While there are lots of great comics out there, it can be difficult to find graphic novels that feature female protagonists or that have female creative teams. To fill that gap, we’ve attempted to put together a list of the very best graphic novels released in the past year.
While good literature transcends age, not everything is appropriate for all audiences. We’ve tagged the books we think are most appropriate for kids and tweens with a star (⭐).
Without further ado, here are the 20 best graphic novels of 2019 in alphabetical order.
⭐ Akissi: More Tales of Mischief
Writer: Marguerite Abouet
Artist: Mathieu Sapin
Publisher: Flying Eye Books
This is the second in West Africa-born Marguerite Abouet’s autobiographical short stories about growing up on the Ivory Coast. Akissi is the ultimate anti-hero for little girls. She’s combative, reckless and anti-authoritarian to a fault. She consistently pushes the boundaries of acceptable behavior. By any normal definition, Akissi is a pretty bad kid.
Abouet does a masterful job of allowing the reader to empathize with Akissi at times, while also presenting her as a cautionary tale in other moments. This combination makes Akissi an incredibly relatable character for any kid struggling to assert their independence at a time when they still have a lot to learn. And that’s all on top of the brilliant job the book does of presenting the experiences of a little girl growing up in West Africa.
Writer: Sam Humphries
Artist: Jen Bartel
Publisher: Image Comics
Nina Rodriguez has three problems. 1) She knows about the magical underworld run by ruthless cabals that lives right below the surface of the neon lights of Los Angeles; 2) a giant magical beast has kidnapped her sister; and 3) anyone she tells about problems 1 and 2 thinks she’s absolutely crazy.
Writer Sam Humphries and Eisner-winning artist Jen Bartel constructed a brilliant neo-noir fantasy world that pulses with vibrant colors and energy, but which is simultaneously grounded in real emotional complexity. The book effortlessly blends and ultimately transcends genres.
The end result is a beautifully crafted book that has something that will please almost everyone.
⭐ Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist’s Journey
Cartoonist: Akiko Higashimura
Translation: Jenny McKeon
Adaptation: Ysabet MacFarlane
Lettering & Layout: Lys Blakeslee
Publisher: Seven Seas Entertainment
Akiko Higashimura rocketed to superstardom in Japan with her josei series Tokyo Tarareba Girls, which started as a digital-only offering before gaining enough popularity to make it to print. Eventually, it was translated into English where it netted Higashimura a coveted Eisner award.
Blank Canvas is an autobiographical look at Higashimura’s high school and college years. Particularly on a relationship she had with her mentor, an art teacher who both had faith in her abilities and consistently challenged her to work hard and not simply coast on natural talent.
Higashimura shows that the artists that succeed in the industry are not made, they are forged from hours and hours of practice and experimentation. But far from being a polemic, the book is filled with Higashimura’s trademark slapstick humor. The result is a warts-and-all book with lots of heart that every aspiring teenage artist should read.
⭐ Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Writer: Jordie Bellaire
Illustrator: Dan Mora
Colorist: Raúl Angulo
Letterer: Ed Dukeshire
Publisher: BOOM! Studios
Buffy the Vampire Slayer can’t die. I mean that literally. She died at least twice during the course of the television show and it barely slowed her down. Even after that show ended, she lived on in comics. Dark Horse picked up exactly where the seven seasons of the TV show left off and gave us seasons eight through 12 in comic book form.
But 2019 gave us a reboot and re-invigoration of the franchise under Boom! Studios. The new title places Buffy and her supporting cast back in high school, where it all began. But the setting is not the high school of 1997 when the series debuted, but a modern high-school with cell phones, social media and all-new social norms.
For instance, it took Willow years to come out as a lesbian in the original series. Here she is out and proud in issue #1. Different times.
The series wisely eschews rehashing Buffy’s TV exploits in favor of all new adventures. But — like the TV show — it works best when the external monsters Buffy and crew face are metaphors for the real-life pressures that high-school students face.
⭐ Champions: Beat the Devil
Writer: Jim Zub
Illustrator: Steven Cummings
Publisher: Marvel Comics
We’ve loved Champions ever since comics great Mark Waid first created the team of idealistic young heroes who grew tired of the “adults” fighting amongst themselves and decided that they could do better. But under new series writer Jim Zub, the book went from “really good” to “one of the best superhero books on the shelf” in 2019.
Under the leadership of Kamala Khan a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, the team brings together some of the Marvel universe’s best and brightest teen heroes: Miles Morales, Riri Williams, Viv (daughter of the android Avenger Vision).
While the book does a great job with the nuts and bolts of superheroic adventures, where Zub’s writing really shines is in his attention to characterization and relationships between the teen heroes. Their actions (and hence the plot) are firmly grounded in who these teens are as a people. And that has made all the difference.
Writer: Christopher Sebela
Penciller: Ro Stein
Inker: Ted Brandt
Colorist: Triona Farrell
Letterer: Cardinal Rae
Publisher: Image Comics
Crowded follows Charlie, a flighty socialite struggling with her growing attraction to Vita, the pragmatic (and lowest-rated) bodyguard she hired through an Uber-like app called “Dfend.” But romance has to take a back seat for the time being, as Vita has to keep Charlie alive long enough to figure out why so many people contributed to putting an enormous bounty on her head through a crowdfunding campaign on a different app.
The book was optioned as a movie before the first issue even hit shelves. But whether the movie ever materializes or whether it is good or bad — the comic is here and it is fantastic. The cyberpunk-flavored romp is a perfectly executed send-up of the modern gig-economy and the impersonal and cruel bullying that the anonymity of the Internet has enabled.
⭐ Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass
Writer: Mariko Tamaki
Illustrator: Steve Pugh
Publisher: DC Ink
One of the best things about comic books is their ability to constantly reimagine and reinterpret existing characters, modernizing them or adapting them for new audiences. While Harley Quinn might seem like an unlikely candidate to headline a book aimed at kids, let’s not forget that the modern violent, sex-charged Harley is herself a reinterpretation of the original Harley, who was created for the family-friendly Batman: the Animated Series.
This original graphic novels posits a teenage Harley moving to Gotham to live with her grandmother after her mom takes a job with a cruise line to put food on the table. The trouble begins when Harley finds that her grandmother has passed away, leaving Harley to fend for herself both in the apartment, at school and on the mean streets of Gotham.
Well, not entirely by herself. Harley finds herself “adopted” by the LGBTQ+ community and she finds an unlikely best friend in the reclusive Ivy, a loner from high school.
The book positions Harley as a social justice warrior of the best kind. She is angry at the system and fights for the poor, for the marginalized and the oppressed. But Harley is not Captain America. She has violent tendencies that she knows represent the worst in her, and the biracial Ivy points out that the color of Ivy’s skin has given her privilege that she is not even aware of. And she is susceptible to manipulation — particularly by the Joker, who she knows is bad news.
This flawed, heartfelt interpretation of Harley is every bit as valid as any other — and in fact may be new favorite take on the character. The only flaw I can find in the book that Tamaki and Pugh have created is that they have not announced a sequel or ongoing series. DC has something really special here. I hope they recognize it.
Cartoonist: Ebony Flowers
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly
Ebony Flowers debut graphic novel hits like a bombshell, exploring what it means to be black and female in the United States. The stories are woven together with the common thread of the rituals and meanings behind managing and styling African American hair. While the stories have definite social and political points to make, they are also full of heart and warm characterization as they explore the greater African American community and the family dynamics on which that community is built.
Is This How You See Me?
Cartoonist: Jaime Hernandez
The Hernandez Brothers Love and Rockets may be the single greatest piece of serialized fiction for adults ever created. The brothers have been telling the intertwining stories of the fictionalized Latin American country of Palomar (Gilbert) and the American descendants of Palomar immigrants and their experiences in the SoCal punk rock scene (Jaime.)
This most recent story tracks longtime friends and lovers Maggie and Hopey, now middle-aged, as they return to the Southern California punk rock scene they helped create. But they are different people now and the punk scene may have left them behind — or maybe they left it.
Although the book has the weight of forty years of storytelling, it is also completely accessible to brand new readers. Frankly, Hernandez puts on a masterclass in visual storytelling that should not be missed.
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me
Writer: Mariko Tamaki
Artist: Rosemary Valero-O’Connell
Publisher: First Second
Idealizing the experience of high school romance is the bread and butter of stories aimed at teens — particularly girls. In Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, writer Mariko Tamaki explores a dark side of high school love: toxic relationships. Instead of hinting that you have found the love of your life at age 15, Tamaki posits that at this age our need for love and acceptance is often weaponized against us by callous people who lack basic human empathy.
The story lifts the reader up — not by having the protagonist find true love in sophomore year — but by having them learn that they have worth and are worthy of respect. It’s a lesson that is made all the more powerful by it’s virtual absence from other media.
Writer: Darcy Van Poelgeest
Artist: Ian Bertram
Colorist: Matt Hollingsworth
Publisher: Image Comics
With Little Bird, writer Darcy Van Poelgeest and artist Ian Bertram have achieved a level of intricate world-building only matched by superlative books such as Saga, East of West and Monstress. Although not specifically an allegory, modern readers will undoubtedly be able to draw parallels between current events and freedom-fighter Little Bird’s bloody rebellion against the imperialist, theocratic United Nations of America and its all-powerful leader “Bishop.”
Van Poelgeest creates Bertram’s hyper-detailed line-work is reminiscent of Geoff Darrow (Hard Boiled) or more recently Ramon Villalobos (E Is for Extinction). And it vividly brings Little Bird’s bloody, violent rampage against colonial oppressors to life on the page.
Writer: Tom King
Artist: Mitch Gerads
Publisher: DC Comics
Mister Miracle was actually one of the best (if not the best) comics of 2018. But although the entire 12-issue miniseries came out in 2018, the graphic novel collecting that miniseries didn’t come out until 2019, so we’ve had to wait until now to tell you that you that you absolutely should buy this brilliant comic.
Part of Jack Kirby’s “New Gods” Mister Miracle is actually Scott Free, the world’s greatest escape artist. But rather than getting bogged down in the cosmic details, King uses the characters of Scott Free and his wife Big Barda to paint an intimate portrait of love, family and ordinary life.
While Darkseid, Granny Goodness and a host of other baddies are present in the book, the drama is actually created by a husband and wife learning to love themselves and their newborn baby. Mitch Gerard’s art is bold and experimental — the kind of art that only the digital revolution has made possible. It’s a book that reveals something new in story and in art every time I re-read it. Highest recommendation.
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis, David F. Walker
Artist: Jamal Campbell
Publisher: DC Comics
As a black teen raised by loving white parents in a mostly white town, Naomi has always felt like an outsider. But when Superman crashes through main street during a battle with Mongul, Naomi begins to see parallels between his origin story and her own mysterious past. When she starts to investigate the murky circumstances of her adoption, she realizes that it coincides with the other time mysterious aliens rampaged through the city and maybe there is more to her story than anyone suspects.
Bendis continues the strong work he did creating Miles Morales (Spider-Man) and Riri Williams (Ironheart) at Marvel by creating a new balck teen hero that echoes Superman’s origin story but more fully explores what it is like to be adopted and different, and how “family” can be the people we choose to love, rather than an accident of genetics.
⭐ Sabrina the Teenage Witch
Writer: Kelly Thompson
Artists: Veronica and Andy Fish
Publisher: Archie Comics
Kelly Thompson has made somewhat of a career out of updating and humanizing older characters and putting them solidly in the modern world (Captain Marvel, Rogue and Gambit). So when she teamed with bright, poppy artist team Veronica and Andy Fish, we knew we were going to get something much different than the beloived gothic horror title Chilling Tales of Sabrina that presented an incredibly dark version of the character from a few years back.
Instead of devil worshipping, death and zombie apocalypses, this Sabrina feels much more like an updated (and dare I say improved) sequel to the family-friendly ‘90s TV show. Instead of supernatural demons and existential dread, Sabrina is dealing with typical high-school monsters: high school “mean girls,” trying to fit in and unrequited love for cute boys that never notice how special you are.
Cartoonist: Jen Wang
Colorist: Lark Pien
Publisher: First Second
Jen Wang’s follow up to last year’s surprise hit The Prince and the Dressmaker is Stargazing, a heartfelt story about friendship and personal identity. Christint is a Chinese-American girl living in the suburbs. She is focused on her grade-school education and her music. But when her parents offer their mother-in-law apartment to a struggling Chinese mother and daughter from church, Christine is introduced to Moon, a girl her age who is gets in fights, does not attend Chinese class and — gasp! — is vegetarian. By the standards set out by Christine’s parents, Moon is “not Asian.”
But soon enough the girls are fast friends and making each other’s world a little larger by sharing their love of art, K-Pop and more. Moon eventually shares a secret with Christine: She sees visions of celestial beings that tell her she belongs with them. Can Moon really communicate with the spirits? Or is there something else desperately wrong?
Wang is obviously drawing on personal experience as she paints a complex portrait of Asian American culture that is anything but monolithic, and she challenges young readers to grapple with complex themes of identity, friendship and mortality.
⭐ They Called Us Enemy
Writers: George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott
Illustrator: Harmony Becker
Publisher: Top Shelf Productions
As a child, former Star Trek actor George Takei was one of 120,000 Japanese American citizens rounded up and sent to concentration camps by the U.S. Government during World War II. As the United States drifts perilously close to repeating the racially-tinged mistakes of the past, Takei is determined to make sure that we remember the horrors inflicted on innocent American citizens in the name of “national security.”
We see the devastation of internment through George’s five-year-old eyes, as his middle-class parents had their property, money and dignity stripped away from them because of their ethnic background. Takei also reveals the fractions that developed among the interred. Some of them felt betrayed by America and angrly marched chanting slogans in Japanese.
George’s own parents refused to sign a document renouncing their loyalty to the Emperor of Japan because they felt that would be an admission that they were disloyal to America in the first place. Who gets to call themselves “American?” What can we do when our country no longer lives up to its ideals? Those questions are as relevant today as they were 80 years ago.
This Woman’s Work
Cartoonist: Julie Delporte
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
The cover of Julie Delporte’s autobiographical masterpiece This Woman’s Work features the cartoonist fighting a polar bear with a kitchen knife. We find out in the book that this is from a dream she had, where she built a house upon a rocky shore, and was attacked by bears from all sides. She defends herself with a kitchen knife..
“I brandish my knife and plunge it into the bear’s heart,” she says, “I kill him to save my life. It makes me so sad.”
The burden of doing hard things — not because you want or need to, but because they simply must be done — is how Delporte defines “women’s work.” The book goes on to honestly explore the tension between her desire to have children and the unavoidable new levels of servitude to others that decision would bring, and her desire for autonomy and self expression. What this book is not about is men. For the most part, they are not present in the narrative, and when they are, they fly by so quickly that they never really come into focus.
This Woman’s Work is a powerful and heartfelt work that asks itself and the readers difficult questions about life and resists the urge to give easy answers.
⭐ The Unstoppable Wasp: G.I.R.L. vs. A.I.M.
Writer: Jeremy Whitley
Publisher: Marvel Comics
For the second time, we say goodbye to Jeremy Whitley’s superlative The Unstoppable Wasp. This version of the Wasp is Nadia Pym, teenage daughter of the original Ant-Man Hank Pym and his first wife Maria Trovaya. Raised from birth to be an assassin and a spy in the “Red Room,” the same Russian program that produced the Black Widow.
But instead of a heartless assassin, Nadia escaped the Red Room, fled to the United States and followed in her father’s footsteps. A brilliant biochemist, Nadia was horrified to discover that no woman placed higher than 27th on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s list of most intelligent people, Nadia founds G.I.R.L. (Genius In action Research Labs) to discover and promote girl geniuses — which puts her in direct conflict with the supervillain organization A.I.M. which had their own super genius recruiting program…
The art provided in this second volume matches Nadia herself: bright, cheerful and optimistic. But it doesn’t shy away from tackling important issues such as mental health and the importance of supporting the ones that you love — even when they are being unlovable. It’s a book that adults will love as much as kids and should not be missed.
When I Arrived at the Castle
Cartoonist: Emily Carroll
Publisher: Koyama Press
Five years ago, Emily Carroll created the horror collection Through the Woods, which won both an Eisner and the British Fantasy Award. She back in top form with When I Arrived at the Castle, a gothic horror masterpiece that explores sexuality, abuse and lesbian relationships in a way that could have turned pornographic and tawdry in the hands of lesser creators — but here, the work comes across as an honest exploration of sexuality and adult relationships: “erotica” not “pornography.”
Carroll’s cartoon-y style is in direct tension with the adult themes in the book. But the simplified art works exceptionally well with the subject matter, as does her stark use of a reduced color pallette: black and white with occasional splashes of blood red
The story is as straightforward as the art. An anthropomorphic cat woman arrives at the titular castle in order to confront a very human (appearing) vampire in her lair. The entire book takes place over the course of a single evening as the struggle between the catwoman and the vampire unfolds. The cat wants the vampire dead. The vampire wants … something else from the cat. One way or another, this book careens towards an inevitable climax.
⭐ Witch Hat Atelier
Cartoonist: Kamome Shirahama
Publisher: Kodansha Comics
Coco is an ordinary girl in a world filled with magic. Dragons, spells and wizards are real — and Coco badly wants to be a witch. But magicians are born — not made. And Coco was not born with the gift of magic. But one day, she meets a travelling magician named Qifrey. When she witnesses him doing magic in an altogether different way, she realizes her dreams of a life full of magic are not as far out of reach as she first thought.
Kamome Shirahama is best known to American audiences as a cover artist for books such as Batgirl and Star Wars: Doctor Aphra. Witch Hat Atelier is the first of her manga to be translated into English, and after reading it, it is clear that the big two publishers have been wasting her talents.
This magical girl story is reminiscent of a Harry Potter story as interpreted by Studio Ghibli, it is an absolute delight to read immerse yourself in the incredible world she has created and the rich characters that live in that world.