The other day, I was doing a little bit of holiday shopping in a comic book shop off Manhattan's Union Square when I overheard two teenagers discussing the merits of The Walking Dead, the zombie-apocalypse television show adapted from a long-running series of graphic novels. The discussion focused on whether the series' main character, Rick Grimes, was still a morally redeemable human being after killing his best friend, alienating his wife, and shooting a whole bunch of living people and zombies.
It wasn't a conversation you'd have expected to overhear in a comic book shop 50 years ago. But then again, comic books are no longer populated only by spandex-clad pituitary accidents slamming each other through walls. No, the art form has matured. Now they emphasize those small details such as nuanced characterization and emotional motivation that every good writer learns in workshop. Even superhero comic books these days are dominated by pituitary accidents intent on sharing their inner-traumas at considerable length before they slam each other through walls.
Thanks to their spandex costuming and legions of younger fans, superheroes prevented the comic book, a rather versatile form when it comes to narrative, from achieving mainstream respect at first. But over the last two decades, in large part thanks to the efforts of creators like Neil Gaiman and Art Spiegelman, an appreciation for comics as a storytelling medium has grown -- and not just because Hollywood's seen fit to adapt pretty much anything ever inked onto a page. Graphic novels helped lead this particular charge.
Putting This Theory Into Practice
The exact definition of a graphic novel is a subject of intense debate among those who study such things. These illustrated narratives tend to be significantly longer than "regular" comic books, which often number around 20-odd pages, and feature traditional bookbinding. Sometimes they offer a standalone story, created expressly by the artist and writer for a longer format; other graphic novels collect a set of previously published comics into a single narrative arc.
The following graphic novels all helped the medium gain that elusive respect, by offering narratives that qualify as fine literature, combined with artwork that's frame-worthy. And yes, some do feature superheroes in spandex.
Maus: Art Spiegelman's account of his parents' survival in Nazi Europe (split into two volumes, although you can find them collected as one) is one of the most harrowing depictions of the Holocaust committed to paper. The book won the Pulitzer Prize.
American Splendor: Harvey Pekar wrote a series of autobiographical comics about his life as a hospital file clerk in Cleveland. His portraits of the daily grind are about as far from superpowers and masks as you can get: bitter at moments, often funny, and sometimes touching (particularly the Our Cancer Year story arc).
Sandman: Neil Gaiman's comic series about the Lord of Dreams (referred to, among other names, as Dream and Morpheus) is a fantastical phantasmagoria, the kind that draws on centuries of literary influences and earns a whole host of awards.
Watchmen: Written by Alan Moore, and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, this graphic novel did its utter best to subvert the superhero genre, making its costumed characters deeply flawed and filling the narrative with an ice-water dose of Cold War paranoia. In the twenty-five years since its publication, endless waves of writers and illustrators have tried to match its nihilism and expert control of subtext, with few (if any) successes.
Sin City: Frank Miller's red meat ode to classic pulp fiction will offend more delicate sensibilities. Everybody else can stay for the master class in black-and-white illustration, not to mention the rogue's gallery of criminals, psychopaths, fallen angels and hitmen shouting memorably hard-boiled dialogue.
The Walking Dead: Why not? Intense moral quandaries dominate the plotlines of this zombie series.
And the Inevitable Footnote...
As mentioned previously, comics featuring costumed heroes have mutated (somewhat) to offer stories of greater moral complexity. Nonetheless, if you place a collected volume of Spider-Man or X-Men comics on a prominent shelf -- and especially alongside your titans of literature -- chances are pretty good a visiting intellectual will arch an eyebrow and prod you into defending that choice of reading matter. At that point, you can shrug and say, "Well, I like comics." Just don't resort to POW-style fisticuffs to back up your choices.
The above list was also necessarily truncated, in the name of space. Early everyone who reads graphic novels has their own opinions on which are "must-reads."
Loosely adapted from How to Become an Intellectual, a firmly tongue-in-cheek guide to becoming a truly brainy thinker, published by Adams Media.