This year in comics gave readers an assortment of wonders big and small, and Graphic Content’s choices for the best of 2019 range from long-fermenting multi-character epics to graphic novels and memoirs for younger readers to a variety of forceful works addressing women’s experiences. The exquisite design of many of the titles below is a good reminder that, in this age of instant gratification, there’s something deeply satisfying about a story that can transmit its magic as a physical book.
As in his more whimsical work, Seth mines the past — ’50s Canadiana — for visual inspiration in CLYDE FANS (Drawn + Quarterly, 488 pp., $54.95): hatbands, company calendars, the lettering on a shop window. But this deceptively mannered “picture novel” isn’t an excuse for nostalgia; rather, it shows the furies that drive the mismatched Matchcard brothers, who have inherited their father’s business, into lifelong enmity. It’s an epic about the passing of time, flavored intensely by the passing of time — 20 years — involved in its own creation.
The only serene thing in Keum Suk Gendry-Kim’s GRASS (Drawn & Quarterly, 480 pp.,$29.95) is its pastoral title. In this unflinching nonfiction work, translated by Janet Hong, the artist races against time to record the life of “Granny” Lee, born in 1928, who as a 15-year-old was forced to become a “comfort woman” (that abominable euphemism) during Japan’s occupation of Korea (1910-45). Gendry-Kim can capture Lee’s gap toothed raucousness as a girl on one page, and on the next plunge us fully into nightmare. “I’ve never known happiness from the moment I came out of my mother’s womb,” Lee says. By the end of this searing book, those words read more as understatement than exaggeration.
Does the comics legend Lynda Barry’s MAKING COMICS (Drawn & Quarterly, 200 pp., $22.95) belong on a list full of more traditional narratives? The newly minted MacArthur genius teaches “interdisciplinary creativity” at the University of Wisconsin, and this slim volume — mimicking the feel of the composition notebooks that she requires her students to keep — initially appears to be a glorified lesson plan. But my ambivalence evaporated when I actually tried one of the exercises. Using a yellow colored pencil, I closed my eyes and drew a skeleton for one minute. Then I repeated the process in orange, then blue. (The result made me so happy I put it on my fridge.) Barry’s infectious belief in art turns Making Comics into the ur-text out of which every other title on this list could have sprung; at the very least, it’s the self-help book of the year. As Barry reveals, “Everything good in my life came because I drew a picture.”