I used to spend a few weeks every summer with my cousins in Massachusetts, who had both a library full of young adult paperbacks and a closet full of comic books—so my comics habit began at the same time I started consuming YA. We would sit on the floor of my cousin’s room with a stack next to us, passed on by whoever had gotten to Uncanny X-Men, Amazing Spiderman, or the Betty and Veronica Double Digest first. In contrast to my disappearances into YA book world, reading comics was a social activity, centering on two main conversations: Who do you ship, and who would win in a fight?
The books below would all have been welcome additions to my summer comics pile. All of them share the questions and themes that make YA lit so compelling: The pain of growing up. Unwelcome responsibility. Adventure. Romance. Family. And occasionally, yeah, who would win in a fight?
Runaways, by Brian K. Vaughan, Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa
The realization that your parents are flawed and fallible is an important part of growing up, and a prevalent theme in YA ever since Holden Caulfield first uttered the word “phony.” Runaways takes that realization a step further as a group of teens discover their parents are actually evil. Supervillains, to be exact. The teens run away, then realize they may have inherited some of their parents’ powers. Now it’s up to them to figure out how to use this legacy. A super-powered coming-of-age story, with a cool, diverse group of teens at its center.
Paper Girls, by Brian K. Vaughan
This period piece about a badass group of newspaper delivery girls mixes ’80s nostalgia with classic science fiction. It feels like the best of early Spielberg, and looks like a punk zine crossed with a Nancy Drew cover. I don’t want to say too much because there are some neat twists, so I’ll keep it at this: the girls are cool, realistic and distinct, the world looks like a sunrise, and at one point I got scared reading before bed and had to take a break for a while.
Black Hole, by Charles Burns
In the 1970s, a group of teenagers is infected by a sexually transmitted disease that doesn’t seem to have any health repercussions other than visually altering the infected person. By removing the life-and-health-threatening implications of STDs, Black Hole is able to focus on the social stigma surrounding them—impossible to separate from remaining stigmas around sex itself. Drawn in beautiful, graphic black and white, it’s a sometimes poignant, sometimes terrifying story you won’t be able to put down till you’re done.
Ms. Marvel, by G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona
Kamala Khan is your normal teenage superhero fangirl with normal teenage problems: Her parents won’t let her go to parties, even though she doesn’t drink. The kids in Jersey City aren’t always accepting of her Muslim Pakistani background. Oh, and she’s been exposed to a mist that has activated her inhuman cells and given her superpowers. The new Ms. Marvel is proof the superhero story is a universal one, that shouldn’t be limited to telling the stories of white men. Kamala is headstrong, nerdy, and determined to do the right thing, just like a superhero should be.
Blankets, by Craig Thompson
The second graphic memoir on this list, Blankets is an aching story about the author’s teenage years, and his relationships with Christianity, with his brother, and with the first girl he falls in love with. It’s a story about love, about siblings, about faith and our inability sometimes to protect the ones we love. Like the best coming-of-age stories, it leaves you with as much hope as it does pain.
Astonishing X-Men, by Joss Whedon, John Cassaday
The X-Men titles have always gotten flack for their tendency to fall into soap opera dramatics and relationships, but I’ve always seen that as a selling point rather than a detractor—I like my superhero conflicts with a heaping side of unrequited lust. Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (see the last item on this list for more Buffy), has always been great at balancing action with great character moments, and these comics are no exception. The story, centering around the discovery of a “mutant cure,” is a great way to explore the questions of otherness the X-Series has always been focused on. With a focus on personal favorite Emma Frost, a spunky Kitty Pride, and the always welcome Wolverine, these are great comics for anyone looking to get into the X-game.
Ghost World, by Daniel Clowes
There is no breakup more painful than a breaking friendship. Ghost World is the story of Enid and Becky, two outsiders with an all-consuming friendship that’s threatened by growing up and the outside world. Clowes gives their relationship, and the hurt they feel as it splinters, the gravity it deserves. It’s a friendship that feels brutally real, the closest thing I’ve ever read to my own friendships in high school.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 8, by Joss Whedon
Buffy is one of the ultimate high-school shows. If you don’t know what it’s about, well, the plot is in the title. Teenage girl with superpowers fights vampires, cracks wise, and has terrible taste in men. It’s great, and it’s on Netflix if you haven’t seen it already. Then, when you’re done watching, you can check out the Buffy Comics, which are basically a continuation of the story without budget constraints or network interference. Now Dawn is a giant, there are armies of vampires, and Buffy is basically the general in a slayer army. It’s so fun, and it only gets better in the Season 9 comics, which get a little more back-to-basics Slayer action.