14 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. 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. (Disclosure: Amazon links are affiliate links.)

I originally posted my graphic novel rec lists in 2012-15, but they’re being refreshed and expanded in 2023-24 as I re-read most of the books to make sure I’m still enthusiastic about recommending them. However, please let me know via my contact form if you find something yikes in a book I recommend.

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

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.

Onion Skin by Edgar Camacho (Amazon / Goodreads)

So! Fun! I’ve read this graphic novel twice and liked it even better the second time. The offbeat events, the dual timelines, and the muted color palette really work for me! And I enjoy how these two people looking for direction connect fairly randomly and then make a choice to create something together simply because they feel inspired to and nothing’s stopping them.

“Rolando’s job was crushing his soul… and then it crushed his hand. Now he can barely get out of the house, marathoning TV and struggling to find meaning. Nera is a restless spirit who loves to taste everything life can offer, but sleeps in a broken-down food truck and can’t see a way to make her dreams come true. When their paths cross at a raucous rock show, the magical night seems to last forever. Together they throw caution to the wind, fix up the truck, and hit the road for a wild adventure of biker gangs, secret herbs, mystical visions, and endless possibilities. But have they truly found the spice of life? Or has Rolando bitten off more than he can chew?”

Girl Town by Carolyn Nowak (Amazon / Goodreads)

Fantastic collection of short comics. I feel like I’m going to find something new every time I read this, because there’s so much here to connect with. Strongly recommended if you’re into indie comics, women’s stories, and fantastical happenings.

“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.”

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

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.

Roughneck by Jeff Lemire (Amazon / Goodreads)

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.

Ballad for Sophie by Filipe Melo, illustrated by Juan Cavia (Amazon / Goodreads)

“1933. In the small French village of Cressy-la-Valoise, a local piano contest brings together two brilliant young players: Julien Dubois, the privileged heir of a wealthy family, and François Samson, the janitor’s son. One wins, one loses, and both are changed forever.

1997. In a huge mansion stained with cigarette smoke and memories, a bitter old man is shaken by the unexpected visit of an interviewer. Somewhere between reality and fantasy, Julien composes, like in a musical score, a complex and moving story about the cost of success, rivalry, redemption, and flying pianos.

When all is said and done, did anyone ever truly win? And is there any music left to play?”

My Broken Mariko by Waka Hirako (Amazon / Goodreads)

Painful and beautiful single-volume manga about losing a friend to suicide. It’s hard for me to describe it except to say how many different emotional threads it weaves together: grief, anger, resentment, guilt, a desperation to make right anything you still can, and even darkly comic moments as our protagonist Shiino careens through her quest to steal her lost friend Mariko’s ashes from Mariko’s abusive father.

Obviously the subject matter is heavy, but if it might be for you, I highly recommend it. CW: sexual assault in backstory.

(There’s a second unrelated story in the book, too, maybe to round it out to sufficient pages for printing? I wish it hadn’t been included because it’s such a jarring switch from the title story.)

The Junction by Norm Konyu (Amazon / Goodreads)

Eerie, quite moving, and I adore Konyu’s art style.

“In the autumn of 1984, 11 year old Lucas Jones, along with his father, vanished without a trace. 12 years later, Lucas reappears on his Uncle’s doorstep. He has not aged a single day.

Lucas is silent and haunted, and it is left to a police detective and a child psychologist to puzzle out where he has been. The only tangible clue is a journal he had kept during his disappearance, a journal whose entries tell of his time in The Junction.

Where has Lucas really been?”

Pulp by Ed Brubaker, art by Sean Phillips and Jacob Phillips (Amazon / Goodreads)

I’ve read a lot of Brubaker and Brubaker/Phillips over the years, and this may actually be my favorite so far. So much is packed into a short work, and very well! Nostalgia for a complicated past, reflecting on your life as you can see its end approaching… powerful stuff.

“Max Winters, a pulp writer in 1930s New York, finds himself drawn into a story not unlike the tales he churns out at five cents a word–tales of a Wild West outlaw dispensing justice with a six-gun. But will Max be able to do the same when pursued by bank robbers, Nazi spies, and enemies from his past?

One part thriller, one part meditation on a life of violence…”

A Journal of My Father by Jirō Taniguchi (Amazon / Goodreads)

“The book opens with some childhood thoughts of Yoichi Yamashita spurred by a phone call at work informing him of his father’s death. So, he journeys back to his hometown after an absence of well over a decade during which time he has not seen his father. But as the relatives gather for the funeral and the stories start to flow, Yoichi’s childhood starts to resurface. The Spring afternoons playing on the floor of his father’s barber shop, the fire that ravaged the city and his family home, his parents’ divorce and a new ‘mother’.

Through confidences and memories shared with those who knew him best, Yoichi rediscovers the man he had long considered an absent and rather cold father.”

On Ajayi Crowther Street by Elnathan John, illustrated by Alaba Onajin (Amazon / Goodreads)

“On the noisy Ajayi Crowther Street in Lagos, neighbours gather to gossip, discuss noise complaints, and faithfully head to church each Sunday. But beneath the surface lies a hidden world of clandestine love affairs, hidden pregnancy, spiritual quackery and hypocrisy, that threatens to destroy the community from within. On Ajayi Crowther Street peels back the curtains on the lives of Reverend Akpoborie and his family, to reveal a tumultuous world full of secrets and lies. His only son, Godstime, is struggling to hide his sexuality from his parents whilst his daughter Keturah must hide the truth of her pregnancy by her pastor boyfriend to preserve her and her family’s image. But it is the Reverend himself who hides the darkest secret of them all, as his wondering eye lands on Kyauta, their young live-in maid.”

Taxi! Stories From The Back Seat by Aimée de Jongh (Amazon / Goodreads)

At first I couldn’t tell where this book was going, but de Jongh brings the plotlines together beautifully with a focus on human connections.

“Aimée de Jongh, one of the brightest new talents in Europe, creates her first autobiographic work, focusing on taxi rides from four cities: Los Angeles, Paris, Jakarta, and Washington, DC.

Despite the stunning and detailed streetscapes she passes, de Jongh discovers she’s more interested in the cab drivers than the view from the backseat. As the drivers slowly open up about their personal lives, de Jongh does too ― even when it means challenging her own ideas and prejudices. Through these vulnerable ― and often humorous ― moments, de Jongh finds common ground with the people driving her. Taxi is an ode to taxi drivers everywhere.”

Sunflowers by Keezy Young (Amazon / Goodreads)

“An autobiographical comic about one person’s experience living with bipolar I disorder. From mania to depression to the balance beam of the everyday, Sunflowers explores the human complexity of an often misunderstood disorder with honesty and vulnerability.”

Bad Houses by Sara Ryan, art by Carla Speed McNeil (Amazon / Goodreads)

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!

And to wrap it up, here are two comics about filmmaking that themselves would make great indie films!

Pompo The Cinephile by Shogo Sugitani (Amazon / Goodreads)

“Gene Fini is a nervous, but devoted film fanatic working in the movie capital of Nyallywood, running errands for the baby-faced movie producer Joelle Davidovich “Pompo” Pomponette. When Pompo starts working on a new project, she gives Gene the opportunity of a lifetime. Can he prove that his passion for watching movies is matched only by his talent for filming them? Or will Gene’s dreams of cinematic greatness wither, as he spends the rest of his life making coffee runs instead of movies?”

This quirky manga trilogy about filmmakers and actors is the perfect mix of funny and heartfelt. Our teenager read it first and our whole family had become fans within a week. It’s suffused with a deep love of movies and storytelling, and it has so much respect for the creatives working in the film industry – including the star actress who other authors might use for laughs. It never takes itself too seriously or too lightly.

Penny Nichols by M.K. Reed and Greg Means, illustrated by Matt Wiegle (Amazon / Goodreads)

This graphic novel is so funny, and I love Penny’s journey to finding something to be passionate about. CW: There is a secondary character nicknamed an ableist slur, Spazzy.

“Somehow, sarcastic Penny’s gotten roped into helping make an amateur slasher film. With a team of flakes and weirdos, she’s probably the only one who can save this stupid movie… but maybe it can save her, too. Now can somebody please stop that dog from licking the fake blood?

‘I never wanted to be a teacher or lawyer. I never wanted to be anything, really.’ Stuck working mind-numbing temp jobs, Penny Nichols yearns to break free from the rut she’s found herself in. When, by chance, she falls in with a group of misfits making a no-budget horror movie called “Blood Wedding,” everything goes sideways. Soon her days are overrun with gory props, failed Shakespearean actors, a horny cameraman, and a disappearing director. Somehow Penny must hold it all together and keep the production from coming apart at the seams.”

And that’s the list!