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Best comics and graphic novels of 2020

James Smart
·5-min read

In a year in which Covid-19 and Brexit made borders an even hotter topic, some of the finest graphic novels told migrants’ stories. Welcome to the New World (Bloomsbury) is built out of Jake Halpern and Michael Sloan’s Pulitzer-winning New York Times strips and charts a real-life Syrian family’s arrival in Connecticut. It is told straight, and the rewards come in the carefully researched detail and everyday frustrations of family squabbles, high-school dress codes and cruel bureaucracy.

Small touches also bring Carol Isaacs’ wonderful The Wolf of Baghdad (Myriad) to life. One in three Baghdadis were Jewish in the early 20th century; her family was one of many that fled increasing hostility. Isaacs never knew the city, and her drawings redolent of narrow alleys, sugared almonds and dips in the Tigris are interspersed with quotes from her family in a moving memorial to a lost world: only a handful of Jews remain in Baghdad.

Joe Sacco’s investigative comics have previously taken in Palestine, Bosnia and the Somme. In Paying the Land (Jonathan Cape) he heads to Canada to tell the stories of the Dené people, whose once-nomadic existence has been blighted by oil drilling, drink and the horrors of residential schooling, in which children were removed from their communities and had traditions literally beaten out of them. Sacco’s nuanced interviews and intricate drawings capture an impressive range of voices, each searching for a route forward as the ice melts and old ways fade.

Local connections of a different kind are at the heart of Flake (Cape). Matthew Dooley’s tale of an ice-cream seller whose patch is threatened by his charmless half-brother was the first graphic novel to win the Wodehouse prize for comic literature. It’s a cheerfully nostalgic trip into a north-western English town of pub quizzes, crazy golf and crosswords, and a testament to the powers of salt water and friendship in a crisis. Dooley’s merrily inventive ice lollies are worth a book of their own.

In Elizabeth Holleville’s Summer Spirit (Nobrow, translated by Amy Evans-Hill), Louise and her older cousins visit their grandma’s house to laze by the beach and bicker in the garden. With the cousins distracted by romance, Louise spends her spare hours with a mysterious ghostly child. The supernatural elements are woven deftly into a fine depiction of growing up that evokes the carefree yet claustrophobic pleasures of a family holiday.

Youth is cast as a stark fable in Spit Three Times by Davide Reviati (Seven Stories, translated by Jamie Richards), a restless, lyrical epic about three boys and their Roma neighbours set in a postwar Italian backwater. There’s an elegiac economy to Reviati’s glorious panels, which show darkened rooms, fields that bleed into infinity and balletic figures convulsed in rage and ecstasy, as time slips through their fingers.

John Pham’s hypnotically bright and charmingly grotesque J+K (Fantagraphics) is a different kind of wild. J and K are girls who spend their time mooching round the mall, working dead-end jobs, playing video games and trying to score free food in a deeply surreal series of strips that feature emo vampires and a baby born from acne but still manage to feel eerily naturalistic.

In Altitude (SelfMadeHero, translated by Edward Gauvin), meanwhile, Jean-Marc Rochette and Olivier Bocquet track Jean-Marc’s youth, in which the artist and climber threw himself up Alpine peaks and ridges, reaching for something solid in thin air. Propelled by bravado and undercut by the very real risk of death, Jean-Marc’s story carries serious emotional clout, while its colourful panels capture the stark geometry of cliff faces and dangling ropes.

Steven Appleby’s full-length debut Dragman (Cape) is a superhero yarn focused on August Crimp, a middle-aged father who happens to have great powers when he wears a dress. It’s both a lively romp and a touching book about coming to terms with yourself, with juicy villains and a funny, likable supporting cast, including Dragman’s furious wife and resourceful canine sidekick.

There’s a different kind of menace in Blackwood (Myriad), a compelling folk horror about two murders half a century apart and “the kind of evil that goes fusty in cold parlours”. Hannah Eaton summons darkness with a crosshatched pencil, mixing well-observed family vignettes with pitchfork murders, racism, rotting fruit and ritual gatherings in the Harvester car park. Set half in the 1950s, half in the present day, it bears a great weight of history, yet fizzes with very contemporary concerns.

The funniest graphic novel of the year is probably Walter Scott’s Wendy, Master of Art (Drawn & Quarterly). Scott’s heroine has gone through art school in previous volumes, and here a postgrad Wendy lurches through tangled relationships, cant-filled seminars and saucer-eyed all-night parties. Gleeful and witty, this is also a tender account of a woman gnawed by self-doubt.

Adrian Tomine’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist (Faber) is another laugh-out-loud book with self-worth issues. Here Tomine looks back at his outwardly successful career as a cartoonist via anecdotes that take in deserted book signings, mortifying radio spots and the perils of taking a cruise with Neil Gaiman, in a feast of self-deprecation.

Browse the best books of 2020 at the Guardian Bookshop.