Subscriber OnlyBooksReview

The Irish Times best graphic novels of 2022

Séamas O’Reilly on his favourite comic books of the year

If we’re honest with ourselves, the term “graphic novel” is a bit silly. It’s hard not to see it as something of an insecure exercise, an attempt at making comics seem more respectable, weighty or adult than they might be considered otherwise; so that people who like comics, but don’t think they should like comics, get to call them something that sounds a bit more serious.

But it’s stuck and there’s little sense griping about it now, especially since I can’t come up with a better term for “books that have words and pictures in them” off the top of my head, and there’s been a truly bumper crop of them this year.

So here, in no particular order, are seven unmissable books that have words and pictures in them, from 2022.

Who Will Make the Pancakes? by Megan Kelso (Fantagraphics) collates six stories from 15 years of cartooning, covering a swathe of topics, characters and styles. Recurring themes of motherhood and the expectations placed on women animate most of Pancakes, but each has a flavour unique enough to stun, and does so in thoughtful, probing, tender and surreal ways. There is the effortless, full-colour, comic-strip pep of Watergate Sue, which flits between a mum-to-be stressing over her pregnancy, and the story of her own mother’s fascination with the Nixon trial in the weeks before she was born; or the clean-lined black and white of Korin Voss, in which a woman is abandoned by her deadbeat husband and left to raise their daughters.

READ MORE

Kelso’s stories are funny, stark and unerringly human, shot through with a miraculous lightness of touch that recalls Eleanor Davis as much as Raymond Briggs. Who Will Make the Pancakes? is a marvel of a book, and one that lingers long after reading.

Best known for her endlessly charming, history-adjacent webcomic, Hark! A Vagrant, Kate Beaton’s first memoir, Ducks (Jonathan Cape), finds the Canadian cartoonist mining her own life for a riveting account of working in the oil sands of northeastern Alberta. Seeking to pay off her student loans, Beaton takes a job in the tool office of an oil well under construction and, in the process, learns every definition of the term “crude”. She documents her struggles with the monotonous labour and the biting cold, but her true gauntlet is the stifling sexism she experiences as one of a vanishingly small number of women in her new, all-male environment.

Subject to sneers, leers and a good deal worse, from obnoxious and predatory men, Ducks is a coming-of-age story as much as a work memoir, thrillingly precise in its dialogue, and occasionally heartbreaking in its capture of traumas, large and small. Shot through with the wit, insight and charm that has defined her lighter work, Beaton never shrinks from her story’s darker corners, in this beautifully unsentimental portrait of the economic precarity of adolescence.

In The Con Artists by Luke Healy (Faber), main protagonist Frank is an Irish comedian plying his trade in London. When his friend Giorgio gets hit by a bus, Frank steps in to look after him, and becomes increasingly suspicious he’s being scammed along the way. What follows is a fresh and surprising tale of friendship and suspicion, while also being one of the funniest books you will ever read about cognitive behavioural therapy – or stand-up comedy, for that matter.

Healy’s clean cartooning chops will be recognisable from his bravura 2019 tome Americana, which interspersed visuals with text from chapter to chapter. Here, text is used more sparingly, allowing him to draw out minute emotional details with the smallest strokes, and create a book about the many small deaths that come from submitting yourself to be loved, whether to a person or a comedy crowd.

Artist by Yeong-Shin Ma (Drawn & Quarterly) charts the prospects of three Korean artists attempting to navigate the professional and personal indignities of middle age; writer Deuk-nyeong, painter Kyeongsu and musician Jongseop. They’re as jealous, pretentious and resentful as any trio of friends you might encounter, with the added undertone of lapsed ambitions and dashed hopes that might befall any artist who feels, or fears, that their best work may lie behind them.

Some aspects of their milieu are fascinatingly specific to Korean pop culture, but Janet Hong’s excellent translation adds nimble context with unintrusive, and greatly appreciated, footnotes relating to practices or references which might otherwise escape a western reader. Much more common, however, is the sense of universality one takes from Artist; a wry and empathetic book about the ambitions and disappointments that greet everyone in middle age, wherever you’re from, or whatever you do.

Your Wish Is My Command by Deena Mohamed (Granta) is that rarest of books; one whose premise is so simple you can’t believe it’s never been done quite like this before. Mohamed’s tale – originally collected in Arabic from her web series, Shubeik Lubeik – takes place in a Cairo very much like the one we have here on earth, except that wishes – as in grant-your-heart’s-desire-style fairy tale wishes – are for sale on every street corner, with hoi polloi only able to access dangerous and duplicitous “third-class wishes”, while the great and good avail of their first-class counterparts. The former are said to grant you your heart’s true, pure desires, while the latter are very much of the Needful Things variety, twisting your words to turn whatever blessing you intended into a curse.

From this simple thought experiment, the Egyptian cartooning wunderkind spins a sparkling web of connotations, interrogating love, morality, greed, and every other query to be found in human nature. Funny, moving and brimming with enough showy cleverness to leave you slack-jawed in admiration, Your Wish Is My Command is a masterful modern fairy tale, and a staggeringly assured debut from an artist still some years from turning 30.

Acting Class by Nick Drnaso (Granta) is a cryptic character study of the patrons of an acting class run by enigmatic teacher, John Smith. Drawn from all sectors of society, the students place their trust in Smith as he guides them through unorthodox exercises, which he claims will test their potential to the full. These classes are intercut with scenes from the characters’ daily lives, as well as extended role-play sequences which blur the distinctions between both.

Drnaso’s 2018 debut Sabrina, the first graphic novel to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was a standout work of creeping minimalism that effortlessly conjured dread from minute details. Here, his flat lines and nebulous plot structure return to beautifully capture the queasy uncertainty of these sessions, and their participants’ willingness to engage with them, no matter the cost. As his classes grow more inscrutable, and his behaviour more demanding, the mundane naturalism of Drnaso’s dialogue and the impassive faces of his cast only add to the sense of a drama slowly spinning away from reality and into something altogether richer and more disturbing.

Frank, the anthropomorphic protagonist of One Beautiful Spring Day by Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics) is a hard fella to define. He’s an animal of some description, depicted with the toony face and white gloves familiar to the classic animated archetype of the early 20th century, who lives in a fantastical world called the Unifactor. None of this information is revealed in One Beautiful Spring Day but has rather been dispatched over the past quarter century of periodic, wordless visits Woodring has made to his world.

By wordless, I mean no dialogue, no text, no signs, no descriptions. For Frank lives in an entirely visual universe, in which he gets into constant, silent scrapes with every manner of creature and object imaginable, in a landscape of cresting hills, Arabesque architecture, psilocybin-tinged flora and fauna, at the centre of a pulsing, humming, cosmos that seems at once playful and menacing. Unfazed, he gets into mind-bending scrapes that are likely harder to describe than they are to draw and, to be clear, drawing them looks to have been very hard indeed.

Amid all this, the meaning of it all is left for the reader to discern, and for reviewers to abandon any hope of explanation, and simply offer their strongest possible recommendation instead.

Séamas O’Reilly is the author of Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?