Back to School Special: Comic Recommendations for All Ages

Ah, the end of summer. Barbeques, hot days, and back-to-school commercials choking the airwaves. And this school year I, your friendly neighborhood comic book dyke, will make sure that you are prepared for the coming school year. I’ve kicked off your reading list with three titles for each level of school, so you can help your younger brothers and sisters study up.

Pay attention, there will be a test at the end.

Middle School

(I originally titled this ‘Elementary’ but remembered that outside of my corner of Canada, elementary schools generally don’t run past grade five or six, and almost anything that isn’t Archie might be too old for that crew. Reader’s discretion is advised.)

For the preteen and young teen comic audiences out there, it can be hard to find a title that isn’t only age-appropriate but also actually enjoyable to read. Slip this into your kid sister’s lunchbag and you might create a future comic book nerd. Especially with my first choice, Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane. Don’t let the title turn you off. The title – which is up to twenty-five issues and has been collected in trades – follows the adventures of a high-school-aged Mary Jane. While it isn’t as action-packed as other Marvel hero tales, the romance is played light and won’t turn off male readers, even ones who think cooties are icky. It’s a surprisingly fun read, even for serious Spidey fans.

Darker than Mary Jane is Runaways, a series which follows the children of a notorious band of villains called the Pride. When the kids discover what their parents are up to, they take off and form their own team, using their inherited powers, abilities, or technology to fix the damage the Pride had done. This is still running, it’s up to three volumes and over fifty issues. The Runaways have also appeared in the Civil War arc, fighting alongside the Young Avengers. This is not the Boxcar Children. Okay, maybe a little – if the Boxcar Children had telepathic dinosaurs and superstrength, and were being hunted by both villains and Avengers.

Another title that might serve as a gateway drug into comic books is the long-running Fables. This has the appeal of taking familiar characters – the Big Bad Wolf, Snow White, Cinderella, Prince Charming – and throwing them into all-out war against each other. I wouldn’t recommend this for young kids, despite the Disney Princess line-up. It’s got nightmares all its own, and enough violence and treachery to keep any boy hooked.

And if you can get your hands on them, younger readers might enjoy some of the classic Golden or Silver Age issues – Batman and Superman before continuity became a consideration. They’re a lot less bloody and realistic than what’s currently running, even if they usually aren’t terribly politically correct.

High School

For the high school student, I’d really recommend any of the major heroes. Avengers, The Mighty Thor, The Return of Batman, any of the classic heroes. But I’m going to throw in Cable and Deadpool as a specific example. It’s got chaos, carnage, and excellent one-liners. The two main characters drag in heroes and villains from every corner of the Marvel universe while they address Cable’s saviour complex and world issues at the same time.

For a bit of culture and history, throw in Marvel 1602. This was a short run comic written by Neil Gaiman for Marvel, and since then it’s continued in Marvel 1602: Spider-Man, The Fantastick Four, and New World. It asks the question: “What if, instead of showing up in the twentieth century, what if superheroes appeared in the seventeeth?” So Peter Parquarah, Sir Nicholas Fury, Matthew Murdoch, Scotius Somerisle, and an impressive roster of ye olde doppelgangers get involved in the politics of King James VI and the discovery of the New World. It’s beautifully done, and hey! It can even be considered history, right?

I think I would have to hand in my Canadian card if I didn’t mention Scott Pilgrim as recommended reading. The movie just came out, amping up the awareness of this graphic novel, which follows Scott as he fights for the love of his awesome new girlfriend. It’s a strange world that is half-reality, half-video games, and all Toronto. Nothing like politics or history to be found here. Consider it the free period in your schedule.

College

Oh, college. In addition to condoms and a churchkey, make sure you stock up on Transmetropolitan, a wordy comic about a dystopian future, as seen through the eyes and pen of a bitter, slightly insane journalist named Spider Jerusalem. Required reading for journalism students. The run ended in 2002 but you can pick up the trades, sixty issues collected in ten volumes, plus a couple bonus issues. This comic picks apart social issues like a table full of stoners at meal hall. Nothing is sacred in this frightening vision of a future where anything can be bought, sold, pierced, drunk, inhaled, or have silicone added to.

I’m a big fan of alternate realities, but I have to suggest this one for the anarchists (and/or political science majors) among us: Superman: Red Son. It takes on another what-if: What if the escape capsule containing the infant Kal-El had been launched twelve hours later? Instead of crashing in Kansas, the future Superman would have landed somewhere in the Ukraine, on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Instead of fighting for truth, justice, and the American Way, he becomes a superpowered comrade of the ruling party, making Communism seem unstoppable. Batman and JFK both make appearances (one in the greatest bat-hat ever devised) as well as a few other DC staples. The run was only three issues long but it’s been available in trades since then.

I left the darkest and most twisted for last. This is most definitely not for kids. It’s bloody, it’s disturbing, there’s a scene involving chicken rape. Yes, I’m talking about Preacher. If you have ever had some doubts about a higher power and enjoy Irish vampires, this is the comic for you. After discovering that God made a mistake and then ran away and hid, the Reverend Jesse Custer sets out to find God and make him answer to humanity for giving up. Things go decidedly downhill from there. Preacher is gory and gruesome. It probes the darkest parts of human nature, and also the most uplifting ones. You can get the whole thing, start to finish, from Vertigo in trades, and I highly recommend that you do.

Now I want your five-hundred word essay entitled ‘What I Did On My Summer Vacation’ on my desk by tomorrow.

Disagree with my curriculum? What would you put in a kid’s school bag? What did I heinously overlook aside from Watchmen (yes I noticed that)?

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