The 50 Best Graphic Novels for Adults
When you pair serious literature with "comic" art, the result can be extraordinary. Here's a sampling of the best graphic novels and memoirs, old and new, for a grown-up audience.
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Graphic novels you won’t want to miss
If you think that graphic novels are just for younger audiences, think again. Sure, there are some stellar graphic novels for kids out there, but there are also plenty of thought-provoking, poignant, and flat-out fascinating graphic novels for adults that rival the best books of all time. The only difference is that these books don’t just provide compelling narratives—they also offer absorbing illustrations that draw you even further into the writers’ worlds.
And speaking of those narratives, they’re not all comic-book fodder. Instead, the best graphic novels often tackle heavy topics, and the entries on our list deal with everything from identity and loss to racism and discrimination. Some are even memoirs that recount and explore very personal issues. Of course, there are plenty of light offerings, too, that take readers on a whirlwind of fantasy, romance, historical fiction, and mystery. We’re not going to lie—there’s a lot out there, which is why we’ve rounded up the best of the best, from classics that launched the genre to fan favorites to recent award winners. The only problem? You won’t be able to put them down until you’re done! Once you are, check out this list of the best fiction books to read this year and these online book clubs that will boost your reading life.
Daytripper by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá
Deep and introspective, Daytripper follows main character Bras de Olivias Dominguez as he goes about his life in Brazil, albeit with an interesting twist: Each chapter ends in a different form of his death. This poignant graphic novel published in 2011 will make you think about what it means to live each day as if it were your last—and it will stay with you long after you finish the last page. Here are more of the best books by Latinx authors you’ll want to read right now.
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
In this whimsical epic based on Noelle Stevenson’s critically acclaimed Webcomic, a young shapeshifter with magical and mysterious powers, Nimona, acts as a sidekick to evil supervillain Lord Blackheart. But as the duo prepares for battle, Lord Blackheart realizes Nimona may be even more powerful and unpredictable than he thought. 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.
Blankets by Craig Thompson
This 2003 graphic memoir tells the story of Craig and Raina, two teens who fall in love at a winter church camp, and the ups and downs of their relationship. Struggling with faith, love, and heartache, this familiar yet profound tale is a romance story for the ages. And if that’s not enough to convince you, perhaps the two Eisner and three Harvey awards this graphic novel earned will do the trick.
Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol
Anya, a high school student who was born in Russia but was adopted by an American family at a young age, has a new friend. The only caveat? This new friend is a ghost…the ghost of a girl her own age, who died 90 years prior under mysterious circumstances. This coming-of-age story has all of the classic tropes—not fitting in, learning to be yourself, coming to terms with life—but with an otherworldly twist. Although ostensibly a book for teens, this graphic novel is full of social commentary, witty prose, and beautiful illustrations, all of which make it a favorite in adults circles, as well.
The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
This 2018 Eisner Award-winning thriller will transport you back to Old Hollywood during the early days of the blacklist when those in the entertainment industry were shunned for alleged Communist ties. The Fade Out follows the murder of an up-and-coming Hollywood starlet and its aftermath from the perspective of frontman Charlie Parish. Death, drama, mystery, love…really, what more could you want from a crime noir–style comic?
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
Emily Carroll is best known for her breakout Webcomic His Face All Red. In this collection of five hauntingly terrifying illustrated stories, Carroll not only translates her hit comic onto the page but also includes four new tales about the terrors that lie within the woods. From mysterious fiancées to houses with secrets, the works in this collection will make your hair stand on end. Seriously, this is very possibly one of the scariest books we’ve ever read.
Cancer Vixen by Marisa Acocella Marchetto
What happens when a big-city girl encounters a lump in her breast? In this funny yet powerful memoir by a woman who overcame the seemingly impossible, Marisa Acocella Marchetto tells the story of her 11-month, ultimately triumphant fight against breast cancer and reminds readers that cancer isn’t just about surviving an illness but also about transforming one’s life. A finalist for Books for a Better Life and the National Cartoonist Society Graphic Novel of the Year as well as one of Time‘s top 10 graphic novels of the year in 2006, Cancer Vixen brings the idea of never giving up to a whole new level.
Blacksad by Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido
As you may have guessed from the cover image, this isn’t your typical cartoon cat. Set in 1950s America, the film noir comic features private investigator John Blacksad, a furry feline who attempts to crack one mystery after another. Guarnido’s illustrations paint the underworld of violence to perfection, and the historical intricacies of the time, from the Communist Red Scare to racial tensions, make the novel seem both otherworldly yet starkly realistic at the same time. Who would have thought that a graphic novel about a cat would be a mystery book you wouldn’t be able to put down?
Unterzakhn by Leela Corman
Unterzakhn, which means “underthings” in Yiddish, tells the parallel stories of twin sisters Esther and Fayna, young immigrants growing up on the Lower East Side of New York circa 1910. It follows the sisters from childhood to adolescence to adulthood as they learn more about the world around them and the sacrifices they must make in order to survive. NPR described Corman’s illustrations, which are inspired by Russian folk art, as having “a crudeness that highlights the gritty urban environment, but the fluid line-work of her characters adds a touch of delicacy and grace to the proceedings.”
This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
No one can resist a good coming-of-age story, and This One Summer, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by her cousin Jillian, is certainly a good one. You’ll be drawn into the lives of best friends Rose and Windy as they go on their annual summer trip to a lake house. This summer, however, is different: Fighting parents, life-threatening secrets, and new experiences all contribute to the girls’ transitions from childhood innocence to adulthood. This just might be your next beach read.
Strange Fruit, Volume 1: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History by Joel Christian Gill
The versatility of graphic novels and their potential to educate are perhaps the genre’s most unique characteristics, and Joel Christian Gill takes full advantage of them both in Strange Fruit. This collection of illustrated tales tells lesser-known stories from early African American history. From the adventures of Bass Reeves to the escape of Henry “Box” Brown, readers will be introduced to a whole new perspective, as well as Black Americans they never learned about in history class.
Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire
Dystopia meets the graphic-novel genre in Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth, a post-apocalyptic story about a world in which all children are born as human-animal hybrids. The book follows Gus, a sweet boy with the features of a deer who, along with other human-animal hybrid children, is being chased by vicious hunters. Jepperd, a mysterious and violent man, rescues Gus, and together they traverse America. But will Jepperd corrupt Gus, or will Gus better Jepperd? There’s only one way to find out.
Shoplifter by Michael Cho
The premise of Michael Cho’s debut graphic novel is relatable enough: A young woman who had dreams of being a successful writer finds herself stuck in an unwanted job and unsatisfying life. So what does protagonist Corrina Park decide to do? Begin to steal magazines from the corner shop, for one. Cho’s illustrations pop with pink and bring vibrancy to this classic coming-of-age trope.
Qualification: A Graphic Memoir in Twelve Steps by David Heatley
This isn’t your child’s comic book. In Qualification, David Heatley explains his addiction to 12-step programs, stemming from his troubled childhood: His father was a sexually repressed alcoholic, and his mother was a compulsive overeater. Heatley’s graphic memoir is witty, provocative, unflinchingly honest, and, at times, strangely hilarious. Be prepared for a few more than twelve steps. If you’re looking for a straight-up self-help book, we have some suggestions in that genre, too.
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew
Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye has earned too many awards and accolades to even list. (Just know that it won three Eisner Awards, some of the most prestigious comic book awards in the country.) This graphic biography recounts the work of Singaporean comics artist Charlie Chan Hock Chye, whose work was expansive but largely forgotten…until now. Liew shines a spotlight on Chye’s life and work in this 2016 graphic novel, which covers Chye’s work produced during pre-independent Singapore all the way through its three prime ministers.
On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden
Tillie Walden creates a world of her own in 2018’s critically acclaimed On a Sunbeam. Set deep in outer space, this graphic novel follows a team working to rebuild structures from the past in order to figure out their present. When newcomer Mia joins the group, it becomes clear that she has an ulterior motive: to reconnect with her long-lost love. On a Sunbeam is the perfect mix of science fiction, romance, and drama, and it’s sure to get you lost in a galaxy far, far away.
The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg
Isabel Greenberg’s graphic novel debut tells the story of a storyteller who loves to tell stories—meta much? Set hundreds of years in the past in Early Earth, it follows the trials and tribulations of a young man as he leaves his home in the North Pole and paddles toward the South Pole. The illustrations have tons of folk-art elements, and the witty yet thoughtful story is sure to hold your attention.
Everything Is Teeth by Evie Wyld and Joe Sumner
This memoir from Anglo-Australian Evie Wyld tells the story of Wyld’s childhood trips throughout coastal Australia and her fascination with sharks. It’s no surprise that in addition to the strange yet fitting illustrations by Joe Sumner, it’s the beautiful prose that draws readers in; after all, Wyld wrote multiple novels before her graphic novel debut. Although on the surface this book seems to be all about sharks, it’s really about family, love, loss, and life.
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
We’d be remiss if we didn’t include Alan Moore’s award-winning Watchmen on our list of the best graphic novels for adults. Long hailed as one of the most popular graphic novels in the history of the genre, this mid-‘80s series was recently turned into a television drama on HBO. In an alternative historical timeline in which the United States won the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal was never uncovered, a slew of unusual and extraordinary superheroes emerge—and change the course of history forever. Don’t miss these other best-selling books that were made into movies.
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware
This graphic novel is as creative as it is heartbreaking. Chris Ware creates a visually bright and clean world full of sad and yearning characters—most notably titular character Jimmy Corrigan, whose never-ending fear of being disliked influences his every move. The juxtaposition formed between the satisfying illustrations and the anything-but-satisfying life of Jimmy is both brutal and poignant.
I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina, Stacey Robinson, and John Jennings
Tony Medina addresses police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement in this heartbreaking graphic novel. Alfonso, a Black high school student, is excited about life: He was recently cast to play Hamlet in his school’s hip-hop rendition of the classic Shakespeare play, and he wants to tell his best friend how he really feels about her. However, when an off-duty cop mistakes a clothes hanger for a gun and shoots Alfonso, the teen finds himself waking up in the afterlife on a ghost train guided by well-known victims of police shootings. This heavy graphic novel about the lengths we still have to go in order to achieve justice and equality is an absolutely necessary read.
A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld
Josh Neufeld brings seven heroic true stories to life in AD: New Orleans After the Deluge. Set in the days preceding and following Hurricane Katrina, the book highlights a range of characters, from Denise, a sixth-generation New Orleanian, to Leo and Michele, a young couple who grew up in the city. The way each character deals with the pertinent question—should they stay in the city, or should they flee?—informs much of their interactions.
How to Be Happy by Eleanor Davis
Award-winning cartoonist Eleanor Davis’ first anthology of graphic stories was met with overwhelming success. Winner of the 2015 Ignatz Award for Outstanding Anthology or Collection and on the shortlist for Slate’s Cartoonist Studio Prize for Best Print Comic of the Year, How to Be Happy, despite its name, is not a self-help book. Rather, it tells quick stories of characters finding the irony in life. The reason that this makes our best graphic novels list is the breadth and depth of its illustrations. Davis uses a wide variety of techniques and styles, from watercolors to pencil and vibrant colors to stark black and white.
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris
Sci-fi meets horror meets semi-autobiography in Emil Ferris’ My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. This graphic novel is a fictional diary by 10-year-old Karen Reyes, who draws herself as a werewolf and attempts to solve the murder of her upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg, a Holocaust survivor. Set against the backdrop of 1960s Chicago and Anka’s life in Nazi Germany, this compelling story mixes the personal with the political.
Here by Richard McGuire
Here isn’t your typical novel—it isn’t even your typical graphic novel. Instead, Richard McGuire paints a story about a singular corner of a room and the multiple events that have occurred in that corner over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. Extremely creative and captivating, this graphic novel is so unique that it’s the ultimate comic must-read.
A Contract with God by Will Eisner
Originally published in 1978, Will Eisner’s A Contract with God is widely regarded as the first modern graphic novel. Four interwoven stories describe the highs and lows of life on the make-believe street of Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx. Whether you’re new to the world of graphic novels or are a bona fide comic buff, you won’t want to miss this classic that more or less launched the beginning of an entirely new literary genre.
Nat Turner by Kyle Baker
Kyle Baker brings history to life with his graphic novel Nat Turner, which depicts the real-life slave rebellion started by the titular character. This emotional and historically accurate depiction of the evils of slavery is sure to resonate with both students and adults alike. Baker’s nearly wordless, visually arresting style makes this book all the more powerful. It’s no wonder that Entertainment Weekly called it “a hauntingly beautiful historical spotlight.” Don’t miss these other books by Black authors you’ll want to know about.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures by Phoebe Gloeckner
This unique book, which combines narrative passages with comics, is not your average graphic novel. Told from the perspective of 15-year-old Minnie Goetze as she’s writing in her diary, The Diary of a Teenage Girl follows her experiences as she deals with her burgeoning sexuality, dreams of becoming an artist, and increasing drug abuse. Set against the backdrop of San Francisco in the 1970s, this dark coming-of-age story is an intimate look into the life of one teen.
Lon Chaney Speaks by Pat Dorian
This one is for all of you Old Hollywood history buffs out there. Pat Dorian provides a partially biographic, partially fictional account of the life of legendary silent-film actor Lon Chaney, perhaps best known for being the original Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame. Dorian’s sleek monochrome illustrations are reminiscent of the vintage content, and this 2020 work gives a voice to the intensely private “Man of a Thousand Faces.”
Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke
Kristen Radtke’s obsession with abandoned places and ruins started after the sudden death of a beloved uncle while Radtke was still in college. The result of this sorrowful event? Imagine Wanting Only This, the graphic memoir Radtke wrote memorializing her uncle and her travels through the world in search of forgotten ruins. At once both historical and personal, Imagine Wanting Only This brings a stark beauty to the theme of discovery through death. This one will tug at your heartstrings, like the best sad books.
Hip Hop Family Tree by Ed Piskor
This nonfiction graphic novel delves into the creation of and subsequent early days of hip-hop. Originally published online, Ed Piskor’s series of educational and historical comics was published in print form by Fantagraphics Books in 2013. The illustration style is reminiscent of early-1970s work when hip-hop originated, and it keeps with the authentic feel of the comics.
Paying the Land by Joe Sacco
Paying the Land follows the Dene, a tribe located in the Mackenzie River Valley of the Canadian Northwest Territories, as they struggle to survive and thrive against a continuous wave of development. Joe Sacco describes how the mining boom is only one of many issues the Indigenous population continues to face, along with discriminatory educational practices, the process of becoming wage laborers, and governmental land claims. While Sacco brings awareness to the particular strife of the Dene Nation, in a broader sense he touches on a universal story of culture, loss, and life. For more on topics like this, check out the best books by Native American authors.
Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence by Joel Christian Gill
This New York Times Best Graphic Novel of 2020 is a graphic memoir from Joel Christian Gill depicting his difficult upbringing facing racism and sexual abuse in Virginia. In such an environment, Gill was taught to fight, violently and brutally. But what happens when fighting no longer seems to solve any problems? As Gill grows up and strives for a more fulfilling life than the one he was born into, he begins to question everything he’s ever believed in.
Menopause: A Comic Treatment by MK Czerwiec
This collection of graphic tales tells the story of women going through menopause, hitting on topics ranging from hot flashes to societal stigma. Told from a variety of perspectives spanning age, gender identity, and ethnicity, this graphic novel is sure to make you laugh at some points, cry at others, and think throughout.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
In her best-selling graphic memoir, Alison Bechdel grapples with her relationship with her late father and the secrets that emerged after his death. Though told in comic-book form, it’s written with the precision and complexity of the best nonfiction: “My father once nearly came to blows with a female dinner guest about whether a particular patch of embroidery was fuchsia or magenta. But the infinite gradations of color in a fine sunset—from salmon to canary to midnight blue—left him wordless.”
Square Eyes by Anna Mill and Luke Jones
This futuristic dystopian novel blurs the lines between reality and digital media. Anna Mill and Luke Jones create a world buried under an extensive reality network, where inventor Fin created a highly successful reality program. So why is she suddenly kicked off the network? Fin is on a mission to figure it out. In addition to the alluring storyline, the illustrations are so intricate and psychedelic that Square Eyes will keep you coming back to each page again and again.
Tetris: The Games People Play by Brian “Box” Brown
Have you ever wondered about the story behind one of the world’s most popular video games? New York Times best-selling author Brian “Box” Brown breaks it down in this graphic novel. In 1984, Alexey Pajitnov created Tetris in his spare time while simultaneously developing software for the Soviet government. Suddenly, his seemingly simple game became a huge hit, and every major game developer wanted it. This true story of art, culture and gaming will make you want to play a round (or two, or three, or four) of Tetris once you finish the book.
Bloom by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau
This story of young love follows Ari, a boy with big-city dreams who hopes to pursue a music career with his band after high school. His dad, however, has other ideas, wanting Ari to stay and continue working at their struggling family bakery. As Ari searches for someone to take his place at the bakery, he meets Hector, a boy who loves baking as much as Ari loves making music. From this chance encounter, love blooms between Ari and Hector. This adorably romantic LGBTQ book from 2019 is as sweet as the bakery treats described.
Sabrina by Nick Drnaso
Sabrina was the first graphic novel ever nominated for the Man Booker Prize. This dark story about the lack of privacy in our social-media-driven, fake-news era follows the story of Sabrina, a woman who goes missing and is eventually believed to have been murdered, and the effect this event has on her boyfriend, her sister, and, ultimately, the entire world. NPR, which put the graphic novel on its Best Books of 2018 list, describes Sabrina as a “chilling distillation of the way the world feels nowadays.”
Are You Listening? by Tillie Walden
Award-winning graphic novelist Tillie Walden is back with Are You Listening? This graphic novel follows Bea and Lou, two women who meet during a chance encounter and are on the run through West Texas, trying to avoid mysterious creatures and threatening men. A story built on trust, heartbreak, love, and female connection, this 2020 Eisner Award winner for Best Graphic Album and Best Book of 2019 by NPR, the Chicago Public Library, and O Magazine, is as heartbreaking as it is inspiring.
March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
Born a sharecropper’s son in segregated rural Alabama, Congressman John Lewis became a key figure in the civil rights movement and eventually received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. March: Book One, is the beginning of a projected trilogy that’s a firsthand account of his struggles, including a life-changing meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. The text and images deepen our understanding of not-so-distant history, which makes this a good book about race and racism for teenagers, too.
Megahex by Simon Hanselmann
Simon Hanselmann mixes stoner comedy, witchy fantasy, and real-life struggles in Megahex. This collection follows Megg, a depressed, drug-addicted witch, and her black cat, Mogg, as they struggle to come to grips with their depression, drug use, lack of motivation, and sexuality, among other things. As High-Low put it in a review, “For a series about slackers, these books are remarkably emotionally visceral and intense.”
Guantanamo Voices: True Accounts from the World’s Most Infamous Prison by Sarah Mirk
Journalist Sarah Mirk transforms her investigative work on the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison into illustrated stories with the help of a diverse range of artists. This collection tells the separate tales of 10 people, ranging from former prisoners to lawyers to social workers, who have had their lives affected by the prison. Creative and informative, it definitely qualifies as one of the best graphic novels of all time.
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman
No discussion of the best graphic novels would be complete without Spiegelman’s Holocaust survival story, which was published in serial form in 1980 and is widely regarded as the first true classic of the genre. Spiegelman not only approached unspeakable horror in a unique and powerful way (portraying the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats), but he also inspired a whole new generation of writers and artists.
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
Leave it to beloved cartoonist Roz Chast to make a story about her parents’ old age and illnesses not only heartbreaking but also tender and funny. Chast lovingly mines her parents’ quirks (like how they saved decades’ worth of old Schick razors, jar lids, and unwearable glasses), finds the humor in the hardest moments, and conveys a sense of near-palpable devotion. Anyone who’s had to deal with declining parents will want to linger here.
The Graphic Canon, edited by Russ Kick
While many of the great graphic novels tackle dark subject matters, this ambitious three-volume set is a sheer delight. In it, numerous artists illustrate the Western literary canon, including the works of Homer, Shakespeare, the Brontë sisters, and Hemingway. A visual feast, the collection offers a fresh way of interpreting and appreciating classic books—and might encourage you to pick up a few you’ve never gotten around to reading.
My Depression by Elizabeth Swados
You wouldn’t think a memoir about clinical depression would be inspiring, but Swados, a musician and theater director, relays her battle against her demons with such candor and simplicity, and with such winsome illustrations, that it’s empowering. Swados lifts the stigma to help readers find solutions—and hope.
An Unsuitable Princess by Jane Rosenberg LaForge and May Ann Strandell
In one of the most inventive books in recent years, LaForge intertwines two stories. One is a memoir of a Hollywood childhood marked by trauma; the other is an elaborate fairy tale. The result is a brilliant meditation on the ways we construct fantasy and reinvent memory in order to shield ourselves. Lush with illustration rather than comic-book style, this book defies category and is too good not to mention here.
Over Easy by Mimi Pond
The popular cartoonist, illustrator, and writer (her credits range from Seventeen magazine to The Simpsons) weighs in with a fictionalized graphic memoir that takes on the counterculture scene of 1970s California with clarity and humor. While she captures the disaffection of that era, Pond also gives us a view of the birth of a genuine artist.
The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
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. “No more university,” she laments as the new regime cracks down, “and I wanted to study chemistry. I wanted to be like Marie Curie.” Next, check out more of the best books for women written by female authors.