It’s beach season, and you know what that means: Beach reads. But here at Polygon, we have a suggestion: What if, instead of finally reading That One Novel on your vacation, you did something way cooler?
What if you read That One Graphic Novel?
Polygon staffers Susana Polo and Tasha Robinson have put our heads together to distill the essential categories of the Summer Beach Read — and then convert them to equally stimulating, escapist, or aspirational comic books. So don’t bring a big ol’ book out onto the sand this year; bring a big ol’ comic!
And if you have other ideas for comic book beach reads, let us know in the comments!
That nonfiction thing you’ve been meaning to read
By Dan Nott
The fundamental idea behind the nonfiction graphic novel Hidden Systems is that we’re all surrounded by and dependent on networks that we don’t understand, and maybe we’d all feel a little more connected to the world if we knew more about it. The book’s full title, Hidden Systems: Water, Electricity, the Internet, and the Secrets Behind the Systems We Use Every Day tells the full story: This is the Understanding Comics of network technology, and it uses simple, clear language and panel-based illustrations to walk readers through how the named networks were developed and how they function today. It’s easy to grasp, but written for adults, and guaranteed to make you come away with some interesting and highly relevant trivia you can pull out at the next summer barbeque. —Tasha Robinson
By Scott McCloud
Speaking of Understanding Comics, it’s coming up on its 30-year anniversary, and it’s still as relevant as ever. It was revelatory when Scott McCloud first published it — a funny, breezy, but insightful walkthrough of the language of comics symbolism, comics panels, and the language of visual storytelling — but now it’s just required reading. It’s the easiest education you’ll ever lay hands on, but it’s also a lot of fun. Just be warned that it’ll make you look at every comics page differently. —TR
That memoir everyone’s been talking about
By Kate Beaton
When Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton stopped posting her intermittent web comic Hark! A Vagrant, certain sections of the internet mourned — the ones that appreciated never knowing whether they were going to get a fraught pirate love story or an offbeat Canadian history lesson. As it turned out, Beaton was working on a massive autobiographical comic about the two years she spent working at remote oil companies, a young woman surrounded by men whose behavior ranged from predatory and harassing to polite, friendly, and ultimately boundary-pushing.
Part analysis of Beaton’s own complicity in working for environmentally destructive companies in order to pay off her student loans, part analysis of gender relations, part observation of the transition between young adulthood and adulthood, and part trauma memoir, Ducks is so closely observed and focused on the trivial day-to-day that the dark humor and the bigger themes both slip in surreptitiously, building up to a series of poignant, powerful moments. It’s a hypnotic book, almost lulling until the startling bigger picture comes into focus. —TR
That classic you’ve always meant to read
By Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins
It’s summer, and you know what that means: convincing yourself you have the time to read that influential, historically vital classic of the canon that you’ve somehow missed all these years. Exactly what that classic is is highly individual. Maybe for you it’s The Dark Knight Returns, or Love & Rockets, or Akira, or A Contract With God. But just for the sake of picking one, I’m going to go with Watchmen.
Written by Alan Moore, drawn by Dave Gibbons, and colored by John Higgins, Watchmen arrived at an incredibly pivotal moment in American comics, sitting at the nexus point in an absurd number of 1980s comic book trends, from the creation of Vertigo Comics and an influx of British creators to the U.S. market to the growing popularity of antiheroes and the first true era of successful graphic novels.
You probably know the story: In an alternate 1980s America shaped by the actions of two generations of costumed vigilantes (and one nigh-omnipotent super being known as Doctor Manhattan), a shadowy figure throws aging government agent/costumed vigilante the Comedian to his death. The ensuing investigation entraps the whole “superhero” community into a tangled web, with the future of humanity in the balance.
Watchmen fundamentally changed the history of American comics, and even with all the “highbrow” prestige it’s acquired over the years — and the heavy subject matter — it remains eminently readable and surprisingly funny. —Susana Polo
That one really long thing you’ve always meant to read
Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four, FF, New Avengers, Avengers, and Secret Wars
By Hickman and too many collaborators to count
In the same spirit, summer is also a time of convincing yourself you’re going to read that notable epic, whether it’s the Iliad, Les Miserables, or some Russian lit. But have you considered reading a comic book epic instead? The Sandman and The Walking Dead are old standbys, but if you really want to dig into a complete comic book epic that will never, never, never get made into a TV show… you should read writer Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four comics, which lead to his Avengers comics, which lead to Secret Wars.
You can Google a reading list and buy the according collections, but for less money and more convenience you could subscribe to a couple months of Marvel Unlimited, and follow along the service’s author page for Hickman, starting at Dark Reign: Fantastic Four #1. What will you get for that effort? Probably the greatest Fantastic Four story of the modern era, followed by probably the greatest Avengers story of the modern era, followed by a blockbuster sequel to both those stories in the form of possibly the best superhero crossover event ever made.
What you’ll get is the experience of following one of the best expressions of the serialized comics form, in its original form. —SP
Feels like summer
By Sas Milledge
A sunny summer fantasy about a witch who’s desperate to leave her small rural town and a local who wants to save it, Mamo is just one surprising revelation after another. Writer-artist Sas Milledge builds up a unique magic system and environment, where fae invaders and magical guardians take surprising forms. But the real focus is on two young women — Orla the hedge witch and Jo, who wants Orla to protect their town — and the different ways they see their home. Orla’s urge to escape and find a bigger destiny and Jo’s love of the community and the land clash in different ways, building up to a story that’s both about the draw of familiarity and the unfair expectations of family. Milledge illustrates it all in bright summery colors and vivid stylized designs, giving this book a particularly sunlit, outdoorsy feel that’s perfect for outdoor reading on a lazy, hot day. —TR
By Hayao Miyazaki
Studio Ghibli fans who also read manga are fairly likely to have already explored Miyazaki’s post-apocalyptic series Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which he later made into a movie. But Shuna’s Journey is a lesser-known project that only made it to America for the first time in 2022. Translated by Alex Dudok de Wit, and painted by Miyazaki in soft watercolors with impressive levels of visual detail, Shuna’s Journey is a sunny yet spooky road-trip story about the prince of an infertile and unforgiving land who goes on a quest to improve his people’s lot in life.
The character and clothing designs are familiar from Miyazaki’s movies and his other manga, but the haunting story — which Miyazaki apparently said was too dark, political, and cynical to succeed in movie form — is unusually surreal and strange, more like a fable than his other work. The visuals make it feel like a summer story, full of vast sunlit grasslands and a focus on travel and escape. But the focus on slavery, suffering, and starvation make this one a particularly dark summer read. —TR
That book that’s So Hot Right Now
By Maia Kobabe
Want to read something that will really turn heads this summer? How about the most challenged book of 2021 and 2022, according to the American Library Association’s annual list?
Beneath the layers of pearl-clutching controversy, Gender Queer is a multi-award-winning, gentle, informative memoir of author Maia Kobabe’s exploration of eir own gender. It’s aimed at late teen readers and older who may find within its pages a vital roadmap, a commiserating voice, or just an expansion of their understanding of the world.
Pick up this critically lauded book and read the heck out of it, if only because a lot of people don’t want you to. —SP
A sweet romance novel
By Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki
What’s more summer 2023 than reading an often-banned and censored book? As a bonus, it’s both an excellent, unconventional coming-of-age romance and a particularly summery story. Twelve-year-old Rose and 10-year-old Windy meet every summer when Rose’s family vacations at a small beach down, but this year, Rose is starting to notice boys — and how both the women and teenage girls in her life are unhappy and burdened. It’s a rich and complicated story full of characters going through different kinds of struggles, and Tamaki’s heavy-lined, gloriously detailed art gives the soap-operatic shifts a weight and immediacy. This one also draws on the contrast between dark moods and sunny settings, and it’s a perfect beach read for fans of Judy Blume and other classic YA writers. —TR
By Alice Oseman
A more conventional teen romance, complete with meet-cute and slow-burn friends-to-boyfriends plotting, Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper is still ongoing, but the first five volumes are more than enough for one summer’s exploration. (Or, if not, you could graduate to the Netflix adaptation of the series, also ongoing.) Skinny, awkward, recently outed teenager Charlie falls for popular, sporty Nick, and is surprised when they become friends. As time goes by and their relationship builds, they fumble toward something more. Heartstopper is a sweet romance that fully captures the tentative early-adolescent fumblings toward figuring out sexuality, identity, and presentation among peers. But it also sneakily doubles as an entirely admirable guide to issues like outing, consent and limits, dating, self-labeling, very early romantic exploitation, and dealing with homophobic bullies. It’s a real charmer. —TR
Some summer screams
James Tynion, Álvaro Martínez Bueno, Jordie Bellaire
When it’s hot outside, do you crave a chill up your spine? Well, it’s hard to get freakier than reading a horror book about a vacation gone wrong while you are on vacation. The stars of Tynion and Bueno’s yard are a cadre of friends arranged around the garrulous Walter, who has invited them all to a long-awaited weekend away at the titular Nice House on the Lake during the hot vaccine summer of 2021.
On the first evening there the world ends in a maelstrom of fire and blood, and they realize two things: They’re on lockdown in what’s probably the last safe place for them in existence, and they have Walter to thank for their lives and their gilded cage. Things only get stranger from there. Tynion mixes middle-age growing pains movie The Big Chill with the best kind of Lost vibes, while Bueno and Bellaire drape the story in some of comics’ most stunning visuals.
Pick up the first and second volumes from DC Comics, but be warned: The story is not complete and you might just get hooked. —SP
That one that just got made into a movie
By ND Stevenson
For those of us who followed along week to week and agonizing cliffhanger to agonizing cliffhanger as She-Ra and the Princesses of Power creator ND Stevenson first released Nimona as a webcomic, it can be a little hard not to envy modern readers who get to gulp it all down in one breathless read. What starts as a pretty silly fantasy spoof about a villainous, disgraced knight and his chaotic shape-changing sidekick turns into a creepy full-fledged horror-fantasy about personal betrayals, self-deception, and who gets defined as a hero. The original Nimona is a much stranger and darker story than the Netflix animated adaptation, and it has a unique flavor — part jaunty comedy, part cri de coeur. Either way, it’s full of gripping surprises and shifts that make it an endlessly rewarding experience. —TR
That sci-fi/fantasy epic so popular that everyone reads it
By Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples
Looking to read a hugely popular fantastical epic where no character is safe from a shocking death and there’s tons of sex, violence, war, intrigue, and political allegory? Forget George R.R. Martin; read Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga. Our narrator is Hazel, and our story is the story of her family, starting at the moment she was born to two star-crossed parents from either side of a galaxy-spanning war.
What comes next? What doesn’t? There are bounty hunters and ghost babysitters and spaceship trees and adorable seal men and lion-sized hairless cats that will tell you when you lie. Also, all the sex and violence is equal opportunity.
There are 66 issues of Saga and, according to Vaughan, 42 more to go — but if you’re an epic fantasy fan, you know all about waiting for the next installment. —SP