Comics in the Classroom Part 5: Recommended Titles

In this final part of my Comics in the Classroom series, I'm going to take you through some recommended titles to help you get immersed in the world of comics!

Looking back at this list, I'm struck by how personal it is. Of course it has to be - I'm not a librarian, so I can't claim this is a guaranteed your-kids-will-love-this list. But these are all books I've absolutely loved, books I'd recommend to anyone, books that have shaped my own understanding of comics, books I wish I'd had when I was younger. I've tried to sort them roughly by age - usual disclaimers apply as what I think is age-appropriate may not correspond with your thinking exactly, or at all...

 

Ages 6+

Cowa! by Akira Toriyama (Viz media)

Image from Cowa! by Akira Toriyama

One of the best comics I have ever read for any age group. This actually made me lock myself in the bathroom and cry for a good half an hour because it's just so good and I'll never be able to approach that level of perfection (true story. Don't worry - I'm better now...). Deceptively simple - three monster friends join up with a mysterious adult to save their village - but executed with such brilliance. Wonderfully observed little moments, deep observations about friendship and honour, and constant, brilliant, ridiculous humour. Translated from Japanese, so it reads right-to-left, which may be confusing for younger readers (and some adults - it's easy once you get used to it – honestly)!

Little Vampire series by Joann Sfar (Macmillan)

Monsters in a classroom
The little vampire wants to go to school, but he can't because it's night. So the monsters all go to the empty school with him. But while he's there, he does Michael's homework for him - starting a strange friendship. Silly and moving by turns - I always well up at the bit where Michael promises to "honour the dead and keep their memory". Even in a book for very young children, Sfar is always tackling big themes of loss, identity and how history lives on in our lives and our memories.

Astro Boy series by Osamu Tezuka (Dark Horse)

The great master's best-known comic for kids. Exciting, hilarious and great fun, but all his big concerns are here too: dignity, justice, fallibility and redemption. All presented in a simple, elegant, entertaining package that a 6-year-old could understand. This is what all comics - all literature - should be aspiring to.

Image from Hilda series by Luke Pearson

Incomparable - utterly first rate.

Hilda series by Luke Pearson (Nobrow Press)

Wise, witty and surreal – the adventures of a thoughtful, courageous little girl navigating the bizarre hidden world of magical creatures, and the often equally bizarre everyday world of adults.

 

Ages 8+

Cover of a Howtoons issue
Howtoons
by Griffith/Bonsen/Dragotta (HarperCollins)

Quite exceptional. Two MIT scientists teamed up with a dazzling artist to produce... this. Instructions for kids to build their own science-inspired toys and science experiments. Everything from soda-bottle submarines to pneumatic marshmallow shooters and origami working robots, with some fascinating insights into specific science concepts. Really well done.

howtoons.com (all available online)

The Phoenix! by various authors (David Fickling Books)

Front cover of an edition of The Phoenix comic

Is that cheeky, since I draw for them? The thing is, The Phoenix really is quite unique. An exceptional collection of story comics, humour, non-fiction (ahem) and puzzles for boys and girls, delivered to your door every week, just in time for the weekend! Completely ad-free and with no shoddy plastic toys in the cover. And it's the first new children's comic in Britain to break 100 issues in over 40 years! They also have some really good subscription deals for schools and libraries. Just saying...

While I'm on the subject, can I also mention the Phoenix Presents series? Some of the best comics from the magazine collected in graphic-novel-length editions. Some of my particular favourites are Star Cat, Bunny vs Monkey, Mega Robo Bros, Evil Emperor Penguin. Inspired silliness from some of the best comics artists in the UK today.

Bad Machinery by John Allison (Oni Press)

Schoolgirl standing on desk
Longtime comics crush, and one of the funniest people in the UK comics industry, John Allison has been making brilliant webcomics at scarygoround.com since before I realised this was a thing you could do. Bad Machinery is a sort of Famous 5 for the modern age: smart, and smart-mouthed high-school kids solve ghost-and-monster-related mysteries in the supernaturally-gifted West Yorkshire town of Tackleford. Consistently witty, clever and worth reading.

Bone by Jeff Smith (various publishers – I have the one-volume collected edition from Cartoon Books)

Image from Bone by Jeff Smith

Three "Bones" on the run enter a valley where an ancient evil is stirring... Right off the bat this is a really interesting choice - the Bones are vague, hyper-simplified cartoon characters in a lush, realistic fantasy world, which actually works - making them more accessible as reader inserts. Bone is one of the all-time classics of western cartooning - kind of like Lord of the Rings but funnier, and with better drawings. If you want kids to get swept up in a really long, sweeping, epic story, give them this.

 

Ages 12+

Illustration from a comic book
Klezmer by Joann Sfar (First Second)

One of Sfar's very best, and that's really saying something. The adventures of a group of Jewish musicians in 19th century Ukraine. Strange and thrilling - with characters that jump out of the page glowing with life and inner purpose. Don't recommend to any kids who need solid endings to their stories though - I've been waiting for volume 2 to be translated into English since 2004... Also take a look at Sfar's The Rabbi's Cat - Klezmer explores his Ashkenazi Jewish heritage while the Rabbi's Cat explores his Sephardic heritage - both wonderful.).

Image from Buddha by Osamu Tezuka
Buddha
(8 volumes) by Osamu Tezuka (Vertical)

Tezuka's 8-volume life of the Buddha puts the great spiritual leader's life and ideas in context, charting the key moments of his life and the real people he interacted with, mixed with a bunch of Tezuka's own fantastic made-up characters. Utterly gripping, warmly human, deeply moving and riotously, irreverently hilarious. One of my all-time favourites, and a great influence in my own work - reading this let me see that respect for the source material and irreverent humour aren't mutually exclusive, and neither are humour and tragedy. Tezuka does them all - often on the same page!

Image from Pimo and Rex by Thomas Wellmann
Pimo and Rex
by Thomas Wellmann (Rotopol/Blank Slate Press)

One of my current cartoonist crushes - Wellmann has a vibrant, elegant style and a warm, gentle sense of humour that comes through wonderfully in this unusual take on the everyday-people-in-a-fantasy-setting genre. In the first tale the two heroes take on an evil necromancer, dead set on becoming a great painter, who is trying to capture a runaway muse. And in the second story Pimo incurs the wrath of the remorseless, unstoppable arch-librarian and must call on Rex and his experimental-potion-master fiance Leopold. Delightful.

Dungeon Meshi series by Ryoko Kui (Comix Beam)

I probably shouldn't even mention this one as it's not published in English, and so

Image from Dungeon Meshi series by Ryoko Kui
is only available through mostly-legal fan-made translations online (I understand you can find such translations with a quick Google search, but you didn't hear it from me...) But I couldn't resist mentioning it. Imagine Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall crossed with Dungeons and Dragons, with mouth-watering recipes made from the various dungeon monsters interspersed through the story, and you might start to get an idea of it. Clever and funny and utterly ridiculous, and also weirdly gripping: at its heart it's about being a flesh-based organism in a food-chain - a surreal reminder that we weren't always at the top.

Image from A Bride's Story series by Kaoru Mori
A Bride's Story
series by Kaoru Mori 

This beautifully drawn and beautifully written comic follows the adventures, often very small, of a girl from a nomadic Central Asian tribe who has been married off to a much younger boy from a small town. Initially a marriage of political allegiance, we follow her as she tries (and often fails) to fit into her new family, and as she and her new husband grow towards each other, despite their many differences. Along the way the story follows many side-roads, looking at the lives of the different characters, and particularly different brides in different situations. Does that sell it? I don't know - it's very hard to put into words. It's partly the amazing attention to historical detail and the sense of entering a living world, partly the wonderful characters, partly the unapologetic commitment to women's lives and stories, in a setting where we often don't get to see them (i.e. - history!). Honestly - just read it. It should be ok for older kids, but there are a few oblique sex references and some nudity in one of the later books.

 

At my schools events I often get asked, 'Why do you draw comics?' or, 'Do you want to write proper books?' or, 'Why aren't you a real author?' (Ok, no kid ever asked that last one, but a few of them came close!) And I'm always a bit at a loss to explain it. I know from the experience of multiple colleagues who've made the jump from comics to books that a "proper" book, even an illustrated one, is radically less work, in terms of pure hours at the drawing/writing table, than making comics. And who knows, maybe one day I'll try to make that leap myself. But I can't help, whenever I think about a book idea, but think how much more I'd like to do it as a comic. I don't necessarily think comics are a better medium - I've read lots of prose books that probably work better as prose - but for me at least there's something indescribably satisfying about the process of thinking and writing with words and pictures. I hope that this short series has given you even a little bit of a feeling for that special magic, and maybe some tools to pass it on to the kids that you know. Thank you for reading!

Click here to read the rest of Adam's Comics in the Classroom series.

Here are some other resources that might help you:

First Second. Excellent range of book-length comics for kids. They have lesson plans, activity kits and reading group guides.

Toon Books. Another great publisher - they have a whole range of carefully age-specific comics from world-class artists, starting from very young. They have Top tips for reading along with beginner readers, and also a great article on the enormous benefits of comics for children's literacy.

Comics & Cola has a great list of comics for kids from one of the best observers in the industry. I haven't read everything in this list, but if Zainab says it's good - it probably is...

Dave Roman, author of the excellent manga-influenced Astronaut Academy, lists his top manga picks for people who don't read manga. Also a pretty great list even for people who do. Particularly useful: each manga has an excellent summary, and a guide to "if you like X (history, YA romance, Lord of the Rings etc), try this..."

The Phoenix has its own resources, featuring downloadable activity packs and lesson plans! Did I mention they have subscription deals for schools and libraries...

Adam Murphy

Adam Murphy is a Glasgow-based comics artist. A regular contributor to The Phoenix weekly comics magazine, he is the creator of Corpse Talk, the comic-book chat show in which he interviews the dead famous from history, and Lost Tales in which he re-discovers and re-interprets forgotten folktales from around the world. Corpse Talk Season 1 and Season 2, and Lost Tales are published by David Fickling Books. adammurphy.com