Illustration • Inspiration Eight Great Graphic Novels

Eight under-the-radar graphic novels that raise storytelling techniques to new heights

Graphic novels are, as a whole, one of the modern world’s great forms of expressive art and storytelling. From the aspirational, fantasy-based exploits of costumed superheroes to the haunting, raw edges of Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust epic Maus, the format’s potential is limited only by what creators bring to the table.

As the final segment in our exploration of notable, recently released graphic novels, we’ve rounded up a virtual stack of worthy titles that might have escaped your attention. Within this list, you’ll find cinematic storytelling, modern heroines, kaleidoscopic color, and technical artistry that’s pushing the boundaries of the genre.

Here’s your chance to discover tomorrow’s Akira today.


If you’re familiar with the cult classic Sega video game, Jet Set Radio, your eyes are likely to pop the instant you set sights on Freddy Carrasco’s latest graphic novel, Gleem. The similarity between Carrasco’s style and Jet Set Radio’s character design is no mere coincidence. “That game shaped so much of who I am as an artist,” says the Toronto-based illustrator.

Gleem’s short stories are trippy and futuristic, but not so much so that they don’t feel grounded in possibility. Of the book’s 206 kinetic pages, all but eight are drawn in black and white, creating vibrant bursts of color that helps set the tone for key moments in the story.

The book’s visual language evokes a feeling of something manga-esque—not quite manga, but not quite not manga. Gleem is a frequently wordless, casually futuristic, over-too-fast read that marries the clean linework and sparse backgrounds of Japanese manga with the flair of European works like Métal hurlant, the long-running French comics anthology that was once home to artists like Moebius and Milo Manara.

“I never really got into American comics, so most of my influences come from the anime I watched growing up, which was based on manga,” says Carrasco. “That led me to stories that were outside the spectrum of men in tights fighting bad guys. What Otomo did with Akira just gripped me in a way Superman never could.”

4 Kids Walk into A Bank

If Quentin Tarantino wrote a book about children, you’d pretty much get 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank. The graphic novel centers around four friends, led by savvy, 11-year-old Paige. When her father’s ex-con cohorts start hanging around the homestead, Paige enlists her friends in a plan to preemptively save her father from prison time by breaking into a bank before her father and the goons can. Naturally her friends are helpful in different ways: Walter is a chemist; Stretch is handy with tools; and Berger, well, every ensemble of kids requires a noisemaker like Berger.

Written by Matthew Rosenberg and illustrated by Tyler Boss, 4 Kids Walk into A Bank is a meticulous, constantly entertaining heist comic. Each page is loaded with a perpetual motion of panels and foulmouthed dialogue that perfectly captures the cadence and preoccupations of the book’s prepubescent perpetrators.

In the same way Tarantino explores the everyday minutiae of his henchmen, Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield, in Pulp Fiction, Rosenberg fills each of his small charges with verbose life and larceny. Boss, meanwhile, deftly designs nuanced panels in which intricate details mutate across every box.

4 Kids Walk into A Bank may begin like a joke, but the punchline is how truly fantastic this comic is in the end.

Something Is Killing the Children

The children of Archer’s Peak are disappearing or turning up dead at an alarming rate, and all eyes are on James, the lone survivor of the first massacre. While his schoolmates assume James is somehow the murderer, there are other things afoot. A stranger named Erica Slaughter has arrived in town, and her job is killing monsters.

Something Is Killing The Children, by James Tynion IV and Werther Dell’Edera, feels like a logical extension of Stranger Things and It (with the flair of Howard Chaykin). Currently available only as individual issues, the first five installments of the series are scheduled to be compiled into a graphic novel this May.

In Erica, the series finds one of the most refreshing new characters in comics: an avenger whose trappings are more Lisbeth Salander than Wonder Woman. Clad in black jeans, boots, and a white tank top with her face hidden behind a bandana bearing a grimace of ferocious fangs, Erica Slaughter is enigmatic and compelling. Fans of David Fincher thrillers or the True Detective TV show should keep this exciting new series on their radar.

Grand Abyss Hotel

Grand Abyss Hotel, a graphic novel by Marcos Prior and David Rubin, was published in Spain in 2016, but an English translation arrived only last year. The story uncannily captures the current political zeitgeist, presciently predicting the rise of fascist governments and the corrosive effects of disinformation across the world. Set across four separate but thematically linked chapters, the book lets events play out from different perspectives, all of which gel in powerful fashion.

Grand Abyss Hotel is a truly cinematic graphic novel. Its languid, horizontal format captures the story’s riots, political subterfuge, and complex, layered narrative in a thrilling, widescreen style. Narrative techniques pioneered in classics like Frank Miller’s Ronin and Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen appear here in the form of persistent talking heads, who give the reader a running commentary on the surface while the action plays out beneath the word balloons.

Offering a feast for the eyes and food for the brain, Grand Abyss Hotel is one of the year’s boldest entries to the genre. 

Popeye: Un Homme a la Mer (A Man of the Sea)

In Popeye: Un Homme a la Mer, everyone’s favorite spinach-swallowing, sea-faring sailor surfaces in his own sumptuous, slightly surreal story. As you might guess from the title, the graphic novel is in French, but the gorgeous artwork alone makes it a worthwhile pick, even for non-Francophiles.

Created by E.C. Segar in 1929—91 years ago!—as a part of the syndicated Thimble Theater comic strip, it’s fair to say that Popeye is a classic American hero. How he ended up reimagined in this lavish, dreamlike French comic by Antoine Ozanam and Brazilian artist Marcello Lelis is anyone’s guess. The results, however, are striking.

While no English version has been announced (someone needs to get on this), the detailed inkwork and watercolor treatment is enough to make the heart flutter. Set in a realistic world, this is Popeye like you’ve never seen him before. All of the usual suspects are present, including Olive Oyl and Bluto, only this time, instead of being limited to simple gags, punchlines, and spinach-powered fisticuffs, the salty seadog sets out on a proper adventure—a treasure hunt worthy of anyone named Tintin.

Animal Farm

Yes, I’m talking about THAT Animal Farm.

In this all-new graphic novel, Brazilian cartoonist and painter Odyr has reimagined Orwell’s classic tale of farm animals who rebel against their human owner in a bid to achieve autonomy and happiness. As those familiar with the original book know, (*spoilers*) it doesn’t quite work out.

Rendered like the darkest Little Golden Book you’ve ever seen, Odyr provides a painterly touch that rarely graces graphic novels, making the book a visual treat. Although prolific as an artist, Odyr’s contributions to the comics genre (particularly in English) are limited to a handful of works. Animal Farm is easily his most ambitious effort: converting a landmark piece of literature into an equally compelling, hardbound book of sequential art. Here’s hoping Nineteen Eighty-Four is next.

The Song of the Machine

Imagine an extensive, illustrated history of electronic dance music drawn by Robert Crumb, and you’ll get a rough approximation of what The Song of the Machine experience is like.

Originally released in French in 2000, and updated in 2016, the graphic novel has only now been translated into English—nearly two decades later. Although it looks like it was drawn by a dozen artists, The Song of the Machine is actually the work of Mathias Cousin, who illustrates each chapter (written by David Blot) in a different artistic style. The result is a visual progression through time.

While not a strict documentary—names have been changed, and characters are often an amalgamation of real-life musicians and DJs—The Song of the Machine is still a faithful love letter to the genre, mixing overheard stories with documented events to create a moving body of work that any music fan should read. 


One of the most sumptuous and delirious comic experiences in this list, Molly Mendoza’s lavishly illustrated (and printed) Skip is not your everyday graphic novel.

Utilizing color like a pen-and-ink Zhang Yimou (of the films Hero and ​House of Flying Daggers), Mendoza creates a classic tale of a boy and his… slime. Skip is a book you’ll want to read time and again—first, to grasp what’s going on in this adventure of two friends trying to return home, and then again to truly soak in how much detail is hidden in each gorgeous, painted page.

The book’s journey is punctuated by color. With color schemes that transition from burnt umber and maroon to full color to more extreme duotones and back, Mendoza reflects the story’s mood through hues, creating a wholly wondrous feel. The character design resembles a modern-day Dondi at times, accentuating the main character’s emotional plight. But in a world so lovingly crafted as this, even a heart-wrenching journey must surely be worth it.

Special thanks to the staff at Forbidden Planet NYC and The Strand for their help in researching this series.

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