Graphic novels aren’t comics. But so what if they were?
By: Patti Carlyle, Public Relations Specialist and Calvin and Hobbes junkie since the 90s.
Self-appointed reading purists often turn up their noses at non-traditional reading. As if a page > chapter > tome of text-heavy 9 point font is the only experience permitted a reader. Ever since the first modern comic book in the 1930s, kids have had to defend graphic novels and comics, much to the eye-roll of teachers and frustration of parents. Until now.
Youth-comics: a technicolor reading revolution
Graphic novels are seen as closest to “real books”, with comics somehow inferior. In reality, many books marketed as graphic novels are simply bound collections of comics. Feminist-forward Lumberjanes is a great example, as is Adventure Time, featuring absurd characters and sharp dialogue. Whether kids are reading single issue comics or bound collections or graphic novels with a broader narrative arc, they are *reading.*
Savvy parents and teachers should be able to leverage that engagement in narrative and character development toward comprehension and retention. Enjoyment comes first and should be non-negotiable in early reading experiences.
“Why wouldn’t young readers gravitate toward a medium that can so brilliantly mix visuals and text in a way that makes a story relatively easy to digest?”
This take on the sudden rise in graphics-based reading material hits on a few key points: representation, everyday stories outside the fantasy and superhero realm, and the growing number of female writers. This last point, driven in large part by the enormous market for female readers.
“One of the most remarkable things about the Youth-Comics Explosion is how much it reaches out to young girls — a population long alienated by mainstream superhero comics. That’s due in no small part to another remarkable thing: A massive portion of the people creating these comics are women, something unheard of in the majority-male space of superhero-comics publishing. If you’re gonna tell stories for young women and girls, I think having a creator who has experienced that matters a lot.”
Graphics-based reading isn’t just for the YA set. There are excellent mature leaning titles out there, often featuring hard topics softened and humanized with humor. Here are some of my favorites:
It’s All Absolutely Fine
This is another introspective title from a blogger (right). Ruby Elliot offers an honest and unapologetic account of day-to-day life as a groaning, crying, laughing sentient potato being for whom things are often absolutely not fine.
Through the drawings, the reader is shown that it is okay to struggle, and that it is okay to talk about struggling, to not undermine oneself by yelling ‘it’s fine’ when it isn’t, and while all this is going on to know that it is absolutely possible to hold on to hope, and of course humor.
Ellen Forney’s darkly funny and intensely personal memoir provides a visceral glimpse into the effects of a mood disorder on an artist’s work, as she shares her own story through bold black-and-white images and evocative prose.
Hyperbole and a Half
Allie Brosh tells fantastically funny, wise stories about the mishaps of her everyday life, with titles like ‘Why Dogs Don’t Understand Basic Concepts Like Moving’ and ‘The God of Cake’. A 2011 post titled “Adventures in Depression” (later renamed Depression Part 2) that rocketed Brosh to serious virality, landing her a book deal.
That post was hailed by psychologists as one of the most insightful depictions of the disease to date. It also galvanized thousands of fans suffering from the illness; they’ve described Brosh’s pieces as the most relatable portrayal they’d ever seen of their own experiences.
What one 11-year-old girl is reading
My daughter reads required ELA materials, somewhat grudgingly, and tests well. But. She *prefers* graphic novels and comics for pleasure reading. She is a voracious reader in that medium, but is more of a reluctant reader with standard text. She was in no special hurry to consume Harry Potter and has yet to engage much with it. A visual and kinesthetic learner, she grasps more and engages longer with graphics than she might with a text-only book. Graphics-based books also support another of her passions: drawing. Not only have graphic novels developed in her knack for reading physical cues and body language, they have offered endless drawing techniques. The tight narratives yield a fair number of one-liners, which have developed her sense of humor.
Some of her favorites are driven less by content or title, and all about the author. To start: “Anything by Noelle Stevenson.”
Nemeses! Dragons! Science! Symbolism! Nimona is an impulsive young shape-shifter with a knack for villainy. Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain with a vendetta. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some serious havoc. Their mission: prove to the kingdom that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and his buddies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren’t the heroes everyone thinks they are.
Why my girl loves it: Nimona is by far her favorite. She tends to lean dark, and the magic and conflict here hints at larger forces in the world to which she is stunningly well-attuned, and struggles to figure out. “I like the parts with her as a little girl, and the ending leaves things open.”
Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Gravity Falls and features five butt-kicking, rad teenage girls wailing on monsters and solving a mystery with the whole world at stake.
In both of Stevenson’s works, androgeny gets a normalizing nod, queer issues are handled with the same affection and sweetness of hetero YA storylines, and a there is a deep commitment to diverse body representation.
Why my girl loves it: “There are mostly girl characters and they do cool things on their own. They are the main characters. She shows different kinds of girls, too, and the art is so cool.”
Singleton, polar opposite selections:
Falling down a well is bad enough, but Anya’s normal life might actually be worse. She’s embarrassed by her family, self-conscious about her body, and she’s pretty much given up on fitting in at school. A new friend—even a ghost—is just what she needs. Or so she thinks.
Why my girl loves it: “It’s sort of scary and unpredictable. It didn’t end how I expected.”
Sunny Side Up
Jennifer Holm packs her protagonist off to Florida to live with her grandfather for the summer. At first Sunny thought Florida might be fun — it is the home of Disney World, after all. But the place where Gramps lives is no amusement park. It’s full of . . . old people. Really old people. Luckily, she isn’t the only kid around. Sunny meets Buzz, a boy who is completely obsessed with comic books, and soon they’re having adventures of their own: facing off against golfball-eating alligators, runaway cats, and mysteriously disappearing neighbors. But the question remains — why is Sunny down in Florida in the first place?
Why my girl loves it: “She’s bored a lot of the time, but stuff still happens. I like the flashbacks.”
Another categorical pick: “All of the Raina.”
Sisters. Smile. Drama. Ghost and more.
Raina Telgemeier is the ruling queen of new classics in graphic form. She recently launched a reboot of The Babysitter’s Club, which was, of course, an instant hit.
Why my girl loves it: “She’s writing about regular life. The girls are awkward, and don’t always say the right thing. There are funny one liners. I guess it just feels real.”
Graphic novels for everyone
Need more suggestions? Check out our list of NPR’s top 100 graphic novels, which features both adult and YA titles. Edutopia has created a list of middle school graphic novels, specifically for middle readers.
Prefer to read with a different sense? Check out our defense of audiobooks as real books.