Back in the day growing up meant you could read books without pictures. Now some of the smartest books not only have pictures, they’re the hybrid children of literature and comic books called graphic novels. These illustrated gems can go places where no print novel is able to tread—adding cinematic wonder and visual pacing and tone to a complex narrative. There’s a huge variety out there in every genre, but we’ve picked a few of our recent favorites for this Smart Reads column that are sure to make you a fan of the art form.

Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie by Anne Martinetti, Guillaume Lebeau and Alexandre Franc (SelfMadeHero, May 10, 2016)

41zCAyP6s6L._SX352_BO1,204,203,200_B-emblem“Uncovering some of the hard truths in fiction, authors Martinetti and Lebeau and artist Franc (all prolific creators in France, where this was originally published) render a stirring tribute to one of the 20th century’s most popular writers. … Any admirer of Christie’s fiction will benefit from reading this take on her actual life.” ―Publishers Weekly

Dame Agatha Christie is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the bestselling author of all time, but despite our familiarity with her immortal characters Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, how many of us actually know the lady herself? The French creators of Agatha introduce us to the inner life of the Mother of Mysteries using her own characters to explore how her mind worked. A surprisingly free spirit who loved to travel, learned to surf (!) and was responsible for her own unresolved mystery, Agatha is a charming and exhilarating look at a surprisingly unconventional literary life.

The Ukranian and Russian Notebooks: Life and Death under Soviet Rule by Igort (Simon & Schuster, April 26, 2016)

51DVK0jPj7L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_B+“Moody, mysterious, and cinematic…Igort is one of Italy’s great cartoonists.” ―Adrian Tombine

“A masterful mix of journalistic reporting and graphic art.” ―Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Compiled like an illustrated journal, The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks lay bare the horrors suffered by the people of Ukraine and Russia. In The Ukrainian Notebooks Igort compiles the stories of survivors of the little-known Holmodor. This state-sponsored attempt at Ukrainian genocide starved as many as 10 million people between 1932 and 1933. The Russian Notebooks follow the life and death of the indomitable journalist and rights activist Anna Politkovskaya whose own work revealed the terror of the second Chechen war. In this stunning piece of journalism Igort uses the stories of ordinary people to reveal dark secrets that continue to be denied even today. His sparing palette and prose show the humanity of the victims even as it uncovers the horrors of a regime.

Irmina by Barbara Yelin (SelfMadeHero, April 12, 2016)

518ZjyuNRTL._SX364_BO1,204,203,200_A-emblem“A comic of substance, real feeling and expression.” ―Paul Gravett, editor of 1001 Comics to Read Before You Die

“Inspired by a true story, this evocative chronicle of a young German woman’s experiences in London as WWII looms reads like an aged relative’s intimate scrapbook. … German cartoonist Yelin, making her English-language debut, blends sketchy pencil lines and moody watercolor tones, creating an engrossing, candid reminiscence of an individual’s promise crushed by the bleak times she had the misfortune of being born into.” ―Publishers Weekly

Life choices resound in the pages of Irmina, the story of a German girl whose passionate, adventurous spirit is constrained by her conservative era, rigid upbringing and dark demands of a World War. Barbara Yelin’s smoky style imbues the book with a nostalgic aura even while her story of a love lost, but not forgotten, pulls Irmina through a life of stunning compromises and difficult decisions. Based on the author’s deeply conflicted and contradictory grandmother, this is a sensitive portrayal of the consequences of taking the path of least resistance.

The White Donkey: Terminal Lance by Maximilian Uriarte (Little, Brown & Company, April 19, 2016)

41M97JzAwZL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_a+“A masterpiece.” ―Ray Olson, Booklist, starred review

“In many ways, The White Donkey is one long illustrated deployment journal…. Yet, tucked into the panels and frames, are those singular moments that, like a rock cast into a pond, send their ripples out almost infinitely-altering lives and ending others. The White Donkey follows the tremors, backwards and forwards, and manages to illustrate what feels like a ‘true’ war story and a lonely chapter in a war our country is trying desperately to forget.” ―The Washington Post

Lives touched by war is the theme of three of these graphic novels but few books pack the punch of The White Donkey. Uriarte has a genius for details that illuminate the truth and pull you into the story with cinematic fervor. He uses the art form itself to punctuate his pacing and immerse you in the inner reality of a marine’s life. While the story of military experience and its consequences is fictional, it’s drawn from the real-life experiences of the author who served two deployments in the U.S. Marine Corps where he became famous for his comic strip about military life, Terminal Lance. Reminiscent of such revered military cartoonists as Bill Mauldin, who was also beloved by the enlisted ranks, Uriarte’s fans funded the initial Kickstarter for the book. Their loyalty was well placed—Uriarte puts it all on the page for a story that is hardcore and haunting. A brilliant addition to wartime literature.