Best Graphic Novels: Top 5 Illustrated Tales Most Recommended By Experts

The term graphic novel covers a wide range of printed and digital media in the United States. Traditional trade paperbacks are the most recognizable type of graphic novel. These books typically contain the collected editions of a comic book storyline. For example, the entire collection of “The Walking Dead” is available in massive single-bound editions. Our list of the top five best graphic novels includes some of the best art-driven narratives available.

From superheroes to zombies to space adventures, illustrated stories are well-loved all over the world. Gripping narratives combined with fantastic art can tell stories in a wholly unique way. Some stories, like Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” (1989), are best enjoyed in this format because of Gaiman’s use of the written word, art, and even font choice. Additionally, stories with an illustrated component can spur the imagination and stimulate reader engagement. By visually depicting scenes and characters, comic books allow readers to immerse themselves in the story and connect with the characters on a deeper level. The combination of art and storytelling in this format creates a dynamic reading experience that captivates both young and adult audiences alike.

The graphic novel now includes much more than the traditional comic book collected edition. The broader genre can now also include Japanese Manga, a type of long-form comic book narrative like “One Piece” (1996) that can run for over 1,000 issues. Another popular Japanese graphic format is the light novel, where a page of text is usually paired with a page of illustration, thus offering more flexibility in text narration. In addition to these formats, visual novels are now becoming popular as well. Visual novels are frequently sold as video games and may include a choose-your-path aspect that results in different versions of the plot playing out for readers. Though this subgenre is dominated by Japanese creators, there have been notable entries from other countries as well.

Stories with an illustrated or graphic element can be an enjoyable way to read and relax. Whether a digital or a paper-bound book, graphic novels are an excellent format for storytelling. Our sources helped us discover the best graphic novels and we ranked the top five for you. Let us know your favorites in the comments below!

a pile of comics sitting next to each other photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash
A pile of comics sitting next to each other (Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash)

The List: Best Graphic Novels, According to Fans

1. “Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986)

“Watchmen” is the seminal deconstruction of the superhero genre. The so-called “heroes” are all abhorrent individuals, and it serves as a cautionary tale about unchecked power. One37pm raves, “‘Watchmen’s’ central mystery, who killed The Comedian, is a compelling hook for a story that dives headfirst into Cold War anxieties and meaningful questions about hero worship. There are few stories that can live up to the kind of reputation ‘Watchmen’ has earned, but it does.”

“Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986)
“Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986)

Werd. writes, “In a world where superheroes like Captain America and Superman were the norm, Watchmen did something very different: it made superheroes amoral, anti-heroic, and even downright villainous… The outcome is far grimmer and darker than [readers] could ever expect. It’s a true look at the human beneath the superhuman.”

CBR exclaims, “Dave Gibbons’ art style and unique color palette blended perfectly with Moore’s well-plotted scripts, resulting in a graphic novel that set the standard for other similar releases. ‘Watchmen’ has been adapted to the big screen, received a live-action TV continuation, and even been further explored with a few ‘Watchmen’ comic sequels and prequels.”

2. “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” by Marjane Satrapi (2000)

“Persepolis” is a very intimate look at a child’s experience in Iran during a time of revolution. This is a unique illustrated tale of personal experience. NPR says, “Marjane Satrapi’s curvaceous but spare black-and-white artwork is the perfect complement to this lyrical, mournful tale of growing up in Iran during and after the Islamic revolution of 1979… Satrapi uses her own story as a backbone to tell the larger story of her family and of Iran itself, its rich culture and oppressive politics.”

“Persepolis The Story of a Childhood” by Marjane Satrapi (2000)
“Persepolis The Story of a Childhood” by Marjane Satrapi (2000)

Reader’s Digest adds, “Marjane Satrapi writes about coming of age in a loving family during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, culminating in her self-imposed exile. (She now lives in Paris.) This is a rare, intimate view of one young woman’s struggle to come to terms with faith, political upheaval, family, and personal identity.”

“It’s one thing to read about these events in history books, and entirely another to contextualize them through the eyes of a child… ‘Persepolis’ was featured on the [American Library Association’s] list of Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2014 because it was described as ‘politically, racially, and socially offensive.’ You should definitely read it to see what all the fuss was about,” elaborates Book Riot.

3. “Black Hole” by Charles Burns (2005)

Another fantastic read from the 2000s, “Black Hole” is unsettling. The dark narrative is accentuated by the distressing illustrations. Happy comments, “One of the most disturbing novels in the canon of respected graphic literature, Charles Burns’ ‘Black Hole’ is a story of epic proportions: set in 1970s Seattle, the story follows a sexually transmitted disease that grotesquely infects the population. A mesmerizing, existentialist portrait of adolescent isolation, ‘Black Hole’ relentlessly explores American teenage-dom through heavily inked black and white portraits, flashbacks, dreams, and fantasies.”

“Black Hole” by Charles Burns (2005)
“Black Hole” by Charles Burns (2005)

“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,” adds thrillist.

“This is hardly the only creative work to mine the specter of sexually transmitted disease for horror, but Charles Burns manages to pull it off in a way that’s deft and moving instead of heavy-handed. Set in the suburban Washington of the 1970s, ‘Black Hole’ combines the mundane and the uncanny in a way that’ll give you chills,” details discovery.

4. “Saga” by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (2012)

“Saga” is a space opera that is yet to be completed. It explores dark themes against a backdrop of science fiction tropes and a galaxy-spanning series of conflicts. Cosmopolitan explains, “The long-running comic, first published in 2012, about two rebels from warring planets who fall in love, is weird, sexy, and kind of perfect. There are currently over 60 issues collected into ten volumes and there’s still more to come.”

“Saga” by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (2012)
“Saga” Volume 10 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (2012)

“This sprawling space opera draws from a range of canonical influences, from the bombastic heroism of ‘Star Wars’ to the grim Realpolitik of ‘Game of Thrones.’ Throw in a dash of star-crossed love à la ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ and you’ve got the makings of a modern classic,” offers discovery.

CBR states, “The ongoing series ‘Saga’ is written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples. ‘Saga’ is an epic space fantasy series with strong ties to sci-fi influences like ‘Star Wars.’ The series follows a family from opposing warring races who struggle to raise their daughter together while being constantly pursued.”

5. “Nimona” by ND Stevenson (2012)

“Nimona” is a highly decorated graphic novel from writer ND Stevenson, who was also showrunner for the wildly popular “She-Ra” revival series on Netflix. “Nimona” is also a well-reviewed animated feature starring Chloë Grace Moretz in the title role. Cosmopolitan claims, “‘Nimona’ is a shapeshifter who teams up with a disgraced knight as his sidekick. As far as ‘Nimona’ is concerned, they’re a pair of nefarious rebels against the world… but Blackheart, the knight, is not quite as chaotic. They’re an odd pair, which always makes for good drama, and this fantasy world is not your typical swords and dirt fare.”

“Nimona” by ND Stevenson (2012)
“Nimona” by ND Stevenson (2012)

Happy relates, “Having won an Eisner Award, Cartoonist Studio Prize, and Cybils Award, ‘Nimona’ is one of the most critically acclaimed graphic novels. Set in a world that fuses medieval and dystopian settings, the novel follows the titular character, ‘Nimona’ the teenage shapeshifter, who goes on adventures with a low-grade villain.”

“In this whimsical epic based on [ND] Stevenson’s critically acclaimed Webcomic, a young shapeshifter with magical and mysterious powers, ‘Nimona,’ acts as a sidekick… A New York Times bestseller, finalist for the National Book Award, and winner of countless other titles, ‘Nimona’ is the perfect escape into a world of full-color fantasy,” reviews Reader’s Digest.

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Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. StudyFinds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations.

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