Welcome to our list of recommended superhero comics for older kids, teens, and young adults! Some of the books below are your traditional mainstream superhero comics, some are break-the-mold independent work. All of them have fairly young protagonists who we think would be especially engaging to older kids and young adults. But actually, C-Man and I bought almost all of these books for our own grownup reading pleasure. That’s how good they are.
As we’ve discussed, “all-ages” can be a confusing label for comics and graphic novels, because kids ages 3 and 15 have very different interests. Parents also have different ideas about what’s appropriate for kids those ages to read. Compared to the books we recommend for younger kids, these have a more serious vibe or topic, and/or more realistic violence, and/or lots of dating content. I can’t 100% tell you which of them have mild profanity, but they’re not cussing a blue streak.
Atomic Robo, by Brian Clevinger, Scott Wegener, and Ronda Pattison. Robo is a sentient nuclear-powered robot built by Nikola Tesla in the 1920s. He fought in the second World War and inherited Tesladyne, a corporation devoted to science. Weird science. And occasionally violent science, such as kicking the butt of a walking Egyptian pyramid, or repelling a vampire invasion from another dimension. It’s like pulp, and monster movies, and that friend you have who wisecracks so much that you can’t stop laughing and might pass out. Lovecraft and Carl Sagan show up. It’s funny, and it has heart, and Robo fights Nazis. The geeky kid in your life, or your geeky self, should fall in love with this book immediately.
There is some talk about drinking and smoking. Also Robo writes “Steven Hawking is a b—ard” on Mars with rocks. To be fair, Hawking did deserve it.
Atomic Robo and the Fightin’ Scientists of Tesladyne, linked above, is first, and all seven following volumes are good. So is the companion series Atomic Robo: Real Science Adventures. Also, if you ever get a chance to hear Scott Wegener speak about comics, and especially women in comics, take the opportunity. He has a lot of really good stuff to say. Hearing him on a comics podcast is what tipped me towards finally reading Robo, which C-Man had been urging me to do. After I read one book, I made him go to the comics store and buy them all. (I was really sick, I needed the morale boost.)
Batgirl: Year One by Scott Beatty and Chuck Dixon. I am not normally a D.C. fangirl, and I was a little skeptical of this book for reasons I couldn’t pin down. No matter, because Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl has too much energy and conviction to let your silly doubts stand in her way! Super-fun girl power for great justice here combined with the beautiful voiceover of Barbara’s thoughts as she struggles to figure out who she is and what she’s meant to do with her life.
The 2006-2010 Blue Beetle series, created by Keith Giffen, John Rogers, and artist Cully Hamner. I checked out this run of Blue Beetle from the library, read it all, and then bought all five volumes for myself with a gift certificate from my boss. (Thanks Jenny!) Jaime Reyes, a teenager from El Paso who accidentally bonds with a suit of alien armor, becomes the third Blue Beetle. Dealing with such great power at a young age is tough! Jaime rejects outreach from the traditional grownup superhero power structure, choosing instead to stay in El Paso and rely on his close relationships with his friends and family. The series is witty, well-paced, and has an extremely diverse cast of characters beyond Jaime himself. Win!
I linked to the first volume above. Here’s a useful list of the collected Blue Beetle editions in reading order if you want to keep going.
Five Weapons: Making the Grade by Jimmie Robinson. C-Man read this, looked at me, and said “This is one of the best comic books I’ve read all year. Possibly the BEST.” It’s whip-smart, has intrigue in all the right places, and mixes action with human connection in perfect proportions. Tyler Shainline, son of the famous assassin, enrolls in an elite school that promises to teach him how to kill. The only problem is, he won’t pick up a weapon. Why not? And who else is hiding something?
I’m putting this on the “older kids” list because it deals with a school for assassins, and there’s a very minor “crush” subplot… but we’re going to read it with our six year old because there is really nothing distressing or gory about it. C-Man appreciates the non-violent problem-solving without any cheesy after-school special aspect. There’s also an interesting “passing” aspect which isn’t explicitly discussed in terms of race and class, but which is good food for thought and discussion.
Gladstone’s School for World Conquerors by Mark Andrew Smith with art by Armand Villavert Jr. This is a charming little book about a school for the children of supervillains, all of whom are bring kept in the dark by their parents about something that will shake up their whole world when they discover it. Which of course they will, because otherwise, what would the book be about? I’d class this for younger kids except for the significant dating subplot, including kissing, between Mummy Girl and Kid Nefarious. Also, someone gets killed who shouldn’t have, and it’s a big deal.
Sadly, we were significantly unimpressed by the second book in the series.
Intrepids by Kurtis J. Wiebe and illustrated by Scott Kowalchuk. Life can be tough when you’re a homeless teenager recruited by a genius for biological upgrades on his super-team that fights mad scientists. Giant robot bears, monkey henchmen, and oh, your genius father figure might not be telling you everything. Can you trust him? And what happens to your life if you can’t? The human relationships in this book are well-crafted, and the cartoony butt-kicking and wacky science fiction of the fight scenes is good fun.
One of the characters smokes (she decides to cut back or quit), and one of them mentions bringing a hot chick into the team, but it’s minor stuff. They’re teenagers, it happens.
Jubilee by Robert Kirkman, with art by Derec Donovan, Michael O’Hare, and Casey Jones. This book is such a delight!
Robert Kirkman, of course, is the guy behind Walking Dead and tons of other successful comics such as Invincible (good), Super-Dinosaur (boring IMHO), Marvel Zombies (funny), and Thief of Thieves (yay). He does a LOT of stuff. And there’s a very “Kirkman” vibe going on with a lot of his stuff, which I was fearing might interfere with him trying to portray a Chinese-American teenage mutant girl who’s just trying to get a break from the X-Men mansion blowing up all the time. Jubilee, of course, made her comics name as Wolverine’s often annoying teen sidekick. So I was also hoping we wouldn’t return to the valley girl, bubble gum slant to her character. I was not disappointed. Kirkman really gives Jubilee her own voice. She just wants some time to be normal, but the world isn’t really interested in that, so she does the best she can.
The only thing that bugs me is that Derec Donovan likes to draw people with their eyes almost closed. He then doesn’t always draw anything where their irises/pupils should be. And he doesn’t draw any eyes behind glasses. Once I noticed, I couldn’t stop noticing.
I shouldn’t have told you, should I?
The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury: Time Runs Out, written by Brandon Thomas and illustrated by Lee Ferguson. Woman of color science hero in outer space? YES PLEASE. Miranda is fierce, and she’s all about smarts, strength, integrity, and saving lives. We found out about this book on a blog and ordered it straightaway. C-Man said it was possibly the best book we read all year and I could not contradict him (this was a different year from Five Weapons!) Co-creators Thomas and Ferguson have done a bang-up job with one of the coolest female superheroes we’ve met. Go Miranda!
A note about her costume: it’s kind of ridiculous for the first two thirds of the book. I think there are gals who would choose to wear a top that has big red circles for her boobs, but I am skeptical that science hero Miranda is one of them. In the last third or so of the book, the design gets WAY better. Not sure what happened there.
Ms. Marvel: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson, art by Adrian Alphona, colors by Ian Herring, and letters by Joe Caramagna. Kamala Khan is a Pakistani-American teacher living a normal life until she gets caught in a strange mist that gives her superpowers. This book electrified so many comics fans when it was announced, because Kamala is a woman of color and Muslim, and the book is written by G. Willow Wilson who is Muslim herself. Then when the book came out and folks actually had a chance to read it, the reaction was even more positive! Kamala is so relatable, and this book is like a love letter to anyone who’s ever looked up to superheroes. It’s sweet and fun and I’m so glad it exists.
Robin: Year One by Chuck Dixon and Scott Beatty, with art by Javier Pulido and Marcos Martin. Ignore the creepy cover picture! It freaks me out.
Robin: Year One is a set of stories from Dick Grayson’s first year as sidekick to Batman. This has a more old-timey comics feel than Batgirl’s Year One, both the writing and the art. There’s so much energy here, and also so much emotion as the mentor relationship between Batman and Robin develops and goes through stress. Alfred’s thoughtful and caring voiceovers provide depth for the reader. Plenty of creepy Gotham City villains make their appearances.
Shadoweyes by Ross Campbell. Scout Montana is a young woman of color living in a future dystopia, when she is transformed into… something. Alien? Monster? Whatever it is, she now has the power to make a difference. If she can figure out how to get through the week hiding her new life and worrying about her mom.
C-Man likes it because it’s really weird and different. He also appreciates how the writing gets teenagers exactly right, in terms of their speech and behavior. I like it because of the tender portrayal of the LGBT characters, the fairly deep exploration of the transition from person to superhero, and the struggle for connection against alienation (literally) that Scout experiences.
Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool written by Dwayne McDuffie and Robert L. Washington. Across the two stories in this collection, which are Trial by Fire and Rebirth of the Cool, pencils by John Paul Leon and Denys Cowan; inks by Steve Mitchell, Shawn C. Martinbrough, and Jimmy Palmiotti; colors by Noelle C. Giddings and Melissa Edwards; color assistance by J. Brown; and letters by Steve Haynie and John Workman.
Static Shock was created at Milestone Comics, an African-American comics shop that made a publishing and distribution deal with DC Comics in the 1990s. Static is the superhero identity of Virgil Hawkins, a teen who got his electrical powers when he was doused with an experimental chemical. He’s a geeky kid with a big mouth who creates Static’s wisecracking persona when he starts using these new powers to intervene in crime in his neighborhood. It’s not easy balancing crimefighting with friends, family, school, and trying to hold a job, though. Or finding a girlfriend. Virgil is the kid you just have to root for, and I’m looking forward to tracking down the animated series that DC eventually produced. (Though I’m wary, because the DC New 52 relaunch of Static was pretty wretched. Poor Static.)
Thor: The Mighty Avenger by Roger Langridge, with art by Chris Samnee who is awesome. This is the kind of book that the “big two” comic companies, Marvel and D.C., can produce when they hire people who genuinely love a character. It’s a refreshing antidote to all the overcommercialized garbage that both companies crank out to make as much money as possible off the recognizable characters. Thor is stranded on Earth, with no memory of why, and the first person he connects with is Jane, a museum curator. As he’s trying to figure out why he’s here and how to get home, they’re also falling in love. The guest appearances by many Marvel Comics heroes and villains will thrill fans of that universe, but won’t confuse people who aren’t familiar.
We actually read this with Boy Detective when he was three or four. The passages where Jane talks with her ex-boyfriend about why they broke up, and the “morning after” scene with Jane and Thor, both went right over his head. (She’s singing “I feel pretty” in the shower while he’s sitting on her bed, I think?)
Ultimate Spider-Man by Brian Bendis, with art by Sara Pichelli. Marvel freaked out comics fans worldwide when they killed Peter Parker in their alternate universe “Ultimate” line, and tapped someone else to take up the spider suit. They then freaked our racist comic book fans worldwide by announcing the new Spider-Man would be Miles Morales, a teenager of African-American and Latino heritage. Like Blue Beetle above, this is one of the only mainstream superhero books you can read where people of color are the majority of the cast.
And this book is far beyond a diversity token or publicity stunt. Miles is a fantastic kid, torn in five or ten directions. He’s the kind of kid every parent hopes their kid grows up to be, though of course I could live without the radioactive spider bite issue. He struggles with his new powers and the weight of the legacy he carries from someone he never even met. And the book is really, really good. The first three volumes plus the Spider-Men special are all just so good.
The Will of Darth Vader (Star Wars Adventures) by Tom Taylor, with art by Brian Koschak. I was absolutely blown away by how good this book was. It’s positively chilling, especially towards the end as you see what’s coming for the friendly main character, but he’s still telling Darth Vader the truth about Vader’s true powerlessness. I haven’t yet looked at what else Tom Taylor has written, but I need to, because the man can tell a story. You don’t even have to know Star Wars to understand and appreciate it.
We read this with Boy Detective when he was four or five, and I was wondering if he’d be upset when the man died, but he wasn’t. I suspect he may have missed the gravity of the situation. Other younger kids may find it too sad.
Wolverine: First Class, some by Fred Van Lente, and some by Peter David, with various artists. This series focuses on Wolverine’s mentor relationship with teenage mutant Kitty Pride. Solid stories, some nice moments, and a LOT of teen drama. They include some older X-stories in the back which you can recognize easily by their dated art style. Do NOT let your four year old sucker you into reading those to him. Just sayin’.
The Rookie is the first of Van Lente’s volumes. I used the cover for the #1 issue of the series above, it’s the same cover they used for the collected paperback. Following that is his Ninjas, Gods, and Divas which was solid. I can’t remember reading his Class Actions, the final volume in the series.
And that’s the list of our favorite superhero comics for older kids and young adults! If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments – and thanks for sharing on social media or with friends!