Science Fiction graphic novels for middle school readers.

Letter from a Grad Student at the University of Maryland, college of Information Sciences

Hi Dave,

I am looking for suggestions for graphic novels or comic that are either 1) science fiction or 2) contain science content in some other way (ie a prose example would be half brother by kenneth oppel) for an afterschool program I will be designing for 6th graders in DC. Any thoughts? I welcome all suggestions. Thanks!


I’m an old-school SF fan from back in the day but have found only a few high quality true sci fi comics over the years. I’m not sure why that is. Some part of the question revolves around what we call science fiction.

Broadly ‘Science Fiction’ may be any story with advanced technology, so stories set in modern times but with advanced gadgets and gewgaws may count. Even many superhero comics essentially fit under this category (Iron Man, for instance, though even Batman would qualify).

Classic old school 1950’s era Sci Fi acts as speculative fiction, identifying a trend or direction in science, then extrapolating that concept to an end. A ‘what if’ sort of story, where an author pre-imagines the future and our place in it.

Nowadays our ‘what if’ stories are commonly set in a near-future dystopia, with the authors extrapolation on grim social trends more than technology. This may be that as a culture we live in an era of science wonders, accepted as commonplace, and yet our social problems and environmental disasters remain durable and occasionally dire.

Further beyond this genre we have what we call Space Opera, sprawling epic tales set in a universe where space travel and alien species are commonplace. These sorts of stories are commonly a sort of Science Fantasy in a way, where advanced technology substitutes for magic.

Under those broad guidelines, here are a few middle school age books from our library’s collection that have a science fiction-y component:

Missile Mouse, by Jake Parker.
Interstellar James Bond mouse, saving the world against the forces of evil.   All ages, space opera.

Franklin Richards: Son of a Genius, Ultimate Collection, by Chris Eliopoulos
Mr Fantastic of the superhero team the Fantastic Four is the smartest man in the world. His son Franklin is an ordinary excitable kid, a genius only at getting into trouble. These stories follow his antics evading his robot nanny H.E.R.B.I.E. to explore the world using his father’s inventions. Mayhem ensues. Think ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ if Calvin had access to a mad scientists laboratory. All ages.

Mal and Chad: The Biggest Bestest Time Ever, by Stephen McCranie
Speaking of scientists… Mal is a seemingly ordinary elementary school student. ‘Seemingly’ because he works overtime to hide his brilliance. His bio-enhanced talking dog Chad, Jetpacks, shrinking machines — these are child’s play for him to whip together, however Mal realizes that if he were to reveal his true brainpower he would be promoted out of school — and lose the chance to see his one true love Megan. A dilemma arises when a classmate ‘discovers’ Mal’s greatest invention: a working time machine. All ages.

The Secret Science Alliance and the Case of the Copycat Crook, by Eleanor Davis
Reviewed previously:  https://comixtakoma.wordpress.com/2011/04/27/the-secret-science-alliance-and-the-copycat-crook/

Zita the Space Girl, by Ben Hatke:
Reviewed here:  https://comixtakoma.wordpress.com/2011/05/06/zita-the-space-girl-by-ben-hatke/

RUST: Visitor in the Field, by Royden Lepp, reviewed previously: https://comixtakoma.wordpress.com/2011/11/02/rust-visitor-in-the-field-by-royden-lepp-also-tidbits-from-the-nycc/

Meanwhile, by Jason Shiga:
A flowchart based comic, where the reader makes various choices to send the character down various (literally) twisting turning plotlines. Science laboratories, time machines and death ray devices are encountered along the way. All ages.

Atomic Robo (series) by Brian Clevenger
Genius Nikolai Tesla’s greatest invention, Atomic Robo is a living robot, a man made of metal, with all the emotions and thoughts of a human being, though effectively immortal if not indestructible. Stories show Robo during various eras: in World War Two chasing down the products of evil Nazi scientists, in the gangbusters eras as a pulp action hero, in modern times as a Government contractor running his team of Action Scientists. The book reeds as Hellboy without the Hell. These are fun slam bang action stories with a smattering of science here and there. Recommended for middle grades and up due to gunplay etc, though the humor etc keep the tone light.

Girl Genius (series) by Phil Foglio
Set in a Steampunk fantasy realm, these stories follow the odyssey of Agatha Clay, girl genius. Orphaned, her parents were great scientists, Agatha has a the knack to build functional machines of brilliant inspiration, however this knack was long suppressed due to a locket they left for her to wear. Apparently all great scientists are culled from society by a domineering overlord and his minions, so Agatha –whose family bloodline includes great inventors of folklore and mythology– needs must be hidden from their clutches or suffer the same fate of her long lost parents. For middle grades and up due to violence and unrealistically proportioned female characters.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, by Hiyao Miyazaki
Academy award-winning animation demigod Miyayaki tried his hand at a manga version before adapting this story to the moving picture screen. It works both ways.

This epic ecological parable follows the adventures of a messianic young girl living in a world destroyed by a cataclysmic failure of the ecosystem.  Her naturalist’s sense of wonder leads her deep into the spore forests that menace civilization.  More sketchy than Miyazaki’s crystal clear anime treatment of the same story, but here we see more in depth detail and characterization.   The anime and manga supplement each other well.

Neotopia (4 volumes), by Rod Espinosa
One of my favorite lesser-known graphic novel  works.  This is a Princess and the Pauper story:  the body-double for a slacking and imperious princess is thrust into a position of power and must make decisions to save her kingdom as though she were who she appears to be.

Beautiful neo-future steamtech envisioned here carries the characters in their sktyward journeys across a fantastical land.   Zeppelin armadas traverse the sky.  Mutant animals (dolphin navigators, man-bat pilots) ally with humans in their diplomatic missions.   Along the way the heroine falls in love with an earnest engineer who tries to refurbish the technology of the lost era.

 

Consider also  stories set in the Star Wars universe, published by Dark Horse comics. If you’re looking for all-ages versions of these stories look for books with the word ‘adventures’ in the title.   (Clone wars Adventures etc). These are more cartoony and iconographic, pocket manga sized books, and tend towards what would be rated ‘G’ more than PG-13 (if they were movies).

IDW Publishing has the rights to comics adaptations of the Star Trek, Transformers, and Doctor Who franchises.  They do a good job with each of them.  Star Trek especially hits high notes.
The following are some of my favorites in our collection that may or may not may be steep for 6th grade (due to language, violence or more mature themes) but shouldn’t be overlooked.  Pre-read these, then decide:

Creature Tech, by Doug TenNapel
Scientist Michael Ong works as an agent for a federal agency that investigates unexplained phenomena to find out what makes them tick, or to stop them from ticking by any means necessary.  The problems arise when a ghostly figure releases a rampaging slug beast from a container to act as cover for the theft of the Shroud of Turin.   The slug beast is defeated, but its vest was apparently an animate being, a symbiote that punches out agent Dr Ong’s heart then fixes itself to him, gifting him with a 2nd pair of arms, and a host of other abilities.

As with most of TenNapel’s book the plot involves romance, spirituality, philosophy, etc..  This one is well written and would be appropriate for middle grades except for the occasional panel of realistic gore and a cuss word or two.

Earthboy Jacobus, also by Doug TenNapel
Interdimensional space whale crashes into suburban neighborhood. Goons follow. Boy gets pulled into the other realm and becomes messiah-like figure. Dad follows to rescue him. Or vice versa (tangled plot). In our Young Adult section due to the aforementioned gore and an occasional off-color word.

Wake, by Jan Morvan.
Girl lives a Tarzan-like existence as the only living human on her jungle planet.   A passing Interstellar convoy claims the world for terraforming for a race who needs a high temperature environment, only then discovering there is at least one living sapient inhabitant.   She causes them no end of hassle as the leader of the terraforming tries to hide her existence from discovery, by assassination.   She proves remarkably slippery and kicks alien behind. Loses her world but is rescued by the convoy, becomes a secret agent for their operatives.

We have this in our Adult collection but only because in volume 1 the main character has censor bars instead of a shirt (it’s translated from French, who have less of a problem with that sort of thing). Succeeding volumes are exciting adventure stories appropriate for a Young Adult level (late middle grades and up).

Lone Wolf 2100 (series, 3 volumes) by Mike Kennedy and Francisco Ruiz Velasco
A small girl is the only known patient immune to a deadly plague, or perhaps she is a carrier for an even deadlier infection.  Corporations are seeking her for experimentation.   A noble samurai seeks to protect her from various predators while transporting her across a dangerous wasteland.  Said samurai is revealed to be a cyborg or android, though his programming may be malfunctioning in that his prime directive seems to be to keep the girl safe, overriding any orders from the corporation that built him.

On our Adult side due to realistic violence, language, mature themes, but a great action story if you don’t mind bleak-future dystopian tales.  The art is vivid clean and gritty all at once.

Orbital, by Serge Pelle and Sylvain Runberg
Cinebook translates many great comics from international publishers.   Like Wake,  Orbital is a great SF comic translated from French.  The story follows the admission of human beings into an interstellar organization whose job is to enforce the peace.  Humans are seen as a primitive, underdeveloped even brutish race.  A human Caleb, joins the peace-keepers and is paired with Mezoke, a woman of an alien species who have recently fought a conflict with humanity.

The art is detailed, complex and beautifully rendered. On our adult side for complexity of writing and interest level more than anything else.

You may also be interested in Brian Fies’ book Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? a graphic novel examining how yesterday’s ‘future’ has evaporated or changed.

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