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Comic Theme Time Month – Best Non-Fiction Comics

All December long, I will be doing daily installments of Comic Theme Time. Comic Theme Time is a twist on the idea of a “Top Five” list. Instead of me stating a topic and then listing my top five choices in that topic, I’m giving you the topic and letting you go wild with examples that you think fit the theme.

Today’s topic (partially in honor of Fred Van Lente Day) is “What do you think are the best non-fiction comics?”

Read on to see what I’m looking for specifically, along with some examples to get you started…

Now obviously, one of the most acclaimed comics of all-time is art spiegelman’s Maus, about the story of spiegelman’s father and his survival during the Holocaust.

But just as obvious is the fact that there are tons of great non-fiction comics out there, including, naturally, Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s Action Philosophers (exploring the histories of various famous philosophers)…

and their more recent Comic Book Comics (exploring the history of comic books…through a comic book!)….

That’s just a few, there are lots of them. What are your favorites?


I’ve read next-to-no non-fiction. Crecy’s probably more historical fiction.

I remember at one point Matt Fraction wanted to do a Moe “the catcher was a spy” Berg comic, which I would have read the crap out of, but as far as I know that never happened. Probably derailed by all the much higher paying Marvel work.

Judd Winick’s “Pedro & Me”

The Top 10 Deadliest Sharks comic, put out by the Discovery Channel. Not in terms of artistic merit, just that it was a hell of a lot of fun. :)

Pedro & Me and American Splendor are the obvious choices.

Also very worthy of note, the “Big Book Of” series published by DC Comics’ “Paradox Press” imprint. I have special love for the Big Book Of Urban Legends, illustrated by such luminaries as Howard Chaykin, Keith Giffen & Dick Giordano along with many other talents besides.

Curently working on my own…so of the top of my head: From Hell by Moore & Campbell, Maus by Spieglman, Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean by Taylor & Towle, American Splendor by Pekar, Dykes to Watch Out For by Bechdel

How about Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe, particularly the first 5 or 6 issues which were incredibly well done

Pretty much anything by Joe Sacco; my personal favorites are “Safe Area Gorazde” and “The Fixer.” Also, obviously, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, but also “Embroideries” and “Chicken with Plums.”

of the little I read, I enjoyed Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, and also a lovely little piece called ’99 ways to tell a Story’, which was about how the medium could be used in so many different ways.

American Splendor

Safe Area Gorazde

Louis Riel

Understanding Comics

The Cartoon History of the Universe/Modern World/United States

Although I think it’s one of the greatest comics ever written, I would definitely categorize From Hell as fiction. Extensively researched historical fiction, but fiction nonetheless.

Persepolis is another obvious choice.

Understanding Comics is wonderful too.

From Hell by Moore & Campbell

I think it’s kinda problematic to call this “non-fiction”: even though most of the characters in it are real people, almost all of the events in From Hell are either made up by Moore, or based on discredited theories about Jack the Ripper (mainly Stephen Knight’s Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution). Obviously almost all non-fiction books have at least some personal speculation by the author, but in From Hell the speculation is such a large part of it that in my opinion it lands firmly in the category of fiction.

And Dykes to Watch Out For is most certainly fiction: just because the fictional characters often comment on real-world events doesn’t make it “non-fiction”.

As others have said:
American Splendor
Pedro and Me

But also:
Brought to Light (the Alan Moore/Bill Seinkeiwicz half anyway – I never could make it through the other half)
The Playboy and I Never Liked You by Chester Brown
and of course Crisis on Infinite Earths.

I liked, as mentioned above, David B. Epileptic and I have really enjoyed a graphic novel called “Harvey” detailing the sudden death of a father and his family’s response to the tragedy, all told from the perspective of the older of two boys who also has a fascination with Scott Carey from the classic film The Incredible Shrinking Man. Not sure how non-ficition it is, but it certainly feels authentic. Won a top literary award in Canada.


Another gem, I think, is Chester Brown’s Comic on the Canadian Political figure Louis Riel (he was a Metis leader, Metis being the descendants of mixed French Canadian and Aboriginal families) who is still thought of a saint or a heretic depending on where you were taught history. Anyway, the issues have been collected and are often taught now in Canadian schools. Louis Riel is great for what it contributes to Riel’s story, but Brown also delves into a pre-existing comic history with Riel as the subject.

@Kyle, I agree with Riel, posted without seeing yours…though it too isn’t exactly “biography.”

The new “Green River Killer” OGN will make my best of 2011 list….Fantastic.

Kyle’s already mentioned many of my favourites (Louis Riel, Epileptic, Blankets) but I’d also add:

Yoshihiro Tatsumi, A Drifting Life
Darryl Cunningham, Psychiatric Tales
Chester Brown, Paying For It
Richard Poplak, Kenk: A Graphic Portrait
Any of the various diary comics projects by Lucy Knisley or Emi Lenox

Eisner’s The Plot
Sim’s Glamourpuss
Sim’s Judenhass
Brown’s Louis Riel
Matt’s Peepshow
That Satchel Paige comic

Two – Fisted Science – and any thing on the G.T. Labs Catalogue:


I am a Biologist and a Comic Book Junkie, so Clan Apis by Jay Hosler is one of my favorite books. Highly recommended. A small sample: http://www.jayhosler.com/world.jpg

Best regards,

Luis Jaime

The Sandwalk Adventures (could not remember the name of the Darwin book) – is also very good.

I’ve really enjoyed exactly 1/2 of Glamourpuss. I bet you can guess which!

Gotta be American Splendor. What a great writer Harvey Parker was.

Of course From Hell and Understanding Comics are up there. I also really like 300, and consider it to be the last thing Frank Miler wrote before he died. (We all agree he’s dead now, right?)

And I don’t think this really counts, but I just bought the last of the Alan Moore Swamp Thing hardcovers, and I’ve been reading them straight through in the last few weeks. Swamp Thing #54, which I’ve always thought was a great issue, I was shocked to find out in Bissette’s introduction that Moore based it on a real story, which happened to one of his aunts. Sad, powerful stuff.

I’ve been meaning to read Joe Sacco’s books. I haven’t started yet, but they are the nonfiction comics that most intrigue me.

Graham, I’ve also been meaning to look at “Cartoon History of the Universe.”

I agree with a lot of these, but From Hell shouldn’t be included because it’s historical fiction, not nonfiction.

I only read Maus last year, and I must say, it’s one of the few really hyped books that not only matched up to its reputation but even surpassed it. I was very impressed.

The series that immediately comes to mind is Larry Gonicks the Cartoon History of the Universe. I’ve only got two of the phone books so far, but they certainly are informative, funny, educational, and gripping. They teach you so much, I can’t wait until I have the rest of them.

As any actual historian will tell you, 300 is total fiction.

Yeah, the Cartoon History of the Universe was what I thought of when I saw the topic, though the early installments were better than the later ones. I remember when that was serialized as a strip in alternative newsweeklies, because I am old.

And Persepolis, which is marvelous.

Maus (It feels a little strange identifying a tale of talking mice as non-fiction, but I guess mostly it’s just fictionalised art in service of a non-fiction “story”)

Action Philosophers (The only piece of original comic art I ever bought was from this, which I hope gives a clue as to how much I love this book! It works so very well whether you approach it from the world of comics or the world of philosophy. Endlessly re-readable)

Cartoon History of … (All of these are terrific)

Understanding Comics (Perfect melding of medium and message.)

I Saw It: The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima: A Survivor’s True Story by Keiji Nakazawa. I think I read this before I ever saw Grave of the Fireflies.

So many great great comics on this list.

John J: I almost put Barefoot Gen until I remembered the main character is fictional. I hadn’t heard of I Saw It until now. I’ll have to check that out.

“As any actual historian will tell you, 300 is total fiction.”

Sure. Most non-fiction is fiction.

As any actual historian will tell you, 300 is total fiction.

Well, 300 is nonfiction in the same sense that any comic where Jimmy Olsen time-traveled to meet historical figures is nonfiction. Also the Human Fly, who’s the wildest super-hero ever–because he’s real!

A few not yet mentioned:

King by Ho Che Anderson: an MLK biography with some curious and outstanding artistic choices.

Stagger Lee by Derek McCulloch & Shepherd Hendrix: The history of the Stagger Lee songs is explored, along with a speculative account of the man’s life. Totally engrossing.

Voodoo Child: the Illustated Legend of Jimi Hendrix by Bill Sienkiewicz and some writer: a somewhat whitewashed story of Hendrix’s life featuring gorgeous artwork. Maybe Sienkiewic’s best work.

Fax From Sarajevo by Joe Kubert: the master relays the troubles his friend experienced in wartorn ’90s Bosnia.

Alec by Eddie Campbell: maybe the best autobio comic ever. The cartoonist experiences the ups and downs of adult life.

Fax from Sarajevo by Joe Kubert
Yossel by Joe Kubert
Palestine by Joe Sacco
To Afghanistan and Back by Ted Rall
Fun Home by Alison Blechel
American Elf by James Kochalka
Dirty Plotte by Julie Doucet
Diary of a Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner
Big Skinny by Carol Lay
Selected stories of Robert Crumb
Selected stories of Spain Rodriguez
Selected stories by Howard Cruse (Stuck Rubber Baby and various)

Seconding Cartoon History of the Universe by Larry Gonick. And also, Gonick’s Cartoon Guide to Physics.

(Stuck Rubber Baby and various)

As far as I know Stuck Rubber Baby is not non-fiction; the setting and premise is based on Cruse’s own experiences of that era, but all the characters and events are fictional.

Great topic.

I can’t think of any others, though. (Not off the top of my head, anyway.)

@Kyle: I think Barefoot Gen and I Saw It are the same book, iirc. Or else one is a one volume version of the other. I may be completely and totally wrong, however.

Jonathan Ames’ The Alcoholic (although I’m not sure how much of it is actually autobiographical)
Joe Matt’s The Poor Bastard
Sarah Glidden’s How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less (with some reservations, but still)

Heh, Action Philosophers was the first thing that came to my mind when I read this article’s title. Glad to see you agree. Most fun I ever had while reading biographies. :D

Aaron Scott Johnson

December 8, 2011 at 6:08 am

Great pics so far. I was happy to see someone mention Fun Home.

@Travis: I looked it up. Nakazawa’s I Saw It is a true autobiographical account of the bombing of Hiroshima, and was written first. Barefoot Gen came later, and depicts the same events, albeit through a fictional protagonist standing in for Nakazawa.

I’ve only read Barefoot Gen. I would like to read I Saw It, but it looks like it’s a bit hard to come by.

All the books mentioned are definitely worthy of praise, but one artist that seems to have been overlooked is Rius.

Los Supermachos and Los Agachados were satirical fiction, but everything he did in the 70s really cemented educational comics. Starting with Marx for Beginners (which created the line and inspired the style that came after from A Cartoon Guide to the Universe to Logicomix to Addicted to War to Action Philosophers) and continuing on through Love in a time of AIDS, His Majesty PRI, It’s a Pity Cuba, Sexism Feminism and Homosexualism, and a host of other amazing manifestos Rius has been one of the greatest political educators and satirists in any medium. In Mexico he was considered so dangerous to the political establishment that they tried to disappear him.

Oh, and according to some accounts it was Marx for Beginners, rather than A Contract with God, that created the publishing category of Graphic Novels. Though both stories may be erroneous anecdotes.

I almost put Barefoot Gen until I remembered the main character is fiction

He is? Damn – I read it thinking it was autobiographical.

Well, Keiji Nakazawa did survive the bombing of Hiroshima, and he really did witness the kinds of things the comic depicts, but yes, in terms of story, it is technically fictional.

Well, Maus obviously.

I love the Paradox Press Big Book of series, which had some great artists and writers tell the true story of something in six or so pages. Fascinating stuff, particularly the Big Book of Martyrs and the Big Book of Conspiracies

I thought Jacobson and Colon’s graphic novel version of the 9/11 commission’s report was utterly brilliant.

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