By Andrés Muñoz

Have you ever read a graphic novel? You might think of them as a very long comic book or just a long visual story for kids, when that is very, very far from the truth. Graphic novels expand our appreciation for visually oriented storytelling in printed form. They focus on politics and the gritty struggle for rights and individual freedoms. Often set in different worlds and/or dystopias, many have been adapted into successful, highly entertaining films.

Graphic novels add depth to both superhero stories and very real issues that people worldwide face on the daily. Whether you don’t know where to start or have already read graphic novels for a long time, take a look at these five key graphic novels that I think anyone interested in the genre should read.

Watchmen

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

We can’t talk about graphic novels and not mention Watchmen. Alan Moore’s novel is a seminal and bold perspective on the entire superhero concept. This alternative take of the 20th Century places superheroes throughout history. While a group of retired superheroes expand the investigation of the death of one of their own, Moore narrates how these heroes changed history and still have an active hand in its development.

The novel’s famous “Who watches the Watchmen?” line is a reinvention of a phrase by the Roman poet Juvenal, exploring the difficulties of keeping powerful people in check. The Watchmen also made it to TIME’s “All-Time 100 Greatest Novels List” and hit the big screen in 2009.

Persepolis 

Marjane Satrapi’s 2000 autobiographical coming of age tale was also made into a movie in 2007. It shows several events in the author’s life before, during, and after the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. The main difference here is that the film focuses more on walking the viewer through several events in the history of Iran, while the novel adds more personal elements to the author’s life instead. Character descriptions are longer and allow a better connection between the reader and the author.

Satrapi explores in detail the duality between her love for Iranian culture and the oppressive regime she is forced to withstand. The book ranked 47th in The Guardian’s “100 Best Books of the 21st Century”.

Maus

The only graphic novel to ever win a Pulitzer Prize, Art Spiegelman’s Maus has received widespread international recognition. It brings a postmodernist approach to the relationship between Spiegelman and his father, a Holocaust survivor living in New York City. Maus springs from the conversations Spiegelman has with his father.

Spiegelman uses Nazi propaganda’s idea of Jews as vermin and takes it one step further. In his novel, the Jews are mice, the Germans are cats, the Polish are pigs etc. One of the first graphic novels analysed in-depth by scholars, Maus explores themes like anthropomorphism in race relations, grief, the Jewish identity, and more.

V For Vendetta

Before Anonymous, there was V for Vendetta. While many might have seen the 2005 film starring Hugo Weaving as V and Natalie Portman as Evey Hammond, the original 1982-1989 work (also by Watchmen’s Alan Moore) is a less “Hollywood-friendly” version. The film’s viewers should notice several different elements between the film and the novel.

Alan Moore wrote V for Vendetta as a critique of the British Conservative establishment of the 1980s. The film, instead, is an Americanised satire of the political climate of the George W. Bush administration. The brilliant vigilante’s desire for anarchy is a greater driving force in the book than in the film, and it explores his relationship with Evey and her involvement in the plot against the government.

Seconds

The first graphic novel Bryan Lee O’Malley wrote after publishing the acclaimed Scott Pilgrim series, Seconds tells the story of Katie, a restaurant chef who obtains the power of changing any error she has made in the past. She writes the mistake on a notepad, eats a magic mushroom, and goes to sleep.

This gives her the ability to “fix” many issues around her. Yet, as it usually happens when you abuse an extraordinary power, Katie’s prolonged use of the spell brings change and disorder not only to her restaurant but to her relationships and life in general. It is O’Malley’s reminder that sometimes there are unexpected outcomes, regardless of what we do. 

Graphic novels aren’t merely the comics we used to read and enjoy as children. Instead, they contain incredible levels of depth and substance, pushing their characters to the limit and giving us fresh perspectives on important issues. Some of them will show dystopian and dark worlds while others focus on lighter themes; still, they will always be an intense ride from start to finish. What other graphic novels do you recommend we read? Let us know in the comments section below!