When it comes to the best graphic novels, choosing a favorite, or the singling out a best is not easy. There are so many in such wildly varying genre, there is literally something for everyone.
Graphic novels have been around for a long time. Exactly how long is a matter of debate. The term first appeared in print in 1976, though the idea existed long before that. (The first novel-length comic appeared in Switzerland in 1827.) Will Eisner’s A Contract With God and Art Spiegelman’s Maus (pictured below) brought serious critical attention to the genre for the first time. Maus, a Holocaust memoir, even won a Pulitzer prize in 1991.
For a long time, “graphic novels” meant “dime store comics” in a lot of people’s minds. Now many people understand the graphic novel to be as serious an art form as any other. In addition to stunning artwork, graphic novels tell a wide variety of stories, from the fanciful to the deadly serious. There are so many amazing works out there, it’s hard to pick favorites. But we’ll try.
The Best Graphic Novels
Though you can find hundreds of lists, which are the “best” depends on what you’re looking for. I think we can all agree, though, that a great graphic novel has a powerful story, striking artwork, and stands up to the test of time. Here are a few of our favorites.
Ghost World (Daniel Clowes, 1997) (pictured above) Some critics have compared this story to JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. This graphic novel is a cynical coming-of-age story of two best friends trapped in a going-nowhere town. Alternately caustic, touching, and darkly humorous, Ghost World really catches this place in time.
Maus (Art Spiegelman, 1980-1991) The New Yorker describes Maus as “the first masterpiece in comic book history.” In Maus, the author tells the story of his complicated relationship with his father, as he recounts his father’s experiences during the Holocaust. Here, mice symbolize European Jews during World War II. The Nazis are cats, and the people who watched it all happen are pigs. Maus was the only graphic novel ever to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi, 2004) A New York Times Notable Book, Time Magazine’s “Best Comix of the Year” and an L.A. Times bestseller. Persepolis tells the story of a young girl in Iran during the 1979 Islamic revolution. While “Marji’s” parents worried about politics, Marji had to adjust to the veil and new, strict religious laws. Like Maus, this is a haunting autobiographical work.
March (John Lewis, 2013-2016) In this trilogy, Congressman John Lewis tells the story of his participation in the Civil Rights Movement. March was the first graphic novel to win a National Book Award and a Robert F. Kennedy book award. It has won numerous other awards, as well, and was a New York Times bestseller.
The Best Graphic Novels for Kids
Many of the best graphic novels have images and themes that may be too intense for young readers. But there are plenty of wonderful graphic novels for children as well. Here are a few of the best graphic novels for kids, in our opinion. You can also find lists of graphic novels for different age groups at Common Sense Media.
Best Graphic Novels for Age Five and Under
Best Graphic Novels for Ages Six through Ten
Guinea Pig Pet Shop Private Eye (no picture available) (Colleen AF Venable) This humorous graphic novel series has lovable characters and simple mysteries. The reading level is good for around second grade, but younger kids will enjoy the stories, too.
Best graphic novels for Tweens
Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur (Amy Reeder) Lunella Lafayette, pre-teen super genius wants to save the world. But she finds out it will take more than brains. Especially when a dangerous dinosaur comes crashing through time!
El Deafo (Cece Bell) A humorous graphic novel memoir about the author’s childhood hearing loss, and the hearing aid that turns her into a superhero.
Young Adults (13+)
- Nimona (Noelle Stevenson) An award-winning, action-packed story of a brash young shapeshifter who wants to be a supervillain’s sidekick.
- Kindred (Terreece Clark) A New York Times bestselling adaptation of Octavia Butler’s novel. Kindred sends a modern African American woman back to a slavery-era plantation. It’s intense, with realistic violence, so it’s probably best for older readers. However, it’s an excellent conversation starter on difficult topics.
- Beowulf (Gareth Hinds) This gory but wonderfully done graphic novel brings the classic hero’s tale to a new audience. Gareth Hinds’s masterful illustrations bring a vibrant life to this age-old story.
The Best Batman Graphic Novels
For many people, graphic novels mean superheroes. And for over seventy-five years, Batman has been the superhero’s superhero. Here are our picks for the best Batman graphic novels. Or, you could check out what DC Comics, home of the Batman graphic novels, considers to be the Best of Batman.
- Batman Year One (Frank Miller, 1987) A new origin story, Batman Year One follows the adventures of a rookie Dark Knight in Gotham City.
- Batman: The Long Halloween (Jeph Loeb, 2011) A new edition of a classic Batman murder mystery.
- Batman: The Black Mirror (Scott Snyder, 2013) This is the graphic novel that made Scott Snyder a superstar. In this murder mystery, Commissioner Gordon’s past comes back to haunt him.
- Here are some other Best Batman Graphic Novels lists:
- The Top 10 Best Batman Graphic Novels from SciFi Now
- Rolling Stone Magazine’s 15 Essential Batman Graphic Novels
The Best Marvel Graphic Novels
We couldn’t talk about DC without mentioning Marvel. Here are our picks for some of the best Marvel graphic novels. Or, see which ones Marvel itself thinks are the best.
- Black Panther (Ta-Nehisi Coates) (pictured above) Black Panther, the first African American superhero sprang onto the scene in 1966. This updated series by writer and activist Ta-Nehisi Coates, was nominated for a Hugo Award.
- Ms. Marvel This teenage powerhouse isn’t the first Muslim superhero in Marvel’s universe, but she’s the first to get a solo title. Kamala Khan is a second-generation Pakistani superhero…and she fights crime!
- Alias: Jessica Jones Ex-Avenger Jessica Jones is a private detective on the fringe of superhero culture. A dark graphic novel series, and an even darker TV series. We think it’s particularly well done.
- Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur Does this deserve a second mention? Yes. Yes, it does.
Here are a few more lists of some of the best Marvel graphic novels.
- 10 Marvel Graphic Novels You Must Read Before You Die
- The Best Marvel Modern Graphic Novels
- Best 100 Marvel Graphic Novels and Comics 1998-2015
Cheap Graphic Novels?
Art is expensive, and great graphic novels can be very expensive. Fortunately, there are a lot of options that won’t burn a hole in your pocket. From pre-owned to auctions to sales, if you keep your eyes open, cheap graphic novels are out there. Here are some resources.
- The Best Places to buy Cheap Graphic Novels Online (Best Graphic Novels)
- Try your luck at Cheap Graphic Novels.com.
- Alibris has a wide selection of new and pre-owned graphic novels at discounted prices.
- There is also this price comparison website
- And, don’t forget, you can still find them on Amazon, with Kindle and Comixology allowing you to read online for even less.
The Best Graphic Novels of All Time
Again, this is a matter of opinion and the subject of a lot of debate. What someone thinks are the best graphic novels of all time depends on who they are. The best graphic novels have stunning art. They make us think and make us feel. They challenge, uplift, and inform. And, they entertain. Here are some resources to help you judge for yourself.
- NPR’s Top 100 Comics and Graphic Novels of All Time
- 6 Graphic Novels by Women of Color
- Rolling Stone’s 50 Best Non-Superhero Graphic Novels
- Wizard Magazine’s 100 Greatest Graphic Novels
- Top 100 Best Graphic Novels Ever Written
- Hollywood Reporter’s 100 Greatest Superhero Graphic Novels
Graphic novels aren’t just comic books and superheroes anymore. Today’s graphic novels are a well-respected art form, with breathtaking drawings, unique characters, and engaging storylines. No matter who you are, how old you are, or what your tastes, there is a graphic novel out there just for you. And they make fantastic gifts, too.