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Yearbook from Charles Burns' Black Holevia andrewswilson.co.uk

The dA-Zed guide to cult comics

Adolescent mutants, unbelievable memoirs and LGBT love lives: as New York Comic Con wraps, here's your essential guide to the genre-busting graphic novels that need to be seen

The world of printed matter that contains comic books, graphic novels and syndicated strips can be a daunting one. This weekend's New York Comic Con, with its hundreds of thousands of attendees – many of them diehard Game of Thrones fanatics – won't have done much to attract the uninitiated. But the graphic novel format has always been a platform for culture's most controversial and important visual experiments: from the realistic chronicles of American adolescence of Charles Burns, to the taboo-breaking depictions of LGBTQ relationships of Julie Maroh (Blue is the Warmest Colour) and Alison Bechdel (Fun Home, Dykes to Watch Out For). From early experimenters to contemporary cult heroes – including Dazed cover stars Grimes and Amandla Stenberg – flick through our 26-point guide to the genre's most radical reads. Just don't call them cartoons.

A IS FOR ADRIAN TOMINE

Adrian Tomine is the contemporary comics hero behind several New Yorker covers and the ongoing series Optic Nerve which he started self-publishing when he was sixteen. His early work speaks of all the self-doubts of North American teendom, before settling into a clean drawing style that suits the self-distanciation of the hipster age. He’s also just joined Instagram, where he’s been hanging out with Tavi and promoting his new book.

B IS FOR BLACK HOLE

A coming-of-age comic that is long overdue a film adaptation, Charles Burns’ Black Hole paints an inky portrait of average American high school life in the 1970s. Except these teens have to deal with a mysterious STI that is giving them grotesque mutations. Serialised from 1995-2005, this nightmarish and sexually frank vision is an essential, immersive read.

C IS FOR CHRIS WARE

The first and last word in the contemporary graphic novel, Chris Ware’s inventive presentation is matched only by the emotional landscapes his books present: the pages are inhabited by society’s outliers, frustrated couples and lonely children who traverse through their memories and imagination to transcend the personal failures of the everyday. Beginners should start with Jimmy Corrigan, and ascend to 2012’s Building Stories – the latter is Ware’s most ingenius box of tricks, with various printed materials that open in a multitude of ways and can be read in any order.

D IS FOR DYKES TO WATCH OUT FOR

A long-running comic strip from the author who gave us the Bechdel Test, Dykes to Watch Out For was Alison Bechdel’s uncompromising portrait of lesbian and gay life in America from 1983-2008. Its central characters were political and complex, with storylines involving transgender teendom and difficult comings-out.

E IS FOR ELEANOR DAVIS

Eleanor Davis’ world is strange but familiar: coloured landscapes create a washed-out, fairy tale-like world, while the surreal storylines still manage to cut to the heart of all-too-human foibles.

F IS FOR FUN HOME

Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Fun Home is the heart-wrenching chronicle of the author’s childhood and coming-of-age, and focuses on her relationship with her father – and his dark secrets – as she navigates the discovery of her own sexuality. Now a smash Broadway musical, the book rewards re-reading: the multi-layered panels have an amazing attention to detail, not least because Bechdel posed as each character herself before drawing.

G IS FOR GHOST WORLD

Before Thora and ScarJo, Ghost World is Daniel Clowes’ comic book bible of teenage ennui in the suburban States. His leads – green-haired, acid-tongued Enid and her best friend Rebecca – epitomized the world view of a generation of girls who didn’t buy the “strong woman” trope that pop culture had dished out to them.

H IS FOR HEAVY METAL

A 1970s American comics magazine focussing on science fiction and fantasy worlds – with a great line in erotica ­– Heavy Metal began in France as Metal Hurlant. One of its most famous contributors was the legendary Jean Giraud, known as Moebius, who published works like his famously wordless series of short stories, Arzach, in the magazine.

I IS FOR IMAGE COMICS

Founded by Marvel alumni in 1993, Image Comics is the radical alt publisher that was founded in order to create a platform for creatives to have autonomous control and ownership of their own comics. Delving into the archives throws up ultra-cool publications like Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's music-themed Phonogram (2006-2010), which was originally about a magical being who channelled his powers through Britpop bands like Pulp and Blur.

J IS FOR JEFFREY LEWIS

Known to many for his musical output, Jeffrey Lewis is also a skilled inker ­­– apart from his elaborate album art, you can check out his cult comic book series, Fuff, for unaffected memoirs of sexual encounters and spoofs of the usual superhero narratives. You might also catch him in action on stage, where he’s been known to draw versions of songs rather than play them when an audience member shouts a request.

K IS FOR KATSUHIRO OTOMO

The visionary behind cyberpunk manga series Akira – and its subsequent film – Katsuhiro Otomo’s outstanding artwork and complex vision of the future sparked an entire movement for reading manga in the West. A postmodern undertaking charged with the techno-politics that still define society now, it has at its centre a story of youth alienation that has also passed the test of time.

L IS FOR LOVE AND ROCKETS

You often hear about a particular comic book “universe”, but the Hernandez brothers’ Love and Rockets presents two alternate universes: one is a magic realist Mexico, the other the punk-rock scene in Los Angeles. Cool and raunchy, the series’ hard hitting storylines and rendering of sexual desire expanded the horizons of the underground scene.

M IS FOR MAUS

The master work of influential graphic novelist and editor Art Spiegelman, Maus is the genre-busting series originally serialised in Raw from 1980-1991 (that’s the leftfield comics magazine begun by Spiegelman and his wife Francoise Mouly). A haunting Holocaust survivor story that slips between autobiography and fiction, it epitomises the play on memory that would come to dominate some of the most successful graphical works of later years.

N IS FOR NIOBE

Written by Dazed cover girl Amandla Stenberg together with Sebastian A. Jones and illustrator Ashley A. Woods, Niobe: She is life is a comic book project that is using the format to celebrate badass people of colour. According to teen heroine Stenberg, “there’s never been a character quite like her – one who shatters the traditional ideal of what a hero is. We need more badass girls!”

O IS FOR ONLINE FIRST

While printed matter is as essential now as in the early days of comics, some serial scribblers have dedicated their craft to web comics that are as epic and sprawling as their heavier counterparts. Contemporary cult picks that are worth a regular check-in include Erika Moen’s Oh Joy Sex Toy, Chris Onstad’s Achewood and Michael DeForge’s Ant Colony.

P IS FOR PHOEBE GLOECKNER

Recently adapted into an effervescent movie by Marielle Heller, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is Phoebe Glockner’s prose ‘n’ pictures hybrid of an autobiography. Set in 1976, the book careens between the frank first-person account of Minnie Goetze’s affair with her mother’s boyfriend, and the comic strip which transforms her thoughts into panel form.

Q IS FOR QUENTIN TARANTINO

Quentin Tarantino has never made a secret of his love of comics growing up, so it must have been a dream come true to revive the Django Unchained story in graphic novel form. After adapting the film itself to a printed format, the director later released a sequel in the form of a Django/Zorro crossover.

R IS FOR ROBERT CRUMB

Love him or hate him, alt comics as we know them might not exist without the work of Robert Crumb, the controversial cartoonist whose style takes its cues from the earliest days of print comics in the 19th century while simultaneously undertaking an acid test of American society in the 20th. His magazine sized anthology, Weirdo (1981-1993) is the best introduction to his deliberately challenging outsider aesthetic.

S IS FOR THE SANDMAN 

The Sandman is the darkly fantastical series that, written by Neil Gaiman, has undergone several artistic incarnations while remaining essential, gorgeous reading. Erudite and deeply imaginative in its layered plots, it tells the story of the personified Dream, who controls humans’ dreams. Death is the coolest character of all: a sassy goth with a sharp wit, she later got her own spin off series.

T IS FOR TENEMENT STORIES

Will Eisner’s A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories is the 1978 graphic novel that might be the first book that popularised the term at all. The stories revolve around the lives of characters who live in the same New York tenement block, an idea later explored in the works of Chris Ware (As in 2012’s Building Stories).

U IS FOR UNFLATTENING

Unflattening is the scholarly publication that does as its title decrees: radicalising and shape-shifting the philosophical thesis by rendering it entirely in comic form. Theory as practice at its best, it is a stunning work of graphic art as well as a clear illustration of what pictures can do for words.

V IS FOR V FOR VENDETTA

Before Watchmen and From Hell, print provocateur Alan Moore created V for Vendetta in collaboration with artist David Lloyd. Following titular character V – a revolutionary in a Guy Fawkes mask – as he stages a campaign to bring down a dystopian police state, the incendiary graphic novel set the blueprint for a (not great) film and, more significantly, the masks of the protest group Anonymous.

W IS FOR THE WICKED + THE DIVINE

An instant cult classic since its first issue in June last year, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine is the addictive story of pop star-like gods and the teenage girl who interacts with them. Dazed cover star Grimes is a fan – she even designed a cover earlier this summer.

X IS FOR X-RATED SCENES

Due to restrictive laws placed on mainstream comics (you couldn’t even mention homosexuality in American comic books until 1989) the underground and alternative comics movement has always championed diverse and, well, graphic depictions of sex. The Hernandez Brothers, Alison Bechdel and Charles Burns are just some on this list – but the sex scenes in Julie Maroh’s Blue is the Warmest Colour are among the most brilliant of recent times.

Y IS FOR YUMMY FUR

Yummy Fur (1983-1994) was the taboo-smashing comic book by Chester Brown that broke new ground in terms of what was deemed acceptable to print in cartoon form. It was the first place to find some of Brown’s most enduring works that would later become graphic novels – like The Playboy, which deals with his anxiety over obsessively masturbating to Playboy playmates during his teens.

Z IS FOR ZAP COMIX

Zap Comix (est. 1968) is the publisher fuelled by the youth counterculture of late 60s and early 70s San Francisco. It published works by Robert Crumb, Victor Moscoso and S. Clay Wilson, and was filled with dirty jokes, unreliable narrators and psychedelic illustration.