If you’re reading this, then odds are you don’t need us to convince you that studying history can be a blast. But let’s face it, even for those of us who love to delve into the past, too many history books can quickly devolve into dry, weighty tomes filled with forgettable dates, battles, treaties, and bureaucracy. Sometimes, even history buffs crave something that brings history to life in a more dynamic way, even if that just means something with a few more pictures.
Enter this list of unforgettable historical graphic novels. Graphic novels have been called a “paradigm shift” in how people learn about history, bringing the past to life in a way that is impossible with even the most dramatic of prose. Spanning the ages from the earliest days of human civilization to the American Heartland at the turn of the century, these acclaimed graphic novels all bring fresh, new perspectives to history—whether they’re detailing familiar moments, or events you’ve never heard of before.
From the assassination of Rasputin to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, from women-led slave revolts to the deck of a naval destroyer in World War II, you’re bound to find a book here that’ll show you something new about your favorite period from the past. Sometimes told by those who were there, other times reconstructed through careful historical research, let these half-dozen inspiring books be your gateway to the vast, vast world of graphic novels for history buffs.
Maus I: A Survivor's Tale
An imaginative approach to historical storytelling, Maus is set during the Holocaust, depicting Jews as mice and Nazis as prowling cats. Author Art Spiegelman weaves his father’s tale of survival with their lives decades later, during which he and his aging father navigate their strained relationship. Acclaimed as “the most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust”, in 1992 Maus was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize, putting this art form on the map for readers everywhere (Wall Street Journal). In recent years, Maus made headlines again for being banned from a Tennessee school district, a decision that drew criticism against book censorship and led to surging interest in the graphic novel.
In 1916, as the First World War devastated Europe, a “mad monk” by the name of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin was one of the most powerful people in Russia. Regularly bending the ear of the Tsarina, Rasputin was considered by many to have influence over the nation's affairs. Yet his meddling was not welcomed by all. As the war raged on, an international conspiracy began to unfold with the intention of assassinating the “mad monk” by any means necessary.
In this spellbinding graphic novel, we follow a British spy who is handed the unenviable task of completing the deadly deed. Told by Philip Gelatt, whose credits include such films as Europa Report, They Remain, The Spine of Night, and Netflix’s Love, Death, and Robots, with art by Tyler Crook (B.P.R.D., Harrow County), this is the twilight of the Russian empire as you’ve never seen it before.
Sapiens: A Graphic History
With simple, bright illustrations and clear, concise text, this multi-volume work tackles the ambitious project of recreating the origins of human history, adapted from the book of the same name by celebrated historian Yuval Harari. The original was a New York Times bestseller recommended by Barack Obama, and the graphic adaptation found its way onto the bestseller list too.
While the project may be ambitious in the extreme, the book itself is simple, approachable, and easy to understand, as it explores what happened to the other early humans who went extinct, and how homo sapiens rose to be the dominant species on the planet.
March: Book One
Written by the late congressman John Lewis, who passed away at 80 years old in 2020, this graphic novel celebrates his life and the key role he played in the Civil Rights Movement. The book traces his humble beginnings on an Alabama sharecropper’s farm through his career in Washington, where he became a respected statesman and a recipient of the Medal of Freedom, chronicling many of the most dramatic and historically important moments of the Civil Rights Movement along the way.
In this three-volume series, Lewis recounts iconic moments from his early life that shaped him, including his meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the events of “Bloody Sunday,” when police and state troopers violently attacked members of the first march from Selma to Montgomery.
Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts
Mixing history and memoir, Rebecca Hall’s “powerful” (The New York Times Book Review) story details not only the lingering effects of slavery on her own life, as a successful attorney and historian working in present-day America, but also follows her discoveries as she delves into the role that women played in resistance movements against slavery throughout the ages, from the Middle Passage to the last days of the American Civil War.
By combing through historical records, court documents, and even forensic data taken from the burial sites of former slaves, Hall and artist Hugo Martinez reconstruct a history filled with women warriors who stood up against their oppressors, with results both tragic and inspiring.
A Sailor’s Story
Sam Glanzman has been hailed as “one of the greatest storytellers of 20th century comics” (A. V. Club) and “one of the most honest, dedicated and engaging cartoonists in comics history” (Kurt Busiek). Now, back in print for the first time in more than a quarter of a century, new readers can be introduced to his gripping and unforgettable memoir of life on the sea.
Drawing from his own experiences aboard the USS Stevens during World War II, A Sailor’s Story “is not really a memoir of war, but of life aboard a floating town. Mr. Glanzman’s stories are like those you’d hear from a favorite uncle, true tales about average men who were most concerned about beer, women and gambling, not life, death and the enemy” (The New York Times).
Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done?
Acclaimed true crime writer Harold Schechter teams up with multiple-Eisner Award-winning artist Eric Powell to retell the story of one of America’s most notorious serial killers. This isn’t just the true crime tale of Ed Gein’s grotesque slayings, however. It’s also about a moment in American history, and the way that the reporting on Gein’s crimes affected not just the American Dream but also our nightmares, as refracted through film and television.
Opening with the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho—which helped to change horror films forever—Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done? is as much a story about America as it is about one man and his terrible deeds.