The Best Graphic Novels and Comic Books Set in Chicago

A new book about Mies van der Rohe just hit bookstores

May 2, 2019 9:36 am
Mies by Agustin Ferrer Casas
Agustín Ferrer Casas' newest book depicts the life of a Chicago legend

When Spanish artist Agustín Ferrer Casas’s Mies hit bookstores earlier this month, Chicago history buffs took note. The meticulously researched 176-page graphic novel chronicles the life of monumentally influential Chicago architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. And throughout his fascinating biography, Casas places the City of Big Shoulders front and center, positioning it as both the inspiration for and the recipient of the bulk of Mies’s life’s work. It’s about the architect, sure, but it’s Mies’s ample canvas that really shines.

But Casas is far from the first illustrator to fall in love with Chicago. With its striking skyline, storied past and creative reputation, the city has caught the eye of cartoonists, writers and artists worldwide for generations, from Chris Ware’s realist tributes to thinly veiled replicas a la Dick Tracy’s The City.

Curious? Pop into your neighborhood comic book shop (there are plenty!) and pick up one of these Chicago-centric artistic masterpieces.

Handbook by Kevin Budnik

Handbook: A Graphic Memoir by Kevin Budnik (Self Published)

Published in 2016, this intimate, diary-like collection follows the author as he navigates day-to-day life in Chicago and reflects on the treatment he underwent for an eating disorder a few years prior. “His elegant line drawings are thoughtful vignettes of the everyday existence of an artist and they’re sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking,” says Liz Mason, manager at Quimby’s Bookstore, a Wicker Park mainstay specializing in all things indie, from quirky graphic novels and zines to unusual magazines and other literary curios. Throughout the story, Budnik depicts his hometown with a tender, familiar hand.

Mason also recommends Budnik’s 2017 mini-comic One Thing At a Time, Bud. Written in a similarly heartfelt style, this Birdcage Bottom Books release is an emotion-driven portrait of Budnik and his family as they struggle to cope with his father’s cancer diagnosis. “The great thing about underground comics is that they can cover topics that can be more personal or arty, or even push the boundaries of what we think of comics,” Mason adds.

Cowl by Kylie Higgins

C.O.W.L. by Kyle Higgins, Alec Siegel and Rod Reis (Image Comics)

Meet the Chicago Organized Workers League (aka C.O.W.L), the world’s first labor union founded expressly to protect the interests of professional superheroes. Set in the 1960s, this 2014-2015 multi-issue series showcases the gang’s quest to rid their moonlit city of organized crime and supervillains alike. The art is compelling, teeming with stylistic, noir-tinged touches that exude a mysterious, Mad Men-inspired aesthetic and come across as true to the era. Keep an eye out for iconic architecture portrayed in realistic detail as well as some of history’s most famous local faces (including an appearance by Mayor Richard J. Daley) as you thumb through the action-packed pages.

Ironheart by Eve Ewing

Ironheart by Eve Ewing and Kevin Libranda (Marvel)

When Issue #1 of award-winning Chicago-based writer Eve Ewing’s shiny new Marvel solo series dropped in late November, 2018, area sellers had a tough time keeping the release in stock. Local audiences couldn’t get enough of former Iron Man star Riri Williams, an African American teen genius and native South Sider who fights injustice clad in an Iron Man-esque suit of armor she designed and built herself. The series jumps around a bit location-wise, but rest assured the Chi plays a pivotal (and beautifully illustrated, thanks to penciler Kevin Libranda) role throughout this exciting coming-of-age saga.

Building Stories by Chris Ware

Building Stories by Chris Ware (Pantheon Graphic Library)

One of Chicago’s most celebrated graphic novelists, Chris Ware has made a name for himself with innovative and immersive renderings of his beloved Windy City. 2012’s Building Stories reads more like a tactile, highly interactive puzzle than a straightforward book. The massive box set is comprised of 14 illustrated components, each giving the viewer a different glimpse into the inner workings of tenants living inside the same three-floor brownstone. The characters are masterfully presented — Ware’s fantastic at conveying deep, realistic sentiment with seemingly simple graphics and very few words — and the stories weave in and around the house with an urban planner’s knack for visual detail. It’s no wonder that the project picked up a boatload of awards, namely the coveted 2013 Lynd Ward Prize for Best Graphic Novel of the Year, and rocketed to the top of the charts at the New York Times Book Review, Time Magazine, Newsday, the Washington Post and other big name “best of” list-makers.  

Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware (Pantheon Graphic Library)

Ware’s debut effort, an intricate and emotionally intense father-son narrative that splits its time between 1890s Chicago and Michigan in the 1980s, came out in 2003 and its epic portrayal of Chicago continues to stand out to readers like Mason. “Although the entirety of the graphic novel isn’t necessarily in Chicago (though you take one look at it, and you go, ‘Oh this it TOTALLY Chicago’), my favorite parts of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth touch on the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair,” she says. “Ware beautifully illustrates The White City of the World’s Columbian Exposition. It’s so iconic and he really captures what I imagine the vibe was of that experience.”

My Favorite Things Is Monsters by Emil Ferris

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics Books)

Winner of the 2017 Ignatz Award for Outstanding Graphic Novel along with three 2018 Eisner Awards, this critically acclaimed graphic novel is told through the perspective of Karen Reyes, a monster movie-obsessed 10-year-old girl determined to solve the murder of her holocaust survivor neighbor, Anka. The book is designed like a spiral-bound notebook, lined with the fictional Reyes’s handwritten words and littered with vivid, crosshatched sketches that pull from mid-century horror film iconography. While Reyes does her best to track down the killer, the dark, dingy streets of 1960s inner-city Chicago stand in as a fittingly haunting backdrop.

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