David Brauner’s top five graphic novels.

Professor David Brauner recently wrote for the online magazine ‘The Conversation’ about his favourite graphic novels.

Here he writes for us an expanded article on his top give graphic novels. Student readers might wish to note that David teaches all the texts featured in this piece on his third-year module ‘American Graphic Novels’. So enjoy!

Compiling an all-time top five of graphic novels is challenging not just in the way that any such list is – i.e. the difficulties of deciding which criteria to use, the agonising decisions over which favourites to exclude etc. – but also because it raises the tricky question of what counts as a graphic novel and what doesn’t. There are anomalies in every medium — novels written in verse and prose-poems, for example — but most people can agree on what a poem or a novel look like. With graphic novels things are rather fuzzier. That the term refers not just to fiction but to all sorts of life-writing is accepted, but beyond that there is little consensus. If a comicbook was originally published in serial instalments and only collected in one volume retrospectively, is it a graphic novel? If there are multiple volumes (e.g. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or the Hernandez brothers’ Love and Rockets series), should the whole series be counted as one epic graphic novel, or should only individual volumes be eligible for consideration? And what about a book like Phoebe Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2002), which tells the story of an authorial alter-ego, Minnie, through a combination of prose diary entries, illustrations with captions, comic-strip narratives, letters, poems and photographs? Or Joe Sacco’s comic-strip documentary journalism? Or Lynda Barry’s mash-ups of essays, sketches, collages and workbooks? Or Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening (2015), which is based on his PhD thesis and is part philosophical essay, part scholarly history, part experimental artwork? For the purposes of this exercise, I have chosen five books that I (and many others) regard as central to the graphic-novel canon. They are all richly-textured, powerful, nuanced books that are immediately arresting but also reward repeated rereading.

  1. Watchmen (1987), Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. A book that works on so many levels — it is, among other things, a whodunnit, a love story, a commentary on Cold War politics and an exploration of fundamental philosophical and ethical questions — Watchmen is both an homage to, and a deconstruction of, the classic superhero comic-strip narrative, which in turn has inspired numerous subsequent revisions of the genre, from Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004) to the Marvel Comics (and later MCU’s) Avengers civil war storyline. Shifting points of view, disrupting chronology, layering texts within texts, Watchmen is a hugely ambitious narrative that discloses new details (visual as well as literary) with every fresh reading. It’s also a real page-turner.
  2. Maus (1991), Art Spiegelman. Maus probably did more than any other graphic novel to make readers and critics take graphic novels seriously as an art-form (though Spiegelman, like Moore, dislikes the term graphic novel). It’s the story of the author’s father, Vladek, who survived Auschwitz; the story of Spiegelman’s relationship with him; and (in the second volume) the story of the ramifications of the success of the first volume. Controversially representing Jews as people with mouse-heads (and sometimes tails), preyed upon by German cat-people and often betrayed by Polish pig-people, Maus nevertheless resists stereotypes, representing both its author and his father as flawed, complex individuals who struggle in different ways to deal with the legacy of a trauma that makes itself felt in every aspect of their lives.
  3. Ghost World (1997), Daniel Clowes. Ghost World is the shortest, and at first glance the most straightforward, of my choices. It is a bittersweet tale of the friendship, and gradual estrangement, of Enid and Becky, two young women (recent high-school graduates) on the cusp of adulthood. Cynical and vulnerable, with a sardonic sense of humour and a nostalgic streak, Enid is, in part, a portrait of the artist as a young girl grappling with her sexuality, ethnicity and her conflicting expectations of herself. But Ghost World is also a powerful evocation of what it is like to drift, ghost-like, through a nondescript, soulless urban environment that it is itself ghostly. Full of quirky characters and memorable images, Ghost World manages, paradoxically, to represent boredom and ennui vividly and entertainingly.
  4. Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (2000), Chris Ware. The publication of Jimmy Corrigan was a landmark moment for the graphic novel. It was the first graphic novel to be awarded major literary prizes on both sides of the Atlantic — the American Book Award and The Guardian First Book Award – and has been hugely influential in the field, for example on Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina (2019), the first graphic novel to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Like Watchmen, Jimmy Corrigan has a complex, non-linear structure and subverts conventional notions of (super-) heroism; like Maus, it is a book about fathers and sons; like Ghost World, it has a protagonist who is drifting aimlessly through life, alienated from the world around him. Yet it is visually and formally more radical than any of the other books on this list. Ware’s dark palette and landscape format and his use of diagrams, instructions and definitions make the book, as an object and text, highly unusual. Narratively, too, Ware is a great innovator: the absence of exposition and page numbering, the abrupt transitions back and forth between a historical narrative focusing on Jimmy’s grandfather and the present-day narrative focusing on Jimmy, the use of surreal dream-sequences, and the disruption of conventional panel sequencing all make Jimmy Corrigan quite difficult to read (and to teach). But it’s well worth the effort. It is a beautiful, heart-breaking story that has been much imitated but never bettered.
  5. Fun Home (2006), Alison Bechdel. Through its adaptation as an award-winning musical, Bechdel’s work has reached an audience that might never have encountered her graphic novel, or indeed anyone else’s (though the book itself was a bestseller). Fun though Fun Home the musical is, in common with the film adaptations of Watchmen and Ghost World, it can’t quite do justice to the complexity of the original. Fun Home the book is a coming-of-age and a coming-out story, a self-consciously literary Bildungsroman that pays homage to James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde, among others. It is also a moving memoir about the author’s relationship with her father, whose queer sexuality finds an echo in her own lesbianism, and whose (possible) suicide haunts the book. I might also have included Bechdel’s sequel, Are You My Mother? (2012): if the later book can’t quite match the emotional power and fierce intelligence of Fun Home, Bechdel can console herself with the knowledge that few other graphic novels, or novels of any sort for that matter, can.

And this is the point that I hope a reading of these titles will demonstrate to any newcomers: these are not just great graphic novels but great works of art. The term graphic novel was initially deployed in order to confer intellectual credibility on what had been previously seen as a trivial form of entertainment aimed primarily at children, but the works listed above (and many others) rival anything done in the novel form over the same period, and right now some of the most innovative and exciting work in fiction and life-writing is being done in the graphic novel form.

About English Literature at Reading

The Department of English Literature at Reading has been an internationally recognised centre for research and teaching in English Studies for over a hundred years. Our teaching system, with its emphasis on seminars and tutorial work, encourages our students to discuss ideas with tutors and other students in a relaxed and supportive atmosphere. All of our students have access to dedicated study advisors; our academic placement scheme and 'professional track' programme provide invaluable preparation for subsequent careers.
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