The Best Graphic Novels of 2021

The sheer range of comics impressed us this year, from ambitious and experimental graphic novels that grappled with the Civil War and the Israel-Palestine conflict, to memoirs covering a few summers or 60 years. Renowned writers and historians collaborated with cutting-edge artists; anthologies showcased often overlooked treasures; a bonkers serial went from Instagram to instant classic. Our list of greats could have easily doubled; the comics below are playful, somber, poignant and weird — sometimes all at once.

“In those days, a body was something you weren’t really supposed to have until you were done with it,” Alison Bechdel writes of 1960, the year she was born, in THE SECRET TO SUPERHUMAN STRENGTH (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 233 pp., $24). Her third graphic memoir shows how America came to embrace physical culture, with Bechdel herself — a workout fanatic — as a test case. Though exercise seems less fraught a topic than her parents (whom she depicted in “Fun Home” and “Are You My Mother?”), Bechdel is so good that even the smallest details resonate: the business card of a karate club she joined in the ’80s, the catalog numbers of every L.L. Bean item she’s purchased. (Park)

In Harmony Becker’s HIMAWARI HOUSE (First Second, 374 pp., $17.99), three young women — Japanese American, Korean and Singaporean — come to Tokyo for connection, escape and opportunity. Becker has an anthropologist’s ear, and nails different strains of broken English. (“Oh, today is Lunar New Year?” says Hyejung from Korea. “I didn’t eben realije.”) But when an Asian language is spoken, it’s rendered in native script, with the English translation in gray underneath: a subtly radical reading experience. In the afterword, Becker says she wanted “to allow characters who spoke with accents, who occasionally stumbled over their grammar, to be fully actualized, three-dimensional people.” Her comics’ simple-complex delivery makes cross-cultural confusion sing on the page. (Park)

Anne Carson, the celebrated classicist and poet, teams up with the artist Rosanna Bruno for a loose, peculiar and deeply affecting adaptation of the antiwar tragedy by Euripides. THE TROJAN WOMEN: A Comic (New Directions, 78 pp., $19.95) centers on the bone-deep suffering of those who lose husbands, sons, brothers and grandsons when Troy is sacked and its men killed. Hekabe is drawn as an “old-sled dog”; Athene a pair of overalls; Andromache a tree cradling a little branch, her toddler Astyanax (who will be murdered). The Chorus comprises cows and dogs. Carson’s surprising and bracing words ring true for the present; this “Trojan Women” is also a lament for the brutality of our times. (Chute)

At 16, Guy Delisle gets a seasonal job at the massive Quebec City paper mill, once known as the Anglo, where his father has worked for 30 years. FACTORY SUMMERS (Drawn & Quarterly, 152 pp., $22.95) is the coming-of-age memoir done right: a portrait of the comic artist as a young man, in those days before his path was set. Delisle conveys the small interactions between young Guy and his co-workers, as well as the mill’s giant scale, which is like something “out of a sci-fi movie.” The varied, vast machinery is a character in itself. When one of the locomotive-size rollers jams, there’s enough scrap scattered “to print an entire edition of The New York Times”— indeed, the Anglo supplied the very publication you’re reading with its newsprint. This intimate book feels near mythic by the end: a real artist of paper emerging from the place where paper is made. (Park)

Originally serialized online from March to December of last year, Simon Hanselmann’s CRISIS ZONE (Fantagraphics, 287 pp., $29.99) is a scabrous slab of a book in which his proudly unreconstructed crew (including the witch Megg, cat/boyfriend Mogg and Owl) deal with our new shared reality by attacking, groping and torturing one another with shocking regularity. But there’s something strangely affirming about how ephemeral it all feels. If the stakes are low, the overall effect is inspirational. Mortally wounded characters come back to life. Characters catch Covid early on and survive. Netflix turns the whole mess into a show. Rude, funny and surprisingly tender, “Crisis Zone” is the first great work of pandemic fiction. (Park)

Timothy Snyder, a historian of modern Europe and specifically of the Holocaust, emerged after the 2016 election as an expert in contemporary fascism’s links with the past, which he analyzed in a short, best-selling book explicitly framed as advice. In ON TYRANNY: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century: Graphic Edition (Ten Speed, 127 pp., $24), the picture deepens even further in collaboration with the German cartoonist Nora Krug, who probed her grandfather’s Nazi affiliations in her own breakout 2018 graphic memoir, “Belonging.” Her colorful images here — some drawn and some collaged, including many historical photos and artifacts — add a new layer of complexity, and make the search for understanding in images of the past part of the story. (Chute)

The Israeli cartoonist Rutu Modan’s TUNNELS (Drawn & Quarterly, 284 pp., $29.95, translated by Ishai Mishory) is a sprawling, madcap fiction about archaeology, antiquities and profound issues of boundaries and ethics. Modan is known for work that takes on the Israel-Palestine conflict through often elliptical storytelling, inscribed in her clear black line and flat color. This work, her longest to date, promiscuously mixes genres: It’s an ensemble piece anchored by Nili Broshi, a single Israeli mother raised by an archaeology professor, who along with her small son embarks on an ill-fated search for the ark of the covenant, which she believes lies under a Palestinian village. (Chute)

Mannie Murphy’s I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN (Fantagraphics, 216 pp., $24.99) is a secret history of Portland, Ore., rendered in haunting ink washes on lined paper. “It was 21 years ago this Halloween that we learned the terrible news,” the book begins, like a horror story, reflecting on the Oregon-born River Phoenix’s 1993 death from a heroin overdose. Murphy, who is genderqueer, uses the event to interrogate Portland’s gay underground, connection to the movie world (Gus Van Sant), and legacy of white nationalism. It’s an uncomfortable, beguiling read, and its wrinkled theme-book pages give it the aura of a forbidden text. (Park)

IT’S LIFE AS I SEE IT: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940-1980 (New York Review Comics, 200 pp., $24.95) is a revelation. The editor, Dan Nadel, has selected comics by creators who are well known, such as Jackie Ormes and Charles Johnson (celebrated for his novels more than his comics!), alongside less recognized artists. It focuses attention on the importance of Chicago’s Black press, including The Chicago Defender, which ran much of the material in the volume. Jay Jackson’s “Bungleton Green,” which appeared there beginning in 1944, is a science-fiction serial in which a new world in 2044 is run by green people who discriminate harshly against whites; Seitu Hayden’s “Waliku,” another Defender title, from the early ’70s, is a closely observed, moving comic strip depicting Black family life. (Chute)

Dash Shaw has produced many books in distinct styles over the past 15-plus years, including the candy-colored “Cosplayers.” DISCIPLINE (New York Review Comics, 297 pp., $27.95) is surely his most lovely and elegant work, with fluid pages full of spare black lines that offer the story of a 17-year-old who runs away from his pacifist Quaker family to fight for the Union in the Civil War. The text is based largely on actual, archival letters, and Shaw eschews comics frames for unconstrained drawing evocative of a sketchbook. (Chute)

Hillary Chute and Ed Park write the Graphic Content column.

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