If it were down to me, every person in Britain would get a copy of Joff Winterhart’s graphic novel Driving Short Distances (Cape £14.99) for Christmas; I simply can’t see how this marvellous, moving book about men – meet Sam, a gentle former student who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, and his employer, Keith, a boastful hairy ball of a fellow whose work seems mostly to involve sitting in his car eating pasties – could possibly fail to spread joy. But since it’s not down to me, I’ll just quietly note here that Winterhart’s book is undoubtedly my favourite comic of 2017 – and that this is really saying something, given the competition.
What a bumper year this has been for graphic books of all kinds. But let’s stick with fiction for now. Strongly recommended (and adored by me) is Grandville Force Majeure (Cape £18.99), the fifth and final book in Bryan Talbot’s magical series of stories about a steampunk badger detective, Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard. In this volume, our hero is on the run, the victim of a diabolical scheme to annihilate him by Tiberius Koenig, one of the greatest villains in all detective fiction. Can DS Roderick Ratzi and Billie, LeBrock’s fiancee, save him? The book’s last pages are wrapped in an “anti-spoiler seal” so that eager readers do not find out the answer to this question “accidentally”.
I also enjoyed The Smell of Starving Boys (SelfMadeHero £24.99) by Frederik Peeters and Loo Hui Phang, a stunning, lusciously produced western set in Texas, 1872 (with the civil war at an end, a geologist, a photographer and his assistant set out into Comanche country, where the wide open spaces induce in them a kind of horizontal vertigo that will have a dramatic impact on social convention); and Voices in the Dark by Ulli Lust (NYRB £19.99), a daring and ambitious graphic novel set in Nazi Germany whose central characters are a sound engineer called Hermann Karnau, and Helga, the eldest child of Joseph Goebbels. Finally, my Most Extraordinary Debut prize goes to Emil Ferris for the crazily weird My Favorite Thing Is Monsters (Fantagraphics £35.99), the fictional diary of a 10-year-old girl in late 60s Chicago who tries to solve the murder of her enigmatic upstairs neighbour, a Holocaust survivor called Anka Silverberg.
The memoirs continue to come thick and fast. Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 by Marcelino Truong (Arsenal Pulp Press £22.99) and The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui (Abrams £15.99) both explore life for those displaced by the Vietnam war with great subtlety; Poppies of Iraq by Brigitte Findakly (Drawn & Quarterly £16.99) alternates its author’s happy memories of her childhood in Mosul with those of her later visits there after her Orthodox Christian family’s move to France in the 70s. Uncomfortably Happily by Yeon-sik Hong (D&Q £23) tells the story of its author’s decision to leave 21st-century Seoul and move with his wife to a small house on top of a mountain. Will the simple life make these city dwellers less anxious? Or will their old worries simply be replaced with a new set of frustrations, albeit of a more bucolic kind? You will want to know that among the fans of this charming and perhaps unexpectedly complex book is Seth of Palookaville fame.
Too many graphic biographies are being published at the moment; the majority fail to make the most of the medium, though I did enjoy Florent Silloray’s beautifully drawn life of the war photographer Robert Capa (Firefly £16.95), which is told in the first person. Cleverer by far, however, is Vincent Zabus’s Magritte: This Is Not a Biography (SelfMadeHero £9.99), which comes at the surrealist painter’s life at a suitably odd tangent (when a man called Charles Singulier makes the whimsical decision to buy a bowler hat, he finds not only that he has unwittingly entered the realm of its former owner, Magritte, but that he will have to uncover all of the Belgian artist’s secrets if he’s to have any hope of getting out again). In Graphic Science: Seven Journeys of Discovery (Myriad £16.99), Darryl Cunningham draws a series of inspiriting portraits of some of our lesser-known scientists, among them the palaeontologist Mary Anning, and the astronomer Fred Hoyle.
Last but not least, a few uncategorisable books. In The Unquotable Trump (D&Q £16.99), R Sikoryak mashes up to pretty satisfying effect the president’s most ludicrous declarations (so far), and all your favourite comic book covers. (Step forward, then, Nasty Woman!) Fans of Chris Ware, meanwhile, will long to own Monograph (Rizzoli £45), a retrospective of the life and career of the creator of Jimmy Corrigan so luxuriantly huge, it’s almost impossible to lift. Father and Son by EO Plauen (NYRB £14.99) is a collection of the classic strips created in 1934 by the German cartoonist Erich Ohser (Plauen was the pseudonym he adopted after being blacklisted by the Nazis) in a lovely new edition that will make an excellent stocking filler (if you don’t know Plauen’s strangely affecting work already, these are dialogue-free, slapstick adventures involving a gruff but loving father and his sweet but occasionally naughty son). Finally, though not strictly a graphic book itself, Mangasia (Thames & Hudson £29.95) is Paul Gravett’s definitive guide to Asian comics – a fat and lushly illustrated volume that is as likely to work for fans of manga as for those who remain entirely baffled by it.