Over the last 12 months, graphic novels have explored everything from injustice to hedonism. But perhaps unsurprisingly in a year that saw many reflect on their lives, a crop of fine memoirs dominated the shelves.
The biggest event of the year was the return of Alison Bechdel. The Secret to Superhuman Strength (Jonathan Cape) is a meditation on exercise and happiness that paints the Vermont cartoonist as a “neurotic wretch”, moving between sporting obsessions as relationships come and go. Karate, running, cycling, skiing and yoga all promise peace of mind, but it never lasts. Bechdel’s previous books have made her one of the superstars of graphic fiction, and this funny, perceptive and merciless account shows that, while her personal bests may have slipped, her talent remains undimmed.
Lauded in her native France, Élodie Durand’s Parenthesis (Top Shelf; translated by Edward Gauvin) is finally available in English. Durand’s young life was shattered by a tumour that brought severe memory loss, epilepsy, pill after pill and operation after operation. She draws tense consultations, giant tumours and gouged self-portraits in a desperately affecting book about the struggle to hold on to yourself when your world is in pieces.
Sabba Khan’s family moved from Kashmir to east London before she was born. The artist and architectural designer puts her overlapping identities at the heart of The Roles We Play (Myriad), which explores history, culture, family ties and psychotherapy. Imaginative framing, expressive sketches and thoughtful prose combine in a fascinating debut full of acute observations (after the 2005 London bombings, her headscarf has “grown louder than me”), with a recommended song for every chapter.
Where Khan explains herself with scrupulous care, Shira Spector’s Red Rock Baby Candy (Fantagraphics) spins a chaotic spectacle of bright collages and strange visions, her text bouncing off drum kits and reaching into bloodstains and ink spills. Vibrant illustrations sit alongside descriptions of her father’s cancer diagnosis and her attempts to conceive in an inventive debut memoir that’s as deeply felt as it is stylistically playful.
The finest British graphic novel of the year was In. by Will McPhail (Sceptre), a clever and touching account of a young illustrator dealing with his mother’s illness and his own ennui. This beautifully composed debut mixes nuanced observation with hipster satire, and scalpel-sharp one-liners about the things that don’t matter with stumbling attempts to articulate the things that do.
It has been some time since Barry Windsor-Smith was a promising newcomer – the comics veteran began his career drawing for Marvel 50 years ago – but Monsters (Jonathan Cape) is likely to be his defining work. This big, bruising epic about an attempt to create a cold war supersoldier features Nazi scientists, helicopter gunfights and psychic powers. But while Windsor-Smith doesn’t shirk on spectacle, he’s more interested in pulling back the curtain on sordid military-industrial compromises, and showing how hate leaches from one man to another in a study of violence, redemption and parenthood.
Exploitation echoes down the centuries in historian Rebecca Hall’s Wake (Particular), which delves into the neglected story of female slavery and resistance. Hall combines re-creations of revolts with an account of her own research, which is held back by unhelpful archivists and myopic official histories. She uncovers vital details, such as why women played a crucial role in slave-ship mutinies – they were often left unchained on deck. Aided by Hugo Martínez’s stark artwork, Hall compellingly describes the terror and resilience of people who were brought across the ocean in shackles and enslaved for generations, speaking of reckonings still to come.
Slavery shadows Dash Shaw’s Discipline (New York Review of Books), a startling, panel-free work that follows a Quaker family ruptured by the American civil war. Brother Charles abandons pacifism to fight for the Union, while his sister Fanny deals with schisms at home in a book whose powerful images spring out of white space. The seasons change as war takes its toll, and earnest letters – adapted from real correspondence – beat with tension beneath their matter-of-fact surface.
There was hedonism too this year, in the return of Brecht Evens, whose The City of Belgium (Drawn and Quarterly) explores a bacchanalian nightscape. Three characters, their lives on the edge of change, dance their way through lurid bars and dark passageways in a swirl of tall tales and lush inking. Evens is a master of crowd scenes and colour, and his psychedelic symphony bleeds into a pensive, washed-out dawn that suggests that even the wildest trips must end sometime.
Simon Hanselmann drew a webcomic every day for the first nine months of the pandemic. The collected Crisis Zone (Fantagraphics) sees his longstanding cast of witches and anthropomorphic animals cram themselves into a house, bicker, shoot pornography and take drugs. They are hit by Covid and become the subjects of a reality TV show in a provocative and funny descent into social-media notoriety and violence.
For something more wholesome, settle down with Esther’s Notebooks (Pushkin; translated by Sam Taylor), in which cartoonist Riad Sattouf lays out a series of strips based on his friend’s daughter’s Paris schooldays. They’re not exactly escapist – racism and the spectre of terrorism intrude on the playground frighteningly early – but these three funny, insightful volumes, packed with phone envy, classroom politics and friendship, are a comic treat.
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