Some people think back on their school years as the best years of their lives, while for others, every day was a struggle against great odds. Regardless, for many of us, our time in school provided a pretty significant part in our development into adults, so we thought we'd take a look at some comics that explore those times or whose characters are living out similar experiences in school-like settings.
10. A.D.D.: Adolescent Demo Division
by Douglas Rushkoff, Goran Sudzuka, and Jose Marzan Jr.
Douglas Rushkoff is a somewhat strange figure in the comics world, as he's a media theorist and author of many prose books in addition to his comics work. My first exposure to him was in Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods, and I had no idea that he'd done work in comics before.
So when I saw that he had a comic out, with praise from Morrison, Ann Nocenti and Cory Doctorow no less, I figured I'd give it a shot. Now, referring to it as a comic in or about school is a little bit of a stretch. The kids that are the stars of ADD have been separated from normal society since birth, trained to become professional video gamers, as gaming has become as popular as sports are in our world.
It's very much a school-like environment though, to the point that the kids in the series have even developed their own slang that's damn near incomprehensible until you're about halfway through the book.
Think of Ender's Game mixed with the dialogue of A Clockwork Orange and you'll get something like ADD. And Goran Sudzuka does a brilliant job of illustrating this brave new world, from the teens' sleek costumes to their very youthful, energetic expressions.
ADD is about the passion to discover the truth of your world, the kind of unbridled passion born of a deep contempt for authority that completely ignores consequences. It's the kind of rebellious theme that it seems only our youth seem capable of, and to add to the familiarity, it's full of all those kids you remember from high school. Your best friend who's there for you through thick and thin, the asshole who would treat you like garbage for no reason whatsoever, and the girl who wouldn't give you the time of day.
It sounds cliché, but a lot of those high school year, those early-to-mid teen ones, are littered with clichés.
9. Revolutionary Girl Utena
by Chiho Saito
You know you're in for a good time when Revolutionary Girl Utena begins with the eponymous Utena symbolically giving the finger to school-sanctioned gender roles by wearing a uniform meant for boys. While Utena's the kind of girl the other attendees of the Ohtori Academy would describe as a "tomboy" because she dresses like a boy and is good at every sport in school, she's partially there so she can find the prince who made such an impact on her when she was little — and to become a prince herself.
Saito's comic not only subverts and complicates gender roles, but also features some seriously surreal flourishes and a social system involving physical duels among the members of the Academy's student council, which gives it a surprising boy appeal — then again, I grew up watching Sailor Moon so maybe Utena wasn't too far off for me.
Either way, it's very much a coming-of-age tale set in the trying time known as high school, but what makes Utena so great is that it's a perfectly accessible shoujo manga that also subverts the standard tropes of the genre to create an unexpectedly distinct, enriching experience — one that says that a princess doesn't have to wait in her tower for the handsome prince to swing by, but rather she can seek him out and sword-fight a bunch of dudes along the way.
– Danny Djeljosevic
8. School Rumble
by Jin Kobayashi
School Comics aren’t only a genre in Japan, they are a big enough genre to have multiple sub-genres. School ghost comics. School action comics. School sports comics. School sex comics. School detective comics. School-pretty-much-whatever-else-you-can-think-of comics. If a genre exists, Japan has a version of it set at school And then there is the genre embodied by School Rumble, which I call School-wacky-romance-comedies.
I picked up my first volume of School Rumble at one of the ubiquitous comics dealers at a train station in Japan. The comic had a huge flowchart advertising it showing all the different love connections, showing who loved who and who loved who in return. I gambled my 300 yen and picked up the first volume, and I was hooked. One of the few times I was laughing out loud on the train, just from reading a comic. I picked up the next couple of volumes at the following stop.
The comic is just… wacky. I can’t think of any other word that works. The series started out kind of straightforward — Juvenile delinquent Harima Kenji has a secret crush on the pure-hearted and completely oblique Tsukamoto Tenma. Tsukamoto loves the stone-faced Karasuma Oji. Typical love triangle. Misunderstanding. Hijinks. All the usual. But then artist/writer Kobayashi Jin throws aside sense of logic or realism and goes straight for the funny.
It didn’t matter if anything made sense, just so long as it got a laugh. The tough-fighting Harima becomes an allusion to St. Francis of Assisi. Tenma’s younger sister Yakumo became able to read everyone’s thought balloons. All the standard school comic tropes are there — the school festival, the beach trip, the school play — but they are completely twisted and inverted. The only thing I can think to compare it to is the old Looney Tunes cartoons, where cartoon logic trumped everything. Now imagine that as a romance set in a Japanese high school.
One sad caveat to this series; Kobayashi loves p
uns. The humor is built on puns after puns, and puns don’t translate all that well. For example, in one issue Karasuma is heading out into the rainy weather, and Tenma offers to walk home with him sharing an umbrella. Karasuma says no thanks, he has a raincoat (kappa, in Japanese). He then pulls a whole kappa costume (type of Japanese monster) out of his locker, puts it on and calmly walks home. In Japanese? Hilarious! A full-fledged knee-slapper! In English… not so much.
7. Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane
by Sean McKeever, Takeshi Miyazawa and David Hahn
You know, romance comics used to be a pretty huge genre, to the point that they actually inspired a lawsuit from a husband against his wife in the 1950s. At some point, despite the romantic elements of many superhero comics and the popularity of romantic films and romantic elements in TV (especially for shows aimed at teens), the majority of romance comics died out years ago.
This strange juxtaposition of the popularity of romance stories with their almost complete absence from mainstream comics is what makes Spider-<an Loves Mary Jane such a treasure. After Sean McKeever and Mike Norton's The Waiting Place cemented McKeever's ability to tell quality high school drama stories, handing him the reins to the Spider-Man romance comic seemed like a no-brainer.
Of course, Marvel had to test the waters first with two miniseries before they'd believe that there was actually an audience for such a comic.
And what a comic it was. Sure, Spider-Man's in the title; he's even in the book a bit. But at the end of the day, this is Mary Jane's book, which means it's about her life while she, Peter, Flash, Harry, Gwen, Liz and the gang are all in high school.
It's touching, heart-warming, and carries a fair bit of realistic dialog as well. When it was coming out, I pitched it to non-comics reading friends (and their younger siblings) as Degrassi with Spider-Man. They got hooked pretty quickly, and I couldn't really blame them.
McKeever's realistic portrayals of teenage life drove most of the appeal, but Takeshi Miyazawa, known at the time for his stellar work on Runaways, handled the art duties beautifully. After an artist change up and a cancelation of the main series, Terry Moore gave a shot at a five-issue miniseries that seemed doomed to fail, receiving little promotion from Marvel, and we've not seen anything of the series since.
Still the main series is collected in two of Marvel's oversized hardcovers, if you can find them, but the back issues should be pretty cheap too. Whatever you do, don't get the digest size unless you have to. Miyazawa's art really benefits from at least the full-size comic treatment.
6. Battle Royale
by Koushun Takami and Masayuki Taguchi
School is defined by transitions, between grades, between cliques and ultimately between graduation and stagnation. For the kids in Battle Royale the transition is a little more high stakes, stuck as they are in a lethal program where they must battle each other to the death until only one is left standing. Koushun Takami adapted his own novel into a manga in 2000, the same year it was adapted into a film, and it has proven to be a hit in each medium. The success and influence of the work in part speaks to how universal it is, meaning different things for different readers, with many viewing it as a brutal but thrilling depiction of the competitive aspect of school, particularly in exam season.
Exams are of course a solo endeavor, an obstacle that one can train for in a group setting but which must eventually be surmounted as an individual. For most of the students in Battle Royale that's a fitting analogy, as temporary alliances are formed and then abandoned, often to devastating, tragic effect. But in the end, Battle Royale's message is one of cooperation, as survival comes down to trust and teamwork. The grimness of what precedes the work's surprisingly optimistic finale allows that ending to stand out all the more, where it functions as an understanding glimpse of post-graduation life, where friendships change based on who moves on to what area and stronger bonds are often formed. Battle Royale is finding new audiences in the wake of The Hunger Games, which makes it tough to discuss without ruining the specifics; despite the brutality on display, Battle Royale in any of its forms is a must-read for students precisely because it pulls no punches and offers a flexible experience with multiple meanings and it deserves to be experienced knowing as little as possible.
5. Morning Glories
by Nick Spencer, Joe Eisma, and Alex Sollazo
We all hated high school. And if you didn’t, you were probably one who caused a few others to hate those four years in their lives. But, if I think back to my time at high school, I never hated the actual establishment itself. Let’s just say that this cannot be said for the students at Morning Glory Academy. Drowning chambers, brainwashing, killing those you love, torture sessions, former students who are now ghost-like creatures that phase through your head and even a psychotic school nurse (complete with Florence Nightingale-esque uniform) with an affinity for hallucinogens in syringes and named after a number. I have to say, high school may not have been as bad as I had previously thought.
Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma’s Morning Glories makes your memories of school seem like the Munchkinland scene from The Wizard of Oz. But what really hurts is that Spencer makes his archetypal characters so damned relatable that you feel as if you know where you w
ould stand in this Orwellian isle of mayhem and enlightenment. You have the avenger, the seductress, the jock, the geek, the saboteur and the victim as your main characters and you cannot help but relate to at least one of them. But relating these characters to known archetypes is such a limited way of seeing them. Each character is so fleshed out and has such a rich backstory that you feel as if you know each and every character as well as you know one of your best friends. In fact, you may even come to realize that you know these characters far better.
Using this science fiction tale to deal with the personal dramas and relationship dynamics that we all face/faced in youth not only makes this one of the best comics about school, but one of the best comics you will ever have the pleasure to read.
4. The Intimates
by Joe Casey, Jim Lee, Giuseppe Camuncoli, and a bunch of fill-in artists
Superpowered students learning to be superheroes isn't the most original premise for a comic book anymore — it's the very basis of countless X-Men comics — but none of them have been as wild or, shockingly, as youthful as The Intimates by Joe Casey, Jim Lee, Gieuseppe Camuncoli and a handful of other artists.
Following six teen superheroes at a school called The Seminary, The Intimates focused on the personal lives and studies of the kids, with most superhero action stemming from their interactions rather than exterior threats. The students weren't vanilla Teen Titans or Avengers Academy attendees, but rather often displayed actual teenage shittiness and ridiculous powers like exploding nail clippings and giant punching fists that come out of puppets. It's a riot.
Casey scripted the series with verve, attitude and hilarity, but also sought to inundate readers with information, employing constant sudden flashbacks and a CNN-style running crawl at the bottom of every page that revealed secret information about characters and situations — something closer to how a teenager would experience a computer screen than how an adult male would read Batman & The Outsiders.
The Intimates lasted only twelve issues, offering minimal conclusion to its characters, but rather than a missed opportunity the series felt like a potent dose of the future, long before anyone was ready for it. But how often are we ready for the future?
– Danny Djeljosevic
3. Gladstone’s School for World Conquerors
by Mark Andrew Smith and Armand Villavert
Frankly, there are far too many schools for the good guys. The Avengers train new recruits at Avengers Academy. The Justice League keep their sidekicks in Titans Tower. Harry Potter had Hogwarts. Luke created the Jedi Academy after blowing up the second Death Star (if you follow the post-Trilogy lore). Hercules had his labors after being driven mad by Hera and slaying his children (that was an institution of learning, right?). But never have the evil youth of the world had a place to learn destruction and mayhem from proper evil doers. Well, there is the Aryan nation, but nothing really in the confines of entertainment mediums. I’m talking the Legion of Doom training the misbegotten and disenfranchised youth of the world in the ways of hate, greed and badassdom! Well, folks, Mark Andrew Smith and Armand Villavert corrected this oversight and made it one of the best comics to read in 2011.
In Gladstone’s School for World Conquerors, Smith and Villavert introduce us to six kids — Kid Nefarious, Martian Jones, Mummy Girl, Ghost Girl and the Skull Brothers — who want nothing more than to get through school at the most prestigious villain school in the galaxy and give those stupid heroes what they have coming. What is brilliant about the series isn’t just that it answers the question of how a supervillain becomes a supervillain, but that — for the most part — these kids are dealing with the same things that the average schoolkid deals with: acceptance, peer-pressure, living up to the expectations of your parents, young love. It may deal with these in a somewhat over-the-top manner, but this is comics! Who wants reality?
But really, the classes at Gladstone’s are fairly similar to those we all took as younger folk. Such subjects as “P.E. Dodgeball,” “Recess,” “Victory Speeches 101,” “Explosives 101,” “So You’ve Started a Criminal Organization,” “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Villains,” “Harnessing Your Evil Potential,” “Extortion,” and “Hench-Management”, just to name a few.
If you really think about it, we all took a class or two like these.
2. Great Teacher Onizuka
by Tohru Fujisawa
This is really THE Japanese school comic. Lots of comics in Japan use school at a setting, but GTO is all about school. About being a teacher. About making an impact on student’s lives. And about trying to lose your virginity. All of the important stuff.
The series follows Onizuka Eikichi, a 22-year old ex-gang member who is one of the toughest human beings alive — think Popeye tough — but has still managed to stay a virgin. Onizuka almost hits it off with a hot high school girl one night, only to see her return to her boyfriend, and old and ugly man that is also her teacher. Right there, Onizuka decides his new career path. Great Teacher Onizuka is born.
Writer/artist Fujisawa Tohru hits the perfect balance of the sacred and the profane in GTO. The story tears apart the Japanese education system, of kids with no respect for their teachers, who are trained to be answer-memorizing robots instead of actual human beings. It also tears into modern Japanese society, of parents who essentially abandon their kids to the school system and expect teachers to raise their children. Onizuka comes in and smashes all of those conventions to pieces — usually with
a large sledge hammer, and reaches behind the cold, trained exterior of the children and into their hearts.
If that last sentence made you gag a little, don’t worry. GTO is no feel-good after school special. Onizuka is a panty-peeking pervert who decides that while he can’t go for his students their parents are fair game. Not too successfully, though — 25 volumes later and he is still a virgin (but eternally hopeful that his little turtle will be able to come out and play). The series has some fan service, some comedy, some tear-jerking moments. And fighting. Lots of fighting. Onizuka’s ex-gang member status comes in handy more than once.
GTO is a cultural phenomenon in Japan. It has been made into a cartoon, and live-action film, and live-action TV show, the last episode of which was reportedly the most-watched TV episode in Japan. And unlike most of the other comics on this list, GTO has had an impact on education. The series is mentioned in many studies on the Japanese school system, is read by both students and teachers, all of whom try to take some of Onizuka’s lessons and apply them to their lives.
1. American Born Chinese
by Gene Luen Yang
While we’ve already talked about how well American Born Chinese treats race, it also manages to articulate the struggles of going to school and adolescence. Jin Wang is the new kid in his school and is immediately picked out for being Chinese. However, Gene Luen Yang is able to use this to speak to a more universal truth about friendship: The difficulty of figuring out who your friends are. At first Wang “befriends” Peter Garbinsky, who is a racist and a bully to Wang.
After Peter moves, Wang meets Wei-Chen Sun and uses his slightly higher status as an American-born to condescend to Sun, despite Sun constantly striving for Wang’s friendship.
With Garbinsky and Sun, Gene explores the complex friendships when you mix puberty with socialization. In Garbinsky, we see an outcast who has no problem using Wang to make himself feel better. And in Sun we see Wang do the same thing. However, in many ways what Wang does is far worse. Wang utilizes sustained social condescension to boost his own ego, ending in Wang’s reflection and apology for what he’s done. While this technically makes up a third of the book’s story, it’s easily much of what makes it so resonant for young adults and those who remember what it was like to be that age.