Over the last half century, comic books have begun to finally get the recognition they deserve as an art form.
With writing that explores the human experience as much as Shakespeare or Nabokov—and illustrations beautiful enough to hang in a museum—the medium is a valuable and wildly flexible tool for storytellers. Keep reading for nine projects (in chronological order) that prove graphic novels have impacted everything from culture to politics and more.
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1. Maus (1980), by Art Spiegelman
A juggernaut of the genre, Maus was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize—pushing back against the wave of criticism prevalent during the ‘70s that called comic books an adolescent medium. The plot of the novel depicts its author, Art Spiegelman, interviewing his father about his experience as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust, using anthropomorphism to visualize the Jews as mice and the Poles and Germans as cats and pigs.
This depiction of racism was a brilliant representation of its omnipresence and that one can’t simply disguise an attribute so important to their identity. Maus shows how we endure memory—and the pain that comes with it.
2. Watchmen (1986) by Alan Moore
Watchmen has been heralded by many as one of the most important publications of the 20th century—a massive achievement for comic books as an art form. Alan Moore’s goal for the project was to grant comic books the legitimacy he felt they deserved.
The book opens on a crime scene in 1985 New York City and depicts Rorschach, a costumed vigilante, investigating a series of homicides involving retired heroes. The world itself is meticulously crafted by Dave Gibbons in a desired effort not only to set the artwork of Watchmen apart from a traditional style of illustration, but also to make every panel undoubtedly distinct to the book.
Moore has discussed how, as time went on, the making of Watchmen became more about how they delivered the story than the story itself—highlighting the different strengths of comic books that don’t exist in any other medium.
3. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986), by Frank Miller
We’re all familiar with the dark, brooding character that Batman is today—from film to graphic novel, he and Gotham maintain an intensely dark and dangerous storyline. However, this was not the case before Frank Miller’s creation of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. By its 1986 publication, Batman had lost a bit of his edge, but Miller successfully returned the caped crusader back to his roots as a tortured man trying to keep his city from dissolving into absolute chaos.
The series’ universal acclaim brought DC comics back to the dark side, and helped them stand out from other big comic companies.
4. V for Vendetta (1988), by Alan Moore
This list wouldn’t be complete without V for Vendetta, a 1988 tale of post-nuclear apocalypse-imbued struggle between anarchy and fascism. The story follows the mysterious and influential protagonist V as he fights against the policed state he lives in—inspiring a revolutionary movement to give control back to the people and kill those who kept him captive.
This was yet another one of Moore’s creations that made it onto the silver screen, but the impact of this book reached beyond the theater when thousands of people began adapting V’s Guy Fawkes mask as a symbol of resistance, revolution, and protest. During the Occupy Wall Street protests, the mask became an international symbol of revolution. Although Moore and artist David Lloyd didn’t anticipate the masks becoming such a fraught symbol, they were pleased to see this piece of popular culture become such a recognizable image in larger cultural conversations.
5. The Sandman (1989), by Neil Gaiman
Published monthly throughout the late ‘80s into the early ‘90s, The Sandman can be best described as dark fantasy. Its mature subject matter and wildly complex metaphysical themes made it one of the first graphic novels of its kind. The main character of the story—known by many names, but most often as Dream—was imprisoned for 70 years. After being released, he is given the chance to exact his revenge and rebuild his kingdom.
Neil Gaiman takes every opportunity to fill the pages with mythology, historical figures, occult knowledge, and legends in order to achieve his greater aim of analyzing responsibility, rebirth, and the nature of dreaming.
6. The Walking Dead (2003), by Robert Kirkman
In 2010, cable channel AMC brought to life Robert Kirkman’s zombie world, The Walking Dead. Any casual comic book reader, however, has known about zombie-fighting cop Rick Grimes since 2003.
The comic originally earned many accolades—including the Eisner award in both ‘07 and ‘10 for Best Continuing Series. But the television series has garnered an even bigger fan base, spurring spinoff shows and the possibility of continuing for more than a decade with no exhaustion of material in sight. In short, this particular graphic novel has opened the floodgates for successful and high-budget television adaptations of graphic novels.
7. Fun Home (2006), by Alison Bechdel
Fun Home is an incredibly detailed rendering of author Alison Bechdel’s life growing up in rural Pennsylvania with her dad. It received numerous accolades after its publication in 2006, and demonstrates the true storytelling potential of comics. The simple lines used to create the people in each panel allow readers to take in the grandiose amount of detail on every page. Bechdel didn’t see a point in creating a graphic novel unless the reader was going to become lost in each scene, discovering new things with every recurring glance.
Her graphic novel is a fantastic reminder of the intensity and depth that can be achieved when one has full control of both the narrative and the images that follow. As a bonus, Fun Home was adapted into a 2015 Tony Award-winning musical.
8. Neonomicon (2010), by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows
Not being able to go another entry without once again mentioning one of Moore’s projects, Neonomicon was originally taken on by the author because he had a bill coming up and was scrambling for a job. However, that ended up birthing the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired horror, which went on to win the Bram Stoker Award for Best Graphic Novel in 2011.
Moore and Burrows were inspired to create a narrative in the style of Lovecraft, while also including the racial issues and sex phobias that were often omitted from most stories of the same inspiration. The writers wanted to look these issues right in the face and give them a name. Moore spoke at length on how Lovecraft wrote about “unspeakable rituals,” which he felt turned a blind eye to the complex nature of sex in novels. The creators of Neonomicon have given Lovecraft’s timeless story the reality it lacked.
9. Saga (2012), by Brian K. Vaughan
Brian Vaughan created the Saga world when he was a bored high school student, but it wasn’t until he had his second child that he finally grasped the inspiration for the protagonists of his fantasy space opera—which has become one of the best-selling comics to date. With new issues still being written, Saga is the thrilling story of husband-and-wife Alana and Marko, and their newborn child Hazel, who are trying to escape a galactic war.
Vaughan wanted to create a narrative that showed the difficulties of raising a child with the whole world constantly crashing down around you. His characters are not “heroes” in the general comic book sense, but rather real people in mundane circumstances, living in a spectacular world.
Don’t get us wrong, the book itself is a mass conglomeration of all the things we love from every genre—the magic from fantasy, the spaceships from sci-fi, and the introspection of the human experience from drama—but Vaughn’s deliberate, real approach to this world is inspired and a huge factor in forming the masterpiece journey that is Saga.