeper through the cracks of square society, leaving them vulnerable to more dangerous predators. Burns' vision of this creepy subculture buzzes like a blacklight poster; no depiction of drugs in the history of comics has ever been more disorienting, and few sex scenes have ever been as genuinely intense.
2. Jordan Wellington Lint: The ACME Novelty Library 20 by Chris Ware
After wrapping Jimmy Corrigan, gifted cartoonist Chris Ware continued The ACME Novelty Library, the series in which it was serialized, with a new story: Rusty Brown, which elevated a character from throwaway gag cartoons about a Simpsons Comic Book Guy-style manchild to War and Peace dimensions. The still-ongoing serialization had already produced one for-the-ages chapter, issue #19's "Golden Age of Science Fiction" story as written by the young Rusty’s father, before it got around to Ware’s crowning achievement: the life of Jordan Lint, Rusty's primary bully, from conception to death. Ware brings all his skills to bear in this slow-motion tragedy; his writing meticulously chronicles the cycle of abuse, while his art is at its most ambitious and experimental, depicting everything from an infant's view of the world to a comic-within-the-comic memoir by an avant-garde cartoonist with breathtaking zeal. The final pages bear a sense of failure and loss that hit as hard as a physical blow to the head -- I literally reeled back after reading them the first time, like someone had grabbed the book and struck me with it.
1. The Diary of a Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner
Like a Sgt. Pepper or Abbey Road to Revolver, Phoebe Gloeckner's The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a creative quantum leap from A Child’s Life (#15 on this list). More than that, it's a trailblazing, prophetic stretching of the definition of "graphic novel" itself. Once again using her "Minnie Goetze" stand-in, Diary adapts Gloeckner's real-life teenage diary, in which she detailed her sexual relationship with her mother's very adult boyfriend and her own downward spiral into addiction and abuse. Gloeckner also juxtaposes prose passages from her teenage self's cassette-recorded journal, stand-alone illustrations that portray her experiences as she felt them at the time, actual drawings and comics she created during the years the diary chronicled, and contemporary comics that reflect her adult understanding of the events that befell her. The resulting work has a power far greater than the sum of any of its parts -- a blend of youthful naïveté, jaded cynicism, and grown-up empathy that lets no one off the hook yet refuses to judge or condemn anyone, allowing the reader to make those decisions as a sort of proxy for the girl who wasn't able to do so herself.
Gloeckner's drive to stay true to the emotional experience of her teenage girl, no matter how sad or silly or horny or ugly or abused or angry or awful, is a model for any artist attempting to tackle difficult subject matter in any medium; Gloeckner's talented enough to pull it off in three mediums simultaneously. The sheer craft of her drawing shines through throughout, rendering Minnie as a full-fledged human being in defiance of the after-school-special stereotype she could far too easily become.
Originally released in 2002 and adapted into a film in 2015, Diary anticipated the blend of image and text that would become teenagers' standard way of conveying their own experiences online, but that's almost beside the point. In and of itself, it shows that in the hands of a cartoonist of sufficient ambition, intelligence, artistry, and empathy, there's nothing comics can't do.
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