10 Great Comics for Adolescent Girls: Graphic Novels and Collections

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In one of his essays in this year’s Best American Comics volume, co-editor Scott McCloud writes that, although males continue to dominate the comics industry as creators, the ratio is shifting — females comprise more than 50 percent of those who major in comics at various educational institutions. On another front, Brett Schenker has been tracking the demographic shift of fandom over at The Beat, discovering that around 47% of all comics fans are girls. McCloud also lays out another important point: “Perhaps the real demographic time bomb in comics’ future is the growing importance of all-ages comics. Here, many of the values of the manga generation are merging with homegrown sensibilities and homegrown settings and subjects to ensure a steady flow of new readers — again, mostly female — to help swell American comics’ ranks.” What’s this mean? More girls are both making and reading comics.

Recent dust-ups focusing on sexism in mainstream comics have also helped raise awareness on the imbalance of good content in the medium targeted toward girls. But If you’re looking to do your part by handing pre-teen and teenage girls something awesome to read, there’s plenty to go around and plenty of great places to start. In this list, we’ve included both original graphic novels and collections, serious stuff and goofier stuff, and although the list tilts toward recent work, there’s also tons of great material beyond. Consider this, rather, something that we hope will be outdated quickly as the market pays attention to its consumers, and we no longer have to have long discussions about Spider-Woman’s hindquarters.

Check back later as Paste covers the best current ongoing series for young female readers.

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10. Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane
Writer: Sean McKeever
Artist: Takeshi Miyazawa, David Hahn

This book is unabashedly fluffy — the modern heir to romance comics in many ways, but it’s not a guilty pleasure. Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane is far too well done for that label. Writer Sean McKeever’s work on superhero stories is reliably zippy, with a strong emphasis on relationships. Mary Jane herself steps up as the the clear main character of the books, with Spidey dipping in occasionally to serve the plot. MJ’s high school troubles show that even the seemingly perfect endure plenty of difficulties making it through adolescence.

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9. Fray
Writer:   Joss Whedon  
Artist: Karl Moline
Publisher: Dark Horse

Rather than trying to sell a newbie on the whole array of Whedon’s creations, just hand her a copy of Fray, collected by Dark Horse into a slim paperback. Somewhat forgotten in the light of his later comics efforts, the miniseries shows Whedon’s strengths and ability to create excellent female characters without requiring the commitment of Buffy or Angel’s expansive mythologies. The art is fairly traditional mainstream comics stuff, but it mostly stays away from oversexualizing its main character, Melaka Fray, as she kicks all kinds of supernatural tail.

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8. One Hundred Demons
Writer & Artist: Lynda Barry
Publisher: Sasquatch Books

It’s very difficult to pick which of Lynda Barry’s works would be best to proselytize teen girls to comics, and, honestly, the answer is probably “any of them.” That said, One Hundred Demons is a little easier to dive into than the author’s other work, including the Marlys/Freddie/Maybonne stories, which have been going on so long that each houses its own universe. Barry’s strips are incredibly relatable in their individuality, and she has a rare purity of emotion.

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7. Wandering Son (multiple volumes)
Writer & Artist: Shimura Takako
Publisher: Fantagraphics 

Manga is a frequent entry point to comics for female YA readers, and Shimura’s gentle story about gender confusion is unlike almost anything in American comics. Setting her tale at the beginning of adolescence, Takako follows the journey of Shuichi Nitori, a boy who wants to be a girl, and Yoshino Takatsuki, a girl who wants to be a boy. Handled with sensitivity, but not without a sense of humor, the books introduce complex LGBTQ issues in a very approachable way.

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6. Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas
Writer: Jim Ottaviani
Artist: Maris Wicks
Publisher: First Second

Writer Jim Ottaviani and artist Maris Wicks collaborate beautifully on this story of three female scientists who broke new ground in their zoological field, fighting against prejudice and ignorance to educate humanity on the mysterious world of apes. That said, Primates never reads like a dry lesson or biography. Instead, the stories of these three hard-headed women incorporate their weaknesses and inspire, because — rather than in spite of — those character flaws. The book also serves as a great way to perceive and discuss complex comics devices, as it uses visual elements to convey different aspects of the story.

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5. Runaways
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Adrian Alphona
Publisher: Marvel

Runaways is a gateway drug to comics for many folks. Writer Brian K. Vaughan hones his gift for constructing a sharp, surprising narrative, and this series is one of his best examples. Featuring both male and female teenage (and pre-teen) characters (though the girls outnumber the boys), the series shows them interacting on equal footing as they struggle to navigate the super-villainous adult world of their parents and forge their own identities.

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4. Unlovable, Vols. 1-3
Writer & Artist: Esther Pearl Watson
Publisher: Fantagraphics 

Esther Pearl Watson found teenager Tammy Pierce’s diary in a gas station bathroom and has been illustrating its contents serially. If you think teenage life in the 1980s (pre-Tinder, sexting, cyberbullying, etc.) was more simple and innocent, these stories will change your mind. Pierce isn’t particularly self-aware, but her readers — even those in the throes of adolescence — will recognize themselves and their own foibles in these engaging volumes.

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3. This One Summer
Writer: Mariko Tamaki
Artist: Jillian Tamaki
Publisher: First Second

The Tamaki cousins focus on the nature of female friendship and the perils and pain of early adolescence in this intelligent, deftly-written story about a summer at a lake house. A variety of body types goes uncommented upon within the narrative, and although boys play a role in the narrative, they’re far from the most important factor in its events. Hope Larson’s Chiggers explores similar terrain if you like the Tamakis’ work.

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2. Anya’s Ghost
Writer & Artist: Vera Brosgol
Publisher: First Second

We’re not all strong enough to ignore the popularity contests that become increasingly important in middle school. Anya’s Ghost treats the desire for peer love seriously, even as Vera Brosgol rends it to pieces. The book shares some similarities to Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese in its examination of the immigrant experience (as well as Keshni Kashyap’s Tina’s Mouth, also worth picking up). But Anya’s Ghost is a subtler work in its portrayal of a specifically female brand of rage. Anya’s flaws, built organically rather than as obvious attempts to round her character, are themselves a feminist statement: you don’t have to be the perfect good girl to be the hero.

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1. The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook
Writer & Artist: Eleanor Davis
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children

The message at the center of Eleanor Davis’ graphic novel for kids is an important one for young women (and everyone): it’s not what’s on the outside that counts — use your brain and you will succeed. Aimed at a slightly younger audience than many of the choices on this list, The Secret Science Alliance is nonetheless enjoyable for all ages, featuring panels jam-packed with fun things to look at and a strong kids vs. adults storyline. If this veers too young, Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks’ Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong is a great alternative for the slightly older teen.

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