The term “graphic novel” was coined in 1978 to describe Will Eisner’s immensely serious and highly illustrated book A Contract With God. Not to be confused with comic books, which tend to be in magazine format and often focus on a fantasy superhero in an action adventure, graphic novels are usually printed as bound books and offer almost as many genres as mainstream prose fiction.
Although graphic novels have been dismissed as immature and flippant reading material for reluctant readers, many graphic novels don’t deserve this kind of criticism. By combining text, the grammar of movie scripting, and art, graphic novelists have created complex narrative techniques that make interesting demands on the reader’s visual and verbal literacy.
Graphic novels often draw on serious and dark subjects such as the Holocaust in Art Spiegelman’s Maus, The Hiroshima bombing in Keji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen books, nuclear war in When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs, and ethnic cleansing in Joe Sacco’s Palestine. Hardly lightweight and comical, graphic novels address heavy subject matter in an engaging and artistic way.
Some sure-to-please graphic novels for teens to read include:
Blankets by Craig Thompson (Top Shelf Productions, 2003, 592 pages)
Using himself as a senior in high school as the protagonist, author Craig Thompson tells the story of growing up in snowy Wisconsin in a Christian fundamentalist family. As a teen, he falls in love and begins to understand the moral complications of physical love and the limits of his faith.
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (DC Comics, 2008, 436 pages)
The only graphic novels to win the Hugo Award for science fiction, Watchmen takes place in the U.S around 1985 but skips to the 1940s, 1960s and 1970s via flashbacks, and changes location (Antarctica and Mars) a little as well. Called the Citizen Kane of comics, Watchmenis an exploration of the impact that superheroes would have on society (are they righteous or are they abusive sadists?) in a story about murder and conspiracy.
Bone by Jeff Smith (Cartoon Books, 2004, 1300 pages)
Winner of every conceivable comic industry award, the Bone series has been bound into a one volume collection to the delight of fantasy readers and graphic novel fans. The Bone family gets swept up in an epic conflict in which evil forces, including dragons, monsters, and exiled royalty try to conquer the world in this exciting, funny, and a kind of scary graphic novel.
The Sandman by Neil Gaiman (Vertigo, 2006, 612 pages)
A collection of stories popular enough to be collected for a trade paperback, The Sandman draws heavily on mythology, religion, and the culture of the last 3,000 years to create seventy-five single issues (now a book of 1,450 pages) that chronicle the epic adventures of Dream (the Sandman) and his siblings (collectively known as Endless) through settings which include the waking world, the dream world, and hell.
Ethel & Ernest by Raymond Briggs (Pantheon, 2001, 104 pages)
Ethel & Ernest is a beautiful story about how the most ordinary people are extraordinary. This candid and moving tale about the married life of the author’s parents takes place in Great Britain from 1930 to 1971, when the clothesline gave way to the Laundromat and the bicycle was replaced by the car, it’s part social history, part testament to married love, and all Raymond Briggs’ captivating storytelling.
Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware (Pantheon, 2003, 380 pages)
Chris Ware has been called one of the greatest comic artists working today, and his novel about three generations of the Corrigan family has been heralded as “both moving and beautiful.” A grandfather and grandson, both named Jimmy Corrigan and living in Chicago a hundred years apart form each other, lead difficult and lonely lives after being abandoned by their fathers. In their search for love and family, they fumble and fail as the story shuttles back and forth between them.
Far from glorified comic books, graphic novels are popular and worthwhile books for teens because they offer adventure and excitement, intelligent social commentary, and the challenge to look at the world of literature and the world at large in a different and creative way.