Many people hear “comic books” and think “superheroes” and/or “kids,” but the graphic novel format is being used to tell a variety of stories. Autobiographical, memoir, and “slice of life” comics, written for a grownup audience, seem to have exploded in the last few years… or maybe that’s just when I caught on? Anyway, when I looked at my favorite comics that did not have people in capes, superpowers, or anything blowing up, I realized they 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!
First, the delightful El Deafo by Cece Bell.
Bell does a stellar job showing the emotional process she went through as a kid trying to fit in and find friendship. It can be tough when you have a giant hearing aid strapped to your chest during the school day! Anyone who felt out of place while growing up will appreciate kid Cece’s struggles. Also, the people are drawn as bunnies, which is a plus in my book.
The book is both funny and emotionally real, and universal despite being “about” a specific topic. Read this! Don’t skip the author’s note at the end for more of Bell’s adult perspective.
Next we have Bad Houses, written by Sara Ryan and illustrated by Carla Speed McNeil.
Families can be so complicated! Especially if you live with them. Lewis even works with his mother, 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 a lot of 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!
Then we have Box Office Poison by Alex Robinson.
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 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?”
This is a sweet one: Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks.
Have you heard, we love Faith Erin Hicks? You probably have. I seemingly can’t write a comics post without mentioning it somehow. We pre-ordered this as soon as we heard about it and we weren’t disappointed. It’s about 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?
I need to read this book at least three more times, really soon. The characters are pitch perfect, and you can feel with Maggie even if you’ve never been in her exact situation. (Who has, really?) I’m sure some people think of this as YA and I’d recommend it to teens as well, but don’t stereotype it as lesser quality storytelling just because it’s about teenagers.
Next, Level Up by Gene Yuen Lang, with art by Thien Pham.
Gene Luen Yang is another comics superstar who has a special place of honor in our house. In this 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.
For more Thien Pham goodness, we have his book Sumo.
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 just 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.)
You may be familiar with this next one, since they made a little movie of it: Scott Pilgrim.
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. So 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 you definitely want them both to get their acts together!
They’ve been coming out with a color version in the last couple of years, but we haven’t been tempted to upgrade from our black and white set. However there is a Scott Pilgrim box set which looks pretty sweet… (No, Skye! Moratorium on buying books you already own!)
Then we have The New York Four by Brian Wood, with art by Ryan Kelly.
Starting college can be a big step. For Riley, it’s an opportunity to figure out who she is, make friends, fall in love, and even reconnect with her estranged older sister. Wood brings you right into her heart, as if you’re living it with her. She’s not getting through freshman year without making some mistakes, but who does?
For those of us who read superhero comics, which are notorious for art that makes all the women look the same, it’s a treat to see Kelly drawing multiple female characters that all look like themselves. Brian Wood is a gifted storyteller and his creator-owned work is always thoughtful and well-crafted.
The sequel, The New York Five, felt a little more ragged, though it was nice to get some additional closure on the characters. If you fall for Riley, read it for her continuing adventures. However be aware that Brian Wood has been accused of sexual harassment. Comics creator Tess Fowler, who spoke out, specifically did NOT ask for a boycott of his work, but different people have different levels of comfort separating the art from the artist.
Did you think you were getting away with only one Faith Erin Hicks recommendation in this post? Sorry, no. You also need to know about The Adventures of Superhero Girl.
The Adventures of Superhero Girl was a web comic first (read it here). I don’t need to spend any more time on the computer than I already do, so I waited for a print copy. 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.
In a totally different vein, we have Fist Stick Knife Gun, a graphic novel adaptation by Jamar Nicholas of Geoffrey Canada’s memoir.
Canada grew up in the South Bronx in the late 1950s. This masterful adaptation of his work traces the violence he saw growing up, that he ended up participating in, and that he finally committed his life to working against by building opportunities for youth.
C-Man describes it as real, thought-provoking, but still compelling as a work of literature. Not one of those “true story” books you want to sleep through. I’d agree, and I think it’s because the book doesn’t spoon feed you. Instead it presents a series of quiet vignettes, with depth and human emotion for all parties involved.
And those are the books! If you’ve read any of these, or have suggestions for what I might read next, please leave a comment. And if you liked this post, I’d be so grateful if you’d share it to help others find it.