The best comics of all time. What a tall order. Comic books first emerged in the United States and United Kingdom in the 1930s, and have since grown into a juggernaut of entertainment. The term now encompasses comic strips, monthly comic book issues, trade paperbacks and graphic novels, manga, manhwa, and so much more. One of the greatest cinematic powerhouses in history, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has sprung from these funny pages.
How to choose the best comics of all time? I set a few rules. I decided not to double up on creators or titles. Alan Moore is undoubtedly one of the greatest comic book writers of all time, but he’s only on this list once. I’m not letting my love of Batman or the X-Men overshadow many other incredible comics, either.
This list spans comic book stories from the big two, independent publishers, graphic memoirs, and manga. The stories and their creators are varied and diverse. All of them have made a significant splash in comic books as a whole, influencing books that have come after them. Some are obvious choices while others are more subtle. Each one of them is one of the greatest stories you can find, with or without pictures.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
It’s rare for a comic book to be a finalist for a National Book Award in addition to a slew of comic book awards, but American Born Chinese did just that. Seamlessly weaving together three fictional tales of China and Chinese immigrants, Yang depicted the daily struggles of Chinese immigrants alongside a touching coming-of-age tale.
Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa
Running from 2001 to 2010, Arakawa’s steampunk series has inspired two hit anime series, films, video games, and an empire of merchandise. The steampunk tale of family and loss is adventurous, touching, inventive, and has been mimicked many times over the years. More than a decade since finishing publication, Fullmetal Alchemist endures.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Any book repeatedly banned should certainly land on a best-of list like this one. Bechdel’s seminal, autobiographical graphic memoir details her childhood, growing up and coming out, as well as confronting family issues like her depressed and closeted father. Simple in its delivery and powerful in its effect, it has even inspired a successful musical.
Inuyasha by Mangaka Rumiko Takahashi
Here is another foundational manga that ran for a long time and built an empire from its humble pages. It tells the story of a young woman who travels to a different dimension, a different time, and allies with a half-demon named Inuyasha. They forge a friendship and bond through their adventures, challenging preconceived notions of good and evil and everything they know along the way.
Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross
How to pick any one Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman story? Perhaps by choosing one of the greatest Elseworlds tales ever that heavily involves all three. It is a tale of tragic loss, of how far heroes can fall, and how hope persists even in the darkest moments. It’s also one of very few books in which Alex Ross paints sequential art.
Locke & Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
Horror has a very long history in comics, from old-school monster tales to modern takes from all sorts of people and publishers. When novelist Joe Hill teamed up with Gabriel Rodriguez for this story, it put horror back in the comic book spotlight. The recent Netflix series has only cemented it as one of the greatest horror comics ever, especially since it’s grounded in a beautiful family story.
March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
What can I say about this remarkable book from the late Congressman John Lewis. It’s his story, the story of getting in “good trouble,” in his own words. Congressman Lewis’s life is a story of American Civil Rights itself, from the very beginning to the inauguration of President Barack Obama. March is a masterpiece.
Maus by Art Speigelman
Here is another graphic memoir that is even more important than it is beautiful, and also (even very recently) banned. Maus is the story of Art Speigelman and his father, who survived the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. It’s not just a tale of survival, but of the difficulties between a father and son, about finding common ground in their uncommon lives.
Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona
Yes, Kamala Khan is about to make her small-screen debut on Disney+, but that’s not why this book is on this list. Kamala’s story is the quintessential “We Too Are America” tale with a superhero twist. Spider-Man has endured because he is so relatable, though largely only to white men. As the young daughter of Muslim, Pakistani immigrants, this new Ms. Marvel brought a whole new angle and energy to the Marvel Universe.
Nimona by ND Stevenson
Another National Book Award finalist, and this one from a college project by the immensely talented ND Stevenson. At times silly and at times deeply poignant, Nimona takes everything we assume about heroes and villains, throwing in a beautiful blender. Deeply layered and subtly personal for Stevenson, it’s definitely one of the best comics of all time.
One Piece by Eiichiro Oda
There might not be a bigger, more influential manga in existence. Starting in 1997 and still running to this day, One Piece is a fantasy adventure that has raised an entire generation of comic and manga creators. Fans speak of Eiichiro Oda in the same breath as other fantasy masters like J.R.R. Tolkien and N.K. Jemisin. It’s a series with something for everyone, which is why is towers.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
The last graphic memoir on this list is another frequently banned comic, which should tell you how important it is. Marjane Satrapi grew up in Iran and Austria during the Islamic Revolution, and her perspective is one not often told in the west, let alone in this visual medium. Her story is heartbreaking and eye-opening.
Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples
Is there a comic book on the planet as widely loved and wildly inventive as Saga? Part space opera and part fantasy, this epic focused on a Romeo and Juliet-style couple coming from opposing sides of an epic galactic war. When they have a child, it only complicates things more. People with TVs for heads, quirky bounty hunters, and, of course, Lying Cat make for an incredible comic.
The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, Yoshitaka Amano, Mike Dringenberg, Marc Hempel, Sam Kieth, Dave McKean, Jill Thompson, and many more
Okay. Maybe there’s one comic that is arguably more inventive than Saga. Beginning in 1989, a young Neil Gaiman took an old DC Comics property and made it his own. Adult in nature and fantastical in every way, Sandman was a master class in comic book writing that ran for 75 issues and has moved beyond that. One issue even won a World Fantasy Award.
Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai
Since 1984, Stan Sakai has been writing and drawing every issue of Usagi Yojimbo. To this day, he still does it old-school, taping word bubbles over his art. For nearly four decades, this samurai rabbit has been part of the comic book landscape, influencing countless action and anthropomorphic comic books and creators. Part history and part fiction, it’s definitely one of the best comics of all time.
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
You knew it would be on here. Before Watchmen, comic books were ruled by camp. The colors were too bright and too simple. The dialog was unrealistic. Good and evil were clearly defined. Watchmen changed everything, a book just for adults, as it was highly political and steeped in commentary about the comic book industry itself. Moore and Gibbons took pastiches of the old Charlton Comics characters and created a monument in comic book history.
If you’re looking to read comics for the first time, where better to start than the greatest comics of all time? Here’s your list, though it’s certainly not exhaustive. What are your favorites?