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GC4K Reading List: Comics That Celebrate America’s Cultural Diversity

Katherine Dacey
Among the folks who responded to our Summer Reading List was a librarian who asked if we could compile a similar bibliography of titles featuring historically under-represented groups, a challenge we happily accepted. Below are the results of our collective effort to identify comics and graphic novels that reflect America’s real cultural diversity. Some of these titles, such as American Born Chinese and Incognegro, address issues of race, religion, and discrimination head-on, while others, such as Knights of the Lunch Table: The Dodgeball Chronicles and Blue Beetle: Shellshocked, present diversity as a simple fact of American life. Our list isn’t intended to be exhaustive; as we imagine it, this document can and should be revised to reflect the publication of new books and to incorporate suggestions from librarians and teachers working in diverse communities. We welcome your feedback, and encourage you to add your own recommendations in the comment section below. 

A special thank-you to Brigid Alverson, Robin Brenner, Lori Henderson, Esther Keller, Eva Volin, and Snow Wildsmith for their thoughtful — and numerous! — contributions to this list.

PRE-TEENS

claudia GC4K Reading List: Comics That Celebrate Americas Cultural DiversityThe Baby-Sitters Club (By Raina Telgemeier; Graphix)
Th
e graphic adaptation of the 1986 series of the same name, this features four friends who create a club that lend out their babysitting needs. While Claudia, of Asian American descent, is in all of the books, she is featured in volume four, Claudia & Mean Jeanine.  –Esther Keller

The Complete Peanuts
, Vol. 9: 1967-68
(By Charles M. Schulz; Fantagraphics)

In July 1968, Charles M. Schulz added a new member to the Peanuts gang: Franklin, the series’ first African-American character. Franklin played on their baseball team, attended school with Peppermint Patty and Marcie, and traded thoughtful sentiments with Peanuts’ blanket-philosopher, Linus. Though Franklin was (and remained) the only recurring African-American character in the strip, Schulz simply treated him as part of Charlie Brown’s community — a bold statement in 1968, given lingering Southern resentment about integration. – Katherine Dacey

Doctor Who Classics, Vol. 1 (By Pat Mills, John Wagner, and Dave Gibbons; IDW)
The Doctor is an alien that travels through time and space in a blue Police Box called the TARDIS. In his fourth regeneration, with big eyes, curly hair and a long multi-colored scarf, he picks up a teenage girl named Sharon form Northern England. Sharon is smart and savvy, taking to traveling with the Doctor like a fish to water. She is also black, although race is never an issue, and other than her hair, there’s nothing stereotypical about her. She travels with the Doctor through many adventures before falling in love and choosing to stay with a man in the future.  –Lori Henderson

Doctor Who: Agent Provocoteur
(By Gary Russell and Nick Roche; IDW)
The Doctor, now in his tenth regeneration, has a new look and a new companion. Based on the TV series currently running in Great Britain and in the US, the Doctor is young, handsome can man in a pinstrip suite and overcoat. His companion is Martha Jones, a black medical student who falls for the Doctor and joins him on adventures. This mini-series and the second series, The Forgotten, feature adventures for the Doctor and Martha that make up a larger, overarching story. Once again, race has no meaning for the Doctor, as he relies on Martha’s abilities to get through the adventures. –Lori Henderson

The Elsewhere Chronicles
(By Bannister & Nykko; Graphic Universe)
Three young teens, Max, Noah & Rebeccah, discover an old movie projector that is a portal to another world. The three get stuck and must find their way back home.  –Esther Keller


Hereville (By Barry Deutsch; webcomic at www.hereville.com) The heroine of Hereville is Mirka, an 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl who is determined to slay dragons someday. Mirka’s lifestyle is integrated into the story and Deutsch takes the time to explain traditions that may be unfamliar to the reader. –Brigid Alverson

Knights of the Lunch Table: The Dodgeball Chronicles (By Frank Cammuso; Scholastic)

A fun re-telling of the Arthurian legends, where Artie King and his friends Percy and Wayne must defeat a gang of bullies in a winner-take-all game of dodgeball. Both Percy and Mr. Merlyn, the science teacher, are African American, but no special mention of race is made.  –Eva Volin

littlerock9 GC4K Reading List: Comics That Celebrate Americas Cultural DiversityLittle Rock Nine (By Marshall Poe and Ellen Lindner; Aladdin)

Two high school students — William and Thomas — find their lives changed by the government’s order to integrate Little Rock High School and the protests from the white community. This historical fiction title is nuanced and well-researched, showing the full range of reactions from both blacks and whites. –Snow Wildsmith

Luke on the Loose (By Harry Bliss; Toon Books)*
Illustrator Harry Bliss is best known for his contributions to The New Yorker, so it should come as no surprise that his first all-ages comic book is set in the Big Apple. The story focuses on four-year-old Luke who, on a visit to the park, spies a flock of pigeons, breaks free of his dad’s grasp, and gives chase, running across busy streets and crashing through outdoor cafes, creating pandemoniu
m wherever he goes. Bliss’s work stands up to multiple readings, thanks to the abundance of small, interesting details: in one panel, for example, observant readers may notice a "Wanted" poster for The Hulk, while in another, Harold of Magic Crayon fame makes a cameo. (My personal favorite: a word balloon that reads, "Boring dad talk.") Luke on the Loose is one of the few all-ages comics to portray the ethnic and racial diversity of American cities in a matter-of-fact way, making this book a great choice for a young urban dweller’s reading list. –Katherine Dacey


Rock & Roll Love
(By Misako Rocks!; Hyperion)
Misako, a Japanese exchange student, learns to adjust to American life with the help of her African-American host family, especially their teenage daughter, Natalie. Yet when Misako falls in love with Zac, she learns that her feelings are unrequited, making American life all that more difficult to bear.  –Esther Keller.

shadowrock GC4K Reading List: Comics That Celebrate Americas Cultural Diversity

Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow (By James Sturm and Rich Tommaso; Hyperion/Jump at the Sun)
The story of the great baseball player, Satchel Paige, his struggles as he commanded respect in the Jim Crow era. –Esther Keller


The Scrapyard Detectives
(By Bill Galvan and others; Diversity Ink)
These adventure comics feature a multi-ethnic group of kids, each with a distinct personality and unusual talents. In fact, there’s a bit of "it’s cool to be a nerd" in these books as well. Together they invent things and solve mysteries in their secret junkyard clubhouse. Good adventure/mystery stories, decent art, and a minimum of preaching make these a pretty good read. –Brigid Alverson

Shadow Rock (By Jeremy and Robert Love; Dark Horse)
Timothy London just moved to fishing hamlet Shadow Rock after the death of his mother and is more or less successfully trying to weather the challenges of being the new kid: bullying and a lack of friends. Then, however, he finds a new friend: on the plus side, he’s a lot of fun and cheers Timothy up, but on the minus side, he’s a ghost. Trying to solve the mystery of his new friend’s murder and expose the town’s dirty secrets, Timothy has to find courage inside as well as out.  –Robin Brenner

 

TEENS (Ages 13+)

abc GC4K Reading List: Comics That Celebrate Americas Cultural DiversityAmerican Born Chinese (By Gene Luen Yang; First Second)
In three interconnected vignettes, Gene Luen Yang tells the story of Danny, an American teen who’s acutely embarrassed by his cousin Chin-Kee. Chin-Kee is a grotesque figure, the embodiment of every negative Asian stereotype, from his buck-tooth appearance to his odd way of speaking. What Danny learns about himself as he comes to terms with his cousin isn’t terribly surprising, but reminds readers how difficult it can be to fit in when your self-image doesn’t match how others see you. Yang skillfully resolves all three stories in a single, magical conclusion that’s funny, wise, and a little rueful, too. –Katherine Dacey

Bayou, Vol. 1 (By Jeremy Love; Zuda Comics)
Bayou takes place in Depression-era Mississippi, where eight-year-old Lee and her father are sharecroppers. When a young white girl goes missing, local officials arrest Lee’s father on suspicion of murder. Only Lee knows the truth: Lily wasn’t kidnapped by a human, but by a malicious ogre that lives in the local swamp. Desperate to save her father from the gathering lynch mob, Lee sets out to find Lily, discovering a strange world under the swamp’s surface, one that teams with golliwogs and giants and other creatures straight out of Southern folklore. Jeremy Love handles this difficult subject with taste, using elements of magical realism to draw readers into the story while underscoring the indignities and dangers of the Jim Crow system. Bayou isn’t gory, but some of the imagery — particularly of lynching victims — make this comic best suited for the fifteen-and-up crowd. –Katherine Dacey

Blokhedz (By Mark and Mike Davis; Pocket Books)
Heavily influenced by manga’s style but telling a story all its own, Blokhedz follows the coming of age of aspiring rapper Blok, a young African-American teen who’s new-found power to use rap as a physical tool (or weapon) is both an asset and a problem in conflicts with gangs and underworld criminals. Blok’s journey is dark, especially as he gives in to his volatile temper, but the art and energy of the tale make it intriguing and enticing, especially to young men.  –Robin Brenner

bluebeetle GC4K Reading List: Comics That Celebrate Americas Cultural DiversityBlue Beetle: Shellshocked (By Keith Giffen; DC Comics)
When he’s chosen by the Blue Beetle Scarab to be the next host for its complex, alien powers, Texan teen Jaime Reyes is astounded but excited. Unlike most teenage superheroes, however, his first instinct is to tell his family about his new situation. Their reaction? OK, as long as he’s home by curfew. Jaime is one of the few Hispanic superheroes, and his family and his friends are shown as the strong network that keeps him balanced. The action and humor are nonstop, and as the story continues in future volumes, Jaime’s tale gets better and better.  –Robin Brenner

Cairo (By G. Willow Wilson and M. K. Perker; DC Comics)
Cairo is a magical realist thriller following the six intertwined lives of the city’s inhabitants, including a djinn (the inspiration for genies), a naive American tourist, an Israeli solider and a drug runner with a good heart. Written by a journalist based in Cairo, this tale gives a fantastical framework to current conflicts, not lessening the truth of the situation but instead illuminating the personal and cultural histories at stake.  –Robin Brenner


Comanche Moon (By Jack Jackson; Reed Press)
In 1836, Cynthia Ann Parker was kidnapped from her parents’ homestead during a Comanche raid. She lived among the Comanche for twenty-five years, marrying a chief and giving birth to a son, Quanah. Comanche Moon tells her heartbreaking story — she was forcibly returned to "civilization" as an adult — then continues the thread with Quanah’s, as he takes a stand against the US government’s repeated military and territorial encroachments. Drawing on his extensive knowledge of Texas history, artist Jack Jackson brings this true story to life through detailed pen-and-ink drawings that strongly resemble nineteenth-century lithographs. –Katherine Dacey 

Days Like This (By J. Torres and Scott Chantler; Oni Press)
This smartly illustrated graphic novel follows a trio of African-American girls living in Detroit during Motown’s heyday. With guidance from an aspiring record producer, they form Tina and the Tiaras, finding success and setbacks in equal measure. J. Torres’ script addresses a variety of social issues — racism, sexism — yet never feels heavy-handed or anachronistic, while Scott Chantler’s style evokes the period through its artful use of black and white images, finely observed details, and retro character designs. –Katherine Dacey

Fagin the Jew (By Will Eisner; Doubleday)
An adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist from the point of view of Fagin.  –Esther Keller

Good As Lily (By Derek Kirk Kim and Jesse Hamm; DC Comics/Minx)
Grace Kwon is not quite sure what’s happening, but she suddenly has three versions of herself, at ages 6, 29, and 70, interrupting her eighteenth birthday to offer unwanted advice and commentary on the state of her life. Derek Kirk Kim’s story is charming, making you realized just now much you don’t want future versions of yourself tut-tutting your decisions, and Jesse Hamm’s art is full of humor and empathy.  –Robin Brenner

Green Lantern: The Sinestro Corps War, Vols. 1-2 (By Geoff Johns, David Gibbons, and Ivan Reis; DC Comics)
In this YALSA-nominated series, John Stewart fights side-by-side with his fellow Lanterns to repell an intergalactic alliance of supervillains led by former ally Kyle Rayner. Stewart’s character was one of the first black superheroes in mainstream comics, making his debut in 1971, so there are plenty of other series to explore as well, from Justic League Unlimited to the out-of-print Green Lantern: Mosaic and Darkstars.

Incognegrocover GC4K Reading List: Comics That Celebrate Americas Cultural DiversityIncognegro (By Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece; Vertigo/DC)
Set in the 1930s and loosely based on the experiences of Walter White, the former chief executive of the NAACP, and others, this is the story of Zane Pinchback, an African American reporter from New York who "passes" for white in order to investigate and report on lynchings taking place in the south. Zane agrees to go undercover one last time, to investigate the murder of a white woman who had been dating a black man — who turns out to be Zane’s twin brother. A great hard boiled mystery and a fascinating look at race and identity, this book does contain violence and this images are, well, graphic, so may be best for older teens.  — Eva Volin


Johnny Hiro (By Fred Chao; AdHouse Books)*
Johnny Hiro is a goofy, fast-paced series that riffs on superhero comics, monster movies, and C-list martial arts films, to good effect. Its principle character, described on the dust jacket as "half-Asian, all hero," is a twenty-something everyman who finds himself tangling with giant lizards, giant lobsters, and a band of ronin on the loose in Manhattan. Though no one will confuse this cheeky, action-comedy with American Born Chinese, Fred Chao’s smart script challenges  Asian — and Asian-American — stereotypes in a similar fashion, using humor to dispel Westerners’ sometimes negative and simplistic view of Asian men. –Katherine Dacey

Minister Jade (By Steve Bialik; Cellar Door Publishing)
Set in a fantastical China when the Middle Kingdom has been overtaken by the Mongol hordes, Minister Jade is essentially a superhero tale set in ancient China. Reluctant hero Zhen is a civil servant, a scholar, and a bit of a coward who finds the inner strength the fight off a evil cult with magical jade armor. Full of humor, action, and art strongly influenced by traditional Chinese design, it’s a vivid origin story.  –Robin Brenner

Re-Gifters (By Mike Carey and Sonny Liew; Minx)

Jen Dik Seong–or "Dixie"–finds herself caught between her American ways and her Korean family, when she falls for California surfer boy and fellow martial arts student Adam. Her conflicting emotions endanger her chances at the championship… especially when she meets a new boy who’s street-smarts make him unlike anyone else she knows. Carey and Liew capture the troubles of every teenager who only wants to fit in, but who doesn’t quite know where "in" is. –Snow Wildsmith
 
Runaways (By Brian K. Vaughan, Joss Whedon, and Terry Moore consecutively; Marvel Comics)
Runaways is my favorite running superhero series, and one of its undoubtedly standout qualities is the diversity of this group of renegade, super-powered teens. The team is initially led by the African-American Alex Wilder, and as the series progresses leadership falls to Japanese-American Nico Minoru. Runaways is diverse in a variety of ways (including having one of the only lesbian teens in comics) but most importantly, is a well-written, complicated series twining together adolescence and superhero struggles with energy and insight. –Robin Brenner

skimrough GC4K Reading List: Comics That Celebrate Americas Cultural DiversitySkim (By Mariko and Jillian Tamaki; Groundwood Books)
Skim is the book for teenage girls who are a bit awkward, a bit brooding, and looking forward to the day when they can just be an adult already and avoid all of the uncomfortable first times of high school. Skim, Japanese-Canadian, navigates the aftershocks of suicide, first love, questions of sexuality, and fighting with best friends. Although there are dark moments, the most telling aspect of this book is that she is always getting stronger, even in her disappointments, and the book becomes of story of her changing definition of herself.  –Robin Brenner

Static Shock: The Rebirth of Cool (By Dwayne McDuffie; DC Comics)
Static Shock has had a long history as a comic book series and a television cartoon series, and happily this reboot comic series from DC is finally hitting the shelves. Virgil Hawkins, in all incarnations, is a smart, thoughtful African-American teenager who’s electromagnetic superpowers create a compelling traditional superhero story. McDuffie has had a long, successful run with this character, and it’s about time we see more.  –Robin Brenner

Young Avengers (By Allan Heinberg; Marvel)
A group of teens, with powers and names resembling the "old" Avengers, form a new group of superheroes. –Esther Keller

 * Indicates a featured title on the GC4K Summer Reading List.

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Katherine Dacey About Katherine Dacey

Katherine Dacey has been reviewing comics since 2006. From 2007 to 2008, she was the Senior Manga Editor at PopCultureShock, a site covering all aspects of the entertainment industry from comics to video games. In 2009, she launched The Manga Critic, where she focuses primarily on Japanese comics and novels in translation. Katherine lives and works in the Greater Boston area, and is a musicologist by training.

Comments

  1. Donnie Lemke says:

    Great discussion, Katherine, and a wonderful list of titles so far!! I’d like to add a few more. As a senior editor at Stone Arch Books, I carefully consider diversity in every graphic novel that I help create. From the preteen protagonists in our historical fiction (Captured Off Guard: The Attack on Pearl Harbor and Mystery at Manzanar: A WWII Internment Camp Story) to the crazy characters in our low-level graphics (Monster and Me, Invasion of the Gym Class Zombies, and The End Zone), each book reflects real-life kids and celebrates their widely varying uniqueness and style. I’m proud to work for a publisher that celebrates diversity, and I’m glad to see that others are doing so a well.

    Donnie Lemke
    Senior Editor, Stone Arch Books
    stonearchbooks.com

  2. Katherine Dacey says:

    Thank you for the additional suggestions, Donnie–we will definitely check out Stone Arch’s offerings!

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