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The Best Graphic Novels of 2020

As the assorted pressures of this year weighed down on your Graphic Content columnists, we periodically sought escape in our reading material — but many of our favorite comics titles for 2020 tackled serious matters head on: racism, police violence, the refugee crisis, colonialism, mental illness. There’s some humor to be found in the selections below, which are far-flung in time and space. But what’s most remarkable, in this excruciating year, is how these books — and the medium itself — seem capable of illuminating just about anything.

The Cleveland-based cartoonist Derf Backderf grew up 10 miles away from campus, and his years-in-the-making KENT STATE: FOUR DEAD IN OHIO (Abrams, 288 pp., $24.99), unfolding in sober black and white, is as passionate as it is meticulous in its treatment of the May 4, 1970 killings of four unarmed college students by the Ohio National Guard. Backderf balances attention to the victims’ personalities and everyday choices with deep research on the material and political parameters of the fatal event. The students, two of whom were bystanders, died in a 13-second fusillade; this book asks the reader to slow down and account for their lives, adding the intimacy of drawn images to the record in addition to the chilling photographs of their deaths. (Chute)

Katriona Chapman’s graphic novel BREAKWATER (Avery Hill, 164 pp., $15.95) takes its title from a theater in a desolate corner of Brighton, England, where most of the book is set — albeit in the dingy lobby and hidden chambers of the once grand, now decrepit movie house. Chris, who once aspired to do social work, has seen twenty years of her life go by as a Breakwater employee; she hits it off with a newcomer, Dan, a gay man who’s a mix of chipper encouragement and troubling mood swings. Chapman’s shadowy panels exude grief while cushioning her characters from it, resulting in a haunting story about friendship and its limits. (Park)

Many of the field’s heavy-hitters can be found in MK Czerwiec’s MENOPAUSE: A COMIC TREATMENT (Penn State University Press, 144 pp., $29.95), an eclectic and often humorous collection that features both fictional pieces on the titular subject (Jennifer Camper’s is a standout) as well as first person accounts (Lynda Barry’s upbeat “Menopositive!,” which pays tribute to the “really cool old ladies” whose intriguing conversations taught her as a child how to listen, and Joyce Farmer’s winning chronicle of postmenopausal masturbation). Czerwiec, a former nurse, also highlights genderqueer and trans perspectives: KC Councilor, a trans man, meditates thoughtfully on the process of losing a body that cycles. (Chute)

Joel Christian Gill’s FIGHTS: ONE BOY’S TRIUMPH OVER VIOLENCE (Oni Press, $19.99) recounts his difficult childhood in Virginia — where he faced racism and sexual abuse, among other trials — through ingenious comics techniques. For instance, when white characters call Joel the n-word, he represents the slur as a small Sambo caricature inside a speech balloon; they hurl the image at him. (When Black characters use the word, it is spelled out.) In this way Gill shows how comics can be a powerful medium for articulating violence without replicating it. (Chute)

The title of Italian cartoonist Gipi’s ONE STORY (Fantagraphics, 126 pp., 22.99) conjures that modernist conundrum: only connect. A reader passes through its multiple timelines, mental states and whiplash style (glowing watercolor on one page, a spidery freakout on another), knowing it all feeds into a single portrait, without exactly perceiving how. Silviano Landi, who suffers a psychotic break on the eve of his 50th birthday here in the 21st century, obsesses over his great-grandfather’s annihilating experience at the front during World War I. Lunatic theories and secret histories intertwine for a gorgeous puzzle of a book that begs to be reread. (Park)

WELCOME TO THE NEW WORLD (Metropolitan, 192 pp., $21.99), by the journalist Jake Halpern and the illustrator Michael Sloan, offers two important story lines focused on a Syrian immigrant family of seven who land in New Haven, Conn., in 2016. One carefully reveals the step-by-step bureaucratic process that the Aldabaans engage in as refugees trying to remake their lives; the other is intrafamilial, anchored by the sensitive, street smart teenager Naji, who is the eldest sibling. The collaboration breathes with an easy visual elegance, and its evocative all-blue palette feels both mournful and indicative of all that’s possible. (Chute)

GUANTANAMO VOICES: TRUE ACCOUNTS FROM THE WORLD’S MOST INFAMOUS PRISON (Abrams, 208 pp., $24.99), edited by Sarah Mirk and visualized by a diverse group of artists, portrays ten people — lawyers, members of the military and, crucially, detainees — connected to America’s grim facility in Cuba. Eighteen years after the arrival of the first War on Terror prisoners, 40 still remain, many in a state of legal limbo (the refrain “He was never charged with a crime” runs throughout the book). Moving details emerge, as when one detainee narrates his relationship with an iguana, along with profound frustration; in the words of one attorney, “The law is a joke.” The island colors and collection of styles make for a surprisingly artful book. (Chute)

Joe Sacco, the peripatetic dean of comics journalism, stays on the continent for PAYING THE LAND (Metropolitan/Holt, 272 pp., $29.99), steeping himself in the modern dilemmas and ancient folkways of the native Dene tribe in Canada’s Northwest Territory. The bravura opening, depicting the Dene’s formerly nomadic nature, swirls with detail and a sacred sense of community. It’s agonizing to look back on this chapter as the book describes the Dene’s dehumanizing treatment by Ottawa in the 20th century, a period when they tore kids from parents and sent them to distant Christian “residential schools.” The legacy of abuse leaves its mark, but Sacco also registers his awe for the people who were there first. (Park)

R. Sikoryak’s CONSTITUTION ILLUSTRATED (Drawn + Quarterly, 128 pp., $18.95) resembles his “Terms and Conditions” (2017), in which the tangled legalese from Apple’s iPhone agreement is dramatized in a slew of hilariously recognizable comic styles, from “Peanuts” to Edward Gorey. Something unexpectedly moving happens in Sikoryak’s latest. Once again, there’s no narrative as such, but instead of the conceptual goofiness of iconic characters spewing state-of-the-art legalese, the utopian language of the U.S. Constitution is somehow enhanced. You’ll crack up seeing the 17th Amendment (“The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state…”) floating above Garfield and Odie — but you’ll also get a lump in your throat. Sikoryak refreshes the Constitution with the visual grammar of these (mostly) American artists, from Milton Caniff to Raina Telgemeier. At times resembling a comics “Hamilton,” it’s the most slyly patriotic book of the year. (Park)

The charming anecdotes in Adrian Tomine’s autobiographical THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG-DISTANCE CARTOONIST (Drawn + Quarterly, 168 pp., $29.95) are drawn in simple black and white over a notebook-like grid. The style conveys the feeling of an artist entertaining himself, unbeholden to the stricter demands of his precise, often disturbing fictions. For the most part, it’s a jaunty ride, laugh-out-loud funny as it recounts racial slights, gastrointestinal issues and professional jealousy. But an unforeseen event near the end unlocks a flood of emotion unlike anything Tomine has expressed before on paper. What starts out as playful self-deprecation becomes his most heartbreaking work to date. (Park)

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