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The best graphic novels of 2021

·3 min read

I’ve read some crazily good graphic novels this year: sad comics, funny comics, exquisitely drawn comics. But it was probably Esther’s Notebooks by Riad Sattouf (translated by Sam Taylor), the first three volumes of which were published in rapid succession by the brilliant Pushkin Press, that I most looked forward to opening. Sattouf bases these (in France, bestselling) stories about the everyday life of a little girl who lives in Paris on real conversations with the daughter of a friend, and thanks to this they have an illicit veracity that’s powerfully attractive to readers of all ages: my small niece Edith and I both adore them. In my hands, Esther’s adventures comprise an indispensable guide to the conflicts of 21st-century girlhood; I see them as slyly feminist. But in Edith’s, they’re just madly enjoyable: naughty, resonant and true.

I also loved Tunnels by Rutu Modan (Drawn & Quarterly; translated by Ishai Mishory), in which two rival archaeologists attempt to find the Ark of the Covenant beneath the wall that separates Israel from the West Bank. It’s impossible not to think of Tintin as you turn this book’s pages: here are good guys, and bad guys, and museum-standard sarcophagi. But it works on a deeper level, too, its real subject being contested land, and all the ways in which competing narratives are imposed on such territory. Modan is a genius and I hope lots of people will read this story with its ending that might have been borrowed from Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust – and then, perhaps, seek out her earlier books, Exit Wounds and The Property.

It was wonderful to see Alison Bechdel, of Fun Home fame, return with The Secret to Superhuman Strength (Cape), a knowingly neurotic memoir of her lifelong obsession with fitness that covers so much territory – what other writer would detour into Jane Fonda and William Wordsworth? – it demands to be reread immediately. Wrestling the notion of physical self-improvement from the clammy hands of the so-called wellness industry, Bechdel puts it instead in the context not only of her own struggle to be happy (exercise is her balm), but of centuries of literary and social history. The result is transcendent, and does the reader far more good than a Peloton class and a cup of turmeric tea.

Finally, a debut, and a big return. Lizzy’s Stewart’s story collection It’s Not What You Thought It Would Be (Fantagraphics) is an amazing first outing, one I relished both for the way it looked – you’ve never seen an English housing estate look so gorgeous – and for its dialogue (these tales of female friendship and teenage boredom require restraint when it comes to speech bubbles). But her rare delicacy made for some contrast to a book I read at about the same time: a counterfeit meta-memoir called Fictional Father (Drawn & Quarterly) by Joe Ollmann, a veteran comics star whom no lesser an artist than Seth has described as “the last of the great funny/sad underground cartoonists”.

Jimmi Wyatt’s syrupy daily strip, Sonny Side Up, has earned him fame, fortune and the nickname Everybody’s Dad. But, alas, in reality pa is a nightmare: a raging egomaniac who has long neglected his family. What happens when Jimmi dies and bequeaths his strip to his artist son? Will Cal ever be able to find his own voice? Though no one does galumphing human failure better than Ollmann, thankfully his tongue is also ever in his cheek. On the book’s jacket, the eye falls on one puff quote in particular. “Don’t worry, my father is not really like this,” writes a certain Sam Ollmann-Chan.

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