Fabulous Graphic Novels For People Who Hate Superheroes

Hate superheroes? As Deborah Biancotti says, they probably hate you too. Meanwhile, as requested by Sean the Blogonaut, here are some of my recs for fantastic graphic novels that don’t include capes, masks, or anyone saying “Holy Rusting Metal, Batman!” (Yes I did rewatch Batman Forever recently, thank you for asking)

These are the ones that occur to me right now. There are of course many, many other superhero-free graphic novels out there, and the best thing about a list like this is not only that I will remember a bunch more as soon as I hit “publish” but also, I hope, that many of you will think of your own super-obvious examples and will share them in the comments. So then I get to find out about new things to read too, hooray!

<strong>Fun Home, written & drawn by Alison Bechdel
Always top of my recommendation list, this is an extraordinary memoir which demonstrates the power and scope of the graphic novel as an art form. This is the sad, rich story of a young woman who barely gets a chance to come to terms with her own lesbian identity before her family is confronted by the revelation that her father is gay, and has been keeping it from his family for many years. Bechdel chronicles her relationship with her father in minute, almost painful detail, with her childhood home (the house he was determined to renovate to perfection) standing as a powerful symbol at the heart of the story. The only flaw in this exceptional book was the almost-invisibility of Bechdel’s mother, but she has since rectified that with a sequel dealing with that equally important relationship in her life, which will be released in a few months.

Friends with Boys, written and illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks
Just released this month, the whole graphic novel has been released as a serial webcomic, so you can check it out before buying. I love the art style of this one, which is the story of an earnest, shy teenage girl trying to deal with going to public school after a childhood of home schooling, the loss of her runaway mother, the friendship of her beloved older brothers slipping away from her, and the ghost that haunts the local graveyard. I love it to bits, and plan to get hold of it in hard copy for rereading purposes, and to pass on to my daughters. It has great things to say about individuality and friendship and bullying and family… and if nothing else, the high school performance of a zombie musical has to be seen to be believed.

Rapunzel’s Revenge & Calamity Jack, written by Shannon & Dean Hale and art by Nathan Hale
More YA titles, this series takes the common trope of reimagined fairytales, and smashes them with a gorgeous Wild West with Occasional Steampunk landscape. Vivid art, and two compelling protagonists. Might possibly be bending the rules of this list because Rapunzel is pretty much depicted here as a superhero.

The Forgotten, by Tony Lee and Pia Guerra
My favourite Doctor Who graphic novel, this story captures the personalities of the Tenth Doctor and Martha excellently, but tells a story of Moffat-like (even Gaiman-like, with one particular plot twist) complexity. The best part is the structure, which requires the Doctor to delve back into memories of all his former selves, and specific eras of his adventures. I love the special touch with the stories set in the 60’s, which are drawn in black and white! One for the devoted fans to relish.

Logicomix, written by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou, art by Alecos Papadatos
I’ll admit I haven’t read this one, but it’s one that my honey will enthusiastically recommend to anyone with an interested in the sciences or, more importantly, the history of mathematics. Narrated by Bertrand Russell, it moves between the late 19th century and the present day, and introduces the reader to many of the great thinkers of history. It’s a mighty tome and a bestselling book, which comes with colossal geek cred.

Questionable Content Vols 1 & 2, written & drawn by Jeph Jacques
Another webcomic that I love, this has been going for many years, but the first 500+ strips are published in hard copy across these two books – it’s basically an indie music geek soap opera, featuring a guy, his sociopathic pet robot, and the many fierce and spectacular women in his life, many of whom work in the cafe Coffee of Doom. The second volume is particularly strong, covering the material where the writer-artist really came into his own, and found his voice, with some hard-hitting revelations about one of the central characters, plus the usual dollop of banter and bad customer service. It also contains the moment when Jacques had to decide whether his comic really was just a will-they-won’t-they romance or… something else. Thankfully, he embraced the unknown and the story has gone from strength to strength. Sadly they seem to only be putting out one print volume of the collected strips per year. I’d buy more.

Sorcerers and Secretaries, written and drawn by Amy Kim Ganter
An American manga told across two volumes, and published by Tokyopop. It tells the story of Nicole, a student and secretary who goes from unrewarding task from unrewarding task, only really happy when writing down the stories in her head. The boy who wants to catch her attention is determined to help her with getting published, once he figures out it’s the only thing she cares about. It’s utterly fluffy, but has very nice art, and while I wasn’t 100% behind the romance, I very much enjoyed the focus on the creative process and the inner thoughts of a fantasy writer.

Hark, A Vagrant, written & drawn by Kate Beaton
Yes, another compilation from a webcomic. If you haven’t previously experienced the bizarre and wondrous world of historical mash ups, literary satire and general stylish pop culture snark that comes out of Kate Beaton’s brain, then rush NOW to the Hark, a Vagrant site to catch up. Or, you know, buy her book! I bought several this Christmas as gifts, including one for me. Definitely the book to get the history/classic literature reader in your life, who thinks comics are silly. They have no idea how silly (and awesome) comics can TRULY be until they have seen this!

17 replies on “Fabulous Graphic Novels For People Who Hate Superheroes”

  1. Thanks! I have been thinking of writing in to the podcast to ask for recommendations like this, but apparently my telepathic transmissions were enough.

  2. Rebecca says:

    A couple that came to mind:

    – Queen & Country
    – I Kill Giants
    – Box Office Poison
    – Johnny Hiro
    – Joe the barbarian

    If you’re willing to try some Japanese comics then:
    – Solanin
    – Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms

  3. Marianne says:

    Some older ones I can think of that I really enjoyed. Most are from the 80s and 90s because that’s when I was really reading comics but a lot are still available. Many of these came out in serial form but have full story arcs and also came out in Graphic Novel format. Tansy, you should check some of these out if you’ve never read them! LMK what you think. 🙂

    Peep Show: The Cartoon Diary of Joe Matt, by Joe Matt (whiny autobiographical)
    Leonard & Larry: Domesticity Isn’t Pretty, by Tim Barela (gay domestic life)
    Gregory, by Marc Hempel (really weird)
    Palestine, by Joe Sacco (political/historical realism)
    Love & Rockets, by Jaime and Glibert (& sometimes Mario) Hernandez (great characters)
    Aztec Ace, written by Doug Moench, pencilled by Dan Day (don’t know if this series was ever collected but it was excellent time travel adventure)
    The Tale of One Bad Rat, by Bryan Talbot (just read it)
    Lux and Alby Sign On and Save the Universe, Martin Millar (quirky fun)
    Durty Plotte, by Julie Doucet (autobiographical)
    Strangers in Paradise, by Terry Moore (soap opera/relationships)
    Sandman (many volumes), Neil Gaiman (phantasmagorical & much more)

    Finally, this one does have a superhero in it, but if you’ve never read Zot! by Scott McCloud you should check it out. IIRC the viewpoint character is a 14 year old girl whose life changes when she meets the handsome young hero Zot who’s from another dimension.

    Not sure if my short descriptions are accurate because it’s been years since I read these, but this makes me want to read comics again!

  4. Kevin says:

    Oh so many,

    Locke and Key by Joe Hill and Gabe Rodriguez
    iZombie by Chris Roberson and Mike Allred
    Demo by Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan
    Local by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly
    The New York Four and The New York Five by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly
    Phonogram by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie
    Suburban Glamour by Jamie McKelvie
    Morning Glories by Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma
    The Unwritten by Mike Carey and Peter Gross
    The Buffy Season 8 series By Joss Whedon et. al
    Mystic by G. Willow Wilson and David Lopez
    We3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly
    American Vampire by Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque (with back-ups written by Stephen King for the first 5 issues)
    Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra
    Anything by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Criminal, Incognito, Fatale and Sleeper)
    Beasts of Burden by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson
    Daytripper by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba
    Casanova by Matt Fraction, Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba

  5. Alex says:

    Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis – autobiography of growing up during/after the Iranian Revolution.

  6. Wow thanks Tansy and contributing commenters.

    One thing I have discovered about Digital comics is that like ebooks there seems to be a diverisity of comic formats and a number of different apps required to view them.

    After I put out the call I came across some others that were to my liking –

    The Original 30 days of Night

  7. Marianne says:

    Haven’t read too many digitally yet, but my husband has been reading and enjoying Y the Last Man. Sounds intriguing.

  8. Louise says:

    Off the top of my head…

    Maus – classic example of a graphic novel about Serious Stuff, deservedly so
    Dramacon – silly story about a group of friends at a comic convention
    Gloom Cookie – starts as a story about goth girls, ends up somewhere else via time travel, alternative universes and fairy tales. And cannibal animate dolls.
    Bizenghast – very pretty costumes in a series about a creepy haunted maze
    Bride’s Tale – my current fave, absolutely gorgeous illustration, a story about a 19-yo bride and an arranged marriage to a 12yo, but not oogy, honest! Will give you a squiz next time you’re at Chez Lou.

  9. […] Tansy Rayner Roberts on Fabulous Graphic Novels For People Who Hate Superheroes. […]

  10. tansyrr says:

    Oh, I totally forgot Dramacon! Also, Castle Waiting, which I just remembered and is gorgeous beyond words. May need to make another post…

  11. Joris M says:

    Lots and lots of European comics, with the slight drawback of availability in English and digital formats (I am not aware of any in the latter). With the long history there are plenty available that have similar problems as the Superhero comics, but if my memory is correct a few nice ones are:

    – Thorghal (mixes Scandinavian mythology with SF)
    – Blueberry (western)
    – Philémon (sadly not translated, weird dreamy portal fantasy)
    – XIII (action/thriller, turned into a game and a movie)
    – Largo Winch
    – Valérian and Laureline (Science fiction)
    – Alix (sadly hardly translated, adventures in the time of Julius Caesar, the protagonist is a bit too perfect at times)
    – Blake and Mortimer

    and of course the classics of
    – Tintin
    – Asterix (well, not quite a superhero)
    – Lucky Luke

    It seems like Cinebook is one of the current publishers of English language translations, and they have some nice books in their selection.

  12. Marianne says:

    Louise — Is Bride’s Tale the exact title? Tried to look it up but can’t find it. Who is the author/illustrator? Thanks.

  13. Cathy says:

    I really enjoyed Why I Hate Saturn by Kyle Baker. Also, the Bone series by Jeff Smith. And seconding the recommendation for Zot!, especially the second half of the series when McCloud switched from color to black and white and Zot! became trapped in our world. There’s a part of the series that focuses on the lives of Jenny’s high school friends that’s very powerful.

  14. David Greybeard says:

    Orbital is an awesome SciFi series from Cinebooks.

  15. […] Graphic Novels For People Who Hate Superheroes […]

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  17. Cinebook also publish some titles in digital format through Izneo. This is a French digital platform, but if you select the English language option the books displayed are Cinebook editions.


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