Ranking the best book-length comics ever created is a lot like picking out the greatest grains of sand on the beach: you’re bound to overlook some gems. But that's the glory of graphic novels as a form, isn't it? From North America to Europe to Japan, from superheroes to autobiography to pure poetry, from horror to comedy to drama, this medium is as varied and vital as anything else on Earth. And since it's largely free from the commercial demands of billion-dollar mega-industries like film, TV, music, or video games, comics offer a creative freedom that's all but unparalleled. It's easy to fill your bookshelf with mind-expanding, paradigm-shifting work and still barely scratch the surface of what's out there.
Below you'll find our attempt to delineate the tip of the art form's iceberg -- 33 of the most exciting, adventurous, gorgeous, movingly written anthologies, limited series, and stand-alone stories ever drawn. Get ready for work that will challenge and enrich you for years to come.
32. Ant Colony by Michael DeForge
Michael DeForge, among the most talented and respected cartoonists of his generation, published one of the millennial cohort's first genuinely great comics in Ant Colony. While the book's very loosely anthropomorphized insect characters tie it to a tradition nearly as old as the art form itself, the funny-animal comic, DeForge updates the genre with his inimitably bizarre and baroque character designs (the ants all have visible internal organs; spiders are snarling dog heads with daddy-longlegs feet sticking out of them; the ant queen is a mountainous labyrinth of sex) and his talent for Cronenbergian body horror. As the title colony is torn apart by external and internal threats, DeForge explores how both biology and society lock us into routines from which it's nearly impossible to escape.
25. My New York Diary by Julie Doucet
One of the many Canadian masters of the form who emerged from the creative ferment of the '90s, cartoonist Julie Doucet's masterpiece is this autobiographical chronicle of her move to the pre-gentrification, pre-Disneyfication Big Apple. The sex, the drugs, the squalor, the filth, the fury: Doucet captures it all with an art style far more rock 'n' roll than that of her countrymen Chester Brown, Joe Matt, and Seth. Her ability to combine a detailed sense of place and a healthy dose of self-effacement with the raw power of her expressionistic artwork has cast a long shadow that more timid autobio cartoonists have been afraid to explore.
19. Louis Riel by Chester Brown
Before he made Louis Riel, the Canadian cartoonist had never made anything remotely like Louis Riel. He established himself as a talent to watch with Ed the Happy Clown, a surrealist satire of the Reagan era featuring the Great Communicator himself as a talking penis, then wrote and drew a series of autobiographical efforts chronicling his youthful sexual and romantic peccadilloes (the best of which, I Never Liked You, is a devastating story of young love and rejection). Louis Riel, a biography of Canada's most prominent indigenous political leader and revolutionary, was revelatory, and not just because of the respectful way in which it depicted Riel's alleged revelations from God himself. Brown's restrained, matter-of-fact character designs and pacing were perfect for the story of a man who seemed to be swept along by events as much as provoking them himself, yet it was equally adept at depicting him as a man of destiny who would bow to nothing and no one. The sequence in which he feels forced to execute a white prisoner who simply will not stop spewing racist invective -- memorably depicted only as a series of angry "XXXX XXXXXX XXXXX!"s -- is one of the greatest in the history of the art form.
13. Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay by Ben Katchor
In one format or another -- alternative-weekly newspaper strips, graphic-novel collections from a variety of publishers -- Ben Katchor has told the stories of Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer for decades. Like a beloved character actor from an early season of Law & Order, this mustachioed, fedora-wearing explorer of the streets, shops, and offices of New York City takes page-long snapshots of a vanishing city in the form of businesses that are just this side of plausible; it’s magical realism that's so realistic you almost forget it's magic. Cheap Novelties, recently reissued by titanic alt-comix publisher Drawn and Quarterly, is the first of Katchor's collections, and it establishes Knipl's routine to a nicety. The off-kilter angles that really make you feel like you're navigating forgotten Midtown office buildings and Downtown storefronts; the harried, suit-wearing, middle-aged ethnic-European men who carry a half-century of neglected urban life with them -- Katchor has created some of the greatest art ever made about New York City and its accretion of culture. As one memorable strip puts it, "Mr. Knipl accidentally stuck his head into the past."
2. Jordan Wellington Lint: The ACME Novelty Library 20 by Chris Ware
After wrapping Jimmy Corrigan, gifted cartoonist Chris Ware continued The ACME Novelty Library, the series in which it was serialized, with a new story: Rusty Brown, which elevated a character from throwaway gag cartoons about a Simpsons Comic Book Guy-style manchild to War and Peace dimensions. The still-ongoing serialization had already produced one for-the-ages chapter, issue #19's "Golden Age of Science Fiction" story as written by the young Rusty’s father, before it got around to Ware’s crowning achievement: the life of Jordan Lint, Rusty's primary bully, from conception to death. Ware brings all his skills to bear in this slow-motion tragedy; his writing meticulously chronicles the cycle of abuse, while his art is at its most ambitious and experimental, depicting everything from an infant's view of the world to a comic-within-the-comic memoir by an avant-garde cartoonist with breathtaking zeal. The final pages bear a sense of failure and loss that hit as hard as a physical blow to the head -- I literally reeled back after reading them the first time, like someone had grabbed the book and struck me with it.