“Comics” the great American cartoonist Art Spiegelman once wrote, “are a gateway drug to literacy”. At the time, this was intended to defend the art form from the charge of childish unseriousness, to hint at the richness and beauty of its best adherents. Of course, due in no small part to the work done by Spiegelman and his contemporaries, no such defence is necessary today. If the phrase rings odd to modern ears, it’s because graphic literature long ago surpassed the realm of mere literary appetiser, and is now a meal unto itself, a humming, thriving feast of drama, suspense and beauty that rivals any art put out most years. Since 2021 was no exception, let this list serve as a gateway drug to just a few of the best graphic novels of 2021.
Crisis Zone by Simon Hanselmann (Fantagraphics)
Simon Hanselmann's Crisis Zone collects a year's worth of webcomics in his Megg, Mogg and Owl series, which were originally released on Instagram for free during the pandemic year. If you think that sounds like lightweight fare to be gathered in a collection, you'd be sorely mistaken: Crisis Zone is one of most dense and rewarding graphic novels you will read all year. Unique among this year's entries, it was written during, and about, the pandemic, albeit in a universe several degrees removed from our own. The series's titular characters – Megg the witch, Mogg the house cat, and Owl, their uptight, risk-averse companion – end up bunking together as Covid lockdowns sweep the world, and are soon joined by an increasingly volatile roster of additional hangers-on, Werewolf Jones and his unruly kids, and Draculas, Jr and Sr. All of which results in panic, disease, some live sex shows and at least one massively fatal treehouse fire. Crisis Zone is a scatological, profane and murderously funny trip through the horror and mundanity of lockdown life, but it's also a searing indictment of the human condition, whether its characters are human or not.
I See a Knight by Xulia Vicente (ShortBox)
Unlike most little girls, Olivia is followed around by a headless knight that only she can see. Over the course of the appropriately titled I See a Knight, written and drawn in Vicente's beautifully fluid, manga style, Olivia comes to love and respect her watchful guardian and learn the secret of its presence in her life. The revelations come slowly – or about as slowly as 36 pages allow – but pack a giant emotional punch, in this beautifully rendered and quietly devastating reflection on childhood, grief and earthly duty.
In. by Will McPhail (Hodder)
There are few better cartoonists than the New Yorker's Will McPhail, and we can now officially confirm there are few better graphic novelists. In.'s protagonist is Nick, a cartoonist dwelling in an unnamed contemporary city, which feels like a mish-mash of the more self-consciously cool blocks of New York or London (the architecture looks distinctly Brooklynite, whereas our protagonist refers to his mother as "mum") but it could be set anywhere where the coffee shops have ironic names and charge their patrons by the number of pages they write of their screenplay. Nick lives the empty, freelance-class life of the jobbing artist, and finds himself incapable of making human connections, even in the face of a personal tragedy he lacks the vocabulary to process. His family, prospective dates, baristas and even the man summoned to fix his toilet, all become a gauntlet of small talk and placeholder chat – dialogue captured brilliantly by McPhail's perfect pitch for the stilted flow of human conversation. There are books which get called funny because they raise a few sensible chuckles, and then there are books which have you wheezing with laughter and reading out multiple paragraphs to whichever long-suffering companion happens to be within hearing. In. is very much the latter kind of book, which makes its bracing dives into pathos and profundity all the more risky, and all the more stunningly rewarding.
No One Else by R Kikuo Johnson (Fantagraphics)
Tender is one of those adjectives that feels like faint praise, occasionally conjuring thoughts of something willowy, complacent or insubstantial. Nothing could be further from the truth with R Kikuo Johnson's No One Else, which proves just how powerful tenderness can be. Single mom Charlene cares for her son Brandon by herself in their home on Maui island, Hawaii. A diligent parent, she is distracted by recent tragedy and by the insane rigour of her attempts to get into med school, leaving Brandon longing for both his absent dad and his missing cat, Batman. Into this mix comes Robbie, Charlene's slacker brother, who returns to the family home, offering welcome help, and unwelcome criticism of the family dynamic he encounters. There are few fireworks, or grandstanding moments of high drama, just the lived-in, uncannily real machinations of people just trying to get by. Johnson's clean lines and clarion-clear dialogue only add to the bittersweet beauty of this gorgeous family portrait.
Ghosting by Debbie Jenkinson (Silver Lining)
What happens when that person you love just stops calling, never to be seen again? For the protagonist of Ghosting, Dublin Bus driver Stevo, the abrupt disappearance of his new Italian paramour leaves him with pain, paranoia and dark thoughts about what might have gone wrong. Left to navigate life by himself, he's torn between accepting that he's been ghosted for the very same mundane reasons his friends tell him, and investigating to see if something more sinister is afoot. Ghosting is a gripping tale of contemporary Dublin, told with a humour and melancholy perfectly suited to Jenkinson's scratchy, characterful drawings. Long after reading, like the memory of a whirlwind romance, Ghosting lingers in the mind.
Turning Roads by Various Artists (Limit Break)
Staying with Irish talent, there's a bumper crop of creators in Limit Break's Turning Roads, an anthology of short tales drawn from Irish myth, legend and folklore. Changeling by Colin O'Mahoney and Mari Rolin reimagines the baby-snatching faerie story as a rumination on the church's treatment of women and children. Hugo Boylan and Hugh Madden remix the King of Cats into a Miyazaki-scented slice of life, while British artist Dominique Duong borrows from the Irish faerie mythos to establish an altogether more horrifying take on Fairy Cakes's titular foodstuff. With 18 different stories from 36 creators, it's another welcome demonstration of the rude health of Irish comics. The tales may be short, but there's something here for everyone to sink their teeth into.
Tunnels by Rutu Modan (Drawn & Quarterly)
Rotu Modan's Tunnels is part-adventure, part-commentary, part-Edwardian farce. In fact, the list of hyphens you could throw its way might lead you to think it's a bit of a mess. Suffice to say, it's anything but. Nili is an amateur archaeologist racing to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant using a series of underground tunnels which may lead her to her prize, or might take her deep into dangerous territory. Modan's beautifully clean lines draw obvious comparisons with Hergé, but it's a style that suits both the thrills of its main storyline and the deeper undercurrents of social and familial turmoil which lie below the surface like so many hidden tunnels. This is both a thrilling, fun adventure and a clever, understated character piece, which skewers the foibles of greedy academics and the folly of right-wing settlers, without ever seeming like it's hitting you over the head with one of its beautifully drawn shovels.
Stone Fruit by Lee Lai (Fantagraphics)
What is a family, and what do we do to keep it going? These are the central questions in Lee Lai's beautiful and moving Stone Fruit, which centres on couple Bron and Ray, whose troubled relationship is held together by their love for Ray's young niece, Nessie. Together, the three are depicted as wild, wide-eyed mythical beasts, untethered by adult pressures and the mundanities of everyday life. When Bron leaves Ray to attempt reconciliation with her religious family, the spell comes undone, and all three have to reckon with the untangling of their improvised family unit, and where it leaves them once it's gone. Stone Fruit is at its most affecting when it dives into the weeds of missed connections and stunted emotional states, with unflinching honesty and sometimes outright bleakness. Like the fruit of its title, it's sweet and deeply rich, but the hard centre can't be avoided, however much we may try.