14 Diverse Graphic Novels About Coming of Age
A broad range of perspectives on the drama of becoming an adult
Everyone has a coming-of-age story. We have all been on the cusp of adulthood struggling to find our identity, balancing the societal pressure to conform and fit in with the mainstream with the innate desire to rebel and stand out. Yet the publishing world tends to collapse these multifarious, complex transformations into the same cookie-cutter narratives, leaving out a whole lot of variations on what it means to become an adult.
One place where diverse coming-of-age stories are thriving, though, is graphic novels. (Although we didn’t find any by black authors—so there’s a hole in the market!) These visually beautiful tomes also offer a richer view of life in adolescence. From an Iranian girl rebelling against the oppression of post-revolution Iran to a “tomboy” refusing to conform to gender norms, these 14 graphic bildungsromans blend gorgeous artwork with the written word to create a diverse multiplicity of narratives telling of the confusion, joy, and hardship of growing up.
Nylon Road: A Graphic Memoir of Coming of Age in Iran by Parsua Bashi
Bashi left war-torn Iran 2004 for a safe haven in Switzerland, but adapting to a new life in Zurich comes with challenges. She struggles to find a good job, to learn German and English and to make friends. Unable to engage in “real life” in her “new society”, she feels “like a useless asshole.” Her ennui materializes in the form of a 6-year-old girl in her kitchen, her younger self. She is haunted by various incarnations of her past—the teenage political rebel who rants about class oppression, the religious young wife in an abusive marriage, the defeated, grief-stricken mother, the hopeful migrant, and more — who disapprove of her current lifestyle. Her arguments with her adversarial past selves reveals painful episodes from her past, explains the choices that lead to her present, and shows Bashi’s gradual transformation into the person she is in the present day. Bashi’s thought-provoking graphic memoir criticizes not only the abuses and oppressive aftermath of the Revolution, but also denounces the West’s claim to moral superiority, highlighting the racial prejudices and rampant consumerism of the West.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
Bruce Bechdel is a third-generation funeral home director and a high school English teacher. He spends his time feverishly restoring the family’s Victorian home and engaging in covert affairs with his male students and the family babysitter. Oh, did I forget to mention he’s also a closeted gay man? Alison craves the affection of her emotionally withholding father who pours all his love into their mausoleum of a home. As Alison comes of age and embraces her sexuality, she struggles to come out as a lesbian as tragedy in the family strikes. Fun Home is a heartbreakingly funny and honest graphic memoir of a daughter longing for closure and piecing together memories of her father through the lens of their shared, but unexpressed homosexuality.
Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani
Priyanka “Pri” Das harbors many questions: Why did her mother move to America? Why has she has vowed never to return to India? Where is her father? Why won’t her mother speak of him? Pri’s mother refuses to answer, telling her: “That subject is permanently closed.” Soon, Pri finds a silk shawl hidden in a forgotten suitcase. When wrapped around her shoulders, the pashima transports her from the black-and-white tones of her mundane California life to the India of her dreams, bursting with a kaleidoscope of color. But Pri knows this romanticized India is not real. She journeys to her ancestral homeland to uncover the hidden truths of her past with a little help from Shakti, the Divine Mother Goddess. Pooja Makhijani interviewed the author for Electric Literature about “magical realism, South Asian families, and how Pashmina came to be”.
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood & Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi
Divided into two parts, Persepolis recounts the story Satrapi’s childhood in Tehran at the dawn of the Islamic Revolution and her coming of age as an unwanted foreigner in Vienna. The outspoken daughter of loving, liberal parents, Marji turned 9 during the deposing of the Shah and witnesses Iran’s rapid fundamentalist transformation. The oppressive regime makes the veil mandatory for women, abolishes secular co-ed education, imprisons and executes political prisoners (including Marji’s beloved friends and relatives). In an act of rebellion, Marji takes to wearing black-market Nikes as a symbol of freedom. As the Iran-Iraq war worsens, her family reluctantly sends her away to complete her education in safety. Alone in Austria, Marji struggles to fit in and find belonging in a xenophobic country that conflates her with the extremists she escaped from. Persepolis is a raw, heartbreaking, and enthralling graphic memoir of a headstrong, tenacious girl fighting oppression and pursuing independence in post-revolution Iran.
Town Boy by Lat
Town Boy is a sequel to the charming and wistful Kampung Boy, a graphic memoir of a Muslim boy growing up in an idyllic village in rural Malaysia in the 1960s. Lat moves to the city to attend boarding school, leaving behind the familiar rubber plantations and tin mines of his hometown for a new life amidst the colorful shophouses and grand colonial buildings of bustling, multicultural Ipoh. He quickly forges a strong friendship with Frankie, a Malaysian Chinese boy, bonding over their shared love of rock-and-roll. Over the next seven years, the teenage duo experience the universal challenges of growing up — falling in love, hiding in the back row of classrooms, discovering new passions, rebelling against parental wishes — depicted through beautifully drawn artwork.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
American Born Chinese weaves together three disparate coming-of-age stories that converge with a clever twist. The first chapter reimagines the legendary Chinese fable of the Monkey King attempting to transcend his monkey nature to earn a place in heaven after being kicked out of a dinner party for gods. An action-packed fight scene with creator god Tze-Yo-Tzuh ends with a humbling defeat with the Monkey King realizing that “to find your true identity…that is the highest of all freedoms.” The second narrative features Jin Wang, who moves from San Francisco’s Chinatown to a vanilla white suburb. Jin just wants to be an “all-American Boy” and fit in instead of having to answer dumb questions like “Do you eat cats?” and enduring the racist taunts of schoolyard bullies. In the last story, blue-eyed, blonde-haired Danny turns into the school pariah during an embarrassing visit from his fresh-off-the-boat cousin, Chin-Kee. Chin-Kee, a “chinky”-eyed kung-fu warrior clad in traditional attire with a waist-length braided ponytail and a pidgin accent (“HARRO AMELLICA!”), is a cringe-inducing caricature of prejudiced stereotypes perpetuated by American pop culture (I’m looking at you, Sixteen Candles). American Born Chinese reveals the prejudices of a society that simultaneously pressures Asians into assimilating into whiteness and rejecting their heritage, but refuses to accept us as anything but perpetual foreigners; a necessary read to understand the struggles of being Asian in America.
Tomboy by Liz Prince
As a child, Liz wore jeans and a T-shirt and played baseball with the boys while other girls played princess in pink tutus. She hated anything “girly” to the point of chauvinism before realizing she did not want to become a boy, but desired the independence associated with masculinity. As she hits puberty, Liz struggles to fit in and find acceptance in her high school, becoming the target of ridicule and bullying, and crushing on boys who reject her over for “feminine” girls. Spanning early childhood into adulthood, Tomboy is a humorous and heartbreaking account of staying true to yourself in a black and white world that demands conformity to stereotypical gender roles.
Skim by Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki
Kimberly Keiko Cameron, known as “Skim” because “she’s not slim,” and her best friend Lisa are both chubby and biracial, making them outcasts in their all-girls private Catholic high school. The two teenagers experiment with Wicca and dress in goth attire, reveling in their outsider status until Lisa get a chance to join the popular clique of blonde, peppy white girls. A panicked uproar over the suicide of the (possibly gay) boyfriend of a popular classmate leads to the school treating Skim as a suicide risk (just for being different). Amidst the forced therapy sessions and fake hugs from “concerned” classmates, Skim develops a crush on neo-hippie English teacher, Ms. Archer, who unwisely allows their friendship to bloom into an illicit romance.
Blue Is the Warmest Color by Julie Maroh
The film Blue Is the Warmest Color, winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, began as an eponymous graphic novel of tragic love. High school junior Clementine catches the eye of Emma, a confident blue-haired art student on the streets. After a chance encounter at a local gay bar, Clementine and Emma fall in love. Emma is an outspoken activist, seeing her sexual identity as an integral part of her social and political life while Clem hides her homosexuality from the outside world. Their divergent views of coming out leads to cracks in their relationship, culminating in tragedy.
The Arab of the Future Series by Riad Sattouf
Cartoonist Riad Sattouf spent his childhood in the Middle East under the shadow of three dictators. At the tender age of two, Sattouf and his parents emigrated to Libya where Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was known as the eccentric “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution.” The second was Hafez Assad of Syria (predecessor to the current Syrian megalomaniac), president of 4-year-old Sattouf’s new home. The last tyrant was his father, a Syrian professor who met his French wife in the cafeteria as students at the Sorbonne in Paris and swept his family up in his grandiose dream of ruling as president over a pan-Arab utopia. In Tripoli, the family lived in an unlockable house (courtesy of Gaddafi’s abolishment of private property) and returned from a walk to find squatters residing in their home. The scarcity of food meant the family survived solely on bananas or eggs for weeks. The relocation to his father’s home village in rural Syria proved even harsher. The local kids denounced little blonde Sattouf as a Jew and started beating him up. In the third installment explores the tension between his mother who, fed up with austere village life, wants to return to France and his father who still firmly believes in the promise of a prosperous and modern Arab nation. Sattouf uses cartoonish characters with exaggerated features and pops of color (light blue for France, yellow for Libya, pink for Syria) to show the perspective of a child growing up in the Middle East.
Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home by Nicole J. Georges
Nicole J. Georges was a sixteen-year-old high school drop out when she adopted Beija, a shar-pei/corgi puppy, from a shelter as a holiday gift for her boyfriend. That boyfriend didn’t last, but Beija, a neurotic “bad dog” who hated men and attacked small children, stayed by Georges’s side for the next fifteen years. As Georges navigated a tumultuous young adulthood, heartbreaking relationships, a changing sexual identity, and a move from the Midwest to Portland, Beija and her “Don’t Pet Me” bandana remained a steadfast companion, who as she describes it, “loved me even when I lapsed in loving myself.”
Snapshots of a Girl By Beldan Sezen
Snapshots of a Girl is a humorous, heartrending graphic memoir about the author’s coming of age and coming out in both Western and Islamic culture. The daughter of Turkish immigrants in Germany, Sezen explores the conflicts of growing up as a queer person of color in modern Europe. The first part of the book, “The Denial Years,” navigates Sezen’s sexual awakening as she tries to date with men, only to find disappointment. After much self doubt and denial, Sezen gradually embraces her attraction to women and attempts to come out to her conservative parents. Charming and quirky, Snapshots of a Girl is a moving story of a young woman’s pursuit of happiness as she learns to embrace her body and her sexuality.
a + e 4ever by Ilike Merey
Asher, a shy newcomer to his high school, becomes the target of his classmates’ ridicule and physical violence because of his androgynous appearance. Drawn to his fragility, Eulalie develops a friendship with Ash after rescuing him from lunchroom bullies. A tough-talking, heavy-metal listening butch girl, Eu understands the intense loneliness that comes with being different. Bonded by a love of drawing, raves, alternatives music, the genderqueer outcasts navigate love, friendship, and sexuality to discover who they really are.
Mis(h)adra by Iasmin Omar Ata
Isaac is an Arab American college student in New York City, battling epilepsy. He pushes himself to play the role of a normal college student, partying hard and studying for midterms until a violent seizures hospitalizes him. Drawn in a Manga-inspired style, Ata depicts the onset of Isaac’s seizures as a pack of floating one-eyed daggers, surrounding him menacingly and then stabbing him into oblivion. Isaac feels increasingly isolated and defeated as his friends and teachers downplay the severity of his diagnosis and medical professionals question the legitimacy of his illness, but he finds a sympathetic new ally in Jo, a friend-of-a-friend. Mis(h)adra provides readers with a vivid and intimate look into the day-to-day life of a young man with epilepsy doing his best to survive in an apathetic world.