9 Graphic Novels That Remind Me of Indie Film

When I think of my favorite indie films, I think of intensely personal stories with small casts, both fiction and documentaries. Not to stereotype, because independent filmmakers can and do make all kinds of movies. But these graphic novels remind me of the smaller indie films that tell human-scale stories with compassion and artistry. Hope you find something here to read and enjoy.

The way my life is organized these days, it’s tough for me to write reviews. Some of the books below have them, some do not, but I love them all.

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!
  • Amazon links are affiliate links.
  • Any questions, corrections, recommendations? Let me know via my contact form.

Russian Olive to Red King (Amazon / Goodreads) By Kathryn and Stuart Immonen.

So, so beautiful and so, so sad. This graphic novel about love and loss just about knocked me over, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind for days after I read it. The story is tightly focused on a couple. The man, a writer, is creatively blocked and probably also depressed. The woman, a research scientist, takes a plane trip for her job, but the plane goes missing. He waits for news, losing hope every day. The final part of the book is his next essay, coupled with a series of visuals that just about broke my heart when I figured out what it was. The Immonens have created a powerful story here, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

Roughneck (Amazon/Kindle / Goodreads) By Jeff Lemire.

Derek Ouelette is a former hockey player whose career crashed and burned due to his violence. Now he lives in his small remote hometown, drinking and picking fights. His sister Beth, who he hasn’t seen in years, turns up to hide from an abusive boyfriend. Making matters worse, she’s an addict. Making matters even worse… well, I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say both Derek and Beth have to start making some hard choices about what kind of people they want to be. It’s a harrowing book, not just in terms of physical violence and suspense, but also in what each sibling has to face internally. It’s dark and minimalist in many ways, but I think that’s what makes it so emotionally powerful.

The past is in full color, the present is just pale blue and grey, because in many ways the past is more real until Derek and Beth start confronting their demons. This would translate SO well to film, with the past scenes well-lit and colorful, and the present ones all looking like bleak winter scenery.

Swallow Me Whole (Amazon/Comixology / Goodreads) By Nate Powell.

Ruth and Perry are a sister and brother who both have schizophrenia. (Unlike the popular misconception, schizophrenia is not multiple personality disorder. It’s a mental illness that results in becoming cut off from reality, often experiencing hallucinations.) It seems the siblings’ illness began manifesting in late elementary or middle school, but the bulk of this story takes place when they’re teenagers. Ruth receives some medication, Perry does not. Neither of them is really okay, though Perry is better able to cope. It’s a dark, disturbing book – not because Powell uses the characters to shock the reader, but because of the reality of their lives given that neither receives appropriate treatment. However, I appreciated how Ruth and Perry are not just their disorders. They go to school, have jobs, and date. But as Ruth’s illness progresses, it takes over. Not one to read for entertainment, but definitely well-crafted and worthwhile.

The Property (Amazon/Comixology / Goodreads) By Rutu Modan, translated by Jessica Cohen.

Mica has lost her father to cancer. She travels with her paternal grandmother, Regina, to Warsaw. Regina says the goal of the trip is to reclaim family property that was lost during World War II. But when they arrive in Warsaw, Regina starts acting strangely. She seems to have her mind on something else and she’s not sharing any details with Mica. Add to the mix a domineering family friend with his own agenda, a hot Polish tour guide, and an elderly writer… things are going to get complicated. I was frustrated with Regina at first, but as her story unfolded, my heart ached for her. Modan leads the characters so delicately through their individual realizations of the larger story. This is a lovely book.

Young Frances (Amazon / Goodreads) By Hartley Lin.

“After insomniac law clerk Frances Scarland is recruited by her firm’s most notorious senior partner, she seems poised for serious advancement — whether she wants it or not. But when her impulsive best friend Vickie decides to move to the opposite coast for an acting role, Frances’ confusing existence starts to implode…”

Far more engrossing than I had expected. Both adults in our house were absolutely blown away by it, thinking it was a debut graphic novel. Even now that I know Lin had used a pen name previously, I am still blown away. It takes real mastery to do “slice of life” storytelling like this.

Grand Theft Horse (Amazon / Goodreads) By G. Neri, illustrated by Corban Wilkin.

If you like stories about the underdog fighting for what’s right, give this a try.

“Gail Ruffu was a rookie trainer known for her unconventional methods and ability to handle dangerous horses. When she became part owner of an untamed thoroughbred named Urgent Envoy, everything changed. After Urgent Envoy showed real promise, her co-owners forced Gail to speed up training and race him too early, causing the horse to develop a hairline fracture. Refusing to drug the horse to keep it running, Gail lost Urgent Envoy to her partners, who pushed the horse even harder. One more race would kill him. When nobody heeded her warnings, Gail had to act. So on Christmas Eve, she rescued her own horse.

A modern-day outlaw, Gail evaded private investigators and refused to give the horse up. Blacklisted by the racing world, she learned the law at night to take on a powerful L.A. attorney determined to crush her in court. As she stood up for the humane treatment of racehorses, she also faced down the system that caused their demise.”

Girl Town (Amazon / Goodreads) By Carolyn Nowak.

One of the stories in this collection brought literal tears to my eyes.

“Diana got hurt — a lot — and she’s decided to deal with this fact by purchasing a life-sized robot boyfriend. Mary and La-La host a podcast about a movie no one’s ever seen. Kelly has dragged her friend Beth out of her comfort zone — and into a day at the fantasy market that neither of them will forget. Carolyn Nowak’s Girl Town collects the Ignatz Award-winning stories “Radishes” and “Diana’s Electric Tongue” together with several other tales of young adulthood and the search for connection. Here are her most acclaimed mini-comics and anthology contributions, enhanced with new colors and joined by brand-new work. Bold, infatuated, wounded, or lost, Nowak’s girls shine with life and longing. Their stories — depicted with remarkable charm and insight — capture the spirit of our time.”

Saint Young Men (Amazon / Goodreads) By Hikaru Namakura.

“Jesus, the Son of God. Buddha, the Enlightened One. Two of history’s most important figures whose sagely deeds have been told and retold. After a few millennia of helping humanity, they have decided to take some time off and rent an apartment together in modern-day Tokyo. But even their saintly status hasn’t fully prepared them to navigate the ups and downs of life in 21st century Japan, from theme parks, to shopping for rice cookers, to the wonderful world of manga. Follow this pair on a goofy, light-hearted, and pun-filled adventure in friendship.”

Dragon Hoops (Amazon / Goodreads) By Gene Luen Yang.

This one would be a documentary! :)

“Gene understands stories―comic book stories, in particular. Big action. Bigger thrills. And the hero always wins. But Gene doesn’t get sports. As a kid, his friends called him “Stick” and every basketball game he played ended in pain. He lost interest in basketball long ago, but at the high school where he now teaches, it’s all anyone can talk about. The men’s varsity team, the Dragons, is having a phenomenal season that’s been decades in the making. Each victory brings them closer to their ultimate goal: the California State Championships.

Once Gene gets to know these young all-stars, he realizes that their story is just as thrilling as anything he’s seen on a comic book page. He knows he has to follow this epic to its end. What he doesn’t know yet is that this season is not only going to change the Dragons’s lives, but his own life as well.”

That concludes this roundup of comics that I love and recommend!