10 Graphic Novels you should pretend you've read.

The Guardian recently published a post called Have You Ever Lied About a Book listing the top 10 books people claim to have read.  I can honestly say I have consumed a healthy portion of the big 10.  Solidifying my status as a person who's pants could be described as "smarty".

Validating as that minor accomplishment may have been, it lead me to a revelation.  

I have never met a person (who isn't sporting an ironic t-shirt) that has obviously lied about reading a Great Graphic Novel to save intellectual face.   I've witnessed lying about comics in the defense of superhero nerd-cred but that is an entirely different, and more aggressive, animal.   

Comics are part of the literary establishment now, and the fact is If you don't read these books people will think you're a huge dummy.  So in the words of Jack Black in High Fidelity:  "Don't tell anyone you don't own 'Blonde on Blonde!'  It's gonna be ok"

10 Graphic Novels You Should Pretend You Have Read

(Feel free to argue with my choices in the comments section.)

1. Fun Home / Are You My Mother?

Alison Bechdel was already well known for her decades-spanning weekly comic series Dykes To Watch Out For when she decided to tackle the vibrant landscape of her parent's complicated lives.  Her books are packed with fascinating details (she grew up in a funeral home) and are equal parts fun and ambitious.  She memorializes her parents while reflecting her experiences of them through the prism of great literature.  While not mandatory, it doesn't hurt to have a passing familiarity with James Joyce's Ulysses.  So how's that for elitism eh?  Break out your Lit Trad 4 notes peoples.

The follow-up Are You My Mother was a tribute to her brilliant mother.  In this book we can witness her mother's tricky relationship with the formation of the first book and her relationship to Alison both as a parent and as a literary critic.  This book is more self-aware than the first perhaps because the two women have been influencing each other for a longer period of time.  Ms. Bechdel answers this awareness by enmeshing a reflection on modern psychoanalysis into the story of her mother's life. 

Note:  I once did the uncomfortable "No you go first, please after you." dance with Ms. Bechdel in a narrow hallway at a book signing. 

2. Maus

Art Spiegelman's two volume depiction of an interview with his father about surviving the Holocaust is a no-brainer.  Of course you should read Maus.  It's the only book on the list that has won a Pulitzer Prize.  The use of anthropomorphism simultaneously relieves and occasionally reveals the terrible reality of his father's past.  The book is surprisingly silly and completely gratifying because his father, while enormously irritating to his son, has an enviable will to thrive and support the people he loves best. 


The first time I saw Maus (around five) I had nightmares.   Years later I read it to soothe my nerves while in labor with my first kid.  Not a lot of books can complement both experiences. 

3. Y The Last Man


This 12 book series by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra (whom I love completely) has been optioned to every production company in creation for the simple reason that it is hugely entertaining and deeply moving.  The first few pages are widely regarded as better than any opening movie scene in the past decade.  This is the story of the last man on earth, which is a pretty clever answer to the perception that comics are male-dominated.  This story will be winning Emmys or Oscars sometime in the near future so you might as well jump on the bandwagon now and start making casting predictions.  I would bet solid money that someone from Orange Is the New Black will become Agent 355.


4. Stitches

David Small's book needs to be experienced rather than explained.  The sense of place and feeling of helplessness is profound.  Though notice I didn't say hopelessness.  You won't be able to put this book down and will be rewarded for not looking away.  

5. Persepolis

Really anything made by Marjane Satrapi from movies to comics should be sought out, but you will be judged for not having read Persopolis.  Not only because it is a fantastic coming-of-age story or because it became an Oscar nominated animated film, but because we all need to know more about what it is like to grow up in Iran.  Unless you did grow up in Iran, in which case check out the sweet brush techniques in this beautiful book.   

Note:  My excellent sister-in-law (holla Becky) took me to see Ms. Satrapi give a lecture.  The woman was a real treat and had funny informative answers for some pretty stupid questions during the Q&A session. 

6. Understanding Comics

Scott McCloud's non-fiction book is a dissection of comics and the many ways communication can be enhanced and manipulated through the combination of art and words. He breaks down the sequential art definition coined by modern comics founding father Will Eisner into easily digestible and reproducible bits.  This is both a textbook and art history resource that everybody should read.  Especially because our methods of communication are becoming increasingly visual.  ; )

7. Achewood


Not all graphic novels are formed in print and those who stick to the GN section of the Library are destined to be mocked by those in the know.  Besides why would you deny yourself the delirious pleasure of watching a depressed cat travel to the moon and remind you of this eternal truth: The Cure is silly

8. Sandman

Speaking of The Cure...Neil Gaiman's first masterwork (my husband used this phrasing because he loves him some Gaiman) broke through the mold of classic comics and brought modern fantasy to the masses.  Nobody humanizes embodiments of universal forces like he did with the Sandman series.  These are horror books with a great deal of love.  The fact that the main setting is the world's unconscious is thrilling enough for any curious reader.   The totality of the seven year run forms a perfectly constructed classical tragedy.  You can claim that skipping Sandman is a rejection of aging goth status, but do you really want to be mocked as a philistine by a guy sporting an ankh tattoo?

Note:  My husband went to one of Neil Gaiman's readings and asked not one but two questions and then chatted with the man post-signing.  I loomed in the background like a bug-eyed crazy person and made Mr. Gaiman look worried.  

9. Stuck Rubber Baby

Howard Cruse  had been an underground cartoonist for decades before he made Stuck Rubber Baby.  You can almost feel the humidity in his book about the world of 1960s civil rights activism, and the gay-friendly mixed race nightclub scene.  The story is told through the eyes of a young Southern man named Toland Polk discovering this world and coming to terms with his homosexuality in a small vibrant town.   The story seems so true and personal that it is hard to remember that this is a work of fiction. 

10. Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth

Chicago is a hotspot for prolific innovative cartoonists like Jessica Abel and Jeffery Brown, each deserving of a spot on any must-read list.  Of all the Chicago authors I decided to include Chris Ware and his famous book because he broke the mold for the form of a comic narrative.  From cut outs to an instruction manual this book requires a 360 degree turn from the reader every few pages.  The extra work is worth it because you can inhabit the life of a quiet man in Wisconsin while simultaneously experiencing the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 with the man's great grandfather.   Plus, the man has been in the New Yorker since 1999....so people will mock you for not knowing his work.  Mock you hard.  Defend yourself and read his book.