Best Comics & Graphic Novels of 2021 | The best books of the year


ohn the past 12 months, graphic novels have explored everything from injustice to hedonism. But perhaps not surprisingly in a year that has seen many people reflect on their lives, a crop of beautiful memories has dominated the shelves.

The biggest event of the year was the return of Alison Bechdel. The secret of superhuman strength (Jonathan Cape) is an exercise and happiness meditation that portrays the Vermont cartoonist as a “neurotic miserable”, moving between sports obsessions as relationships come and go. Karate, running, biking, skiing, and yoga promise peace of mind, but it never lasts. Bechdel’s previous books have made her one of graphic fiction’s superstars, and this funny, insightful, and ruthless tale shows that while her personal bests may have slipped, her talent remains intact.

Praised in her native France, the work of Élodie Durand Parenthesis (Top Shelf; translated by Edward Gauvin) is finally available in English. Durand’s young life was shattered by a tumor that resulted in severe memory loss, epilepsy, pill after pill and surgery after surgery. She draws tense consultations, giant tumors and torn self-portraits in a hopelessly touching book about the struggle to hold on to yourself when the world is in pieces.

Sabba Khan’s family moved from Kashmir to East London before he was born. The artist and architectural designer puts his interwoven 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 keen observations (after the London bombings of 2005, her scarf “got stronger than me”), with one song recommended for each chapter. .

A Monsters panel by Barry Windsor-Smith.
A panel of Monsters by Barry Windsor-Smith. Photography: Cap Jonathan

Where Khan explains himself with scrupulous care, Shira Spector’s Red Rock Baby Candy (Fantagraphics) features a chaotic spectacle of light collages and eerie visions, its text bouncing off drum kits and reaching for bloodstains and ink spills. Vibrant illustrations sit alongside descriptions of her father’s cancer diagnosis and attempts to conceive in an inventive debut memoir that’s as deeply felt as it is stylistically playful.

The best British graphic novel of the year was In. by Will McPhail (Scepter), a clever and touching tale of a young illustrator struggling with his mother’s illness and his own boredom. This beautifully composed debut album mixes nuanced observation with hipster satire and scalpel-edged lines on the things that don’t matter with stumbling attempts to articulate the things that do.

Barry Windsor-Smith has been a promising newcomer for some time – the comic book veteran started his career drawing for Marvel 50 years ago – but Monsters (Jonathan Cape) will probably be his defining work. This great murderous epic about an attempt to create a Cold War super-soldier features Nazi scientists, helicopter battles, and psychic powers. But if Windsor-Smith doesn’t shy away from the spectacle, he’s more interested in pulling the curtain on sordid military-industrial compromises and showing how hatred passes from man to man in a study of violence, redemption and parenthood.

The City of Belgium by Brecht Evens
The City of Belgium by Brecht Evens

Exploitation echoes through the centuries in the story of historian Rebecca Hall To wake up (Particular), which delves into the neglected history of slavery and women’s resistance. Hall combines recreations of revolts with an account of his own research, which is held back by unnecessary archivists and myopic official stories. She discovers vital details, such as why women played such a pivotal role in slave ship mutinies – they were often left unleashed on deck. Aided by the austere artwork of Hugo Martínez, Hall convincingly describes the terror and resilience of people who have crossed the ocean hampered and enslaved for generations, speaking of the calculations to come.

Slavery overshadows Dash Shaw Discipline (New York Review of Books), a surprising, panel-less work that follows a Quaker family shattered 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 from white space. The seasons change as the war wreaks havoc, and serious letters – adapted from actual correspondence – beat tensely beneath their mundane surface.

There was also hedonism this year, with the return of Brecht Evens, whose The City of Belgium (Drawn and Quarterly) explores a Bacchic nocturnal landscape. Three characters, whose lives are on the verge of change, dance through sordid bars and dark passageways in a whirlwind of lush tales and inks. Evens is a master of crowd scenes and color, and his psychedelic symphony transforms into a thoughtful, washed-out dawn that suggests even the wildest journeys must someday end.

Carnets d'Esther by Riad Sattouf

Simon Hanselmann drew a webcomic every day for the first nine months of the pandemic. The collected Crisis zone (Fantagraphics) sees its longtime cast of witches and anthropomorphic animals cram into a house, bicker, shoot porn, and do drugs. They are hit by the Covid and become the subjects of a reality TV show in a provocative and funny descent into the notoriety and violence of social networks.

For something healthier, settle in with Esther’s notebooks (Pushkin; translated by Sam Taylor), in which cartoonist Riad Sattouf presents a series of comics based on the Parisian school years of his friend’s daughter. They aren’t exactly loopholes – racism and the specter of terrorism creep into the playing field early on – but these fun and insightful three volumes, filled with phone envy, classroom politics and friendship, are a comedic treat.

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