One of our specialties here at Betty’s Books is helping people of all ages get started with comics, graphic novels, and manga. If you’re new or shopping for a newbie in your life, the New to Comics! Series of posts is for you. This post features recommendations for readers new to comics who are older teens (16+) or adults. Enjoy!
It would be easy to take the top ten graphic novels of all time and recommend them as our guide, but not all classics are good for beginners. So let’s begin with an underrated book: Coyote Doggirl comes from the creator of hit shows Tuca & Bertie and Bojack Horseman, Lisa Hanawalt, and carries with it the same vulnerable and irreverent humor. This twist on a western follows loner coyote (who is half coyote, half dog, of course) and her trusty steed, Red, traveling together to outrun a gang seeking revenge. Coyote Doggirl is a quick, lighthearted read that is, we would be remiss to add, full of crop tops.
Despite our efforts to avoid regurgitating lists of graphic novel classics, sometimes classics are labeled such for a reason. The March trilogy (Andrew Aydin & John Lewis) is, in our opinion, essential reading, whether you’re a beginner to comics or a seasoned professional. The series chronicles the height of the Civil Rights movement from the perspective of activist and Congressman John Lewis. Refusing to fall back on gratuitous violence while still never sacrificing its impact, March is a powerful retelling of a period in history that is all too relevant today. The beautiful black and white illustrations and personal accounts from Lewis himself give life to this history in a way school textbooks never could.
Just like film and prose writing, graphic lit has a language of its own that engages with storytelling in a way unique to the medium. What better way to introduce this concept to beginner readers than through a story about language itself? Trung Le Nguyen’s The Magic Fish tells the story of Tien, a thirteen-year-old boy in the nineties who struggles to figure out how to tell his refugee parents that he’s gay in their native language, Vietnamese. Nguyen utilizes color coding to differentiate storylines between Tien’s life, shown in red, flashbacks from his mom’s point of view, shown in yellow, and fairytales, shown in blue, that serve as the language the two characters fall back on to express themselves when their own fail them. The Magic Fish combines dynamic storytelling with simple but evocative imagery to guide the reader through a touching tale of self-discovery, connection, and the complexities of growing up a child of immigrants.
Any book by graphic novel author Lucy Knisley is great for beginners, but we’ll begrudgingly pick just one for this list. The lucky winner is her 2019 release Kid Gloves which chronicles, in all its unexpected joys and painful obstacles, Knisley’s and her husband’s experience with her pregnancy of their child. Knisley expertly weaves the retelling of her pregnancy through lighthearted anecdotes, explorations into the history of medicine and how oppression impacts pregnancy, and brutal honesty about the realities of trying to conceive, pregnancy, and childbirth. While we’re sure most moms would appreciate Knisley’s nuanced portrayal of pregnancy, this book is ultimately for anyone interested in learning more about where we all came from… the womb!
Webcomics have exploded in popularity in the last several years and are helping to make the medium of comics more accessible than ever. Some are even free to read, like Ngozi Ukazu’s hit series Check, Please!, which chronicles the college years of Eric “Bitty” Bittle, a gay ex-figure skater now playing for his university’s hockey team. Bitty’s plate is pretty full with vlogging, getting over his fear of checking (hockey term for body slamming), and dealing with his total jerk captain, Jack Zimmerman. With lovable characters and a slow-burn romance to boot, this sweet and funny story is perfect for beginners–especially if you love pie! Check it out here.
What better way to get into the vast (and sometimes overwhelming) world of superhero comics than through the work of MacArthur Genius and National Book Award-winning writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates? In Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Coates explores the complexities of national identity, the perpetuation of governmental power, and questions of morality amidst political upheaval, all while maintaining a thrilling and engaging story. On top of it all, the female characters Coates writes demonstrate complexity and struggle with their own stories, a far cry from some of the antiquated tropes still plaguing female characters in superhero tales.
Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse is a prime example of the vast range of graphic literature. Far from a traditional “comic,” this sweet and simple book veers away from linear storytelling in favor of capturing individual and heartfelt exchanges between the four titular friends. The gentle words they share with each other feel like whispers of reassurance directed at the reader, and although it’s a quick read, the touching nature of these sentiments may require a tissue or two. Grab a blanket, some tea, and cozy up with this heartfelt book!
For those of you worried about dedicating your time to an epic tale, look no further than Aminder Dhaliwal’s Woman World, which explores an all-female future through bite-sized, interwoven anecdotes. Despite the fantastical premise, the comic itself feels grounded and authentic, and the simplistic, black-and-white art style gives the book a sense of realness. As opposed to lamenting over the loss of man as other texts positing an entirely female society have done, Woman World presents a civilization that appears more or less content, often grappling with issues far more mundane and silly than anything remotely apocalyptic. If you’re jonesing for a conversational and funny read, give this one a look.
Far too many queer stories today focus exclusively on the white experience of self-discovery and coming out. In this graphic novel adaptation of Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath, our protagonist, Juliet, a Puerto Rican lesbian from the Bronx, grapples with the dramatic after-effects of her coming out immediately before flying to Portland to intern for Harlowe Brisbane, a renowned lesbian feminist writer, who happens to be white. Juliet figured that her internship would give her all the guidance she needed, but she quickly learns that Harlowe is far from the endless well of wisdom that Juliet made her out to be. As she embarks on a journey of her own self-exploration, Juliet discovers more about what it means to truly come out than she’d ever anticipated. Moscote’s vibrant, joyful artwork perfectly complements Juliet’s youthful energy, and makes the strong supporting characters glow.
This new release that presents a DC villain origin story with a gothic twist is perfect for anyone intimidated by the look and feel of traditional superhero comics. Poison Ivy: Thorns is a one-and-done graphic novel, no previous knowledge needed, and is illustrated beautifully by artist Sara Kipin, whose style is a stark departure from what usually comes to mind when thinking of DC and Marvel titles. This well-crafted mystery follows teenager Pamela, who spends her days at school or her family mansion, coping with her mother’s absence, her father’s dogmatic insistence on protecting family secrets, and her increasing anxiety about the mistreatment of plant life around her, all with some good old fashioned high school drama mixed in.