The best graphic novels set on the high seas

Who am I?

I grew up and have often lived around water and ships—Norfolk, VA, Aiea, Hawaii, Savannah, Georgia—and I’ve always had a fascination with things nautical. As a cartoonist, I’m of course always on the lookout for comics that overlap with this interest. Curiously, these sorts of stories seem to be few and far between in the U.S. but more of a genre staple in Europe—France in particular. I tried to highlight here not just books that I particularly like, but books that are representative of the breadth and depth that the comics medium can offer in art style, tone, and intended audience. I hope you enjoy some of these as much as I have!  


I wrote...

Oyster War

By Ben Towle,

Book cover of Oyster War

What is my book about?

In the coastal town of Blood's Haven, the economy runs on oysters. Oyster farming is one of the most lucrative professions, but also the most dangerous. Not just from the unforgiving ocean and its watery depths—there are also oyster pirates to worry about! Commander Davidson Bulloch and his motley crew are tasked with capturing these ne'er-do-wells—but they don't know that Treacher Fink, the pirates' leader, possesses a magical artifact that can call forth a legendary spirit with the power to control the sea and everything in it!

The books I picked & why

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Isaac the Pirate: Vol. 1 - To Exotic Lands

By Christophe Blain,

Book cover of Isaac the Pirate: Vol. 1 - To Exotic Lands

Why this book?

This is the first book I read by the French cartoonist, Christophe Blain—now one of my absolute favorite artists. The titular Isaac is a young artist who gets hired by a wealthy sea captain to accompany him on his voyages as a sort of “ship’s artist.” The twist, of course, is that the captain turns out to be a pirate. Sadly, only the first four books of the French series have been translated into English, but what’s available is great! Start with this initial book, which collects the first two French volumes.


The Crogan Adventures: Catfoot's Vengeance

By Chris Schweizer,

Book cover of The Crogan Adventures: Catfoot's Vengeance

Why this book?

This is the first book in what was conceived of as a series about various members of the (fictional) Crogan family and their adventures throughout different periods in history. This initial volume starts with a West Indies pirate adventure featuring “Catfoot” Crogan, who’s forced to join a pirate crew and winds up making a mortal enemy of another member of the crew. The series unfortunately seems to have stopped with only three books, but this first one is well worth reading on its own. Note that this book was initially published in black and white as Crogan’s Vengeance. 


Esteban - Volume 1 - The Whaler

By Matthieu Bonhomme,

Book cover of Esteban - Volume 1 - The Whaler

Why this book?

Another great nautical adventure from a stellar French cartoonist, Esteban is a sprawling tale of a Native American boy who winds up as the ship’s boy on a whaler, The Leviathan. This is a great nautical coming-of-age story with some absolutely stunning artwork—gorgeous waves, ice flows, and renderings of tall ships abound. Fortunately, it’s been translated recently and is available in English digitally. 


Set to Sea

By Drew Weing,

Book cover of Set to Sea

Why this book?

This is a beautiful little book in an interesting format—a single image per page—that tells the story of a poet whose romanticizing about life on the sea is put to the test when he’s shanghaied and made part of a crew of sailors heading for Hong Kong. Don’t be fooled by Drew’s stunning cartooning that evokes the glory of the heyday of newspaper cartooning (think E.C. Segar, Walt Kelly, etc.); this is a book for grown-ups. 


Blacklung

By Chris Wright,

Book cover of Blacklung

Why this book?

As captivating as it is disturbing, this nautical tale of a schoolteacher who’s accidentally shanghaied (this seems to be a theme with nautical comics!) and winds up having to figure out how to survive amidst a crew of sadists—the worst among them the captain, who’s devoted his life to committing the most depraved acts possible, a scheme designed to ensure he’ll meet his dead wife in Hell.  


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Pirates, sailors, and whaler?

5,716 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Pirates, sailors, and whaler.

Pirates Explore 57 books about Pirates
Sailors Explore 15 books about sailors
Whaler Explore 8 books about whaler

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Under the Black Flag, How I Became a Pirate, and Bold in Her Breeches if you like this list.