9 Adult Graphic Novels for Teens: Sophisticated Takes on History, Humor, Sci-Fi, and More

While publishers turn out an ever-growing array of young adult graphic novels, plenty of adult titles have strong teen appeal, too. These works across a range of genres offer mature takes on topics with potential teen interest.

While publishers turn out an ever-growing array of young adult graphic novels, plenty of adult titles have strong teen appeal, too. Adult works can provide a different perspective, explore issues in greater depth, and feature older characters than YA works. They may be a great next read for a teen who loves science fiction, mysteries, or politics.

As with prose, adult graphic novels approach the world differently than most YA works. The characters are often adults dealing with adult issues. This can make for a more satisfying and sophisticated read, especially for older teens. Some may also have content that is not appropriate for teens; the 18+ rating for graphic novels is a helpful guide. Many publishers, such as Dark Horse and Image, include age ratings for books on their web pages.

These works across a range of genres offer mature takes on topics with potential teen interest. While some include strong language, smoking and drinking, blunt conversations about sex, and scenes of violence, none are excessive or explicit.

The Ghost in You by Ed Brubaker, illus. by Sean Phillips, colors by Jacob Phillips. Image. Apr. 2022.
Gr 9 Up–The retro-themed cover of this graphic novel points to what’s inside: an action-packed crime story with a purple-haired woman at the center. This is the fourth of Brubaker and Phillips’s “Reckless” books, all set in Los Angeles in the 1980s, but it’s the first to star Anna (she of the purple hair). With her partner, private eye Ethan Reckless, out of town, Anna picks up a case of her own, helping a former horror movie queen (think Elvira) determine whether the house she inherited is haunted. Along the way, Anna uncovers secrets, finds a lost dog, and punches her mother’s fiancé in the nose. Pulpy, noirish, and funny, this is an entertaining, fast-paced ride from start to finish.

Radium Girls by Cy. Iron Circus. Aug. 2022.
Gr 10 Up–On the eve of the Roaring Twenties, a group of young women work together at a watch factory, enjoying their youth and freedom. They goof off, gossip, go to parties, and then start dying, one by one. The women learn too late that the radium paint they applied to the watch dials, while licking the brush every few strokes as they were taught, has been poisoning them with radiation. The symptoms appear gradually, and at first the girls don’t believe what is happening to them—but eventually they realize the terrible truth. Only at the end do they achieve some measure of justice, but not enough to save their lives. Cy uses colored pencils in an unusual, angular style with a palette of mostly purples, reds, and a luminous green similar to the paints. When the girls paint their nails and decorate their clothes with the radium, the effect is beautiful and horrific, as is the revelation that they literally glow in the dark. The chapter openers depict the dying women nude, in a stylized manner like the rest of the book. Loosely based on Kate Moore’s nonfiction title The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women.

Flung Out of Space: Inspired by the Indecent Adventures of Patricia Highsmith by Grace Ellis, illus. by Hannah Templer. Abrams/Surely. Apr. 2022.
Gr 11 Up–Ellis describes this graphic novel as a “fantasia,” a fictionalized take on the real life of author Patricia Highsmith. “I think of it as the version you would tell around a campfire,” she writes in the author’s note, while directing the reader toward fact-based resources on Highsmith’s life. Ellis states up front that Highsmith was “an appalling person” in many respects—racist and sexist as well as abrasive. Indeed, Highsmith, the author of suspense novels including The Talented Mr. Ripley, presents as being an unpleasant but conflicted person, working at a job she despises (writing comics) to pay for psychoanalysis that she hopes will make her heterosexual. It doesn’t. She is irresistibly drawn to women, and the spine of this story is her relationship with a woman she meets in group therapy. Highsmith made the relationship the basis for her novel The Price of Salt, which became a lesbian classic and was made into the movie Carol. Highsmith comes across as acrimonious and amoral, sleeping with her agent’s lover, disparaging Jewish people, and insulting everyone around her, but also struggling with her own nature. The creators depict Highsmith’s affairs with images of women kissing, embracing, and lying side by side in bed, but no full nudity or explicit sex. Templer’s rich, complex art uses a limited palette and complicated layouts, giving the reader a lot to digest on every page.

Revenge of the Librarians by Tom Gauld. Drawn & Quarterly. Oct. 2022.
Gr 7 Up–Gauld draws wry, gently funny single-page cartoons about books and bookish people. The cartoons are presented one at a time in a landscape format, and a number of them reflect pandemic life. “Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect,” one caption reads, below an image of a cockroach sitting at a computer, “but because of the lockdown, his life carried on pretty much unchanged.” Gauld adds new chapters to the famous six-word story “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn,” giving it a happy ending; depicts poets as gangsters in “The Dark Side of the Poetry Boom”; and imagines sentences by great authors taking on lives of their own (“Henry James writes a sentence so long and circuitous that he becomes lost inside it for three days”). All is depicted in Gauld’s simple, whimsical style. A delightful distraction for teens who love books, bookstores, and the writing life.

Bubble by Jordan Morris and Sarah Morgan, illus. by Tony Cliff, colors by Natalie Riess. First Second. Jul. 2021.
Gr 10 Up–Late in the 22nd century, humans have moved to a new planet where some live in sanitized, domed cities and others eke out a rough existence in the Brush. Morgan, who grew up in the Brush but lives in the domed city of Fairhaven, is pretty good at taking down the wild imps that make it into her enclave. Her roommate, Annie, an amateur chemist, turns their blood into recreational drugs, craft beer, and medical treatments. Add in Mitch, who gets attacked by an imp and ends up with superpowers, and Van, a Brush refugee and social influencer, and you have a solid quartet of lead characters. The writers are podcasters with a satirical bent, and there’s a dose of snark about apps, hipsters, and the gig economy. But it’s really a story about a bunch of scrappy kids taking on the evil Big Tech. With visuals that nearly jump off the page, this is a fast-moving page-turner with plenty of twists and laughs.

RetroActive by Ibrahim Moustafa, illus. by author, colors by Brad Simpson. Humanoids. Apr. 2022.
Gr 10 Up–Tarik Abdelnasser is a professional time traveler working for the U.S. Bureau of Temporal Affairs (BTA). Agents from the BTA take carefully controlled trips into the past to proactively prevent calamities before they take place, but there’s a dark side to their work. While they don’t shy from assassinating terrorists, for instance, they won’t allow a sniper to kill Hitler. Tarik accepts all of this as part of the job, as he did when he was in the CIA, but time travel gives a whole new dimension (literally) to black ops. Tarik gets caught in a time loop that ends with his fiery death every time, until he can figure out how to break it. And when he investigates some apparent time-related anomalies, he ends up face-to-face with his future self—who has gone rogue. Confronting the harm the BTA has wreaked on ordinary people, he rethinks what he has been trained to do and what he should do in the future. Like many time-travel stories, this one is confusing at times but offers plenty of food for thought.

Never Open It: The Taboo Trilogy by Ken Niimura. Yen Pr. Oct. 2021.
Gr 9 Up–The Japanese folktales that inspired these three stories have a universal quality, and as the title indicates, each story features an object—a box, a jar, a door—that the main character is told never to open. This command defies human nature, of course. In one story, a boy rescues a sea turtle and is rewarded with a trip to an underground kingdom where life is an ongoing party, but time passes extremely slowly. In another, a monk tries to keep two mischievous assistants from getting into a jar of poisoned honey. In the third, an unambitious young man helps a wounded bird who appears as a woman weaving beautiful cloth for him to sell. Then, a merchant destroys everything he has. Niimura’s gestural art is reminiscent of Japanese brush painting, using only black, white, and red. He takes his time with each tale, dwelling on nature scenes as well as chases and fights. The stories don’t have straightforward morals but go off in intriguing and unpredictable directions instead.

One-Star Squadron by Mark Russell, illus. by Steve Lieber, colors by Dave Stewart. DC. Nov. 2022.
Gr 9 Up–Superhero story meets workplace comedy in this satire of contemporary business mores. Red Tornado is the manager of Heroes4U, a temp agency where washed-up superheroes can get gigs doing ribbon cuttings, birthday parties, and phone sales. His oddball workforce includes Minute Man, whose superpowers last for only 60 seconds; Gangbuster, who has lost his memory and was found wandering the streets; Plastic Man; G.I. Robot; and Power Girl, who is plotting a takeover. The characters are real DC superheroes, but they’re far from the A-list. Red Tornado is a sympathetic character who tries to live up to the ideals of a superhero even in small ways, such as being kind to the confused Gangbuster and giving Minute Man infinite second chances. Lieber’s art has a classic superhero style, crisp and easy to follow, and colorist Stewart uses a light hand, too. The satirical take on modern capitalism, cast of offbeat superheroes, and sight gags add up to a fun read.

Accidental Czar by Andrew S. Weiss, illus. by Brian “Box” Brown. First Second. Nov. 2022.
Gr 9 Up–This biography of Vladimir Putin goes a long way toward helping the reader understand not only Putin’s career but his obsession with Ukraine. Growing up in the post–World War II Soviet Union, Putin was a roughneck who found purpose in the KGB, or at least, the noble portrayal of the KGB in state-controlled popular culture. He spent the first part of his career as a KGB agent, which helped shape his worldview, along with other factors including his conviction that the popular revolutions of the 21st century were all U.S.-backed plots. Weiss, a self-described “Russia geek,” worked for the National Security Council and the U.S. State Department and was in the room when Presidents Clinton and Obama were dealing with Russia. Brown, whose other First Second books include Tetris, Cannabis, and Child Star, has an understated style that uses just a few lines to convey a lot of meaning. He uses different colors to differentiate time periods, which is helpful as the story jumps around. A good resource for anyone wanting to know more about Putin.

Brigid Alverson created and edits “Good Comics for Kids” (slj.com/GoodComics).

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