Thursday, 2 January 2020

25 Comics and Graphic Novels that are a perfect jumping-in point for your kids - Part 1: Early Years and Middle Grade

We're kicking off the new year with a couple of articles we've been working on for a wee while.

Over the Christmas Holidays, and for most of 2019 in fact, we've been ramping up our comic consumption. Mainly due to the crazy deals around in digital comics (and if you're a purist with infinite amounts of cash to spend on printed comics, more power to you!) but also due to the sheer amount of amazing stuff that's appeared over the last decade in the world of kid and YA comics.

As much as we hate trying to divide things up into neat little pigeonholes by age group or reading ability, we're going to offer up 25 comics and graphic novels in each of the 2 age groups in our two-parter article (Early Years & Middle Grade, then Tweens and Young Adult) that tick all the right boxes for us.

So let's dig in with part 1...

Early Years & Middle Grade Comics (Rough age guide - Approx 0-11 years old)

Kids are never too young to start appreciating comics - though for adults it's not always easy to read these as you would a picture book. Following comic narrative comes naturally to kids though, they are able to follow and decode a story far more naturally in comic strip form than other methods of breaking down reading. We're not going to get into a phonics discussion here but let's list 25 fantastic comics and graphic novels for the above age groups (in no particular order).

1) Hilda by Luke Pearson (Flying Eye Books)
Peerless pace and fantastic artwork, tons of detail and stories that limit the 'wordiness' of other comics to let the visual narrative take over. Shot through with Nordic charm, fantastic beasts, and some of the tightest artwork you'll see, it's not difficult to see why Luke Pearson is such a sought-after talent, working on top shows like Adventure Time as well as creating an enviable catalogue of glorious graphic novels for kids. Check out the Netflix show too, with series 2 well under way.

2) L'il Gotham by Derek Fridolfs and Dustin Nguyen (DC). 
Arguably way better than the 'grown up' DC Universe characters, imagine the Little Rascals as a bunch of superheroes and supervillains. Brilliantly observed, funny and yet still "Bat/Supe/WonderWoman" enough to be recognisably part of the DC Universe with adventures in summer camps giving these just the right level of kid appeal.

3) Spider-Ham by Larry Hama and Tom De Falco (Marvel Comics).
Bitten by a radioactive spider, a pig becomes part of the Spider-Verse in a series of surreal wisecracking adventures. Satisfyingly spider, funny and just a little bit crazy.

4) Louis by Metaphrog (Self Published). More surreality than you can possibly handle, with a completely engaging central character just trying to live his best life.

There's so much to unpack here, from Louis' musings on his almost cube-bound simple life to his friendship with awesome best birdy pal FC, and the nefarious plots of his 'frenemies', a boss and his "Shiny" sidekick. Hunt these down, they're just so good!

5) The Phoenix Comic (David Fickling / Phoenix Publishing)

We've been reading the Phoenix since C was a tiny mite, and even though she was probably a bit young for it originally, she's grown up loving the strips and becoming familiar with the characters in a comic that is undeniably "hers" just as 2000AD was mine when I was a nipper. Effortlessly diverse, reeking of quality from cover to cover, with a fantastic mix of funny strips, action, adventure, sci fi, and even gritty dystopia, it's the comic that keeps on giving and it just keeps getting better and better every year. Pick up the collected "Phoenix Presents" series for a taster before diving in on the main comic weekly and don't miss out on strips such as Corpse Talk (history has never been so much fun!), Von Doogan (our brains still hurt from working our way through the last adventure!), Mega Robo Bros, Looshkin, Troy Trailblazer, Squid Bits, Gorebrah and so many, many more awesome strips and characters that make this awesome comic utterly essential to our weekly sanity on the blog!

6) The Beano / The Dandy (DC Thomson)

Two of the longest-running kids comics out there, and with good reason. Both The Beano and The Dandy have continued to offer up a brilliant mix of familiar and new characters, constantly evolving and attracting some of the best talent out there. Though concentrating mostly on funny strips, both The Beano and The Dandy are still well loved (and well read) by us, and still offer up an enviable cast of characters for kids looking for a decent weekly funny comic. Both brilliant!

7) The Holidays by Blexbolex (Gecko Press)

Wordless graphic novels should be more of a thing. They take skill and cunning to pull off perfectly, and Gecko Press have been publishing some of the best examples over the last few years, dancing that thin line between 'pure' graphic novel and picture book. "The Holidays" is a simple story of childhood seen through the eyes of a young girl setting off on her holidays with her dad. It begins fairly ordinarily before descending into a whirlwind maelstrom of imagination and surreality as the girl enhances her world with daydreams and flights of fancy. Argue all you want whether this should be in a comic / graphic novel roundup but it feels very much like a lot of high concept grown-up graphic novels, and is an utterly stunning piece of art.

8) Marvel Rising by Ryan North, Devin Wilson, Guruhiri and others (Marvel)

Finding your way into the sheer sprawl of the Marvel Universe (movie or comic) is tough, and we're often asked what comics from Marvel's gigantic back catalogue we'd recommend as 'safe' for younger kids. "Marvel Rising" isn't just put together by some of the cream of Marvel's writing and illustration talent, it features some of their most exciting characters of the last few years with a mighty roster comprising Ms Marvel, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Captain Marvel, New Captain America and many others. Packed with awesome storytelling, mighty girls and boys, and a ton of kick-ass action yet pretty safe for 4-5 upwards.

9) Welcome to Oddleigh by Tor Freeman (Bog Eyed Books)

Tor is just too, too good! As a regular contributor to "The Phoenix Comic" and of course a massively popular author and artist in her own right, here she's collected together a series of incredibly funny comic strips about ordinary everyday animal folk, that comes across like a crazed mash-up between Richard Scarry, Edgar Wright and Tove Jansson.

"Welcome to Oddleigh" is pant-wettingly rib-tickling storytelling with a ton of distinctly eccentric anthropomorphic animal characters policed by long-suffering cops Chief Inspector Jessie and Sergeant Sid. Chock full of mystery, suspense, hilarity and surreality in equal measure, this is genius stuff!

10) Steven Universe by Various Artists / Authors (Titan Comics)
Easily as brilliant as the show that spawned them, these monthly comics are regularly collected into different volumes, each riffing on themes and ideas that have made the show such a huge success. Steven and the Crystal Gems are a perfect fit for comics, and the title has attracted some of the most enviable talent in the business such as Melanie Gilman and Katie Farina, steering the series towards storylines that will give your kids a fantastic slice of colourful candy-coloured fantasy.

11) Doctor Who Comic by various artists / authors (Titan Comics)

Another licensed comic, one that has been running for many, many years but is constantly reinvented, rebooted and regenerated almost as much as the good Doctor him/herself. Splintered into various series each favouring a particular 'flavour' of Doctor, right up to current awesome Doctor 13, Jodie Whittaker, these are often small run series or brilliant standalones featuring top quality artwork and writing from some of the brightest and best working in comics today. Perfect if you have younger fans of the show at home, though possibly more suitable for the 5-7 year olds, or through to middle grade and beyond but worthy of inclusion in early years as Doctor Who's fanbase is increasingly starting earlier.

12) Akissi by Marguerite Abouet and Matthieu Sapin (Flying Eye / NoBrow)

Kids comics really do not get any better than this, the fantastic adventures of energetic Akissi and her family living in a township in Africa. Like most little girls Akissi can be an absolute angel, but is usually more commonly found getting up to mischief along with her friends.

Flying Eye / NoBrow Press have translated two volumes of Akissi's adventures from Marguerite and Matthieu, and they're just so good. Funny, beautifully observed and featuring a superbly mischievous main character who you just cannot fail to admire, even though most of the time she's up to no good!

These have hit our Book of the Week slot every time they've been translated and the only sad thing about them is that there aren't more available in English (though it gives us an excuse to brush up on our French to pick up the rest of Akissi's adventures!)

13) Anna and Froga by Anouk Ricard (Drawn and Quarterly)

With a completely surreal collection of characters, and laughs that just don't stop, the "Anna and Froga" series are brilliant pint-sized 'strip cartoon' type comics that feature the adventures of Anna and her crazy bunch of animal pals including Christopher (a weird and love-lorn worm) and Bubu (a braggardly dog who pretty much steals the show in every strip!)

Brilliantly illustrated and beautifully written with the sort of wry sense of humour that kids completely 'get', there are a couple of collected editions of these - and of course a ton of comics in Anouk's native language (those French REALLY know what they're doing when it comes to comics!).

It's impossible to resist stuff this funny, weird and entertaining with storylines touching on everything from Bubu's totally hopeless Christmas gifts (made of fudgesicle sticks) to Christopher's crush on a beautiful actress worm. Absolutely unmissable stuff.

14) Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke (FirstSecond)

Sci fi for kids is definitely on the up and the superb "Zita the Spacegirl" by Ben Hatke effortlessly zips across the cosmos to bring you the mighty girl adventures of Zita, cruising the stars and exploring weird alien worlds in her spaceship. Ben has a gift for writing superb kid-friendly sci fi and fantasy (also check out his "Mighty Jack" series), with gorgeous artwork and fantastic plots. We definitely want more of Zita's adventures though for sure!

15) Azzi In Between by Sarah Garland (Frances Lincoln Childrens Books)

Probably one of the most important, heartbreaking and brilliant graphic novels depicting what it's like to be a child in a war-torn country, "Azzi In Between" by Sarah Garland is just superb gritty stuff, perfectly underlining what it would feel like to be a child in the midst of chaotic upheaval, watching your country being systematically destroyed around you.

Azzi is a strong character, in some respects an ordinary little girl placed in the most extraordinary circumstances purely because of where she was born.

Approved by Amnesty International, "Azzi In Between" raises awareness in children (and adults) in an impactive and direct way, triggers further discussion and investigation into what happens when war, famine or oppression affect people's lives.

Sarah's child-friendly artwork and the story's curve between Azzi's initial fairly normal life, and what happens when war arrives on the doorstep, is compelling and gritty stuff but produced in a way that children will understand and digest, and best of all, raise their own questions about long after you've turned the last page. Utterly essential to any young comic fan's growing library.

16) Red's Planet by Eddie Pitman (Amulet / Abrams)

More whip-smart sci fi surreality, this time collected across several arcing storylines contained in the superb "Red's Planet" series by Eddie Pitman. Bringing his awesome storyboarding skills to bear in a tale of an ordinary everyday girl who finds this world more than a little boring and lonely, as an orphan struggling to find her place in life. 

That all changes when Red is whisked off to a bizarre alien planet, abducted and left to fend for herself. Though being a bit of a smart alec with plenty of street smarts will save Red many times, as will making new friends on the bizarre alien worlds she finds herself. 

Superb themes of friendship and believing in yourself play out across Eddie's trademark super-colourful panels, this one seems to slide under most people's radar but has been a huge fave of ours for several years now, with each volume in the series getting better and better. 

17) Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur by Brandon Montclare, Amy Reeder and Natacha Bustos (Marvel Comics)

Marvel have definitely been producing more and more impressive kid-friendly comics over the last few years, and we're always on the hunt for comics that work for a range of age groups, right through early years and touching on middle grade. 

"Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur" by Montclare, Reeder and Bustos covers those bases perfectly by featuring a younger character than your normal average everyday Marvel superhero. 

Lunella Lafayette is the cleverest kid in school by a long margin, but struggles to fit in and be anything other than just the 'nerdy kid'. 

After a run-in with the "Inhuman" cloud, Lunella's life changes utterly when she time-shifts and begins to accidentally 'swap brains' with a gigantic red T-Rex, who also happens to become her bestie! As you can imagine, Lunella's skills in cybernetics, lego and mathematics also come in handy for defeating supervillains, and also fending off the nefarious plans of a group of time-displaced cavemen who want to reclaim a mysterious artefact that's accidentally dropped into Lunella's lap. The quieter moments in the strip where Lunella's hapless parents try to figure out how best to bring up a super-genius who has a literal rage monster that could bite your head off are just part of the colossal appeal. Younger kids (particularly those who love dinosaurs and science) are going to lap this up, it's just brilliant!

18) Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Shannon Watters and Brooke Allen (Boom!)

Again this is a comic series that comfortably 'fits' for a huge range of ages, and we reckon it's a pretty good place to start for confident early readers who love a good dose of girl power and fantasy themes. Little Miss asked me to point out that she started reading these when she was 6, if you're looking for some sort of yardstick or age guideline, but I reckon you might want to enjoy these with your kids as a readaloud thing unless they're fine with comic panels and layouts. 

So enough yapping, what the hootin' heck is Lumberjanes all about? It's about a strange collective of awesome girls who happen to be Girl Scouts. Meet Jo, April, Mal, Molly and Ripley - best friends forever but also a force to be reckoned with when it comes to camping out in the woods, building fires and taking care of the woodland creatures they meet - well, apart from the ones they end up biffing on the chin.

Like a crazy mash up of Gravity Falls, The Powerpuff Girls and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this introductory collection of the first six comics introduces the gang and their forestial world - where not quite everything is as it seems, or as it should be. Now breaking out into a series of middle grade novels as well as the original comics and collected editions, this is easily one of our top recommendations for the slightly older end of our age spectrum that'll last them well into MG and beyond.

19) The "Narwhal and Jelly" series from Ben Clanton (Egmont)

More hilarious stuff from a series that's gone from strength to strength since we first featured it last year. "Narwhal and Jelly" books are perfect introductory titles for mini comic fans, featuring the crazy undersea adventures of Narwhal (the unicorn of the sea!) and his pal Jelly (a jellyfish, definitely the brains of the outfit but don't let Narwhal hear you say that). 

With a touch of Spongebob Squarepants-style craziness, these mini graphic novels are just superbly entertaining, and Narwhal and Jelly are brilliant buddies, and comic compadres. 

We've been delighted to see bigger publishers such as Egmont taking on and publishing more kid-friendly comics, and this is a fab series we hope to see much more of in 2020.

20) Ella Upgraded by Dan Whitehead, PR Dedelis, Abby Bulmer and Jim Campbell (Zebra Comics)

Perfect for kids who love videogames, "Ella Upgraded" comes from a veteran games writer and journalist who turns his awesome experience into a set of stories featuring a very special girl with an amazing cybernetic secret. Given videogame-powered super-awesomeness by her big brother, Ella decides to use her new-found powers for good, fighting crime and solving mysteries thanks to her 'upgrade'. Blisteringly paced, brilliantly illustrated, and perfect for gaming-obsessed kids.

21) Lucy the Octopus by Richy K. Chandler (Jessica King Publishing)

Ever felt like a fish out of water? Or how about an Octopus who doesn't quite 'fit in' with the cool kids, and whose parents regularly crop her out of family photos (whaaaat??) "Lucy the Octopus" is a superb collection of funny comic strips that deserves a huge amount more attention than it originally got, coming from indie comics creator Richy K. Chandler. These are beautifully observed strips that deal with a ton of the issues kids themselves will fully identify with, in a really funny and sometimes quite heartfelt way as Lucy dreams of joining her favourite band Lamington Fuzz, rocking out and finally being accepted by her friends and her sibs. It's a fantastic collection, and we hope Richy is dreaming up more adventures for Lucy, it's top quality comic goodness!

22) Melowy by Cortney Faye Powell and Ryan Jampole (Papercutz)

Not to be mistaken for My Little Pony in any way, shape or form, this fab fantasy series really caught my daughter's eye last year, in a superb equestrian world filled with colour and coolness. 

The "Melowy" of the title are magical creatures who attend the Unicorn Academy, honing their magic skills across four ancient island realms. At the age of 14, young Melowies all come together at the amazing floating Castle of Destiny to begin their magical training. 

Each Melowy has a special power of their own, and magical symbols on their wings giving them individuality and character (and endless merchandising opportunities!)

I was fairly dismissive about this series at first, but when C started to rave about it I decided to dig in, and despite first appearances, it's a superbly intelligent and smart piece of comic writing clad in the most vibrant and colourful art imaginable. Don't be put off by the whole MLP appearance of this, it's way better than that. 

23) Stig and Tilde: Vanisher's Island by Max De Radigues (Flying Eye / NoBrow Press)

Flying Eye / NoBrow Press feature heavily in our list with good reason - they produce some of the most stunning graphic novels for kids and the superbly dark "Stig and Tilde: Vanisher's Island" is no exception. 

For those of you who think that kids comics play it way too safe, this is definitely something completely unexpected. The adventures of twins Stig and Tilde have been wowing comic fans across the channel for some time, so it's great to finally see translations of Max's awesome stories arriving on our shores (with a new book coming this year, we cannot wait!)

In "Stig and Tilde: Vanisher's Island" two intrepid and adventurous twins hop on a dinghy and head to a desert island, as part of a rites of passage.

Traditionally kids would set off every summer at a certain point in their lives to spend an entire year fending for themselves.

For Stig and Tilde though, tradition has turned into a month away at a summer camp on an island - one that even has Internet! Wow!

Unfortunately for them, their journey takes an unexpected turn as they both end up locked in the under-deck of their tiny boat during a storm, and soon they end up shipwrecked on the wrong island.

An uninhabited island.

Or so they thought...

The two kids will be tested to the limits as they try to repair their boat, and face off against a mysterious supernatural character who takes a shine to Tilde. Blistering storytelling with fantastic sharp artwork, it's definitely recommended for kids who like their stories a lot more spooky and dark. 

24) The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North, Erica Henderson and Rico Renzi (Marvel Comics)

We've already touched on this genius character, joining the cast of "Marvel Rising" but her own comic collections are works of divine genius. Effortlessly taking a minor Ditko character and making her their own, Ryan North and Erica Henderson (with later art contributions from Rico Renzi in the series) rebooted Squirrel Girl and how! 

Now a kick-ass computer science major, Doreen Green can harness the power of squirrels - and has pretty much kicked just about everyone else's butt in the Marvel Universe (I mean literally, she split into two, and her evil side beat up just about everyone including the Hulk, Captain America, Spider-Man, you name it, she duffed 'em up!)

But these stories are about way way more than eating nuts and kicking butts, Doreen is the kind of female superhero that instantly appealed to my daughter, mixing brains and brawn in equal measure, and often with stories chock full of feels and humanity that you normally wouldn't expect to see in the MCU. 

As the series has now drawn to a close (we have no idea why, I mean C'MON Marvel, you make us suffer series after series of has-been heroes but shut down the mighty Squirrel Girl?) you can at least seek solace in the collected volumes which are just too good to miss. Until Kevin Feige sees sense and does a full-on Squirrel Girl live-action movie, luxuriate in reading one of the best modern comic series from this mighty publisher. 

25) Hilo - The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winnick (Puffin)

Again it's fantastic to see publishers not normally associated with comics jumping in on the kid-comic bandwagon and publishing some superb stuff like "Hilo - The Boy Who Crashed to Earth". "Hilo" introduces D.J. and his friend Gina, who are totally normal everyday kids just pootling along and minding their own business.

One day they're hanging out in their club house when a mysterious stranger - a boy - literally crashes the party, smashing straight through their clubhouse roof.

They manage to communicate with the stranger, an alien kid called Hilo.

Hilo doesn't know where he came from, or what he's doing on Earth (or why going to school in only your underwear is a bad idea - hey, we've all done it, right?!) but he's starting to think he might not be the only alien to have crash-landed on our planet. Somewhere out there he can find a link to home.

Can the trio unlock the secrets of his past? Can Hilo survive a day at school? And are D.J. and Gina ready to save the world? A superb fish-out-of-water tale, equal parts funny and melancholy with a huge heart, really fantastic stuff for fairly confident early readers.

So that's it for part one. Tune in next week for part two where we take a closer look at comics to keep your kids interested in reading when they're normally entering the realm of only being interested in what's happening on their phones...The tricky world of Tween and YA comics!