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8 Great Graphic Novels That Go Beyond Superheroes

Over the years I’ve found that discovering a good graphic novel that doesn’t revolve around superheroes in some way can be really frustrating. Sometimes, when you do find that special graphic novel, the one with that human element and lots of drama, the storyline is overwrought with emotions and sentiment that can come across as extremely cheesy (I’m looking at you Preacher, Blankets, Blue is The Warmest Color, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor, et al). Other alternative graphic novels like Maus, The Watchmen, Akira, From Hell, Persephone and V for Vendetta are often touted as the ‘must reads’ while overlooking a wealth of other titles.

I truly believe reading a good graphic novel is just as rewarding as a good novel, if not more so. My choices below range from the comedic to the documentarian in style and I like to think there’s a little something for everyone. 

Palestine

Sacco’s obsession with the Gulf War and travel eventually led him to Palestine, where he was to document the plight of the locals and their life under Israeli occupation. This is a weighty tome that took me a long time to read. It’s layout is at times quite chaotic and certainly the story and the history, retold through the voices of the Palestinians, is long and complicated. Sacco’s ability to add himself into the mix as a sharp observer as well as a good listener, while injecting some humour into his sketches, makes this labour of love a compelling read.

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Fun Home

From world history to family history now. Bechdel’s Fun Home is a graphic memoir and family tragicomedy focusing on her father and their relationship, while also delving deep into her own issues and how they are all intricately woven together. Touching on issues of identity, sexuality and suicide, it’s a passionate and heartbreaking tale, cleverly told and profoundly moving with a very erratic, almost labyrinthine, structure.

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Just So Happens

It’s hard not to like Just So Happens when you open it. The drawings are lovely and the colours, those swabs of paint and ink, are incredibly lush. But then there’s the realistic dialogue and searching protagonist Yumiko as she returns to Tokyo for the funeral of her father. Her time there is measured in small nuanced scenes of kind and awkward social interactions as she rediscovers her homeland.

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A Drifting Life

I’m just going to say it; this is one of the best and most wonderfully engaging graphic novels I have ever set eyes upon. I saw it in The Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney and balked at the size and price. But I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It was one of the first times I’d been transfixed by a manga artist. The panels were so clean and the conveying of emotion was so clear. Also I’m a sucker for a good rags to riches story and Tatsumi’s journey is sumptuously told. As a mature literary work, it just hit the nail on the head at the time as something I would be proud to put alongside my novels. I went back and bought it and all 840 pages of it hold a permanent place on my shelves. Tatsumi was a genius storyteller and artist and this autobiography documents his ascension from very meager beginnings.  

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Monsters

And now for something completely different. Sadly for Shulz and his pseudonym, this is the autobiographical tale of living a life with… herpes. It’s quite a lovely and equally sad exploration of irresponsibility and learning to adapt to the consequences. Monsters also works as an educational tool. It’s all here: the admission, the regret, the lessons to learn, the anxiety and fear, and facing it all head on as just another of life’s problems to overcome. The self-deprecation and open honesty make for a devastating but refreshing read.

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Gyo 2-in-1 Deluxe Edition

Certainly not for everyone, Ito has a very distinctive style when it comes to both his pencil artistry and his plotlines. I have chosen two graphic novels here for the sheer originality. Gyo revolves around two central figures stranded in a town smothered in a ‘death stench’ of rotting flesh which causes sea life to come ashore and attack. Uzumaki tells the tale of a cursed town obsessed with spirals. These are full-on Gothic grotesque and not for the faint hearted.

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Habibi

I’ve already remarked on Thompson’s Blankets in my introduction; an admirable if slight work which got too much coverage, while this, a masterpiece of plot and artistry, didn’t get enough notice in my opinion. The stunning drawings are immaculately detailed and are the work of a true penciller and inkman. The plot follows Dodola and Zam, two escaped child slaves afloat in a fictional Islamic fairytale land. It’s big, demanding and controversial, but there’s nothing else like it out there.

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Shortcomings

Remember how I mentioned my dislike for cheesy emotions and sentiment in my introduction? Well sometimes you are lucky enough to stumble across the exact opposite. I discovered Tomine while working in a bookshop. His drawings are instantly recognisable to regular readers of the New Yorker; quite round serious faces that use a lot of eyebrow movement. Most of his work deals with the small emotions and the tiny actions and reactions, anxieties and neuroticisms of everyday life. And sometimes he delves a little deeper into larger issues. With Shortcomings – one of many semi-autobiographical works – Tomine uses this very realistic clean, clear style and fluid prose to investigate the main character’s (or is it his own?) Asian-American identity.

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Shane O’Reilly has lived in Dublin all his life; that’s 34 years of memories and adventures around the city centre. While he watched as his friends emigrated during the recession, he started ... Show More

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Inez
These sound intriguing. For all ages, Towerkind  is also a graphic novel which departs from manga and violence a la sin city.  the same author, Kat Verhoeven, has a Patreon series I follow online, called Meat and Bone , about 30-somethings.  Good plot flow and at the 250th page!

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