Let’s face it. Comics and graphic novels, for the most part, are a pretty white lot. Since the very beginning, the vast majority of characters have been Caucasian, and, while characters of color have certainly existed in comics* before now, it isn’t until recently that racially diverse characters have been able to grab the spotlight in their own right. Below are three “must read” titles featuring main characters of color:
Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki: This elegant and thoughtful realistic graphic novel chronicles the tumultuous year of half-Japanese Kimberly “Skim” Keiko Cameron as she deals with the suicide of a classmate and falling in love for the first time. Especially vivid is a sexually confusing relationship with her free-spirited drama teacher who disappears suddenly, leaving Skim feeling heartbroken and unwanted. The beautifully drawn panels reference traditional Japanese printmaking and the stark black and white images echo the raw emotional tone. This one is gorgeous in both story and artwork and thoroughly earned its place as a 2009 Best Books for Young Adults Top Ten selection. Being sixteen feels exactly like this.
Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary by Keshni Kashyap and Mari Araki also examines the life of an older teen girl trying to deal with all the trials and tribulations that high school and first love bring, but the “comic” part of the title refers to not only the format but the humorous nature of the book. Built around the premise of a year long journaling assignment written to Jean-Paul Sartre, main character Tina muses over her loving but awkward Indian family, the seemingly overnight change of her former best friend, and a major crush on a classmate. Simply illustrated in line drawings with few delineated panels, this one flows a little more organically that your traditional graphic novel. This title is a current Great Graphic Novels for Teens nomination.
Another current Great Graphic Novels for Teens nomination is Ultimate Spider-Man by comic book legend Brian Michael Bendis and illustrated Sara Pichelli. I’m not a big superhero comic reader, but this one blew me away with the emotionally complex storyline and beautiful illustrations that are far above what one normally finds in a capes ‘n’ tights kind of book. In full disclosure, I didn’t really understand the whole Ultimate Universe thing, but it’s an alternate world where authors re-write the stories of established superheros. In this case, Peter Parker has been killed and another teen with spidey powers steps up — or tries — to take his place. Apparently having an African-American/Latino Spider-Man created a big ol’ ruckus when the comic was first released (summed up nicely by the Washington Post), which is all the more reason you and everyone you know should read it.
— Summer Hayes, currently reading Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
* I’m no comics expert and won’t even pretend to know how many superheros aren’t white, but after Storm and Black Panther, I’m stumped.