If you’re like me, the doldrums kick in every now and again. Reading books almost always helps, but sometimes even that is too much.
However, graphic novels are almost always the antidote. They feel like being able to step into a new world, a gateway with zero barriers for entry. The best graphic novels make you question reality, rushing at you with a frenetic intensity that can make a person feel high on the art itself. Graphic novels can save you during the right time, and let me tell you, finishing one in a single sitting… there’s nothing quite like it.
Here are ten surreal mystery graphic novels that can fend off dreariness, reading slumps, and ennui.
10 of the Best Murder Mystery Puzzles
If the below plot sounds a little familiar it’s because this graphic novel was adapted into a film called Old, by M. Night Shyamalan. Just like the film, the source material is nothing short of bizarre and wild.
An assortment of people—a family, a young couple, tourists, and a refugee—all end up mysteriously in a would-be paradise cove, complete with a sandy beach and blue seas. But like any horror plot, not all is what it seems.
The body of a dead woman washes ashore, much to the dismay of everyone, and then there’s the fact that everybody is prematurely aging. With no way out of the cove, desperation sets in and the crew has to figure out how to survive. There’s a whole lot more hidden behind the cove’s tropical façade, but to mention any of it would lessen the surrealism.
The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil
Did someone say 'a beard that’s evil'? Stephen Collins’ graphic novel is surreal in that quirky, fun kind of way, and is about a man named Dave who is hairless, living in a place called Here.
Everything about his world is safe and controlled (and clean!) until a single hair grows on Dave's face, quickly becoming an insane beard that cannot be shaved off. The beard keeps growing until it engulfs Here, making it difficult to locate where Here even is. And then there’s also the fact that the beard causes harm to people.
Collins really goes for the absurdity here, and it works. It’s the kind of book that’ll define an afternoon.
The Strange Tale of Panorama Island
An adaptation of a 1926 novel of the same name by Edogawa Rampo, The Strange Tale of Panorama Island is a graphic novel draped in deceit, doppelgangers, and disappearances.
The plot follows a novelist named Hitomi Hirosuke, who explores the dark world of hedonism. He also happens to look exactly like a former classmate who recently passed away. On discovering this, Hitomi decides to fake his own death and dig up the dead classmate’s body. Of course, what happens next is a world of page-turning surrealism at its best..
Maybe you’re more in the mood for something that defies all explanation, offering up a narrative that makes you raise an eyebrow, slow down, and pour over every illustrated panel. Celestia is one of those books.
Celestia island has become a haven for criminals, outsiders, and other misfits to hide and seek refuge in a world that has been inflicted by something called the “Great Invasion.”
Dora and Pierrot both flee to Celestia only to find a baffling state of affairs, as many inhabitants are bound by their own “old world” ideas and predicaments. From the artwork to the strange story, Celestia is one of the most memorable graphic novels of 2021.
Asadora! Vol. 1
There’s something so fascinating and addictive about an impressionable young protagonist who still exhibits that sense of youthful discovery and resilience. Naoki Urasawa’s heavyweight graphic novel, Asadora! centers around one such character.
Asa Asada is a young girl who is kidnapped for ransom but, in a devastating twist, nobody seems to notice her disappearance. Then a natural disaster hits, and suddenly Asa and her kidnapper must work together to survive. It’s an absurd premise that Urasawa masterfully upends time and time again, and it's sure to surprise many a reader.
You like surrealism? Well, Zuo Ma took your surrealism and added another dose of surrealism. In Night Bus, readers are introduced to a young nerdy woman who goes on a late night excursion only to find herself on one detour after the other, everything from swamps to giant sea creatures.
Ma battles all the deep and darkest themes—including aging and loss—with spurts of nostalgia and impressively rendered fantastical illustrations. Night Bus is a graphic novel that transports readers to those seemingly endless youthful afternoons spent exploring the area around your neighborhood, dreaming up all kinds of possibilities.
The Crossroads at Midnight
Abby Howard demonstrates an impressive narrative range in The Crossroads at Midnight. At times these stories border on bleak, while others are deceptively placed to pull you from the brink. One story takes you into the haunted woods to witness a deceptive discovery that signals the potential downfall of a family, while another heart-warming story follows a girl who befriends a lonely ghost.
These stories are almost all about lonely souls seeking comfort or escape in something less than normal. It kind of sounds a lot like me, and maybe you? If you want that escape, you can’t go wrong with Howard’s collection.
You Died: An Anthology of the Afterlife
There seems to be so many anthologies these days. If there’s a topic, you better believe there are going to be at least a handful of anthologies that explore it. But when it comes down to it, there’s only one truly universal topic: death. In You Died, edited by Kel McDonald, death is the main focus of each contribution.
The assortment is quite impressive, and it isn’t as depressing as you might think. Some standouts include Letty Wilson’s “What Eats Us,” about a squirrel that observes how death is inevitable and natural; SE Case’s “Remember,” about a mother that sticks around, staving off death for the sake of her family; and James Maddox and Jeremy Lawson’s “Beyond the Cosmos,” a more lighthearted take on the concept David Bowie explored in his song, “Space Oddity.”
Easily the most out of this world book on this list, Jesse Jacobs has created something that might be compared to Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void, but with high school and a bunch of teenagers. The buzzword here is psychedelic, and delightful artwork bleeds into every page as Jacobs takes us on a journey that defies any definition of narrative, at least in the linear and contemporary modes.
When inanimate objects begin bleeding into different realities and wild color spectrum shifts cast itself on an otherwise common suburbia, you better believe you’re in for a ride. Crawl Space can be “read” in a half-hour, but there’s value to be had in reading it more than once.
The New Ghost
Robert Frank Hunter’s The New Ghost is a bit of an outlier here, but the experience of reading it reminds one of a lazy summer afternoon. Hunter’s chapbook could pair well with the You Died anthology, acting as a bit of an epilogue. In wonderfully drawn panels, Hunter tells the story of the afterlife by way of a ghostly figure’s first day after the end.
The brevity of the work might mislead, especially since the art really draws you in, beckoning a reader to sit in each panel for a bit. And that’s perhaps the essence of death and the concept of the afterlife—there’s no longer any urgency.