The Best Non-Superhero Comic Of All Time

Over a year ago, I read this post on It listed the 100 best non-superhero graphic novels of all time. I disagreed with much of it, so I did my own. And for the last year or so, I’ve been slowly posting my 100 favourites. It’s taken me a lot longer than I thought, but the day is finally here to list the top spot.

Are you ready?

Here we go.

Don’t hate me.

Or do. I don’t really give a shit.

1. Cerebus by Dave Sim & Gerhard (1977, Aardvark/Vanaheim)


I’ve known pretty much from the beginning that Cerebus would be my number one, and so it’s given me a lot of time to think about the reasons why. I’ve had to think of a lot about it a lot, because there’s plenty of reasons why NOT to consider putting Sim on a list like this.


The common wisdom on Cerebus is so common that it hardly qualified as wisdom any more. The wisdom goes like this: First 20 issues was ok, then it got great with the High Society storyline. So great, in fact, that Sim’s Cerebus became the most ambitious comic in the history of comics, aspiring towards heights comics had rarely achieved. Common wisdom continues that if it had ended at issue #185 people would be singing its praises along Watchmen, and Miller’s DD run, and The Spirit.


But it didn’t end at issue 185. There was issue 186, plus another 114 issues after that. But it was 186 that polarized people. Especially those of us who would consider ourselves feminists. So much so, that pretty soon, that “I really like Cerebus” became ‘I really like Cerebus, but….” or “I used to like Cerebus, up until….” or “Dave Sim is such a douchenozzle that I can’t like Cerebus anymore”.


But I don’t see it that way.  From the beginning, Cerebus was an extension of Dave Sim. As a young man, Sim loved Sword & Sworcery, so Cerebus started as a Conan satire. He then discovered politics and history and Cerebus became an insightful, insanely funny treatise on modern geopolitics. Sim had several failed relationships that apparently didn’t end so well, and thus Cerebus’ views on women also changed. So much so, that some of the people who had supported this book for so long, felt betrayed. And I get that. But those people also missed the point.


This book is him. The parts we like, and the parts we don’t like. There are plenty of people who I like, who have certain ideas I find abhorrent. No one is going to agree with you all the time. And I may find lots of the things that Dave Sim has said over the years silly and borderline disgusting. But you want to know what Dave Sim hasn’t done? He hasn’t beaten women (that I know of). He hasn’t raped any. He hasn’t fired any of them for being women. (Please don’t Twitter hate me if it turns out that Sim has done any of these things) He may be a shmuck with lady issues, but he’s a harmless schmuck with lady issues. And he’s a schmuck that created one of the most important comic books of all time. A comic book that, more than most of the books on this list, is full of ideas. So full of ideas, in fact, that it took Sim 8,000 fucking pages to get all of the ideas out. And so there’s parts that I find disgusting. And there’s parts that are boring. And there was the part where he got super religious and the Thee Stooges kidnapped him and so Cerebus just started reciting the bible to us for dozens of issues.


And that brings us to the main reason that I love this book as much as I do:  It tried to say something. While we do seem to be going through the golden age of creator owned comics that Dave Sim always predicted was inevitable, most of those comics seem to be content to tell variations of the same old science fiction, horror, and action stories that we’ve been reading for decades. Very few of them are even reaching for the same levels that Cerebus reached for. And man did it reach. Think about it: A 300 issue comic book starring a talking aardvark mercenary that became the Prime Minister, then a pope, then the Prime Minister again, with a supporting cast full of everyone from Groucho Marx, to the Roling Stones, to Margaret Thatcher. How can you not admire the brass balls of the person who dared to come up with something like that? Not only to come up with it, but then pull it off by doing all of the writing and most of the art, while also publishing the whole thing, shipping it out, answering mail, and doing all of the other business associated with publishing comics. You know who does that?

Dave Sim. That’s who.

Best non-superhero comics of all time: 2-10

Yikes. It took me over a year. Well over a year in fact. But I finally finished this project. Well, almost. You’ll see.

Any regrets? Like Sinatra, I’ve had a few. I wish i had put more older works in, and that the list hadn’t ended up being “The Best non-superhero comics of the last 30 years, with a few others added on”. I wish I had figured out how to get EC comics in the list, considering how many of them are among the greatest comics of the 20th Century (Other than just having one line item for all EC comics, which I didn’t think was fair either).

I wish more people had read this, considering how much work I put in. Can’t do much about that I guess. I was originally going to do a “Best superhero comics” list next, but so few people read this that I don’t think I’ll be doing that now.

Anyways, I still enjoyed the hell out of doing it. Let me know what you think of my list, and what you think I missed.

10. Everybody is Stupid Except For Me by Peter Bagge (2009, Fantagraphics)


Purists will probably choose Hate as the best example of Bagge’s work. But I’ve chosen this collection of his work for the libertarian magazine Reason, because I think it showcases a seriousness that Bagge isn’t always given credit for. In Everybody, Bagge follows his subject matter wherever it takes him, despite the ideological bent of the magazine he’s working for. His exaggerated, hyper-kinetic art style belies the utter seriousness of the subject matter he’s tackling.

9. Clyde Fans by Seth (2000, Fantagraphics)


Seth’s thick, brush-style cartooning is familiar to most serious Canadian comic aficionados, and nowhere does it get utilized more effectively than in Clyde Fans, arguably the best comic book about air conditioner manufacturing ever created.

8. Bone by Jeff Smith (1991, Scholastics)


When I just want to unwind, have fun, and read comics just for the hell of it, Bone is always among my two or three top picks. Smith pays as much attention to character development as he does to his carefully laid out action sequences, which makes Bone basically the best Disney epic never made. Probably the best book to guarantee that your kid will love comics as much as you do.

7. From Hell by Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell (1989, Top Shelf)


From Hell is Moore’s version of how the Jack The Ripper killings could have taken place. Unlike most Ripper stories, Moore’s version isn’t a whodunnit, it’s a whydunnit. Moore tells you within 20 pages who he thinks killed those women over a hundred years ago. He then spends the next 500 pages telling us why. And the why is absolutely bat-shit crazy. Or not, if you believe in the illuminati and love conspiracy theories and hate jewish people. Eddie Campbell is the MVP here, with his dense, claustrophobic cross-hatching being the perfect foil for Moore’s endless paragraphs of descriptive prose.

6. Asterios Polyp by David Mazzuchelli (2009, Pantheon)


I was hesitant to place something so recent so high, and there’s no doubt that if Polyp was 20 years old it would have a fair shot at taking the top spot. But Polyp more than holds it’s own with the other books on this list, and was being considered a classic almost immediately upon publication. Mazzuchelli is as highly regarded in the mainstream superhero world as he is in the “indie” world, and Polyp very much feels like a master reclaiming his rightful place at the top of the heap, after years out of the spotlight. Very few comics showcase the storytelling potential of narrative art the way that this one does.

5. Palestine by Joe Sacco (1996, Fantagraphics)


Joe Sacco didn’t create comics journalism, but with Palestine, he might as well have. Based on various visits to Palestine & Israel that Sacco took in the early 1990’s, it’s the documentation of the systematic destruction of a people, done in a time where such a viewpoint was not only unpopular, it was almost unheard of. Utterly polarizing to this day, Sacco’s work takes the 100 years worth of storytelling tools comic artists have taught themselves, and applies them to the most important story of all: The story of us.

4. Love & Rockets by Los Brothers Hernandez (1982, Fantagraphics)


How do I sum up the plot of Love & Rockets?

Let’s see. It’s the story a group of people (mostly women, mostly Mexican), and….actually, that’s kind of it. Some of the comics are part of the Palomar storyline, which is the name of the fictional Latin American town that these stories are set, and some of them are part of the Locas storyline, focussing on Maggie & Hopey, two Mexican-American women whose destinies are often entwined. And some of the comics feature characters from both, and some of them are stand alone, and some of them are set in the future, and some of them have the characters dressed as superheroes, and so on. What Love & Rockets, is the single greatest arthouse movie ever done in comics form. To read these characters is to love them wholly, and to root for them whole heartedly.

3. Hellboy by Mike Mignola (1993, Dark Horse)


Probably the entry I most fretted about. I added it to the list, and then took it off. Then added it again,  and so on. Not because of it’s quality, but because of it’s subject matter. The question: Is Hellboy a superhero book or not. The answer? Probably. It is at the beginning of it’s run, at least. However, relatively early on in morphed from a monster of the week narrative, into a vehicle for Mike Mignola to explore the mythology and fantastical stories that he loves. Though definitely more mainstream than many of the books here at the end of the list, Hellboy for me will always be the comic I read when I want to feel the pure joy that the medium of comics gives me like no other. It’s got everything; Action, pathos, and plenty of monsters, all by one of the most amazing artists that comics has ever known.

2. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth by Chris Ware (2000, Pantheon)


“The first formal masterpiece of the medium”. That’s how The New Yorker described Corrigan when it was first published, and they weren’t wrong. The shadow that Ware created with Corrigan has loomed over comic books ever since. Ware uses complex design, alternate storylines, and flashbacks, to create an intensely personal story that is extremely small in scope, yet threatens to overwhelm in effect. If you love comic books, but haven’t read Corrigan yet…I’d argue that you don’t actually love comic books.


On a personal note, it’s also the first comic book that ever made me cry as an adult (Don’t worry Crisis on Infinite Earths #7, you still get the overall win).

What? No Number one?

Agh! Cliffhanger!

I’ll post my top pick in the next day or so, but feel free to tell me what you think it is, or what you think it should be.

Best non-superhero comics of all time: 11-20

Almost at the finish line. Interesting thing about these 10 are that almost all of them are black & white.

20. Eightball by Dan Clowes (1989, Fantagraphics)


Is there a better satirist in modern comic books? In these 22 issues, Clowes stakes his claim to that title, and creates some of most important humour comics of all time While Ghost World may be the most famous Clowes story due to the indie film that jumpstarted Scarlet Johansson’s career, this entire run is a must read for all lovers of seriously funny, well crafted comics.

19. Book Of Genesis by R. Crumb (2009, W.W. Norton)


I’m sure I’ll get some grief for picking one of Crumb’s more recent works, rather than earlier comics from his hey day as the king of 1960’s counterculture comix. I chose Genesis because it’s the work of a master at the top of his game, adapting one of the greatest stories in human history.  In addition, those early comics, while undoubtedly great and groovy , are fairly inaccessible to those who didn’t grow up in that generation.

18. Contract With God by Will Eisner (1978, Baronet)


Contract inexplicably gets referred to as the first “graphic novel” despite mountains of evidence that that’s not true. That doesn’t negate Eisner’s impact on modern comics books however, and Contract kickstarted Eisner’s transition away from “the guy that did the Spirit” into the godfather of modern autobiographical comic books.

17. Sandman by Neil Gaiman & various artists (1989, Vertigo)


Now this one I know I’ll get in trouble for. My indie comics friends will hate that i have this so high. And my more mainstream friends will criticize me for placing Sandman so low. But for those a certain age, no comic means more than Sandman. It’s the comic book equivalent of  Moby Dick/Great Expectations/Lord of The Rings, all wrapped up in one, 76 issue bow. And guess what? It’s still really great. I mean, really, really great. With Sandman, Gaiman showed a generation of comic book lovers the limitless potential of graphic storytelling. If you’re finding the recent slate of mainstream comics lacking, give this a shot.

16. American Splendour by Harvey Pekar & various artists (1976, various publishers)


If Will Eisner was the godfather of modern autobiographic comics, then Pekar is it’s crown prince. His ‘warts & all’ style of storytelling could prove daunting to new readers, but his writing demonstrated an honesty rarely seen in comic books, even today. If all you know of Pekar is the movie, you are really missing out.

15. Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai (1984, Dark Horse)


Arguably the greatest work of historical fiction comics has ever seen. Plus, it’s got talking animals. If that’s not enough to sway you, you are beyond help. Sakai is a cartoonist’s cartoonist, having mastered both character and action storytelling relatively early on in this 145 issue (and still going!) epic.

14. Stray Bullets by David Lapham (1995, Image)


I’ve included a fairly healthy percentage of crime comics on this list, but there’s none better than Stray Bullets. Even a 9 year break in between issues didn’t lower the quality of this crime masterpiece at all. Lapham is a unique creator, who arguably has never gotten the acclaim he really deserves. Starting Stray Bullets up again last year went along way to cementing his place among the true masters.

13. Alec – The Years Have Pants by Eddie Campbell (2009, Top Shelf)


Campbell is best known among North American audiences as the artist of Alan Moore’s seminal From Hell, but he picked up the autobiographical comics baton from people like Pekar & Eisner decades ago, and this collection of his best work over the years is as fine an example of how that brilliant & thought provoking that subgenre can be.

12. Lone Wolf & Cub by Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima (1970, Dark Horse)


Like Usagi, Lone Wolf is the story of a disgraced samurai in feudal Japan. But where Sakai uses talking animals to allow for greater accessibility to his work, Koike & Kojima weave a bitterly vengeful, realistically dark tale. Add the tension of having a small child tagging along with our lead “hero”, and you’ve got yourself arguably the great action comic book ever created, as well as one the mangas that even people who hate manga consider indispensable. Almost 50 years later, and these 8700 pages still stand up as some of the great action sequences that comics has ever seen.

11. THB by Paul Pope (1994, various publishers)


THB is one of the few books on this list that hasn’t had a comprehensive reissue program (though Pope insists that collections are coming).  In addition, each issue is extremely hard to track down, and invariably expensive when found. Those that do commit the time & money to tracking these down have a real treat in store, as THB is one of those rare books that keep giving on every read. Ostensibly the story of a girl and her superpower bodyguard and their adventures in a futuristic, colonized Mars, THB is really just a canvas for Pope’s wholly original art style, and serves as a way for Pope to tell pretty much any type of story he wants.