Welcome to my list of favorite comics inspired by mythology, classic literature, and history! These graphic novels are favorites in our house because of their fascinating writing and high-quality art. So if you love comics and you’re a history buff, a literature fan, or a mythology geek, you’ve come to the right place.
Before we jump in:
- All comics here can be bought as graphic novels/collections, not only as single issues. Your library may own many of these!
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I am totally here for a lesbian Valykrie quest to overthrow the homophobic patriarchy! It starts when our heroine, young Viking warrior Aydis, is exiled from her people for kissing a girl. She decides a good next step would be to prove her worth by freeing Brynhild, immortal Valkyrie, who was imprisoned in fire by Odin for being uppity. Endearing sepia-toned art with washes of subtle color, a huge facelift in lettering from its first digital publication, and plenty of girl+allies power combined with magic, talking horses, and true love = can I have the next volume now?
Diversity note: Natasha Alterici is a lesbian, and Rachel Deering has a wife, so it’s #ownvoices here. (Not the Valkyrie part, the queer part. Except maybe Alterici and Deering are Valkyries and I just don’t know…)
Scott Chantler became one of our favorite comics artists and writers with his amazing young adult fantasy series Three Thieves, so I was intrigued to see how he’d take on historical fiction. I wasn’t disappointed.
Northwest Passage is set in 1755 in Canada at an English fort, during a time when the English and French struggled for power over the Hudson Bay area. The story is centered around Charles Lord, a semi-famous adventurer who basically got moved to desk duty of governing the fort for years, but plans to seek the titular fabled water route through North America to the Pacific now that he’s retiring. Unfortunately for Lord, French invaders take the incoming English supply ship that’s supposed to take Lord back to England to raise funds for his expedition, and things only get worse from there.
Tightly interwoven with the fate of the fort, and IMHO even more compelling, are two intersecting human stories: (1) Lord’s relationship with his embittered son Simon, whose mother Bright Moon, from the Opaskwayak Cree tribe, died when he was young, and (2) the experience of Lord’s nephew Fletcher, who’d traveled on the supply ship to serve at the fort, but finds himself swept up in terrifying violence and then held as a hostage. Lord and Simon’s story is heartbreaking and the jewel of the book, especially a dinner scene in Chapter 2 where they sit at opposite ends of a long table, unable to communicate honestly. It’s an amazing use of same panel repeatedly with slight alterations to show us the dysfunction of their life together.
I don’t have enough expertise to say whether the Cree representation here is acceptable, but I noticed that while most of the story’s main characters are white, the Cree living nearby the fort clearly have their own lives and agendas separate from whatever’s going on between the English and the French. Other tribes are mentioned as well, and Lord’s egalitarian views seem author-endorsed. The book mostly depicts functional business relationships between the tribes and the English and French, but violence against the Cree by invading settlers isn’t ignored.
I read the paperback version of the Annotated Edition, which was originally published in hardback, and I recommend reading all the back matter if you read it. The historical grounding and storytelling process notes Chantler shares were quite interesting. My only regret is that at the time of writing, he seemed to have plans for continuing the story, but it never happened!
Content warning: Late in the book, an evil male character discloses his past rape of a female character. It’s not detailed.
Stories about Sparta usually focus on the Spartans. Gillen instead focuses on the enslaved people who made up their support system, the Helots. The story follows a trio. Terpander has a really big mouth, and one joke for the wrong audience starts a slaughter that he, Damar, and Klaros barely escape. Now they’re fugitives, and the Spartans are looking to make them an example. It’s pretty bloody, but also suspenseful and poignant. It’s well-researched and depicts part of an ancient culture we don’t see in media, but it far surpasses being a dry historical re-enactment. If you read it, definitely also read the notes at the back with all the historical extras. Fascinating to see how Gillen shaped his story based on what was known and unknown about these folks.
A hip-hop ninja Romeo and Juliet remix focused on Tybalt, who’s involved in an underground sword dueling club in the equivalent of 1980s New York. You’ve probably never read anything like this, and it has all the excitement of the classic story that inspired it. Bold coloring, full of action and intrigue, heading towards an inevitably tragic ending. Reading Wimberly’s afterword gave me even more appreciation for how good of a writer he is, and I was intrigued by the connections he drew between Kurosawa’s Ran, Wu-Tang Clan, and the streets of Verona that led him to create this book.
The big hardcover reissue from November 2016 is SO worth it, as Wimberly had a chance to make updates for this definitive edition.
47 Ronin (Amazon/Comixology / Goodreads) By Mike Richardson with art by the inimitable Stan Sakai, with editorial consultation from Kazuo Koike. Colors by Lovern Kindzierski. Lettering by Tom Orzechowski and Lois Buhalis.
A head of household betrayed in the Imperial Court. Loyal servants who must avenge their master, but how? And what are they willing to sacrifice to fulfill that duty? My heart absolutely broke for the leader of the 47 ronin as he lost his lord and began his journey, and then Richardson broke it again at several more points through and after that journey. (But I don’t hold a grudge, oh no.) Richardson and Sakai together did a great job making this legendary story about real people rather than archetypes.
(Sakai is best known for Usagi Yojimbo, so C-Man was quite pleased that Sakai knocks it out of the park with his art in a serious story with human characters. Instead of, you know, anthropomorphic rabbits.)
I don’t feel smart enough about literature to articulate specifics about why this blew me away, but I love this fiercely feminist book, a fairy-tale-esque reimagining of the Arabian Nights as a queer women’s protest that uses the power of story as a means of resistance.
I figure if you’ve read that description, you’re either interested or you’re not, so I don’t have to break my brain saying anything more. (Whew!)
If you do like it, also try her earlier book The Encyclopedia of Early Earth (Amazon/Kindle / Goodreads). Less emotionally intense, it’s an interlinked set of fanciful stories based on various ancient mythologies, from Greek to Scandinavian to First Nations, wrapped within a story about the journey of a boy to find the missing piece of his soul. It’s hilarious and quirky (two gods named Kid and Kiddo, really?) but without being one note. C-Man couldn’t read the hand lettering, but if your eyes will work with it, try the first 20-30 pages and see what you think. These days, it’s rare that I read a graphic novel which strikes me as completely unique, and this one did.
Initially, I wasn’t sure about the premise here: a child named Thorfinn raised by the rival Viking tribe that murdered his father, working towards his goal of killing their leader. At over 450 pages for one volume, and an incredibly long ongoing series. Was I really in the mood for several thousand pages of guys fighting?
What I didn’t realize was that Yukimura would first delve deep into Thorfinn’s past with his family, making me love them, and especially making me love his father. I read the second half of the first volume trying to will Thorfinn’s past to change as I watched his father’s death come closer. Surely if I just gripped the book harder, his father could be saved! Sadly, of course, no. Any frustration I had with young, hotheaded Thorfinn evaporated the moment his father fell, and I realized I was now stuck reading the next bazillion pages because I really cared about what happened to this kid.
Now I’m nine books in and I’m addicted because of the personalities, political drama, conspiracy, friendship, and even humor. The good news is that it only takes me a little over an hour to read each volume, so it hasn’t eaten as much of my life as I thought it would to read the nine omnibus volumes that are out so far. C-Man goes slower because he’s more into all the military details of various battles.) If your library has a manga collection, I’d imagine they have this or would consider adding it.
Blade of the Immortal (Amazon/Kindle / Goodreads) By Hiroaki Samura. Translation of Volume 1 by Dana Lewis and Toren Smith. Lettering by Wayne Truman. (And that’s where I’m going to stop with the credits, because this is a thirty-one volume series).
A ronin warrior in feudal Japan is full of magic worms (ew!) that make him immortal (yay?). A girl whose family was murdered by a rival sword school wants vengeance. This is how it started, and after THIRTY ONE VOLUMES, it finally ended. And I was sad. So many factions, so many characters, so much had happened, it was like an extremely gory soap opera that I couldn’t look away from. I don’t even like the art much, though I respect it, and I was still 100% hooked. (I will admit to flipping through many of the fight scenes until someone walked or crawled or was dragged away.) I always had to find out what happens next so the end of each book was painful knowing how long I’d have to wait. One of my favorite things about the series is the multiple strong, complex, interesting female characters who are all very different from each other. They all get beat up, cut up, held prisoner, and various other calamities – but so does just about every male character.
However, serious trigger warning for this series for multiple sexual assaults (not just of women). I didn’t feel they were all gratuitous, but the behavior and speech of one character in particular went way past my personal line by about book 25. If you have any triggers around this issue, take care of yourself and just skip this whole series!
For those of y’all who can work with that aspect, and want a long-running bloody tale of shifting allegiances that ends… eventually, in a way I could live with, then keep an eye out for the Omnibus editions that began coming out in January 2017, as those might be more handy.
That concludes today’s roundup of comics inspired by mythology, history, and literature that I highly recommend! If you have any suggestions for me, please leave them in the comments – and thanks for sharing this post on social media or with friends.