I love a good weird, dark, twisty graphic novel. A book that transports you somewhere you’d like to not stay long. A book that leaves you guessing, reaching, wondering, Did that really just happen? Books that touch on the absurd, the uncanny, the strange — that tap into that dread and suspense that accompanies late-night goosebumps, a strange sound coming from your radiator, a tree branch tapping against your window.
And maybe it doesn’t give you all the answers. It’s up to you to put together the pieces. I know some readers don’t love when loose ends aren’t always tightly knotted by the end, but when it’s done right, those loose ends are sublimely unsettling, the perfect way to evoke an extra strangeness, an extra element of the uncanny, and pull it into the pages. When a book leaves you deliciously unsettled, still tugging at dark shadows and mysteries, that’s when the story is most likely to follow you off the page. You’ll put your head down on the pillow and still be thinking about the empty spaces.
These eight graphic novels range from unconventional to darkly absurd to downright scary. The art styles range widely, and are some of the most creative and unique approaches I’ve seen — from Junji Ito’s tight, spiraling ink work to Hannah Berry’s rich greenish shadows. These books will keep you on your toes. From murderous influencers with bad intentions to a hypnotic horror taking over a town, from strange diseases to liminal spaces, the stories illustrated in these eight comics will capture your attention and refuse to let you go.
After the Rain by Nnedi Okorafor, Adapted by John Jennings, Illustrated by David Brame
In this excellent adaptation of Nnedi Okorafor’s short story “On the Road,” a woman named Chioma is visiting her family in a small Nigerian town. When she answers a knock in the night, she is confronted by a boy with a severe head wound — and he infects her with something. Something eerie. And dark. It’s a fantastic story of visions and liminal spaces, of violence, healing, and confronting the histories that make us who we are. The art is colorful but frightening, and the ending is deeply satisfying.
The Low, Low Woods by Carmen Maria Machado and DaNi
El and Vee live in Shudder-to-Think, Pennsylvania, a town plagued by a mysterious illness that is slowly devouring people’s memories. The two best friends wake up one day in a movie theater, their memories mysteriously absent, discovering that they too have succumbed to this disease. As they try and dig deeper to figure out what happened while they were blacked out, they discover that Shudder-to-Think holds more dark secrets than just these forgotten memories.
The Sky is Blue with a Single Cloud by Kuniko Tsurita, Translated by Ryan Holmberg
Tsurita was the first woman to be published in alternative manga magazine Garo, and is a fantastic artist who explored and subverted themes of gender roles and the patriarchy’s impact on women and gender-nonconforming people. In this collection published in translation in 2020, we’re able to track the artist’s artistic shifts, as her work grows darker and more experimental over time. It also includes an essay putting context to her life and the counter-culture nature of her art.
When I Arrived At The Castle By Emily Carroll
I first fell in love with Emily Carroll’s dark, black and white and red illustration and storytelling style with her fairytale collection Through the Woods, and was thrilled when she illustrated Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak: The Graphic Novel. With this graphic novel, she tells a gothic, queer horror story infused with an erotic, terrifying darkness, as the protagonist arrives at the castle of the Countess determined to fight whatever hides inside it. It’s twisty and ambiguous, dreamlike and strange.
Snotgirl, Vol. 1: Green Hair Don’t Care by Bryan Lee O’Malley, Leslie Hung, Mickey Quinn, and Maré Odomo
I am absolutely in love with this bizarre comics series. Lottie Person is an influencer who is trying to show the world how glamorous and put-together her life really is. Except she secretly has atrocious allergies. And it’s possible she just murdered her new best friend. This series is deliciously queer, twisty, ridiculous, and eerie, and it’s full of terrible, self-absorbed, but fascinating people and their bad decisions. Vol. 2 California Screaming and Vol. 3: Is This Real Life? are already out, and I’m beyond excited for Vol. 4.
Adamtine by Hannah Berry
Two years ago, a series of people went missing, and all that was left behind were notes that had been delivered by a man named Rodney Moon. He claimed that the real perpetrator was inhuman, and was ruled not guilty — but the loved ones of the disappeared found him and carried out their own vengeance. Now, four strangers are taking a train home. Four strangers linked by one thing: they were all part of that mission of revenge. The art of this book is dark, strange, and certainly unique, all defined by shadows and a greenish black tone. Twisty and ambiguous, this graphic novel is creepy and destined to be reread.
Black Hole by Charles Burns
This is a bizarre and dark story about a strange, sexually contracted plague descending on suburban Seattle’s mid-1970s teens. While, yes, there’s a frightening disease falling onto the community, it’s really a deep dive into high school alienation, cruelty, sex, burn-out, drugs, anxiety, and pain, as Rob, Chris, Keith, and Eliza deal with this bug, the “bug” mutating their friends. It was intriguing and disturbing, like watching a pulpy sci-fi channel mystery TV show, all painted in frighteningly excellent artwork.
Uzumaki by Junji Ito, Translated by Yuji Oniki
This episodic horror manga is gathered into a single, thick…terrifying volume. I’m not easily scared through the page, but Ito’s creations showed up in my dreams. A small town haunted by a curse that hypnotizes residents through spirals. Teen Kirie and her boyfriend try to identify what’s hurting the town as it slowly spirals into apocalyptic wasteland. Creepy, crawly, and full of twists, not to mention moments where you’ll turn the page and see a detailed, surreal, Lovecraftian, terrifying scene.
For more on graphic novels, discover how to train your brain to read comics and graphic novels, or find the best graphic novels to give beginners. Discover comics and graphic novels featuring women, or check out eight 2022 queer graphic novels and memoirs.