14 Must-Read Graphic Novels About War

I normally start my comics posts with a friendly and inviting comments, but for this one, the importance of the subject matter speaks for itself. Here’s a list of my favorite comics about war, both real and fictional. Good art, good storytelling, serious topic, all worth your time.

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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  • If you need to know whether a book has certain content that would make it a bad fit for you, I’m happy to check!

Motor Girl (Amazon / Comixology / Goodreads) By Terry Moore.

Sam is a vet who lives and works in a junkyard after a combat injury ended her military career. Her companion is a gorilla named Mike. When a UFO crash lands near the junkyard, it attracts the attention of Nefarious Capitalists who attempt to oust Sam and Mike from their home so they can install an anti-UFO weapon. Sam isn’t ready to move on, though, in a lot of ways. It starts as a somewhat goofy UFO story, but Moore signals gently early on that all is not what it appears. A story about what happens to people in and after war, told with humor (where appropriate) and plenty of compassion. The ending isn’t sad, but yeah, might make you a little misty.

Motor Girl was collected in two paperbacks, but also a hardcover omnibus collecting the entire series.

The Red Star (Amazon/Comixology / Goodreads) By Christian Gossett, co-written by Bradley Kayl. 3D Art by A.D. Coulter, colors and composites by Snakebite, 3D models by Jon Moberly, and letters by Richard Starkings and Saida Temofonte.

The most amazing comic series that might never be finished and one of the most epic, sweeping comic stories I have ever read. It’s said to be interwoven with the video game of the same name, which I have never seen, but the comics stand alone just fine.

The Red Star is set in an alternate science fiction and magical universe, where the Soviet Union, a.k.a. the United Republics of The Red Star, has magic, and they’re still losing in a war with Afghanistan-alike. The central characters are Maya Antares, one of the United Republics Warcasters (sorcerers), and her husband Marcus Antares, a United Republics Captain. Their life is the terrible feeling of being part of something larger than you, that you cannot stop, that’s only going to end in tragedy. And as the series goes on, they find out more about how the war came to be. Then they have to make choices.

The Red Star has now been re-issued in two hardcover collections, after being printed in… four paperbacks, and some extra issues? If you’re confused tracking it down or get into it and want help untangling what other content is available, let me know and I’ll help out. We’ve bought this in at least those two versions and I haven’t yet sat down to map out how they match up.

Iron: Or, the War After (Amazon / Kindle/Comixology / Goodreads) By S.M. Vidaurri.

Gripping examination of the costs of war, starting with the theft of secret information by a resistance fighter. The ramifications of that theft spill out and touch many lives, even those who aren’t on a “side,” if the sides here even mean anything given how destructive their war is – and given that Vidaurri is much more interested in the effects of the war than in the particulars of how it started and supposedly ended, but continues to hurt people even still. It’s tense at times, appropriately sorrowful, and the art is a perfect match with its minimalism and muted colors. I think watercolor, with maybe some pencil too? A must-read if you can find a copy.

Six-Gun Gorilla (Amazon/Comixology / Goodreads) By Simon Spurrier. Art by Jeff Stokely, colors by André May. Letters by Steve Wands.

In the 22nd century, humans who want to die can volunteer for a war zone on a colonized planet, where their deaths can be broadcast as reality TV. This time, it doesn’t go according to plan. The divorced ex-librarian known as Blue-3425 doesn’t die when he’s supposed to. He ends up with a watch that’s more than it seems, and folks on both sides of the conflict want to take it. And then there’s the talking gorilla. It’s about truth being manipulated in the service of profit. It’s about the power of story. The art is just the right level of weird for the characters and the plot. The colors are extremely rich and well thought-out, changing as the tale shifts between the colony and Earth. Spurrier is one of my favorite writers, and this book is one of the reasons why.

Six-Gun Gorilla is complete in one volume.

Weapons of Mass Diplomacy (Amazon / Goodreads) By Abel Lanzac (pen name for Antonin Bauday). Illustrations by Christophe Blain. Translated by Edward Gauvin.

If you’re looking for a serious, dry, fact-based investigation of how the U.S. ended up invading Iraq… this is not the book for you. If you’re interested in a (somewhat) fictionalized account of what it’s like to work in international politics when something like that is going down, though, this is perfect. Lanzac was a French government employee working during the run-up to that invasion. In this graphic novel, he’s represented by Arthur Vlaminck, a young speechwriter hired into the French Foreign Minister’s office. His boss, Alexandre Taillard de Vorms, is indescribably bizarre. However, his boss may also be the best chance the world has for peace.

As a former government employee, activist, and politics junkie, I was fascinated by the depiction of how extremely flawed human beings can play such pivotal roles on the side of justice. Even if they don’t win, and even if their personal philosophies at times seem baffling or worse. C-Man isn’t as interested in politics as I am (and he prefers a larger font!) but the ludicrous behavior of the Ministry’s staff, the humor, and the handfuls of geek references grabbed him. Try this book, and you’ll never look at highlighters again without flinching.

Weapons of Mass Diplomacy is complete in one volume.

The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century (Amazon/Kindle / Goodreads) By Frank Miller, with art by Dave Gibbons. Color by Robin Smith, Angus McKie, and Alan Craddock.

Frank Miller is not a good person. In recent years he’s shown himself to be a racist xenophobe, and that can’t have come out of nowhere. So how the hell did he write this book? It’s a science fiction epic focused on a female African-American soldier from the projects who basically saves the whole damn world. It portrays the evils of fascism, segregation, and poverty – as well as the brutality of war, how stupid it really is, and who pays the price.

The storytelling isn’t consistently strong, but once you’re through the first and strongest part, you’re rooting for Martha so much that you want more stories about her even if they’re a bit wander-y. Like a couple of Amazon reviewers mentioned, there’s so much raw material here for a movie… hint hint, Hollywood, if you get a black woman to direct it!

The 2017 second edition linked above contains the complete Martha Washington saga. There were multiple printings of some or all of the story before this, so if your library has one of those, it’s worth checking it out to see if you like the art etc. before committing to purchasing the second edition.

Fax from Sarajevo (Amazon / Goodreads) By Joe Kubert, with colors by Studio SAF.

I almost didn’t read this because the art style didn’t immediately grab me. But I thought “Skye, this is important, you need to make it at least halfway through.” So I did, and by then I had no doubts that I’d be recommending this comic. I lost track of how many times I started to cry while reading it, and I mean that in a complimentary way.

During the siege of Sarajevo in 1992-93, Ervin Rustemagic and his family were trapped in the city. Rustemagic had access (sometimes) to a fax machine, which he used to update his friends on their situation and beg for help in saving his family’s lives. Kubert was one of those friends, and later he used Rustemagic’s faxes and recollections as the basis for this graphic novel. It’s harrowing and heartbreaking. The ethnic and religious genocide, the murder of civilians (especially children), and the seemingly complete disregard for Sarajevans by nations outside of the war… and their officials on the ground, who give Rustemagic five different answers to any question. The back of the book says it’s a story “ultimately, of unflagging hope” but honestly, it’s a story of increasing despair and a lucky happy ending. Many weren’t so lucky. Left me thinking about why we can’t stop this kind of atrocity, with all our supposed wisdom. Brutal reminder not to take what I have for granted.

The White Donkey (Amazon/Kindle / Goodreads) By Maximilian Uriarte.

Most of my adjectives for this book start with H: haunting, harrowing, heartbreaking. It’s an emotionally raw story about a young man who joins the Marines for probably not-so-great reasons, isn’t particularly well-suited to it, and ends up badly broken by his traumatic experiences. Uriarte is a cartoonist and former Marine whose webcomic Terminal Lance became popular with Corps members and vets. Here he does a pivot from cartoon humor strips to a serious graphic novel, and it’s clear he has talent for both kinds of work. It’s not a universal story about military experience, because everyone in the military has their own story, but it is an important one.

Diversity note: Uriarte is Hispanic and Jewish.

Peter Panzerfaust (Amazon/Comixology / Goodreads) Co-created by writer Kurtis Wiebe and artist Tyler Jenkins. Colors by Alex Sollazzo. Letters by Ed Brisson.

Peter Panzerfaust is a World War II book chronicling the exploits of Peter Pan, the Lost Boys, and the Darling children. Yep, you read that right. The charismatic Peter leads a resistance cell in occupied France. The Lost Boys are orphaned French teenagers who fall in with him and become his soldiers. The Darling children survive a plane crash that kills their parents. And there’s a fanatical SS officer bent on hunting Peter down, you may recognize him once he shows up.

I was suspicious of this before I read it because the concept seemed somewhat silly. The execution, though, is amazing. Peter’s personality seems otherworldly in the context of the war, as it should, but he’s a natural leader and dedicated to the cause. His nemesis Hook is chilling, reinvented here as an SS officer. The story is told as a series of interviews with the surviving Lost Boys, now elderly, which gives it an extra note of nostalgia and sadness.

Peter Panzerfaust is complete in five paperback volumes.

Punisher MAX Volume 10: Valley Forge, Valley Forge (Amazon/Kindle / Goodreads) By Garth Ennis, with art by Goran Parlov. Colors by Lee Loughridge. Letters by Cory Petit.

This one’s going to need a little explanation for the non-Marvel-comics readers who also haven’t seen this character on Netflix. Bear with me. The Punisher is a Marvel Comics anti-hero / villain (depending on how he’s being written). His name is Frank Castle. Castle lost his wife and two young children when they were shot by mobsters, and he became The Punisher in reaction to that. His mission is to kill criminals. Not stop them and put them in jail like Spider-Man or Captain America do. Execute them.

Garth Ennis wrote many, many issues of the series Punisher MAX. MAX is Marvel’s R-rated line, in which writers can use more adult content and profanity. Near the end of Ennis’s time writing Punisher MAX, he wrote the Valley Forge, Valley Forge storyline which asked the question “How did Frank Castle become a sociopath?” Part of Castle’s backstory is his long service in Vietnam, and this storyline goes back to that part of his history looking for answers. The result is savage and depressing. And it gives us a pretty compelling case that Frank Castle did not become The Punisher when his family was killed by the mob. He became that person in Vietnam. The Punisher was waiting in Frank Castle when he arrived home from his second tour.

Even if you do not know anything about The Punisher or Marvel comics, you know enough from reading this summary to read this book. Valley Forge, Valley Forge is a striking example of a writer using a traditional comics character to discuss far greater themes and history. It’s like being kicked in the chest repeatedly, but it’s amazing.

The Harlem Hellfighters (Amazon/Kindle / Goodreads) By Max Brooks, with art by Caanan White, inks by Keith Williams, and letters by Kurt Hathaway.

“Harlem Hellfighters” was the nickname for the the 369th infantry regiment in World War I, which was all African-American. They were reviled by many whites in their own military, undersupplied, often humiliated by their own superiors, and spent more time in combat then any other U.S. unit. However they fought tremendously well and were highly decorated. This book discusses not just the specific experience and history of the men in this unit, but the war itself. (It’s not like bombs, gas, or even the lice that tormented them discriminate between soldiers based on their skin color.) Brooks’s writing and White’s art here don’t flinch from some of the terrible experiences these men had, both at war and at home, but they also bring us the men’s personal stories and victories.

Harlem Hellfighters is complete in one volume.

Diversity note: Brooks is Jewish (via his father, but I don’t know how he himself identifies). White is African-American.

Boxers and Saints (Amazon/Kindle / Goodreads) By Gene Luen Yang, with colors by Lark Pien.

The Boxer Rebellion in China between 1899 and 1901, through the eyes of two Chinese teenagers: a young man in the forefront of the anti-foreign, anti-Christian movement, and a young woman who converted to Christianity and whose home comes under attack. Yang does an amazing job humanizing the real people caught up in the conflict, and showing how tragic the whole conflict was for everyone no matter what “side” they were on. This book is a meticulously researched masterwork by one of comics’ most talented and thoughtful creators.

Boxers and Saints are two different interconnected volumes, though they’ve also been published in a box set.

Diversity note: Yang is Chinese-American.

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (Amazon / Goodreads) By Art Spiegelman.

When I was refreshing this post, I thought “surely everyone has read Maus by now, maybe I can drop it.” I saw a review on Goodreads a few days later by someone who had just read it for the first time. So clearly there is still an untapped audience! And it’s an important one in so many ways. Maus is almost singlehandedly responsible for showing the world that the cartoon format was capable of handling the most serious subjects. In this case, World War II, and the lasting damage to the mental health of Jewish families who went through its horrors. The Nazis are drawn as cats, and their victims as mice… which makes the story no less agonizing.

Spiegelman created a classic. Anyone who won’t be triggered by it should read it, both for the high quality of the story, and because we can’t afford to forget what happened in World War II. Maus is definitely one of those comics that would enrich school history curricula. I’ll definitely be making sure my kiddo reads it once he’s old enough.

It’s been published in two books, and also in the complete collection linked above.

Get Your War On: The Definitive Account of the War on Terror 2001-2008 (Amazon / Goodreads) By David Rees.

Last but not least, and it’s out of print, but it has a special place in my heart…

Get Your War On is not a comic that shows war happening, but it is a comic about war. Specifically, the “War on Terror” that commenced after 9/11 and has been screwing up the world ever since. David Rees posted it as a webcomic starting in October 2001 and captured a particular kind of reaction that some Americans had to the war, which can be summarized as “What the hell?! This is really fucked up, why is this happening?!”

It’s both a snapshot of a specific cultural reaction to the “war” and a serious critique and satire of it. And it’s really freakin’ (painfully) funny. If you can track down a copy easily, I recommend you do so.

That concludes today’s roundup of comics about war that I love and 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.

10 thoughts on “14 Must-Read Graphic Novels About War

  1. Natalie Patalie

    Great list! I read Boxers and Saints this Summer and thought it was amazing! I wrote a review of it on my blog, which lead to Gene Luen Yang following me on Twitter. I almost cried! Maus is also great. The rest of these I’ve yet to read, so they’ll have to be added to my to-be-read list. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  2. Rebecca

    I read a lot on the Holocaust (took an entire class on it undergrad), but Maus I and II had the most powerful impact on me of anything. And I love, love, love Boxers and Saints! Yeah, graphics!

    Reply
  3. Helen- Life in Random Bits

    The diversity in styles always amazes me in your lists. The illustrators are fantastic and I love to see the different ways people approach a topic. Definitely going to have to check out that Peter Pan comic- interesting twist!

    Reply
  4. Skye

    Natalie, that must have been so great when he followed you! He’s such a talented and thoughtful person.

    Lisa, it’s true, the comics medium has really grown up.

    Rebecca, something about Maus just hits home. Such powerful storytelling.

    Helen, the variety of art styles in comics continually blows my mind! I’m pretty sure the library has Peter Panzerfaust, or you can borrow ours!

    Brenda, that is the sweetest thing to say. I definitely don’t know all the comics ever, but I’ve been reading a ton of them for about 5 years now and this series is all the best of what I’ve read. These posts take for-freakin-ever to put together. Maybe 3-4 hours apiece? But I think they’re doing what I want them to do, which is open people’s eyes to new things they might love!

    Reply
  5. Michelle

    I’m not much of a comic or graphic novel reader but as my son gets older, he is definitely enjoying them more and more. I’m also not a big war movie gal either but, I also was never super interested in Hot Wheels cars until I had a son so…..who knows where the next decade will take me!

    Reply
  6. Skye

    Nicole, I’m definitely trying to highlight some books which many people haven’t heard of. Who knows when I’ll connect the right person with the right book, and make someone’s day!

    Michelle, I hear you, there are a LOT of things in my life now that wouldn’t be there without my kiddo.

    Kimberly, the variety is part of what I love about comics. So much human creativity!

    Reply

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