Don't Call Them Comics: Our Favorite Graphic Novels

By now you know that Marvel pretty much rules the box office, but have you actually considered the source material? Believe it or not, comics have fully gone mainstream. Yup, geek is, well, cool. To be fair, many “comics“ should more accurately be called by their true names, “graphic novels”. There is actually a difference though, graphic novels, which are less episodic and contain a true beginning, middle and end, are just one of the forms of comics, just like the Sunday funnies or Japanese Manga. “Adult comics” might be a more appropriate term, as they provide some of the most sophisticated, engrossing and thought-provoking entertainment in any literary form. Just look at how many have been adapted into blockbuster movies, TV shows and video games. Here’s a reading list of our favorite adult comics (or graphic novels, if you insist) that you don’t have to feel like less of a man for reading.

Black Hole
If you liked last year’s breakout horror hit, It Follows, you’re gonna dig Black Hole. Coming from the darkly devilish mind of revered writer/illustrator Charles Burns, this teenage horror story is set in the summer of 1970 in suburban Seattle. Burns cleverly sets up all the conventions of the genre (a “masked” stalker, illicit teenage sex, skinny dipping in the woods), but turns them inside out with skin-crawling images that would make Cronenberg blush. The supposedly autobiographical storyline plays out like a time-shifting novel, layered with relatable metaphors about adolescent alienation and sexual awakening.

Hip Hop Family Tree
From the fantastical characters (Afrika Bambaattaa, DJ Cool Herc, Grandmaster Flash) that stake claim to inventing its name, to the larger than life history of its origins, hip hop has always had a mythic quality. Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree attempts to break it down with a Stan Lee-does-documentaries approach detailing the formative years of hip hop. The NY Times bestseller and Eisner Award-winner was originally serialized on Boing Boing, but moved the needle among collectors when it was geniusly packaged in encyclopedic volumes with retro paper and vintage-style illustrations, a sly wink to the oversized comic specials of the late 70s’. Creator/cartoonist Ed Piskor, a protege of the legendary Harvey Pekar (American Splendor), recently put out Volume 3 of his hip hop opus and is developing an animated version for cable TV.

The Fade Out
From Billy Wilder to James Ellroy, the Golden Age of Hollywood is prime real estate for classic noir tales (Sunset Boulevard, LA Confidential) that shed an unflattering spotlight on the dark side of LA’s dream factory. The dynamic duo of writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips add to that tome with this hard boiled crime story set in post-WW2 Hollywood. Partly inspired by Brubaker’s uncle (screenwriter of Murder My Sweet, an adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel), this ongoing series is centered on amnesiac screenwriter, Charlie Parish, trying to solve a movie starlet’s murder, while navigating the shady underbelly of Tinseltown, where everyone is a suspect, including himself.

The Watchmen
Sure, this now-legendary book by one of the greatest graphic novel pioneers of all time, Alan Moore, got a big-budget (and questionably successful) Hollywood treatment, but its greatness truly deserves a thorough reading. Chock full of incredible characters and set in a dystopian alternate reality where masked superheros both exist and are at odds with society, The Watchmen explores a vast variety of topics from politics and war to crime, anti-heroes and humanity, all wrapped up in a gritty, violent package. Read on and find out why The Watchmen deserves a place on any graphic novel list.

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea
There’s more wry commentary and black comedy in one panel of Guy Delisle’s comic than in all of Seth Rogan and James Franco’s The Interview. More existential travelogue than full-fledged narrative, the French-Canadian cartoonist gives us a rare peek behind the Communist curtain of the notorious hermit nation, where he stayed for two months, while working on an animation project. His simplistic, greyscale style is cold and hard, perfectly capturing the hidden terror underlying everything he encounters. Coming in at a brisk 176 pages, this stranger-than-fiction tale is a sad look into a captivatingly mad world that humanizes rather than pokes fun at the low-hanging fruit of the Kim Jong-il kingdom. Sadly, a film adaptation, starring Steve Carell, was scrapped in the wake of the Sony Hack debacle tied to North Korea.

Scalped
Described as “The Sopranos on an Indian Reservation,” this ‘Merican gangster epic is something we’ve seen before, but never quite like this. Dashiell "Dash" Bad Horse is the prodigal son returning to a fictionalized Lakota “Rez” with nothing but nunchucks, a nasty family grudge and a dangerous secret. What Dash finds is the same heartache and hopelessness that he ran away from 15 years ago. The only difference is the shiny, new casino run by Chief Lincoln Red Crow, a ruthless, father figure, anti-hero, who is basically Tony Soprano with a ponytail. Artist R.M Guera brings the brutal world of sex, drugs and violence to life through a cinematic scope, (no wonder it’s being developed into a TV show), while creator/writer Jason Aaron has become a Marvel Comics golden boy, who recently made headlines for making Thor a girl.