Comic books are a medium, not a genre, and that is awesome

I can easily say that the first thing people think of when they hear the words “comic book” is superheroes, myself included. Though I’ve been reading comics for about twenty-five years now, even I can fall into the trap of looking at comic books through a very narrow lens.

To be honest, the vast majority of comics you see on the shelf today are indeed superhero stories, though the definition of what that means has expanded considerably. “Superhero” no longer has to be defined as some big, super-powered white guy with a cape. Now it can include people of all races, genders, sexual orientations and religions. Ms. Marvel is currently a Muslim teenage girl from Jersey City, for example, and her book is selling great.

Your favorite genre show is probably available as a comic book, too. Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly, Doctor Who, even Game of Thrones, all have new stories in comic books that continue where the show or movies left off, or tell side stories about new characters and old favorites.

But let me take you beyond superheroes, for while they are definitely on their way to becoming more diverse, they do not define the breadth and width of what is possible in comics.  And let’s move past the more obvious licensed properties books. I love them, but they are an extension of an already existing story and don’t necessarily stretch the idea of what a comic book can be.

In theory, any story you could tell in the movies or in a book can be also told in comics. Comic books are a medium, not a genre. I’ve seen horror, sword & sandals, science fiction, and fantasy all tackled in floppy form. (floppy because single issues are usually pretty floppy). Because this is a flexible medium that treads the balance between prose and film without actually being either of them, comics are a stellar way to tell a story. You’re not limited to describing everything; as they say a picture is worth a thousand words. You’re never limited by an effects budget or casting, and your actors always hit their cues. Anything you can dream up can be told through comic books.

Comics are not limited to speculative/genre fiction, either. I have read stories about first love, depression, growing up, and all the other events of daily life. Classic literature has been adapted to the medium, too. There are, on the shelves right now, a Sherlock Holmes series and a Nancy Drew series. There’s even an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. Pick a genre and it’s been tackled as a comic book or OGN (original graphic novel, a long story in a single volume).

And I should note that comic books long ago shed the idea that they are for children only. While there are wonderful books aimed at children, there are as many, if not more, titles that tackle mature themes. Everything from deep political intrigue, murder and various NSFW topics are also published as comics. In my experience, comic book retailers are good about keeping the kids books separate for younger audiences, but as an adult, don’t be afraid to give a kid’s book a try. Lumberjanes, for example, is currently one of my absolute, drop-everything-and-read-it-now books. Comic books are not about limits.

Of course I would be really negligent in my duties here if I didn’t give some recommendations, right? A taste of what is possible, so you can go and hunt them down for yourself. I’m only going to list titles I’ve actually read myself, but I highly recommend going to your LCS (local comic store) and asking for suggestions. Of course everyone has their favorites, so be sure to poke around on your own, too!

A few notes: Some of these recommendations are available in your local comic book store as single, monthly issues. Some are available collected into books (called “trades”, as in trade paperback or hardcover) and some are only available as trades. Once the single issues are collected, you can get them in book stores and online. You can also get some of it digitally through Comixology or other online digital retailers.

A different kind of superhero:
Ms. Marvel (available monthly, ongoing)Kamala Khan is mysteriously empowered with a collection of special abilities and finds herself following in the footsteps of her hero, Captain Marvel. But being a superhero does not exactly fit with what her family expects of her.
Mouse Guard (available monthly ongoing, story arcs collected in trades)The Mouse Guard was formed to guide travelers on the dangerous roads between their villages, defeating predators and keeping the peace. Set in a medieval-style setting, the art in this book is charming, but these mice are not overly cute.
Science Fiction:
Alex + Ada (limited series, currently running)In the near future, a young, professional, work-a-day guy is gifted an android by his grandmother. He never wanted her, but now that he’s got her, does he keep her? And what about the androids who have been running away from home lately? Is Ada like them?
Will & Whit (graphic novel)Will deals with her family tragedy by building lamps to keep away the dark. When a storm blows the power out, she faces down her fears alongside her friends. As heavy as that sounds, the book is light-hearted and Will comes across like someone you’d like to hang out with rather than pity.
All Ages:
Lumberjanes (available monthly, ongoing)A group of girls find that their camp has a few secrets. They have to be crafty, strong, and pretty unflappable (and funny) to face down three-eyed foxes, troops of yetis, and a labyrinth of dangers. References to strong historical females abound (Oh my Laura Ingalls Wilder, for example) and each book in the series fills the merit badge sash on the back. Oh, and there’s a playlist for every issue. What’s not to love?