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These stories are better than Batman

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Most folks when they hear the term “graphic novel” think of superheroes or Archie. And most graphic novels, until recently, have been written by men. Times they are a changin’. As proof, here’s a small sampling of my favorite graphic novels, gorgeously drawn and written by women for a teenage audience (but adults will adore them as well). Once you get ahold of these beautiful, moving and funny books, you’ll no longer rely on just Batman or Jughead for your comic-reading pleasure.

Full disclosure: I am in the midst of writing and drawing my own graphic novel for teens: a story of conjoined twins at a carnival sideshow.

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki

This is a beautifully written and drawn — the brushwork is breathtaking — story of two girls: besties who visit the same beach town every summer. As they grasp their way toward teenhood, they bond over slasher films and eavesdropping on grown-ups and the older teens in the neighborhood — spying that leads to them having a greater understanding of and sympathy for the adults in their lives. The author and illustrator, who are cousins, have previously collaborated on the equally wonderful Skim, about a high school girl in love with her teacher.

Jane, the Fox, and Me by Fanny Britt, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

In this book, set in the minefield that is middle school with all its attendant social terrorism and body-shaming, an insecure preteen girl named Hélène finds solace in Bronte’s Jane Eyre, (who doesn’t?) and escapes into a world of mysterious foxes, fellow “misfits” and perhaps even a little self-confidence. Arsenault’s mixed-media drawings creatively render what is real and what exists merely in Hélène’s mind.

Gory images, in dark black ink and bright, textured color only add to the horror.

Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol

This story is about Anya Borzakovskaya, a teenager of Russian descent who feels like a stranger in her high school … until she falls in a hole. There she meets the ghost of a girl who had died there, years before. As the spirit helps Anya grow in confidence, the ghost grows in power. Brosgol’s bright and traditional cartooning style helps to keep the fear quotient at arm’s length.

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Emily Carroll’s short graphic stories, also about ghosts, are unapologetically terrifying. These sophisticated, chilling tales each take place in a variety of spooky spaces — a castle, dark woods, an isolated cottage — and historical environments. Carroll’s gory images in dark black ink and bright, textured color only add to the horror.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Girl power abounds in Stevenson’s fantastic world of bright colors and big gestures. The eponymous Nimona is a young girl and out-of-control shape-shifter who joins forces with a villain, Lord Ballister Blackheart. Mayhem ensues as they pair up against Blackheart’s nemesis, hilariously named Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin. Darkly funny and a tad violent, Nimona is a delightful and powerful antihero.

Bonus list — more for adults:

  • The Encyclopedia of Early Earth (Isabel Greenberg). Black-and-white drawings, old-fashioned and almost woodcut-like, contribute to the mythological feeling of this extraordinary world of bird-headed gods.
  • The Voyeurs (Gabrielle Bell). With an elegant structure and narrative, this memoir by cartoonist, diarist and filmmaker Bell reads more like a short story collection than a contemporary graphic autobiography.
  • Hark! A Vagrant (Kate Beaton). This is one of the smartest, funniest comics about literature and history, bar none. The takes on Nancy Drew book covers make me laugh out loud.

Lisa Brown is a New York Times best-selling illustrator, author and cartoonist. Some of her picture books include: The Airport Book, Goldfish Ghost by Lemony Snicket and Mummy Cat by Marcus Ewert. She teaches illustration at California College of the Arts.

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