The graphic novel format is used to tell a variety of stories. When I looked at my favorite comics that didn’t have people in capes, superpowers, or anything blowing up, I realized many had a common theme: growing up. They also have wonderful art and characters you can really root for. I’m so excited to share them with you!
NOTE: despite the topic of this post, these were NOT curated as comics recommendations for children or teens, though some may be appropriate for a young adult audience. If you have any questions about a specific book, please ask me!
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!
A fun new adult comic about a biracial young artists who’s flailing around about what to do with her life, when she’s offered a job catsitting the feline from hell. Her clients are pleased with both her sitting and the cartoons she’s drawn of their little furball, and Molly becomes internet famous for her cat drawings. That’s not the artistic vision she had for her life, and it doesn’t meet her goal of moving out of her parents’ place and into the city to start Real Life ™, but what else can she do?
Molly starts the book a bit immature, but she grows quite a bit during this book with support and tough love from her friends and family. I really enjoyed watching her find her way from directionless young grad to confident adult. The art, like the story, is bold and fun. Definitely a feel-good comic!
Finding Molly was published as a webcomic, but I’m not linking to it here because of the extraordinarily intrusive full-page newsletter signup prompt at the top of every page. Makes it unreadable IMHO. But it’s complete in this one volume, and the digital version is very affordable.
I really appreciated this reflective, compassionate book about a young gay man returning to his small town. Matteo had clashed with his conservative father and moved to Milan, but now he needs a place to live, so he ends up crashing at a family home with five of his adult female relatives: a grandmother, three aunts, and his pregnant cousin. I’m always wary of books that I sense might ask queer characters to too-easily forgive bigoted family members, but in this case it’s more that everyone has something to learn from reconnecting, with Matteo needing to step into adulthood and learn to stand up for himself as well as respect the value of the family he does have.
Generations is complete in one volume.
After failing at the American professional football career he hoped for, Scott take a big step. He moves to Japan to try and become a professional sumo wrestler. It sounds like the stuff jokes are made of, but this book is an extremely quiet, reflective coming of age story. The reactions of his friends and his girlfriend to his decision. What he finds inside himself in an unfamiliar environment, hoping this second chance will actually pan out, because he doesn’t know what to do if it doesn’t.
Pham is such a genuine, delicate storyteller. The art complements the mood of the book perfectly. C-Man and I barely discussed this book after we read it, because all we could do was look at each other and say “Whoa. That was REALLY good.” (This is why we don’t do video reviews. You’re welcome.)
Sumo is complete in one volume.
Families can be so complicated. Especially if you live with them. Lewis even works with his mother, so double trouble. Bad Houses centers around him and Anne, whose mother is a hoarder, and what happens after their chance meeting at one of Lewis’s mother’s estate sales. Various backstories and characters’ current issues are revealed piece by piece until all the interconnections are laid out.
McNeil’s drawing style really gives the characters energy and humanity even when they’re behaving awfully. For a little bitty town, there are so many secrets here! Lewis and Anne’s budding romance is effective because it’s so real – not perfect, but there’s such a strong “click” with them. Loved this book!
Bad Houses is complete in one volume.
A manga about a couple in their early 20s, Meiko and Naruo, and their friends, as the various members of the group drift about and struggle to figure out this whole adulting thing. Insecurity and inner conflicts about selling out versus success plague many of the characters, until a tragedy acts as kind of a wake-up call to put at least some of them onto different paths. It’s character-driven rather than plot-driven, but things are quite different at the end than the beginning. Almost a snapshot of a time and place, culturally and economically, as well as the new adult stage. It’s very emotional without being overly dramatic, and I didn’t stop thinking about it for days after I finished reading it. I’m not even a fan of slacker-type or disaffected/apathetic characters! Totally recommend this one.
Solanin was originally published, at least in Japan, as two volumes, but I think in the English translation it’s only available in the one complete volume.
C-Man had to push me into reading this because something just wasn’t clicking for me, and I’m so glad he did. I wasn’t sure what to think until I finished it, and then I really liked it. It snuck up on me! It’s a love story, but not the one you think. It’s about how an interconnected set of people figure out who they are and grow up… or choose not to. Every character in the large ensemble cast has a distinct personality and part to play. Robinson lets the story unfold the way real life does, where you don’t always have a flashing sign over someone’s head saying “WATCH THIS ONE!” It’s more character-driven than plot-driven, so you may have to be in the mood for something that unfolds more gradually, but give it a try. And stick with it even if you start thinking “what is wrong with these people?”
The collection of Box Office Poison linked above is a complete story, although there appears to be a second collection of some short stories and whatnot.
A story about love, but there’s a reason the subtitle has “(Or Not)” at the end. Chinese-American geek Jimmy has always been in love with his Jewish best friend Sara, but after college she left for New York while Jimmy stayed in Oakland and got a job at the library. Several years later, his life stagnant, he takes a bus cross-country to see Sara in a grand romantic gesture. It was pretty obvious, from the scenes in both past and present, that Jimmy’s barking up the wrong tree. IMHO, he’s also looking to Sara to solve his feeling of being in limbo in general, no longer a child but not yet an adult. I loved how compassionate Sara was in her rejection, and by the end I anticipated that the two would still be friends, though I wasn’t sure how or if Jimmy was going to fix his life. So it didn’t leave me with a happy positive vibe, but the storytelling was top notch, and I recommend giving this a shot.
Gene Luen Yang is a comics superstar, but this book doesn’t seem to get as much attention as his other work. In this amazing book, Dennis Ouyang struggles between his love for video games and his parentally-motivated medical school attendance. The angels helping him get through school are a little weird. They get even weirder when he starts doubting his career path in gastroenterology. It’s about figuring out if you have a destiny or a mission or a calling, however you want to think of it. It’s also about family, and what makes a meaningful life. Pham’s drawing and watercolor people are deceptively simple. The range of emotions they convey through facial expressions and body language is amazing to a stick figure drawer like myself.
Level Up is complete in one volume. There’s a 2016 paperback edition with a different cover that’s also very cute, but I stuck with the 2011 cover in this post because nostalgia.
Superhero Girl faces all the struggles of young adulthood, such as paying the rent, getting along with roommates, and being overshadowed by her successful older brother. Plus concealing her secret identity, finding an arch-nemesis in fairly tranquil Canada, and getting a job without the Ninja King barging into the interview and taking it from her.
I feel like referencing Canadian ninjas should be enough to sell you on this book.
There was an edition before the Expanded Edition linked above, and to be honest I didn’t notice a huge difference from the extra material.
After-school specials about bullying have nothing on this book. The depth of understanding this author has for the main characters and her skillful writing about them are both outstanding. A Silent Voice follows Shoya, a middle-school boy, who spends his days goofing off and looking for entertainment. He’s not particularly smart, interesting, studious, or popular, but he has some friends and a good mother. When a deaf girl named Shoko transfers into his class at school, he sees in the new and different an opportunity for entertainment. With demonstrated impatience from the teacher and growing resentment from classmates who feel Shoko’s needs are a burden, Shoya embarks on a long-term group bullying campaign against the girl that includes, among other things, destruction of multiple expensive hearing aids.
When Shoko’s family finally publicly complains while removing her from the school, the class turns on Shoya instead. He’s made the scapegoat for everyone’s participation in Shoko’s ostracism, in a turnaround that effectively ruins his school life for the next six years.
Watching Shoya lead the torment of Shoko is painful. It’s clear he has absolutely no empathy. It’s terrifying. But the giant lie created by the teacher and other students, that Shoya was the only one responsible for hurting her, is even more chilling. No one will take any responsibility for their own actions. Shoya ends up completely socially isolated and even contemplates suicide.
If this was just a book about horrible people doing horrible things to each other, I wouldn’t be recommending you start reading this series. It’s what happens at the end of this first volume that’s important. Shoya meets Shoko again, and feels a spark that he may be able to atone for his behavior. So he tries. By the end of the seven volume series, both of their lives are completely different.
Masterful, important, deeply satisfying.
This beloved-by-me book tells the story of Maggie, who has been homeschooled with her brothers her whole life. Now her mother (who taught them) has abandoned the family, and Maggie’s starting public high school. Figuring out friends and enemies is hard enough, but what about when you see ghosts?
The characters are pitch perfect, and you can feel with Maggie even if you’ve never been in her exact situation. (Who has, really?) Hicks is one of our favorite comics writers and artists because she’s great with emotions, great with young female characters, and great with characters who are socially awkward, so this is peak Hicks.
Friends with Boys is complete in one volume.
Oh, Scott Pilgrim. The movie was like an action dance remix of the books, and while I enjoyed it thoroughly, a lot was lost in translation. Most importantly to me, that Scott and Ramona both needed to grow the hell up in order to have a functional relationship. The books are funny and full of video game and pop culture references, but they’re also very much about young adults who are flailing around to understand the very basics about how to live and treat other people properly. Usually I avoid that kind of drama like the plague because I hate to watch people acting like clueless jerks. But there’s enough cute and funny mixed in here, and I definitely liked them both enough that I wanted them to succeed in getting their acts together!
Scott Pilgrim is a six volume series, originally published in black and white, then re-issued in a newer color edition linked above.
That concludes today’s roundup of comics about growing up 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.