As a child, my parents tackled Costco trips through a reliable routine. After flashing their membership cards like ID’s at a club, they dropped my sister and me off in the books section. There, as they busied themselves flagging down multivitamin gummies and potstickers, my sister and I dove for the same thing: Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
It’s not difficult to understand the appeal of comic books. Brimming with vibrant characters, bold art styles, and, perhaps most importantly to a young child, fewer words, comic books are a unique form of storytelling that appeals to a wide range of audiences. However, comic books often receive the short end of the stick, downplayed as an inferior form of literature.
Why? I couldn’t tell you. According to Vox, there’s a political reason behind it (when isn’t there?). According to Quora (an equally reliable source), many adults view them as little more than cartoons about superheroes.
Regardless of the current reigning discourse, I’ll say this: as an aspiring artist and author whose childhood relationship with comic books didn’t extend far beyond those Costco aisles, I wish I had discovered (i.e., been encouraged to discover) the genre sooner. It wasn’t until my sister discovered Webtoons in our sophomore year of high school when I revisited my childhood guilty pleasure. Comic books are incredible products of talent, collaboration (as you’ll see in the list below, many works reference as many as four title contributors: a writer, an artist, a colorist, and a letterer), and damn hard work. I’ve accumulated a modest list of my favorite works in recent years—from stand-alones to series, contemporary to science fiction. I hope you find a new favorite among them.
Thanks to my sister for introducing me to many of them.
Nimona by N.D. Stevenson: One of my favorite books of all time (comic or otherwise), Nimona follows Lord Ballister Blackheart, a villain with morals, and Nimona, his shapeshifting sidekick. When Nimona takes his feud with Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin (an archetypal hero) and the Institution (a government organization with fishy intentions) to the next level, things take a dark turn. Blackheart must find a way to save the kingdom while not only upholding his values, but protecting those he loves most, even if he isn’t sure who (or what) they are.
Recommended for those who love: fantasy, humor, Netflix’s Arcane, obscure-character-backstories, magic-systems-that-make-some-scientific-sense, sharks!
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki (Writer), Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (Illustrator): I’ll admit, this one is mostly for the art. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me follows Freddy, a reserved high school student and her tumultuous relationship with the popular Laura Dean, who (can you guess?) keeps breaking up with her. As their relationship grows increasingly unreliable, threatening the friendships of those closest to her, Freddy must grapple with making the right choices—even if one of those choices is ending her first love.
Recommended for those who love: contemporary, YA, character-driven-stories, Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman, subtle-character-arcs, gorgeous-a-thousand-chef’s-kisses-art
This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews: My most recent favorite, This Was Our Pact is a spellbinding, charming story about two boys, Ben and Nathaniel, and their quest to learn the fate of the paper lanterns released each year during the Autumn Equinox Festival. I can’t think of a better way to describe this than by comparing it to Studio Ghibli films (Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro come to mind first). There’s an equal sense of magic, unpredictability, and overall wonder. Even though it’s not the deepest in terms of plot, I finished the book simply in awe of Andrews’s artistic imagination.
Recommended for those who love: Studio Ghibli films, quests, young-protagonists, talking-animals, unique-settings
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang: In this 240-page graphic novel with a deceptively simple cover, Yang deftly weaves three seemingly unrelated storylines: the story of Jin Wang, the only Chinese student at his new American school, the story of the Monkey King, a greedy and troublesome god whose mischief lands him under a pile of stones, and Danny, a Popular Kid whose carefully constructed life is disrupted by the arrival of his cousin, Chin-Kee. Blending humor with heartfelt introspection, Yang creates a worthwhile read for young Asian-Americans everywhere.
Recommended for those who love: mythology, coming-of-age stories, humor, bold-art
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan (Writer), Fiona Staples (Illustrator): It’s hard to breach the comic book world without encountering Saga. I often pitch it to my friends as a sci-fi Romeo and Juliet, but cooler, and I stand by that here. Saga follows Marko and Alana, star-crossed lovers from opposing sides of an intergalactic war, and their journey in raising their interracial newborn, Hazel. Through their story, Vaughan and Staples explore the lives of dozens of other characters, building a vastly complex, unflinching, and deeply human universe.
Recommended for those who love: Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, Netflix’s Bojack Horseman, science-fiction, fantasy, explicit-humor, high-stakes-stories
Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan (Writer), Cliff Chiang (Illustrator), Matt Wilson (Colorist), Jared K. Fletcher (Letterer): Another series written by Brian K. Vaughan (I can’t tell if I would love or hate being in his mind), Paper Girls follows four girls suddenly thrown into a time travel war. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the series is the philosophical question posed by the war: in an era where time travel has been standardized, two groups find themselves at odds. Whereas the old-timers believe that the ability to time travel doesn’t grant them permission to alter time, the new-timers believe that the ability to time travel grants them the responsibility to create a better existence for all past and future generations. I spent much of this series being in awe of the artwork, working to keep up with the unpredictable yet exhilarating plot, and growing emotionally invested all the same.
Recommended for those who love: Netflix’s Stranger Things, time-travel, fierce-young-heroines, bold-art, attempting-to-answer-the-big-questions
Tokyo Ghost by Rick Remender (Writer), Sean Murphy (Illustrator), Matt Hollingsworth (Colorist), Russ Wooton (Letterer): Rick Remender is another name you’ll quickly stumble upon in the comic book world, considering his Brandon Sanderson-esque ability to churn out series. I don’t love all of Remender’s work, but Tokyo Ghost slid its way into one of my top-ten reads of 2021. A duology, Tokyo Ghost takes place in an apocalyptic world where humanity is addicted to technology. Debbie Decay, a bright idealist, and her husband Led Dent, a brutal near-robot whose addiction has all but fractured their relationship, spend their days mindlessly rounding up gangsters. When a job reveals the existence of a possible utopia, Debbie hopes they have found a haven for Led to recover from his addiction. However, cruel fate has other plans. While not a revolutionary read in terms of plot, Tokyo Ghost poses compelling characters and otherworldly settings that distinguishes itself within an overwritten genre.
Recommended for those who love: action, dystopian-stories, realistic-portrayal-of-addiction, beautiful-art
Crowded by Christopher Seleba (Writer), Ro Stein (Illustrator), Ted Brandt (Illustrator), Triona Farrell (Colorist), Cardinal Rae (Letterer): Another one of my favorite reads from 2021, Crowded takes place “ten minutes into the future”, where digital apps such as Reapr, a platform for assassinations, have gained immense influence. When Charlie Ellison emerges on Reapr as the highest-valued target (a million dollars for that pretty pink head), she hires Vita, a sullen bodyguard, to protect her. If you’re looking for a fun, fast-paced read with emotionally compelling characters, Crowded should be at the top of your tbr-list.
Recommended for those who love: action, humor, clear-sexual-tension, bounty-stories, seemingly-innocent-characters-with-a-murderous-twinge
Giant Days by John Allison (Writer), Lissa Tremain (Illustrator): The quintessential college story, Giant Days follows Susan, Esther, and Daisy, three university roommates turned inseparable friends, as they navigate their undergraduate lives with nothing but the utter grace typical of college students. Over the course of fourteen volumes, they face insufferable peers, even more insufferable fashion choices, exams, and (of course) romance, all while realizing the value of friendship. A must-read for any college student seeking affirmation that they are not the only one who doesn’t have a clue what they’re doing.
Recommended for those who love: any-sitcom-ever, comedy, coming-of-age, heartfelt-friendship-stories, university-setting, brainiac-meets-goth-meets-happy-go-lucky-homeschooled-girl-with-an-edge