Almost American Girl
Balzer + Bray
After her mother marries an American, 14-year-old Chuna finds her world upended as she moves halfway around the world to Alabama. The only constant in her life is bullying. She was bullied for having a single parent in Korea, and she is bullied for being Korean in Alabama. IT isn’t until her mother reminds her of her love of comics that Chuna — now going by “Robin” — manages to find her place in the world.
This bittersweet, autobiographical coming-of-age story explores themes of isolation, personal and cultural identity and the bonds that form between mother and daughter.
A Cat Story
Ursula Murray Husted
Quill Tree Books
An incredibly strong debut graphic novel by newcomer Ursula Murray Husted, A Cat Story follows Cilla and Betto, two cats barely scraping by on the streets of the port city of Valletta on the island nation of Malta, searching for a forever home.
Cilla, the younger of the two, has more optimism — she still believes that the fabled “quiet garden” from stories she was told as a kitten is out there somewhere out there — a safe and warm place with a bed and plentiful food. Betto, the older of the two, is far more jaded, but he allows himself to get swept up in Cilla’s quest for a home.
The story and art are both colorful and expressive. Husted makes excellent use of the setting, taking her feline protagonists through cathedrals, onto boats and through marketplaces as the cats explore the varied landscapes of Malta.
The story works on multiple levels: As a straightforward adventure of two cats, a metaphor for the metaphysical journey of the soul and most delightful as an exploration of classical art. (Some of the locales that cats find themselves in might seem very familiar.)
Alex de Campi, Erica Henderson
After being betrayed by his brides, who trapped him in a coffin in Vienna in 1889, Dracula finds himself resurrected in 1974 Los Angeles. He is freed by an aging starlet, desperate to cling on to her fading beauty by being reborn as an immortal vampire.
Before long Dracula has recruited a new set of brides and is cutting a bloodthirsty swath through the Los Angeles underworld. Crime scene photographer Quincy Harker is the first one to put the pieces together and discover that Dracula is back, and so he finds himself targeted by both the count and his brides.
Fans may know Erica Henderson from her work on The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. This is about as far from that project as you can possibly get, but her excellent expressiveness and characterization remain intact. Writer Alex de Campi has been making a name for herself with interesting projects like Archie vs. Predator and Twisted Romance, and here she continues her trend of subverting and reinventing tired genres and making them new again. Her Dracula is not a brooding nobleman, but rather a relentless and sadistic killing machine. There is no attempt at romanticizing his cruelty.
This is a top recommendation for all of you bad motherfuckers out there. And if that last bit offended you, well, this book probably isn’t for you.
Andrews McMeel Publishing
And for a completely different look at vampires, we move on to Sarah Anderson’s wonderful Fangs. Andersen has a large following on the Web for her excellent strip exploring everyday life Sarah Scribbles, which has also been collected into multiple volumes that you should go by. But Fangs is something different — a love story between a vampire and werewolf.
But honestly, Fangs is not that much different at all. Instead of a straightforward horror story, Fangs uses vampirism and lycanthropy as metaphors for wealth, privilege, race and other external factors that impact real world relationships. It works surprisingly well and shows that Andersen has a flair for longer form structured storytelling with original characters as well as the short form personal anecdotes that fuel Sarah Scribbles.
N.K. Jemisin, Jamal Campbell
Far Sector is what happens when you pair a Black writer with a Black artist and allow them to create a Black character: pure magic.
Well, at least it’s pure magic when the writer is N.K. Jemisin, the first African-American woman to ever win the Hugo Award for Best Novel and the artist is Jamal Campbell who has made a name for himself drawing Black heroes at both DC (Naomi, Justice League of America: Vixen’s Rebirth) and Marvel (Prowler).
Far Sector tells the story of Sojourner “Jo” Mullein, a member of the Green Lantern Corps assigned to a sector of space millions of light years from Earth. As the only law for millions of parsecs in any direction, she is called in to solve a murder that threatens to disrupt the delicate political balance between three cohabiting alien races in a futuristic metropolis on the edges of known space.
What starts out as a relatively straightforward murder plot quickly spins out of control as an “epidemic” of emotions threatens to destabilize the political structure of the aliens and lead to an all-out civil war. Jemisin may be a first-time comics writer, but she takes to the format so well, I hope she never leaves.
This was truly one of my favorite books of the year. The world-building, plot and dialog are at expert level. The art is top notch. And the fact that Jo is also one of the few bisexuals in comics and looks like Jonelle Monae didn’t exactly hurt either.
The Fire Never Goes Out
Noelle Stevenson’s career has been on a rocketship the past few years. Bouncing from the Eisner-winning Nimona to the Eisner-winning Lumberjanes to the award winning cartoon She-Ra, Stevenson has had the Midas touch.
But at the same time she was experiencing this unprecedented success, Stevenson was quietly posting personal, autobiographical comics on Tumblr exploring romantic failure, self doubt, anxiety, depression and even self-harm. She often frew herself with a giant hole in her chest that was sometimes filled with a self-hating shadow self that ate at her confidence.
Whereas her work in Nimona or Lumberjanes had a singular expressive style, Stevenson plays in this smaller doodles — wavering between black and white and color, metaphor and literalism. It’s an intriguing inside look at the artistic process that produced some masterpieces.
Now those comics have been gathered together in a collection that is partially an autobiography and partly an exploration of mental illness and self love.
The Golden Age
Roxanne Moreil, Cyril Pedrosa (translated from the French by Montana Kane)
The first thing that strikes you when you flip through The Golden Age is the color. French artist Cyril Pedrosa paints a vivid portrait of the Middle Ages using a palette that feels taken straight from the Renaissance. It is striking, and I think I would have bought the book even if it was never translated into English on the strength of the art alone.
But we don’t have to make that choice anymore, as First Second books commissioned a translation by writer Montana Kane.The story, by writer Roxanne Morei immediately sets up the class conflict that is central to the narrative. Peasants watch as a party of noblemen and dogs trample their crops and livelihood in the name of “fun.”
The story itself is told from the perspective of the nobility, though, where the struggle between the haves and the have-nots is central to royal court intrigue. The king has died and he made it clear that he wants Princess Tilda to assume the throne — not her younger brother. Tilda has seen the suffering of the poor, who are onerously taxed and overworked, and she is ready to make wholesale changes to improve their lives.
But there are forces inside the royal palace that prefer the status quo, and they enact a coup on the eve of Tilda’s coronation, installing her easier-to-manipulate brother on the throne. Barely escaping with her life, Tildo finds herself on the run with two trusted advisors of her father, Tankred and Bertil.
The Golden Age is a perfect example of the power of comics to tell complex, beautiful stories. The socio-political intrigue it depicts in a dark, somber color palette is at the opposite of the colorful punchfests the word “comics” typically brings to mind, but it is hard to imagine the story being told any other way.
On the night of February 2, 1933, two French sisters, Christine and Lea Papin, killed their employer’s wife and youngest daughter with the kind of savagery seldom seen outside of horror films. Although they were easily convicted of the murder authorities and psychologists never figured out motive. Why did they do it?
Were they insane? Were they abused? Had they been caught stealing? Answers remain elusive.
The story has been the inspiration for countless novels, plays and films — most recently Parasite, the South Korean film about poor people leeching off of their wealthy employers to survive, which was the first foreign language film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
Katie Skelly presents us with her interpretation of what might have happened, picking the story up when Lea arrives at the mansion, having recently been hired at the recommendation of her sister Christine. Through flashbacks we see their difficult life at a convent and hints at an even darker shared past.
While answers remain elusive, Skelly’s exploration of the crimes, the sisters’ bizarre codependency and history of abuse and mental health issues is a fascinating portrait of one of the most grizzly crimes of the last century.
Noisemakers: 25 Women Who Raised Their Voices and Changed the World
Erin Bried/Kazoo Magazine
Knopf Books for Young Readers
Kazoo Magazine is consistently one of the best publications for girls on the market, and editor Erin Bried brings us 25 tales of extraordinary women who were told “you can’t,” and then did it anyway. And this isn’t a case where we love the message so much, we’re willing to tolerate mediocre storytelling and art.
The book is beautifully illustrated by 25 different female artists. The combination of women’s stories and women storytellers is absolutely fantastic, and you will find yourself reading the book — not just because it is inspiring — but because it is engrossing.
Matt Fraction, Elsa Charretier
The serialized graphic novel opus November continued in 2020 with the publication of volumes II and III. The novels combine the talents of Matt Fraction, one of the best writers in comics, and Elsa Charretier, whose bold linework and cool retro style has made her one of the hottest artists of the past 10 years.
November tells the intertwined stories of three women living in the dark, criminal underbelly of the city. The plot is intricate, but character driven — playing to Fraction’s considerable strengths as a writer. And the crime noir setting is the perfect subject matter for Charretier’s bold-yet-delicate linework and expressive character designs.
November is the kind of series that bears rereading again and again. Each pass through you will find more nuance in the characters, in the words, in the art. November is a modern masterpiece that every adult reader of graphic novels should have on their shelf.
The Phantom Twin
At the turn of the last century, conjoined twins Isable and Jane work as freaks in a circus sideshow, but Jane longs to be separated from her sister. She has dreams of love, marriage and an independent life. Isabel isn’t so sure. But when a well-intentioned surgeon attempts to separate them, the operation fails and Jane dies — but she doesn’t leave.
When someone loses an arm or a leg, they often can still feel it as if it were there — a phantom limb. Well the surgery left Isabel with much more than a ghostly appendage. She has a phantom twin.
Jane has returned as a ghost and she silently follows Isabel everywhere. On top of that Isabel is faced with new challenges as she is fitted with a prosthetic arm and leg to replace what she lost in the operation, and realizes that she has lost her sister and her only means of earning a living.
Phantom Twin is at its heart a coming of age story about a young girl coping with loss, finding strength within herself that she didn’t know she had, and discovering her place in the world. It’s excellent reading for kids 12 and up, and most adults will find something to love as well
The Sky Is Blue with a Single Cloud
Drawn & Quarterly
Pioneering feminist manga artist Kiniko Tsurita was one of the very first women to enter the field of experimental manga in the 1960s. Although a trailblazer in her native Japan, her work has been unavailable in the United States until The Sky Is Blue With A Single Cloud, a collection of her finest work, was released by Drawn & Quarterly last year.
As a middle-school girl who wanted nothing more than to be a mangaka, or manga artist, Tsurita entered contest after contest but failed to win any. In desperation, she wrote a letter to The City, a popular comics magazine. “From the moment I wake up, until late in the night, I spend all my time drawing manga,” she said. “I have been submitting work to you for some time now, but am embarrassed by the fact that I’ve never ranked above fourth place. This has really made me realize just how difficult comics are (much harder than school exams, for sure).”
If the letter seems sad, the response from the magazine’s all-male staff will break your heart. “It looks like you’ve been drawing action stories, but I would recommend you stick with subject matter that you’re familiar with and draw about girls instead.” Fortunately for us, Tsurita persevered. She joined the experimental manga magazine Garo and helped develop a form of manga for adults that was neither shōjo, for girls, or kashi-hon, for boys.
Her work smashed gender norms, a rarity in Japan’s heavily segregated society. In fact, many of her stories feature protagonists where gender cannot even been determined
The collection contains some early stories which illustrate how the counterculture movement of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s impacted Japanese culture and politics through a uniquely Japanese lens. As time passed, she was increasingly influenced by French literature and her own health difficulties and her work became darker until her death from lupus in 1985. But her work was always challenging and insightful.
The overall collection can be somewhat uneven, but Tsutita’s work is undeniably powerful and this is a look inside a side of Japanese manga that most people are unfamiliar with is simply fascinating.
Solutions and Other Problems
Nearly a decade ago Allie Brosh’s brilliant web comic Hyperbole and a Half, was collected and expanded into a brilliant graphic novel that was hilarious, relatable and at times poignant. Then Brosh and her work disappeared and slowly faded from the Internet’s consciousness … until last year, when she came roaring back with her second graphic novel, Solutions and Other Problems.
But where Hyperbole and a Half was fueled by Brosh’s manic pacing and incredible sense of humor, Solutions and Other Problems tackles more serious topics, examining personal tragedies and life-changing incidents that are heartfelt and that help explain Brosh’s long absence from the public eye.
Brosh’s art style remains charmingly lo-fi, but her storytelling and her ability to convey complex emotion through simple drawings are stronger than they ever have been. As always, her drawings feel filled with kinetic energy, as if they are coiled and might spring off the page at any moment.
With this second volume, Brosh has cemented herself as one of the most insightful and honest reporters of the human condition in comics or any other medium.
The Times I Knew I Was Gay
Elenor Crews’ poignant autobiography recounts her time as a young woman grappling with her sexual identity. Starting in high school where “Elle” found herself obsessed with Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer but dated boys — because that’s what she thought she was supposed to do.
When she couldn’t bring herself to have sex with her boyfriend because she felt no physical or emotional connection to him, Crews thought there was something wrong with her. So she dedicated herself to self improvement — turning to diet and exercise in an effort to become “cooler.”
She came out of the closet in her freshman year at college only to immediately run back in and close the door the next day. A few years later she came out “about four times,” with messy failed heterosexual relationships and counseling for mysterious panic attacks she was getting that she couldn’t explain.
The Times I Knew I Was Gay allows us to tag along on Crews voyage of self discovery, as she slowly reveals who she is to herself. Crews expressive art reminds me a lot of Noelle Stevenson, another gay female artist that put out a great autobiographical graphic novel last year. You don’t have to be queer to enjoy Crews work here, but I suspect The Times I Knew I Was Gay will have special meaning for people in the LGBTQ+ community.
Wendy, Master of Art
Drawn & Quarterly
Walter Scott’s follow up to his 2014 graphic novel Wendy picks up where the last graphic novel left off. Wendy is a post-college hipster whose life seems to be a series of poor decisions punctuated by regrettable one night stands and vomiting sessions after a night of binge drinking.
In Wendy, Master of Art, Wendy moves to a small Canadian town to pursue a visual-arts M.F.A. at the University of Hell. The change of setting mirrors events in Scott’s real life. He moved to get his own M.F.A. at the University of Toronto. The book dives into the day-to-day life of an art school grad student and the people who surround her.
The characters WEndy meets at art school are incredibly strange, yet strangely believable. I suspect that Scott has real life references for many of them. There is Eric, the woke art student who is always overly interested in other people’s politics; Maya, a worldy artist who is always just getting back from a gallery exhibition in France or Japan; Yunji, an eccentric sculpture who is fascinated by string; Cliff Masterson, a has-been professor who hasn’t accomplished anything of note in years; Maduhri, “the program’s token dyke” who does intersectional feminist poetry and paintings; and Wendy hass a new boyfriend who has a girlfriend (“Polyamory!” Wendy screams internally, feeling quite sophisticated.)
Although the book is populated by bizarre people and situations, it is also grounded in the reality of Scott’s own experiences and is refreshingly free of cynicism in the way it shows affection for this group of academic oddballs. We track Wendy’s growth as a person much better than we are able to track her art career. (A running gag is that Wendy’s work is always obscured every single time they show it.
But that allows the reader to focus on the real subject of this book about art school: the people and relationships that Wendy develops along the way. Not to be cliche, but this is a book where they journey is its own reward.