For people who care about women in comics, 2016 opened with a snub: The prestigious Angoulême International Comics Festival included no female comics creators among the 30 nominees for its top award. More troubling was the explanation given by an Angoulême representative to the newspaper Le Monde: “Unfortunately there are few women in the history of comics. If you go to the Louvre, you will also find very few female artists.”
Yeah no. Happily, the comics community reacted to Angoulême’s cluelessness with outrage, leading to an examination of the nomination system. But meanwhile, the idea seems to persist that female cartoonists are a new phenomenon or a minor side note to comics history. Women have been writing and drawing comics for over a century. By now, there are enough great works by women to fill an entire alphabet.
So for the general edification of the populace, here’s an A to Z of great graphic novels by women. I’ve tried to limit the list to works complete in one volume, only fudging once or twice. This is by no means a definitive or “best-of” list, but these are all titles I recommend, and this is a showcase of the range of work out there… not to mention a killer reading list.
By Vera Brosgol
An antisocial teenage girl bonds with a lonely ghost then starts to suspect her supernatural new friend isn’t all she claims to be. Brosgol, a gifted cartoonist and animator, brings the darkly funny YA story to life with clean, curvy linework reminiscent of mid-century magazine cartooning, only cuter.
Blue Is the Warmest Color
By Julie Maroh
Teenage Clementine gets her first crush on an older woman, opening a Pandora’s box of sexual discovery. The film adaptation of Blue won the Palme d’Or (and lots of attention for its titillating sex scene), but the original graphic novel is a truer depiction of teenage sexuality and coming out, elegantly illustrated with splashes of color against gray wash.
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
By Roz Chast
The veteran New Yorker cartoonist’s first graphic novel, published when she was 60, shows her in full command of her storytelling gifts. With her trademark morbid sense of humor and shaky, neurotic linework, Chaz finds comedy and compassion in a supremely unpleasant task: guiding her elderly parents through their final years.
Diary of a Teenage Girl
By Phoebe Gloeckner
Gloeckner’s fictionalized memoir mixes comic narratives, illustrations, and prose diary excerpts to evoke her teenage years in the thick of 1970s San Francisco counterculture. Her avatar Minnie rockets through experiments with sex, drugs, and underground comics—all of which the adult Gloeckner illustrates with the unforgiving line of an artist trained in medical illustration.
By Marjane Satrapi
Satrapi is best known for her acclaimed autobiographical comic Persepolis, but don’t overlook her shorter works. In Embroideries, Iranian women swap stories about life and men while Satrapi’s cartoon doppelganger pours the tea. It’s as casual and intimate as afternoon gossip, but underneath Satrapi weaves themes of women’s experiences, and the many kinds of stitches they endure.
By Alison Bechdel
After honing her skills for decades on the beloved alt-weekly strip Dykes to Watch Out For, Bechdel burst into the mainstream with this bestselling autobio graphic novel. Bechdel’s erudite prose and precise drawings lend a clinical distance to the parallel stories of the young Alison, who grows up to embrace her lesbian identity, and her father—a gay man who lived his life in the closet.
By Posy Simmonds
In a semi-retelling of Madame Bovary, an Englishwoman moves with her new husband to a small French village and courts trouble. Originally serialized in the Guardian newspaper, it falls together into a sly, observant dark comedy, mixing comic panels with text passages, each page a work of art.
The Heart of Thomas
By Moto Hagio
At a German boys’ school, the arrival of a new student stirs memories of a boy who recently committed suicide, leaving a tangle of unresolved feelings behind him. Hagio’s 1974 masterpiece, one of the progenitors of homoerotic “boys’ love” manga, is a master class in the power of comics to express emotion, every delicately lined page exploding with passion.
It’s Better With Your Shoes Off
By Anne Cleveland
An early proto-graphic novel, this 1955 book is an original collection of comic strips about the West family—Americans living in Japan. Cleveland’s smooth, mid-century artwork complements the Wests’ domestic misadventures, and offers a unique glimpse of postwar Japan from an outsider’s perspective.
Jamilti and Other Stories
By Rutu Modan
Modan is one of the most flexible of modern cartoonists, and this short story collection runs the gamut from erotic fantasies to mystery thrillers to vignettes—some wryly funny, others tragic—of life in her native Israel. Starting from her earliest published work, the pieces evolve from wobbly impressionism to a firm, vibrantly colored clear-line style.
Koko Be Good
By Jen Wang
A fast-talking squatter resolves to change her life for the better after meeting an idealistic young man, but being good is more complicated than either of them expected. Wang’s swooping brushwork, capturing the characters’ limpid-eyed emotion and details of up-until-dawn city life with equal skill, makes this poetic coming-of-age story glow.
By Ariel Schrag
In the fourth and final of her groundbreaking high school memoirs, Schrag navigates her senior year, her disintegrating relationship with her girlfriend, and her dawning intellectual life as she applies to college and discovers James Joyce. Likewise is most powerful when read with the rest of the series (Definition, Awkward, Potential), but on its own it represents Schrag’s emergence from teen prodigy to complex, mature artist.
Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michaelangelo, and Me
By Ellen Forney
With self-deprecating humor, Forney talks turkey about manic-depressive disorder: how she was diagnosed, how she learned to live with it, and her haunting concern that maybe she needs to be “crazy” to be an artist. The alt-weekly cartoonist’s disarmingly friendly art is the perfect vehicle for a warts-and-all story of mental illness.
By Noelle Stevenson
In a world of mad science and magic, overenthusiastic shape-shifter Nimona declares herself henchgirl to supervillain Lord Blackheart—but each has secrets, as does the supposedly heroic government they’re out to destroy. Stevenson burst onto the scene with this webcomic, which evolves from slapstick comedy to penetrating fantasy over the course of a single volume.
One Hundred Demons
By Lynda Barry
Always experimenting, always fearless, and better than any other cartoonist at capturing childhood in all its terror and glory, Lynda Barry is an original. In her most visually beautiful book, she confronts a selection of personal demons—from nightmare boyfriends to lost toys to the feared Aswang—in deceptively childlike ink-and-paint short stories.
By Kyoko Okazaki
Yumi is an office lady by day, a call girl by night, and does it all to keep her pet crocodile fed. When a frustrated writer stumbles into the lives of Yumi and her little sister, he’s guaranteed to get eaten alive. Okazaki’s dark and wickedly witty 1980s classic, drawn with careless style, captures the zeitgeist of bubble-economy Japan.
By Leela Corman
Corman’s debut is a collection of three dreamy stories about women on journeys, from a woman coping with loss to the witch Baba Yaga, drawn in rough but graceful lines. To see how far her art has progressed since then check out her recent graphic novel Unterzahken.
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen
By Lucy Knisley
Knisley, the daughter of a chef and a gourmand, tells the story of her life through stories of food, from her mother’s gourmet masterpieces to her own guilty pleasures. Her bright, clear art is ideal for detailed renditions of cooking and meals, and the scramble of family memories, personal essays, and recipes makes for one of the most original, enjoyable autobio graphic novels in years.
Smile: A Dental Drama
By Raina Telgemeier
In the first of Telgemeier’s blockbuster YA memoirs, the young Raina muddles through a year in middle school, bookended by dental travails after she loses her front teeth in a soccer accident. Telgemeier’s unforced storytelling allows the characters to develop organically; middle school has enough drama of its own.
By Renee French
Strangely deformed and artistically inclined, young Edison Steelhead leaves the lonely lighthouse, where he grew up, for the alien world of humanity. French is one of comics’ greatest artists of the macabre, and her eerie pencil illustrations lend deadpan realism to her Lynchian masterpiece.
The Undertaking of Lily Chen
By Danica Novgorodoff
In modern-day China, a boy looking for a corpse bride meets a girl looking for a way out of her life. Part ghost story, part Western, entirely unique, this impressive debut is illustrated in elegant, assured brushwork.
By Gabrielle Bell
Bell’s uncategorizable comics trip between autobiography, surrealist magical realism, and spare stories of isolated urban creatives. The Voyeurs collects some of her best autobio comics over a five-year period, as she finds herself equally lonely in Tokyo, France, and her own apartment. Bell’s clear-line art has a European look, but her awkward intellectualism and snarky sense of humor are pure New York.
We Are on Our Own
By Miriam Katin
As a little girl, Katin fled across the French countryside with her mother to escape the Nazi invasion. In blunt pencil strokes, the adult Katin struggles to understand how traumas she barely remembers shaped her life and (lack of) faith. This remarkable memoir avoids sentimentality or easy answers in favor of a fearlessly human story.
I admit it: I don’t have a single-volume graphic novel that begins with X. Instead, enjoy this 19-volume gothic fantasy by all-female manga team CLAMP. Hapless teen Watanuki stumbles into a job assisting slinky witch Yūko, who helps people with supernatural problems. CLAMP’s art has never looked better, with stylized compositions midway between Art Noveau and Ukiyo-e.
You’ll Never Know: A Good and Decent Man
By Carol Tyler
The first graphic novel by underground and alt-cartooning legend Carol Tyler, You’ll Never Know alternates between the horrors her father experienced in WWII and the scars his trauma left on their family for generations. Drawn in an expansive landscape format, it pulses with symbolic depictions of the characters’ unspoken inner lives. The second volume is Collateral Damage.
By Faith Erin Hicks
The always witty and entertaining fantasy artist spins a breezy story about college students who fight a zombie invasion with their knowledge of horror tropes, starting with the fact that people who fight zombies inexplicably develop super fighting powers.
Of course there are many, many more excellent comics made by women than just these 26! Find more feminist comics coverage right here.