Graphic novels made history in 2013 — even if the best books sometimes reveled in making history up. Half the books on this top-10 list delve into the past, ranging from 20th-century wars to rights movements to the birth of hip-hop. And part of what makes these history-dipping graphic novels sublime is that their creators know how to bring stories alive; they paint distinct characters that ripple off the page and often create immersive worlds that resonate with the real. ¶ Before diving in, though, a couple of qualifiers: First, in a year that held an embarrassment of mainstream superhero riches, my Comic Riffs blog is offering a separate top-10 list of the best superhero titles of 2013. And second, the year provided some great comics works that didn’t happen to be graphic novels, so I also urge you to check out titles such as Art Spiegelman’s excellent retrospective “Co-Mix” and Joe Sacco’s posterlike “The Great War.”
By John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell (Top Shelf)
This compelling civil rights memoir — which kicks off a planned trilogy — depicts Rep. John Lewis’s origins and early actions as a nonviolent protestor and the youngest speaker (age 23) at the 1963 March on Washington. Nate Powell’s winning art helps deliver the human drama.
By Gene Luen Yang
This National Book Award finalist is really two books, both centered on China’s Boxer Rebellion: One tells the story of a young man’s rise as a superheroic warrior, told in vivid colors; the other, rendered in monochromatic tones, describes a young girl who fights for the opposition Christians. Twin perspectives, a singular epic.
By Ed Piskor (Fantagraphics)
A young Pittsburgh bard travels back to the New York birth of rap with DJ Kool Herc and rattles off encyclopedic knowledge through dynamic, interwoven narratives of the ’70s and early ’80s. The feat is backed by era-appropriate art on pages yellowed with nostalgia. Dope, yo.
By Gilbert Hernandez
(Drawn and Quarterly)
One of the legendary cartoonists of “Love and Rockets,” which began publication in the early 1980s, here weaves readers through scenes from a semi-autobiographical ’60s childhood. “Marble Season” sometimes feels like one long, seamless shot of budding love, brimming violence and suddenly struck friendships. This is a highly physical, meta-“Peanuts” suburban universe in which adults are off-camera, but navigating other kids is plenty harrowing.
By Rutu Modan, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Drawn and Quarterly)
The “Exit Wounds” author creates an utterly believable world in which a woman and her grandmother travel to Warsaw to reclaim property stolen from the family during World War II. Each small detail makes the relationships feel real — and the art reflects an unusual approach: Modan hired models to act our her scenes.
By Michael DeForge (Koyama)
This rising, Ignatz-winning star is already a master at making arresting images with clever narrative depth. He’s a one-man theater of the absurd, the enchanting and the grotesque. His panels are visual onions, and the careful reader is amply rewarded for peeling back each layer.
By Paul Pope (First Second)
I admit, it’s the beautifully fluid lines that first lure me — as if Moebius were channeling Bill Watterson. But it’s the crackling action that keeps me riveted, as a 12-year-old demigod must step up to save the monster-pocked city of Acropolis. Let the magical graphic T-shirts abound.
By Lisa Hanawalt (Drawn and Quarterly)
Hanawalt has one of the sharpest senses of humor in all of comics. She also has a colored-pencil and watercolor style that blends beautifully with her knowing voice. Whether she’s spoofing pop culture or getting intensely autobiographical, she’s unfailingly funny.
By Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples (Image)
Vaughn, the author of “Y: The Last Man,” plots a gripping tale of futuristic forbidden love, and Staples delivers art that pops perfectly for this pop space opera. Together, in this universe, they make an unbeatable team.
By Ulli Lust (Fantagraphics)
As one of his final import gifts to the English-speaking world, the great Fantagraphics co-publisher Kim Thompson (R.I.P.) delivered a translation of this epic Austrian memoir. Winner of the 2013 Ignatz Award, it traces Lust’s bracing, reality-laid-bare mid-’80s Italian trip as a penniless, punked-out Viennese teen trekking from Rome’s Spanish Steps to some very dark corners of the cultural soul. Striking in its lack of reflective judgment or moralistic resolution, the book leaves the reader with the pure fluid exuberance and tested mettle of woman as gritty dharma bum. (Note: mature content.)
Cavna, a columnist and cartoonist, writes The Post’s Comic Riffs blog and was a 2013 judge for San Diego Comic-Con’s Eisner Awards. Follow him on Twitter @comicriffs.