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Lesser-known heroes

In my literature classroom, students must always be reading a book outside of the novel we’re reading as a class. Every now and then, a student will pull V for Vendetta or Watchmen or Maus or some other graphic novel* off of my shelf and ask if he can use it as his independent reading book. There’s always a tentativeness about the question, as if I’ll turn to him, adjust my monocle, and say, “Bah. That’s not real literature.”

So they tend to be surprised when I say, “Sure,” and leave my monocle as is.

I would hope that by now the debate about whether graphic novels are legitimate literature has fallen by the wayside. At their best, they have well-developed characters, complex narratives, and philosophical underpinnings. At their worst, they still have words that must be read, a narrative that must be unspooled.

But as appealing as they are, it can be intimidating for students — and teachers — to enter the world of comics, given the endless reiterations and reboots, or simply the vast selection of titles. With that in mind, I wanted to share a list of some of my favorites. These are stories that I believe represent the genre at its best and which I’m comfortable recommending to high school kids. And just to give you a heads up, I’m staying away from the ones that have already entered the mainstream — like V for Vendetta, Watchmen, Maus, Persepolis, Hellboy, and The Walking Dead.

Y last manInvinciblemanifest destinyUnwritten

Sandman, written by Neil Gaiman (Vertigo)
After escaping from captivity for a number of years, Dream returns to his kingdom only to find that things have fallen apart in his absence. He then sets out to restore order to the world of sleepers.

Bone, written by Jeff Smith
Three exiled cousins wander a fantasy landscape where they are pursued by giant rats and evil locusts. A strange mixture of goofiness and darkness.

Runaways, written by Brian K. Vaughan (Marvel)
A group of kids discover that their parents are super-villains. Just as they happen to do so, they begin to develop their own unique powers and abilities which they use to try to stop their parents.

Y: The Last Man, written by Brian K. Vaughn (Vertigo)
A sudden plague sweeps the earth, killing every male on the planet, except for one guy and his (literal) monkey.

Invincible, written by Robert Kirkman (Image)
In a send-up of the DC universe, the teenage son of the world’s strongest superhero discovers he has powers of his own. Of course, this complicates things. For everyone.

Manifest Destiny, written by Chris Dingess (Image)
Lewis and Clark travel west to explore the continent—and clear it of monsters. This is a fairly new series with a lot of potential.

The Unwritten, written by Mike Carey and Peter Gross (Vertigo)
The grown-up son of a missing novelist may actually be transforming into the fictional boy-wizard from his father’s popular books. Kind of. An interesting exploration into the significance of story, which blurs the lines between fiction and reality.

•    •    •

Since there’s obviously a lot more out there (and especially considering that I’m looking over my recommendations and realizing how male-centric it is…), let me know in the comments what you would add to the list.

* “Graphic novel” and “comic” are sometimes used interchangeably and sometimes not. Personally, I tend to use the former to refer to a collection of comics bound together in a trade paperback or hardcover that form a complete story arc. I use the latter to refer to a single issue, a series, or the genre.

Randy Ribay
Randy Ribay
Randy Ribay teaches high school English at an all-boys charter school in Philadelphia and is a regular reviewer for The Horn Book Guide. He holds a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Colorado and an Ed.M. in Language & Literacy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is the author of An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes (Merit Press, Oct 2015).

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