The Best Graphic Novels For An Emotional Sensory Reading Experience

The Books I Picked & Why

Aya: Life in Yop City

By Clément Oubrerie, Marguerite Abouet

Aya: Life in Yop City

Why this book?

Originally released as separate volumes, these have now been collected into two bumper volumes which read as one, giant graphic novel. Aya is a 19-year old girl who lives on the Ivory Coast of Africa in the late 1970s. It’s largely a portrait of her life, and that of her friends and relatives and the situations they get themselves into. Broadly it’s a coming-of-age story - I find it utterly captivating and enthralling from beginning to end. Oubrerie’s luminous, vibrant art is charming, but can take a turn into darkly expressive when it needs to be.


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The Lonesome Era

By Jon Allen

The Lonesome Era

Why this book?

Jon Allen’s coming out and growing up story in his ongoing Ohio Is For Sale series, The Lonesome Era is, so far, his most complex and affecting work, but that’s not saying much for a cartoonist who expands his abilities and repertoire with each new book. The Lonesome Era is a rites-of-passage tale that showcases Allen’s customarily bleak outlook and dry wit, and it is, by turns, hilarious and poignant. I’ve called his work “Kafkaesque situation comedies” in the past, but that description belies the mordant emotional and observational sophistication on show here. He is simply one of the best young visual storytellers around.


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Beautiful Darkness

By Kerascoët, Fabien Vehlmann

Beautiful Darkness

Why this book?

The best comics, graphic novels, bande dessinées, sequential narratives - whatever you want to call them - invite you into their world and if they’re successful, you’re carried by them, not as you would be by a literary encounter but as an immersive, sensory experience. You have to be open to their visual sensibilities, and perceptive readers will find far more than a fairy tale here. That’s how it begins but it very soon becomes clear that this is a story that expertly contrasts the delightful constructs of a childlike imagination with the damnable awfulness of the real world. It is both exquisite and horrific, matter-of-fact and fantastical, an unsettling fairy tale for those not unwilling to gaze unabashedly into the abyss.


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Exit Wounds

By Rutu Modan

Exit Wounds

Why this book?

Rutu Modan is rightly celebrated and Exit Wounds, for me, remains the high point of her work. She seems to me to be a writer who draws as opposed to an artist who writes - that is, her work is propelled by an almost literary narrative necessity as much as any formal artistic experimentation, which is not to say there aren’t wonderfully inventive moments throughout this book. It’s the through-line though, the characters and the story she urgently wants to tell that captures the attention, and Exit Wounds is a classic of escalating mood, incident, coincidence and human needs.


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Polina

By Bastien Vives

Polina

Why this book?

Polina is about a would-be ballerina and a teacher and the methods he employs to get the best from his students. Polina ages from child to young adult through its pages, and as her comprehension of the world about her and the people in it changes, so too does the reader’s impressions of her. Like any good character piece, much depends on the performance of the players, and therefore Vivès and his ability to convey subtleties of emotional reactions. He always leaves enough room for the reader’s own interpretations, and so hooks you into the nuances of Polina’s feelings. Vivès can draw anything, but this beautiful, delicately balanced story depends as much on what he leaves out as what he puts in. A small masterpiece.


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